From its humble beginnings as the diatonic scheitholt played in the Alpine regions of Europe, to the fully chromatic instrument played today, it is likely that the zither has sounded in the United States as long as Germans have been coming to these shores. Along the way, however, there have been key figures who have helped to popularize the zither here in the US. Among the earliest, was Tyrolean, Joseph Hauser.
Joseph Hauser was a zither player with a group of minstrels known as the Hauser Family. The family of five emerged from Tyrol, each with a distinct vocal range. In addition to singing, Joseph and Franz played the zither and guitar, respectively. The remaining members of the group included Maria, Terese and George. Before coming to the US in the late 1840s, they had toured Europe and their credits included performances in the courts of Austria, Russia, Sweden and many others.
This same group, also known as the Tyrolese Minstrels, came on the heels of the Rainer Family, of which they were reported to be cousins. After arriving in the US in the late 1830s, the Rainer Family became celebrated through their vocal harmonies, performing in the costumes of their Tyrolean homeland. Like the Hausers, the Rainers traveled extensively in Europe before arriving in the US. They performed in the court of Munich and were received favorably by George IV of England. It was said that waves of minstrels arrived in England after hearing reports of their success, hoping, no doubt, to reap the same rewards as their singing brethren.
For those who had enjoyed the performances of the Rainer Family, the arrival of the Hauser Family was welcome news. The Rainer Family concerts set the standard for this form of entertainment. The performances and costumes were similar and the singing qualities of the two groups were often compared. The Hauser Family, recognizing the popularity of the Rainers, included Rainer Family songs in their program along with many of their own compositions.
With jodeling, costumes and songs from their native Tyrol, there was certainly wide room for comparison between the two groups. The Hauser Family, however, distinguished themselves through the use of the zither in their performances. Critics remarked favorably on the group's singing qualities and the combined effect of the guitar and zither. The zither itself was entirely novel and, for many concert attendees, it was their first exposure to this unique instrument. Some newspapers even went as far as to credit Joseph with introducing the zither to the US. The Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, Feb 24, 1849, wrote "We are told that this instrument, the Zither, is the only one that ever came to this country, and to those who never heard it is richly worth the price of a ticket..." True or not, Joseph certainly introduced thousands of Americans to the instrument of his homeland.
As the Hauser Family toured America, their fame grew. They entertained audiences in New York, Boston, Chicago and Milwaukee and many other American cities, typically performing multiple evenings at the same location before moving on to the next venue. Some were drawn by the comparisons to the Rainer Family while others came to be charmed by the sound of the new instrument from Tyrol, the zither. The publishing house of Oliver Ditson, aware of the growing demand for their music, released arrangements for a number of Hauser Family pieces. The words for each arrangement were in English, as they were performed by the family.
The Hauser Family was not the last group of minstrels from Tyrol to tour the US. For decades to follow, singers from the Alpine regions of Europe performed in the US, dressed in their native costumes, playing the instruments of their homeland.
The zither continued to gain notoriety, as did numerous talented players. With increasing numbers of immigrants from German-speaking regions of Europe, it would not be long before the zither could be heard in other venues, in homes, beer pubs, camps and other places where Americans gathered. Once an obscure novelty, the zither matured and contributed to America's rich musical tradition.