In the Spring of 2016, Valparaiso University’s Material Culture class studied artifacts from our collection, giving detailed historical context to some of our most unique and insightful artifacts. Thanks to Dr. Buggeln, Valparaiso University, the PoCo Muse collections volunteers, and the students for all the work and dedication put into this project.
The following research was compiled by Jake Tillmann:
America’s Most Unknown Popular Instrument
From the ancient rituals of China, to the churches of Europe, and to the houses of early America, the zither has always held a place in even the most diverse cultures. The American zither does not have deep roots in its homeland. Its closest ancestors are European, specifically German and Austrian. In Germany zithers were used primarily in folk music and tunes and were played together in ensembles or as accompaniments for other voices or instruments.
Compared to many other zithers created at this time by craftsman such as Oscar Schmidt and Friederich Menzenhauer, the Porter County Museum’s zither is very simple and primitive, which also serves to increase its durability. It utilizes 16 strings while other zithers had anywhere from 20 to 40 strings. It has no chord strings in that all strings stand alone as chromatic tones. There are no groupings of strings that sing a triad, or chord. These qualities of durability and simplicity were ideally suited for economy and mass production. Its simple strings provide the musician with a freedom to pluck out any kind of melody they want. This zither is not about sitting down and creating complex harmonies and counterpoint. The simple strings assigned to each note are a nod to the melodies of traditional music; with its easy-to-learn design, it reflects America’s creation of simplistic tunes.
This zither is the bridge between two genres. It fits the simple structure of African American or folk music, which produced an element of simplicity in American music, while also retaining the stringed properties of high-style European instruments. Ultimately, this zither reflects the American’s sense of expressionism, freedom, and exploration. It is a stimulant for the imagination. Objects like this zither need to be remembered as we progress in the future. It represents the freedom and movement away from strict rules and ways of conduct. There are no longer guidelines to be learned by the greats of the past or the teacher in the lesson room. It is an instrument able to be plucked however one wants.