1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Zither

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ZITHER (Ger. Zither, Schlagzither, Streichzither; Ital. cithara), a name applied in modern Germany to the ancient cithara (q.v.), to the cittern (q.v.), and to an instrument which is a kind of psaltery, consisting of a shallow sound-chest with ribs having the outline of a flattened jug (termed in German Flaschenform, bottle-shape). In the centre of the sound-board is a rose sound-hole, and the finger-board with frets lies along the straight side of the zither in front of the performer. The number of the strings varies, but 36, 38 and 42 are the most usual. Over the finger-board are four or five strings known as violin, on which the melody is played. These five melody strings are stopped with the thumb and fingers of the left hand and plucked with the thumb of the right hand, which usually has a thumb ring with plectrum. Nos. 1 and 2 are steel strings; No. 3 of brass, and 4 and 5 of spun wire; the bass is played with the fingers of the right hand, and in order to facilitate the fingering the strings are tuned in fourths and fifths. Most of the other strings from the 6th are of gut. All the strings lie horizontally across the sound-board, being fastened in the usual manner to hitch and wrest pins. The zither is placed on the table in front of the performer, who holds his right arm so that the wrist rests on the side of the zither parallel with the hitch pins, the thumb being over the finger-board.


Britannica Zither.png
No. 1 is only used for passages in double notes and for chords.


The foregoing remarks apply to the discant and concert zither; the elegiac or bass zither is of similar construction but larger, and is a transposing instrument, having the same notation as the former, the real sounds being a fourth lower. These zithers are the favourite instruments of the peasants in the Swiss and Bavarian highlands, and are sometimes seen in the concert halls of north and western Germany. The Streichzither, or bowed zither, has a body of heart- or pear-shape similar to that of the cittern, but without the long neck of the latter. The finger-board covers the whole of the sound-board with the exception of a few inches at the tapering end, which is finished off with a raised nut or bridge, the bow being applied in the centre of this gap. The bowed zither has little feet and is placed on a table when being played. There are four strings corresponding to those of the violin or viola, but the tone is nasal and glassy.

The spelling of the word with a “Z” had already become usual in the early 17th century, for, although the instrument described above did not then exist, Cither was the name by which the cittern was known in Germany, and Michael Praetorius, writing in 1618, spells it with both “C” and “Z.”