|The Zither and Polyphonic Baroque Music|
|Keyboards available to Bach|
|Rebutting a criticism|
And so it could happen that a well-known composer wrote me, upon publication of my zither arrangement of a Bach chaconne, that he congratulated me on this outstanding work but found it a sacrilege against Bach to reproduce his music on an instrument whose task was to create atmosphere at heurigen festivals; that such a work could only come into its own on the piano, that Bach would have been the last to entrust it to an instrument as sound-poor as the zither •••••
••••• the judgment of this musician shows clearly that he rejects the zither because his hearing, set for the excessive volume of the piano, is not capable of perceiving the timbre range contained in the zither's dynamic range -- which is actually so essential for proper performance of Bach's works. In fact the zither possesses all of the qualities that musicians and instrument makers vainly sought to unite in one instrument at the onset of monody and that pianists ••••• attribute to their instrument through auto-suggestion. The zither has an even more expressive and modulatable tone than the clavichord, since the tones are produced directly by the fingers, without the intercession of tangents. And its tone can, as on the clavichord and the piano, be nuanced in all possible volume gradations, both gradually and suddenly. Its strings, including silk (nylon), gut, brass, and steel, produce an even more timbred sound than the harpsichord. Its technique allows timbre mixtures in infinite combination, such as are possible only in an orchestra; the very same chord, for example, can be formed in more than thirty different combinations. And by striking the strings at a different point, the zitherist can also shade the sound in all gradations or, as it were, pull out stops as on the harpsichord or the organ. The various ways of striking the fingerboard strings with the ring or the soft fingertip (pizzicato) -- and of articulating (hammer-on, ring-binding, pull-off, sliding) as well as the production of harmonics (bell tones, flageolets) on both the fingerboard and the free-swinging strings, greatly increase the zither's capabilities for expression. I would like to take this opportunity to draw attention to yet another particular timbre on the fingerboard, which, so far as I know, has never been exploited. It corresponds approximately to what harp players call "étouffé" (smothered), which is done by placing the finger on the string over the fret of the tone to be played but not pressing on the string, and then striking with the ring. The pressure on the string must be strong enough that it does not buzz but that a short "smothered" tone results. Produced in ensemble-playing and used appropriately this timbre is singularly effective.
The only thing the zither "lacks" in comparison with the above instruments is the piano's volume, and we affirm this with satisfaction, for it is exactly this exaggerated culture of loudness in today's concert usage that has ruined the public's sense of hearing, as mentioned above. But even so, the zither's tone is significantly louder than that of the clavichord and at least as loud as that of the harpsichord. There is thus no doubt that both polyphonic Baroque works and works in the Classic, Romantic, and even many contemporary styles can be performed satisfyingly on the zither with regard to sound -- so far as allowed by the mechanics of playing the zither. Both styles are possible technically on the modern piano, but polyphonic music cannot be reproduced adequately as to sound. In contrast, the zither is particularly suited for polyphonic playing because of the transparency possible in zither settings and of the zither's timbre range. That Bach, who "felt particularly drawn to the clavichord for his private musical entertainment, because the other keyboard instruments were too soulless for him, and he held it to be the best suited for performing his most refined ideas": that Bach would be the last one to entrust his works to an instrument like the zither with its even richer possibilities for expression than the clavichord: this is patently absurd.
The zither does not turn to the entertainment-seeking throng with virtuoso achievements. It cannot be used for large rooms or fortissimos but is, by its nature, like the clavichord, an ideal house instrument, for the edification of the player and a small circle of like-feeling connoisseurs •••••
That Bach did not scorn the lute, much poorer in sound than the zither, is shown by the fact that he composed and transcribed for it ••••• [TN: He also taught the lute, ••••• admired and was friends with lute virtuosos Ernst Gottlieb Baron and Sylvius Leopold Weiss, ••••• and had a lute-harpsichord built for himself (of which a description follows).] •••••
It is not necessary to present further arguments in order to counter the foolish criticisms raised by certain pedants against the zither as a means of performing polyphonic Baroque music. Since the technique of zither playing is basically different from that of keyboard instruments, only a few keyboard works from the musical treasure of Bach's time can be performed on the zither. Nevertheless, there are some, for example the great C-major toccata for organ, that except for a few measures fit the zither as though Bach had written them especially for it. There are also his works for violin and cello, most of which can be arranged to conform to the sound and the playing technique of the zither as though they were originally composed for our instrument.