In the 1870s, zither players in the United States began to assemble with the goal of promoting and fostering the art of zither playing. In this article, Maurice Jacobi details the early challenges of establishing a zither club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Originally published in the Jan. 1, 1885 issue of Franz Waldecker's The Zitherplayer, this article has been kindly provided by Janet Stessl.
My attention was called to an advertisement in one of our Sunday morning papers, in the fall of 1872, reading thus: "Zitherplayers and admirers of the instrument are respectfully invited to attend a meeting for the purpose of organizing a Zither club, etc." This aroused my interest immediately, for at the time I was more an admirer than a player, and thinking that the offered opportunity might render me valuable services, I unhesitatingly made preparations to comply with the request, and proceeded to the place in the most happy and joyous frame of mind, anticipating great inducements; but how sadly was I affected to discover that the meeting was in a beer saloon. My opinion was set, being convinced that there would be more beer than music, nor was I mistaken.
At two o'clock the room was well filled, mostly strangers to me, which surprised me, as I had no idea there were so many Zither players in our city. Zither playing was indulged in quite freely; the artists, stars, masters, or what we may call them, would deliver good, bad, or indifferent music, each to the best of his ability, the repertoire consisting of Heimats Klänge (Sounds from Home) and Rococco Waltz, Rococco Waltz and Heimats Klänge, with an occasional change to a polka by Darr. The intermissions caused by changing the program from one number to the next would occupied in imbibing beer, for some of the members did require the indulgence of a few glasses of beer to recuperate and to gather strength sufficient to endure the next gem, or pearl of art, to be produced by the next professor, for that they all were, at least they thought so.
In the mean time much hilarity was manifested by the players, as well as by the admirers, for it was about five o'clock when one gentlemen inquired for what purpose the meeting had been called. Upon this, the elder of the players with much gravity, called the meeting to order, explaining its object, went over a history of the instrument, stating that the Zither dated back into the dark ages of antiquity, and that it had been cherished and fostered unto the present day; that poets as well as peasants, princes as well as puritans, harped upon it; that the future of our dear instrument would be one of great achievements, (musically,); that it would meet with unbounded success (financially,); that his prophecy was not wind, but facts, solid, honest facts, and that such could only be accomplished by organizing a club, the first and only Philadelphia Zither Club.
Certainly, after such an introductory, the meeting became very animated; no time should be wasted, and proceedings were immediately instituted to elect officers. The assemblage was in excellent composure of mind. President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer, were successfully elected; but now; the climax of the meeting, the director was to be elected. Who should be the fortunate man? A breathless quietude betook the agitated debutants; a moment of great expectations had taken place. Who shall be the leader? A very prominent and also highly responsible position. A motion was made to nominate a director. The motion was lost, as the gentleman was found to be inadequate for the position; two, three, four, five, were nominated, all meeting with the same result, a result which was very natural, they all wanted to be the director, the prominent man, not in art, but in figure. [Reminding us of the former depraved condition of mankind, when individuals met together through a sense of their own weakness, and selected the tallest man among them to be their leader. --Ed.] The meeting became so disorderly, so tumultuous, that the proprietor of the house was forced to declare the meeting adjourned.
That ended the first and last meeting of the first attempt to organize a Zither Club in Philadelphia. It was a passion flower; it bloomed fragrant, but only for one day.
In the mean time I continued my studies with Prof. L. P. Brachet, and making the acquaintance of four gentlemen, pupils of Mr. B., we concluded to organize a club.
The constitution was framed in September, 1876, and the rehearsals were brought about by weekly meetings. We succeeded quite satisfactorily, playing on different occasions for various purposes, to use Dr. Spranger's words, "in basements, in churches, concert halls, theatres and opera houses," our performances being gratuitous, no one had a right to grumble, and so it was, that managers had to be satisfied.
I had been chosen director of this quintette, filling the capacity with all my energy, and hoping to increase the number of its members; but, alas! in vain, complaint after complaint came upon me; the parents would inquire as to the hours of rehearsal, their duration and how many evenings were devoted to rehearsing. I could not understand their inquiries. I explained that one evening in each week was set aside for practice, and that the hours were from eight to ten o'clock.; this, these unconscious people could not comprehend; they complained that their sons would come home at two or three o'clock in the morning, and they thought it very doubtful that Zither clubs rehearsed so late., or rather, to so early an hour. The result was, that disharmony took hold of our quintette, and my bright aspirations were ruined; the club was dissolved, and herewith ended the second attempt.
Not discouraged from previous experiences, I continued to promote the cause of Zither playing, offering inducements, distributing music and rendering all possible assistance, not for the paltry amount of money --an insatiable greed which we find prominently among musicians, that was not my aim, but to cultivate and elevate the inclinations of our present players, and my exertions have always met with approbation.
On February 9th, 1879, Messrs. W. Leopold, P. Wuest, five other gentlemen and myself expressed the desire to unite and form a club. I related my prior troubles in clubs, and informed them that if they intended to organize on a plan of stability, I would invest my whole ambition in the cause, on condition that the other gentlemen would do likewise. All consented, and the Philadelphia Zither Club was again organized.
Friday evening was selected for rehearsals, and with diligent practice and true devotion, we improved rapidly; our membership increased to ten Zithers and two Guitars, and by May 9th, 1881, we had sufficiently advanced to appear before an audience. The first concert was an overwhelming success, of which the ZITHERPLAYER, published by the lamented Franz Waldecker, can bear evidence.
On July 11th, 1881, the constitution was framed. The fees are moderate and fines do no exist. Art. II. prescribes: --"It is the object of this club to cultivate and foster the art of Zither playing.; to give more or less advanced players encouragement and opportunities for improvement; and to aid in the mutual entertainment of all its members." To this we have unerringly stood.
From year to year the membership has increased. The second annual concert was February 13, 1882; the third, April 10, 1883; and the fourth, April 4, 1884; each and every time gaining the support of an intelligent and highly appreciative audience. We stand at present, well organized, and hope to remain so. Where can we now find the key to our success. I think it is in more music and less beer.
Most likely Prof. Ph. Louis Brachet, the well known composer, zither player and teacher in Philadelphia.
It is likely that that the early zither club scene, illustrated by Maurice Jacobi, was being played out in multiple other US cities during this time. The Detroit Zither Club, formed in 1877, is the first long-lived zither club in the US.