The zither, first widely introduced to the American public by Tyrolean minstrels in the late 1840s, was initially regarded as a curiosity. Over the next several decades, however, it emerged to become a part of America’s cultural heritage. Domestically, zithers, sheet music and zither methods were produced to meet the demands of a zither-playing public. By the 1870s, players began to convene with the idea of forming clubs.
The Baltimore Zither Club, circa 1935
In 1877, a zither club was formed in Detroit, Michigan. In the 1885 issue of Franz Waldecker's newsletter, "The Zitherplayer," zitherist Maurice Jacobi provides details of his early efforts to establish a club in Philadelphia, PA. The trend continued and zither clubs formed in cities throughout the United States, including Baltimore, Maryland, also known as, Charm City.
The July 10, 1896, issue of "The Sun" reported that a new club, the Baltimore Zither Club, had been formed. The stated purpose of the club was to demonstrate to the public the music and capabilities of the instrument. Meetings were held every Thursday at 2007 Jefferson St. The newly formed group was officially incorporated as the Baltimore Zither Club "Harmonie" in October of the same year.
On Oct. 26, 1896, the zither club "Harmonie" gave its first public concert at Germania Maennerchor Hall. Led by Hans Drechsel, the club thrived and performed at numerous venues in the city, such as the Bavarian National Hall and Labor Lyceum Hall. Often, zither concerts were accompanied by orchestras, singing and other forms of entertainment provided by Baltimore's numerous German-American societies.
For nearly two decades, the zither club provided entertainment to the residents of Baltimore. However, in the years preceding World War I, the atmosphere changed decidedly. With war looming in Europe, the zither, with its strong ties to Germany, was disregarded, and the numerous German societies that once played a vital, social role for German-Americans were looked on with suspicion. The damage was done and once dissolved, many clubs disappeared completely. When the Harmonie zither club disbanded in 1914, members retired from playing or continued to play in the privacy of their homes. In Baltimore, the zither club would not be heard in public for another two decades.
The return of the Baltimore Zither Club is due primarily to the efforts of Adolph Robl, the club's former president. While listening to his shortwave radio, he tuned in to hear a zither concert being performed in Austria. His mind drifted back to the early days of his own zither club, concerts and the Gemutlichkeit of performing music with friends. In 1934, he began contacting past members of the club with the expressed interest in reforming. New players were also found and they joined the ranks of the more experienced players. On Dec 6, 1934, the club gave its debut concert at Lehmann Hall, participating in the Schubert Singing Society's annual concert. The zither club had returned with a strong repertoire. In total, seventeen zither selections were performed for an audience of over 2,200.
The success of this concert was followed quickly by another. In April of the following year, with a scene of the Bavarian Alps as a backdrop, the zither club performed before an audience of over 1000 at Lehmann's Hall. Their success, however, would be short-lived. With war once again looming in Europe, the zither club disbanded in 1937, never to return.
With the release of the movie "The Third Man," featuring music by zither virtuoso Anton Karas, the public was reintroduced to the sounds of the zither. Adolph Robl, working in his shop on Eastern Avenue, had renewed hopes that his zither club would regroup. However, it was not to be. "The Third Man," as much as it helped to popularize the zither, did little to promote the art of zither playing. Charm City unfortunately lost one of its gems. The zither is a charmer and Baltimore, it would seem, would be the perfect venue.
Author's note: Currently, four members in the Baltimore Zither Club photograph have been identified: Andrew Hills, first row, far right; Albert Herrmann, second row, center; Ernest Stenzel, third row, far right. Adolph Robl is standing in the back row with the conductor's baton.