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Zithermaxl

In the early part of the 19th century, the Alpine zither would begin to undergo a series of transformations to become the zither we know today. In this article, Ernst Schusser details the lives of zither proponents Duke Max and Johann Petzmayer whose enthusiasm and virtuosity helped set the stage for acceptance and further refinement of the zither. This article has been translated from the original German by William F. Kolb




The association of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria (1808-1888) with the zither was very greatly influenced by his getting to know Johann Petzmayer through two concerts given by the zither virtuoso on the 22nd and 26th of February, 1837, in Bamberg, Germany. Johann Petzmayer was born in the town of Zistersdorf near Vienna, Austria, in 1803. His father owned and operated a tavern in Vienna, where he grew up. In his early youth he learned to play the violin and at 16 years of age, he just happened to start playing the zither, with which he immediately became enamored. Through diligent study, he developed an astounding ability in playing this simple instrument to such a degree that his father’s inn became increasingly popular with guests who all wanted to hear him play the zither. He became known as “Healing Jean“, a kind of play on words on the name of his father’s inn which was called “By Saint John’s“. “Healing Jean“ became well known and recognized both throughout Vienna and beyond for his zither playing. After young Mr. Petzmayer, just 24 years old, had already played for all the reigning nobilities, he gave a performance for the Austrian Emperor Franz I. The emperor gave him such tremendous compliments both for his playing ability, which seemed to simply carry his audiences away, and also for the works which he had composed. Because of this, Petzmayer decided to use the zither to earn his living, and to give concerts as a traveling zither virtuoso. In 1830 he began his travels through Europe which took him to cities like Berlin, Breslau, Hamburg, Bremen, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Mainz, Prague, Linz, Graz, Budapest and others. He played in theaters and in concert halls as well as giving private performances for Kings and other noble heads of state. The headlines of the local newspapers are proof of the tremendous success he had with his audiences, whether aristocratic, government heads or city dwellers. His first meeting with Duke Maximilian of Bavaria occurred in the spring of 1837 at a concert Petzmayer gave in Bamberg. This was the beginning of a lifelong musical friendship. Duke Max was so enthusiastic about the instrument (zither) and the many possibilities it offered in playing and its sound that he decided to learn how to play himself and to become a student of no one other than Johann Petzmayer. Ever since that time, Petzmayer found himself almost always in the company of the Duke. In the fall of 1837 he played at the illustrious meeting of the noble heads of state in Tegernsee, where those in attendance gave his performance unparalleled applause. A letter of recommendation given him at this time attests to this success.

Duke Maximilian Joseph
4 December 1808 – 15 November 1888

On the 27th of October, 1837, Duke Max appointed him “Court Chamber Viruoso“, which he remained until his death on 20th December, 1884. Prior to this appointment he had turned down offers from his friend Johann Strauß Senior (1804-1849) who wanted him to play in his orchestra and to give concerts in Paris and London. The Duke, meanwhile, made excellent progress at learning how to play the zither. Soon he could join Petzmayer in playing duets and accompany songs, but he was also able to demonstrate considerable ability in playing solo. In 1838, Petzmayer accompanied Duke Max on his trip to the Orient. Several of his compositions carry names which are reminiscent of parts of the trip. They occurred to Petzmayer either during the trip itself, or he remembered them subsequently. One waltz in particular, the “Trip along the Nile-Waltz“, was especially well-known. Only once, that was in 1840, did Petzmayer take an art trip to France and England without Duke Max. For this trip, Max gave him a letter of introduction, “He plays the zither with a very special virtuosity and his own unique way of playing this otherwise difficult instrument; he himself is responsible for some of the changes that have transpired with the instrument so that what he is able to produce is so surprising that his concerts earn the greatest applause.“ Similar phraseology can be found in other letters of recommendation sent to high-ranking personalities and Bavarian ambassadors in the Foreign Office; almost all have similar wording to this letter of 1 May, 1840. Other acquaintances of Petzmayer also gave him letters of introduction for his trip, such as the former royal Master of Ceremonies and that artistic “Multi-talented“ Franz, Count of Pocci (1807 -76) and the royal States Advisor and Poet Dr. Sebastian Daxenberger (1809-78). To see just how highly Duke Maximilian appreciated Petzmayer one needs only to take a look at the “Public Report of exceptional Zither playing“ and teaching. This was published by the ducal lord chamberlain on May 7, 1840, in the name of his highness, the Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, about the activities of Petzmayer. The central point of all of the recommendations were his special ability, his three year teaching service to Duke Maximilian, and his participation on the trip to the Orient. Returning from the successful art trip in 1840, Petzmayer devoted himself from 1841 on more and more to the Duke and his court. He only performed concerts outside Bavaria in the most renowned Spas, which he visited while accompanying the Duke. It is interesting to note a report from the Royal Military Health Commission dated May 25, 1841, in which he is described as “large“, “gaunt“, but possessing such a weak body constitution, and because of several bodily aspects he is determined to be fully and for all time completely unfit for any type of military service. Unfit for the military but capable of achieving enormous success in the world of music.

In January, 1841, a musical group, “consisting of artists and amateurs“ was formed according to the wish of the duke and under his protection through the active involvement of Petzmayer. A contemporary described the function of this musical group in this way: “It is very much like a musical band which has formed around the Duke and which actually exists only because of the members’ heartfelt respect and love for him.“ „The great living sense of the artisitic that existed in the Duke, his honest and worthy sense not only as a Duke but also as an intellectually stimulating man, especially his own art, in fact everything about him made it possible for him to see and appreciate the most beautiful, truest and most pleasant parts of life.“

At the behest of the Duke, Petzmayer (as musical specialist) assembled other musicians around the Duke, certainly for his, but also for mutual enjoyment. Max himself often played his own compositions as well as folksongs on the zither in this group. The circle of musicians, the various society functions and gatherings, but also quiet and undisturbed moments were opportunities for Duke Max to reach for his zither. The zither played a much larger role in the life of Duke Maximilian than simply a beloved instrument, a sentiment underscored by one of the very few poems written by Max, entitled appropriately enough “My Zither“:


In the whole wide world what is dearest to me

Is the familiar zither playing

I treasure this more than all the gold in the world

Even if if demands so much effort.

When I am happy and in a good mood,

my zither is happy along with its master.

And when I am low and sad,

then it commiserates along with me.

That is why I am quite at ease when alone with my zither

Because it is the only thing that really understands me

I let people be themselves

And play my zither from early to late

People also play a game

But it is a different instrument

They often play upon those

Who have not yet learned of their falsity.

However, it is not only with their zither playing and music making that I wish to draw attention, because through their collaboration, Petzmayer and Duke Maximilian also contributed immeasurably to the development and dissemination of the zither. First of all, was the simplification and specification of the term “Zither“, which started about 1840, the time that Duke Max first took pains to support zither playing. Previously, the term “Zither“ included all the many different historical forms and types of instruments, such as the psalterium, scheitholz, lute, guitar, violine, hammered dulcimer, etc. just as with the zither we have today one can find similar instrument forms and further developments. In Musicology works one often finds the expression “junk“ instrument in relation to the zither of that time. This started to change first through the efforts of Johann Petzmayer around 1825 as he developed into the first zither-virtuoso of the modern zither in the 19th century. This, coupled with the efforts of Duke Maximilian from around 1837, led to the unambiguous meaning of the term.

At that time, the term zither meant a stringed instrument with two play areas, namely, the fretboard, with its changeable tones and the free strings with their permanently fixed tones. “The strings run parallel to and over a narrow box-like resonating body, and are made to ring by a combination of gripping and striking with both hands.“ This zither is represented therefore as a combination of both a “gripped“ and an “ungripped“ instrument, which in some cases is historically accurate. Coming into the 19th century, the zither was thoroughly unfinished and in need of improvement. More than anyone else, it is Petzmayer who we have to thank that this instrument in its unfinished form had already begun to gain some popularity around 1825. This type of instrument is called Petzmayer’s “Plucking Zither“, which is most likely where the term “to pluck the zither“ comes from. Technically the zither is called diatonic. At the most, one could play only three tones, most often G, D, and A. The fretted fingerboard contained just 14 notes. At the beginning of the 19th century there were only three notes on the fingerboard. The tuning of the free strings, used mostly for accompaniment, was without any system, one claimed they belonged to the “good sound of the zither player,“ so that each player developed his own system for stringing the instrument. Most of the early drawings depicting Petzmayer and Duke Maximilian show us this type of zither, which is quite individual and totally without standardization, which soon showed what an impediment it was to further dissemination of the instrument. The zither virtuoso might be astounded to learn this, but most of the people had absolutely no idea how to use this type of instrument as a learning tool. Concerning the shape of the instrument, one often speaks about the “Helmund Hornzither“. It was only with the total reform of the zither from the ground up and its standardization that the groundwork was laid for future expansion.

More than anyone else it was Nicolaus Weigel (1811-78) who helped improve things; he introduced the chromatic fretted finger board, placed the free strings without spaces in fourths and fifths; developed notation for writing notes, in which he used the F-clef (bass clef) for the accompaniment and the G-clef (soprano clef) for the melody. All later developments were based upon the Weigel zither reforms. Such changes had little effect on how the zither was played by the villagers and townspeople who were taught without the aid of books and printed sheet music, and so learned to play just as their forebears did. This was well realized by Duke Max who used the zither for recitals, and to play dance music, and also used it to accompany people singing. Using the zither in these three ways coincided exactly with what was happening in the development of popular music of the time which extant tales and anecdotes can vouch.

Here then we have the two zither styles facing each other. One style, deeply rooted by custom and by their way of life, was considered by the majority of people to belong to the “country folks“ from which only personalities like Josef Wasserburger (1788-1857) “Joey, the Innkeeper from Garching“ stood out. On the other side one could see the extremely useful results of Weigel and the other reformers to lead the zither out of its role as folk instrument and to have it gain musical acceptance. I would place Petzmayer and above all others the late Duke Max who incorporated the folkloric as well as the classical-musical character in the zither. The Duke clearly preferred the folkloric part. This twin track, was under the circumstances in my opinion, especially worthwhile. It offered a great chance of success, led to the zither’s first heyday. As little as Petzmayer forgot about the somewhat lowly origins of the zither, so did his accomplished, masterful style of playing lead him more and more into contact with the upper and noble circles, in fact, all the way to the courts of kings and emperors. This is where the instrument for the first time made the leap from being an everyday common instrument to being an instrument of high society, it became one could say “suitable for the court!“ This development would not have lasted if it had not been for Duke Max making it his cause and strengthening it.

We know the exact manner in which Petzmayer stringed his zither. His virtuoso playing compensated for the deficiency of the strings. Petzmayer had great success in playing together with guitar and violin, which he was able to put together with his zither to achieve an especially appealing sound. In later years, he also used a piano as accompaniment. He had especially good success with the bowed zither he developed in 1823 which presented a combination of the violin and plucked zither. This development of Petzmayer found its way back to the “common folk“ in the form of the bowed melodion or also as the lap violin which at the end of the 19th century was very popular in many areas.

In what has been passed on, Petzmayer’s repertoire included 242 zither pieces, 27 compositions and phantasies of a more concerto nature, 75 romances and Lieder, 58 Alpine pieces, 34 waltzes, 48 Ländler. 50 to 60 pieces were his own compositions or pieced together by him. So this master teacher was the model for Duke Maximilian. The team of Petzmayer and Duke Max, the gifted artist and the princely protector, that was the guarantee for the spirited rise and expansion of the zither from 1830 on. The portrait of the zither player had to be entirely redone. It was no longer a picture of the simple man of the people, no, it was a Duke who played the zither. Many pictures exist of Duke Max, playing the zither, a man the people came to lovingly call “Zithermaxl“. He turned up at a number of occasions, often incognito at taverns, where his daughter Sissi often passed the hat.

This young woman, who through her marriage to Emperor Franz Josef, became Empress of Austria, acknowledged later that passing the hat was the only money she ever earned herself. Duke Max’ efforts to gain a place for the zither in society was crowned with great success. Soon it was considered very modern to play the zither in city homes, in societal dwellings or in noble palaces. Great scores of so-called “higher“ daughters learned to play this instrument. Similar to the renaissance that the guitar had a half-century earlier through the efforts of Duchess Anna Amalie of Weimar (1739-1807), the zither found its way into the courts of kings and princes. The former “farmer and rag instrument“ was played by Duke Max’s children, who introduced it to their courts throughout Europe: Empress Elisabeth (1837-1898) in Vienna, Marie Sophie (1841-1925), the last queen of the two Sicilies, in Naples, Princess Helene von Thurn und Taxis (1834-90) and also his oldest son Ludwig Wilhelm in Bavaria (1831-1920). This example was followed by Archduchess Marie of Austria, Crown Princess Alexandra of England, Princess Beatrice of Wales, etc. The striving of Maximilian, to bring the zither to the state academy of music as a fully recognized instrument was doomed from the outset. However, the wide dissemination of the zither is Max’ doing.

The country folk, who looked to the city and court cultures as something to be imitated, once again became acquainted with the zither. Johann Petzmayer and Duke Max did not play an artistic instrument, but the simple diatonic zither of the people, just as it was given over to them, with its completely irregular stringing. In this way they strengthened their country cousins and their zither players to continue. And so we find an even further expansion of zither playing outside of the cities around the middle of the 19th century where certain city characteristics were picked up, but where for the most part they continued as they had been used to playing.




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