Although contemporary folk musicians (most famously Joanna Newsom) have recently revived popular interest in the harp, the zither hasn’t gotten much love. If you’re like me, your only exposure to the zither was a rushed introduction to the autoharp* in elementary school music class.
It wasn’t always this way. In nineteenth-century Vienna, the zither was extraordinarily popular, in part due to the public performances of the virtuoso Johann Petzmayer. Responding to this popularity, the Viennese composer Johann Strauss II included a prominent solo part for zither in his 1868 waltz “Tales from the Vienna Woods.”
(My hike through those woods yesterday was partially soundtracked by Strauss’ piece. Contemporary classical listeners don’t take Strauss very seriously—blame Stanley Kubrick—but wandering through the hilly vineyards and thick forests to the north of Vienna, his music sounds more subtle than tacky).
The zither fell out of favor in the early twentieth century with the advent of jazz. In 1949, however, interest was revived in a big way due to the popularity of Anton Karas’ all-zither score to Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, a thriller set in postwar Vienna (and one of my all-time favorite movies). Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably heard its main theme, composed and plucked on the zither by the then-unknown Karas.
Among other things, Vienna’s Third Man Museum (run by two dedicated fans of Reed’s film) traces the impact of Karas’ soundtrack on the zither’s popularity. Some of my favorite items at the museum were the Third Man-branded “junior zithers” marketed to young fans of the movie, as well as the collection of bizarre novelty items produced in the 1950s that play the main theme when manipulated.
I also enjoyed the vast vinyl collection of Karas’ theme, which sold enough copies in the United States to top the Billboard charts for eleven straight weeks (!). It also went big in Japan, where you can still hear the theme played when the Osaka subway arrives at Umeda Station.
The highlight, however, was the original zither Karas used to record The Third Man’s soundtrack, and which also provides the backdrop for the film’s opening credits.
Whither the zither? The Karas-caused craze didn’t last long into the 1960s, but stay tuned: the zither is due for a comeback soon. After all, it’s a plucky little instrument.
*Confusingly, not a harp, but a chorded zither!