A cittern - or 'Polish guitar' - by Maximilian Zacher, Breslau 1751
This eighteenth century cittern is currently in the National Museum of Prague. The museum gives the date of 1751. It is illustrated in Musical Instruments Through the Ages by Alexander Buchner (first published in the 1960s). Currently there are four more eighteenth-century citterns on display alongside the Zacher instrument.
Citterns were popular in many countries in the second half of the eighteenth century. Often they were made with the traditional pear-shaped body (like this Zacher instrument) but there were variations.
All of these citterns were tuned to a major chord, often to C major but also to A major and, sometimes, G major. Curiously, these instruments were often described as guitars in contemporary sources.
If we take the number of surviving instruments (and music written for the instrument) as an index of its popularity then the cittern fad began in Britain in the 1750s. The British instrument is usually known as the 'English guitar' and, sometimes nowadays, as the 'guittar'.
English guitars were taken over to America and in the 1760s, a rather different form of the instrument became popular in France and the Lowlands. This variant, known as the cistre ou guitharre allemande, was tuned in A rather than the usual C major of the English guitar. There are references in French sources to the guitharre angloise and some of the music published for the cistre in France appears to be arrangements of music originally published for the English guitar in Britain.
Later still, citterns similar to these British or French instruments appeared in Norway, Sweden and Portugal. And in other places too - like the instruments in the National Museum of Prague.
German and Swiss 'folk' citterns which look very similar to English guitars, didn't appear until the early nineteenth century (but eighteenth-century German citterns certainly existed before the 1750s).
In his Ph.D thesis on the Russian guitar (and, more circumspectly, in his paper for the 2001 Michaelstein Symposium Gitarre und Zister), Oleg Timofeyev challenges this account of the cittern in the eighteenth century. He is exploring the origins of the Russian seven-string guitar which is tuned to a major chord, just like the English guitar and the other citterns of the latter half of the eighteenth century.
Oleg says: "there is little doubt that this [the English guitar] is the instrument to which the Russian guitar is indebted for its tuning." But he speculates that there may heve been a Czech/Polish tradition of cittern playing which was both the immediate influence on the Russian guitar's tuning and which may have actually preceded the English guitar fad in Britain. Central to this idea is the Zacher cittern in Prague.
Oleg says: "..if the dating of the Zacher cittern is correct (1751), we will have to re-evaluate the cittern-related system in which England occupies the central place, and perhaps even abandon the term "English guitar."
Oleg also thinks that there is, or might be, a previously unknown 'Polish guitar' tradition and cites a passage from a very obscure work by the "somewhat eccentric" G. Hesse de Calve (1818) which mentions first the English guitar (and that the English guitar was at that time in use in Poland), then goes on to mention the Russian guitar and ends up with a reference to the 'Polish guitar'. One very straightforward reading of this passage is to take the final reference to the 'Polish guitar' as simply the English guitar as used in Poland.
In his 2001 paper Oleg has found a reference to the 'Polonaise Guitar' in a letter of 1804, written by an English woman residing in Russia. But, as he says, "the scarce references in Russian sources to "Polish tuning" and "Polish guitars" can all relate to slightly different things." Indeed this 'Polonaise guitar' is gut strung unlike the wire-strung 'Polish guitar' described by de Calve.
Oleg thinks that the Zacher cittern of 1751 (supposing the date is accurate) is an example of an instrument of this Polish tradition and that it might even be the origin of English guitar which became popular from the mid 1750s. Crucially, he claims that the Zacher cittern (and another one by Willer from 1799) are "practically indistinguishable" from numerous English guittars."
Is the Zacher instrument "practically indistinguishable" from an English guitar, even allowing for the range of instruments that fall under that description?
A typical English guitar
English guitars were made in different shapes and sizes but here is a very typical instrument made by John Preston.
It has an elegant, pear-shaped body, a neck and fingerboard with twelve metal frets and a watchkey mechanism for tuning the strings. Some English guitars have pegs for tuning but many have this sort of mechanism which uses a key to tighten the strings.
Whether it has a peg box or a tuning mechanism, there is a square finial usually decorated with a star shape. There is usually a an inset gilt rose.
The strings are arranged as four pairs and two single basses. A typical string length is 42 cms and the tuning for this string length is C.
Now let's look at the Zacher instrument.
the Zacher cittern
Like the Preston instrument illustrated above, this instrument is, more or less, pear-shaped - but less curvy and rounded. The fingerboard - which looks quite flat - extends further on to the soundboard.
The neck/body joint and the neck/fingerboard areas are chunkier than on typical English guitars.
There are thirteen pegs on this instrument, unlike the usual ten on an English guitar. The pegbox area is wider than the width of the neck and there is a carved head of a blindfold person. A carving like this would be extremely unusual on an English guitar.
Here is a view of the instrument from the side. The most striking thing is the direction of taper of the body. It's like a traditional cittern of the previous century with the body becoming shallower towards the tail. In contrast, the body of an English guitar is overall deeper than this and is deepest at the tail, where the strings fasten.
In Alexander Buchner's Musical Instruments Through the Ages which is Oleg's source, only two eighteenth century citterns are depicted - the Zacher one and another made by Johannes Michael Willer (Prague 1799). In fact there are two more, very similar, instruments made by Willer and one more anonymous instrument which the museum describes as an English guitar.
Firstly, here is the cittern made by Willer that is also illustrated in Buchner:
Now this instrument does look much more like a typical English guitar - especially the overall body shape and depth, and the rose and its decoration.
The head area with the watchkey tuning mechanism is more solid than on typical British instruments but the familiar disposition of the strings: two single basses and four pairs of treble strings can clearly be seen.
The slightly waisted body with pointed shoulders is sometimes found on English guitars and was the usual form on Dublin-made English guitars.
Here is a close up of the area around the nut on the Zacher cittern. It's not a very sharp image but clearly it's very different from the Willer instrument, and very different from typical English guitars. The nut seems to be extending outwards on the bass side carrying bass strings lying off the fingerboard (similar to some Baroque lutes).
The frets look like they have been altered - quite dramatically - from their original state.
Here are the other two citterns made by Willer and the anonymous British instrument:
And here is the third Willer instrument in more detail:
It's very similar to the first one, but the bridge is slightly different. Willer's instruments - unlike the Zacher cittern - do look very much like English guitars.
But they also look slightly, and distinctively, different. When the cittern fad spread to different areas, different national variants sprung up. For example, there are a number of surviving instruments of this genre (sistern) surviving in Norway, with their own local, distinctive design although made by different makers.
There are about fifty surviving Norwegian instruments (built c.1780-1800), but - unless more turn up - just these three Prague citterns.
The Willer citterns do look like they have the English guitar as their origin. And that would fit in with Britain as the epicentre of the cittern fad in the 1750s and then this fad spread outwards to France, Portugal, Scandinavia and to middle Europe, arriving in Prague in the late 1790s.
Was there a Polish or Czech/Polish tradition of cittern playing in the second half of the eighteenth century? As Oleg is forced to maintain, it could at best have been a barely visible folk tradition. But plenty of 'folk' German and Swiss citterns from only slightly later have managed to survive (and in paintings and drawings) whereas the Czech/Polish tradition remains a speculation. Anyway the English guitar fad was a middle class phenomenon, not a peasant, folk tradition.
Also, as Oleg points out, there are about six hundred guitar pieces in Czech sources from this time and only a handful are in chordal tuning.
Was the Zacher cittern the precursor of the English guitar? Certainly the English guitar had precursors. It was in Britain that the instrument became hugely popular and where hundreds of pieces were published for amateur consumption. But British makers developed a pre-existing instrument of German origin.
There are rare examples of German citterns (and music too) from before the 1750s that would appear to be the instrument that British makers developed. The Zacher instrument belongs with these German citterns. And, only in this rather limited way, could the Zacher instrument be said to be a precursor of the English guitar.
Finally, Oleg's claim "there is little doubt that this [the English guitar] is the instrument to which the Russian guitar is indebted for its tuning." Oleg acknowledges that Matanya Ophee first made this suggestion. The background to this is that the, as it were, 'official', story in Russian guitar history is that the Russian guitar and its chordal tuning is a purely Russian invention. Oleg claims that Russian guitar historians have been cut off from Western European sources and have not considered the eighteenth century cittern as a possible origin of the Russian guitar.
It's an irresistible connection to make: all over parts of Europe in the late eighteenth century a chordally-tuned instrument enjoyed great popularity. Then, some time in the 1790s, the chordally-tuned Russian guitar appears. The connection is even stronger because one of the first published tutors for the Russian guitar was written by someone who reportedly was a virtuoso on the English guitar - the Russified Czech, Von Held.
In a way the development of the Russian guitar from English guitar in the 1790s parallels the development of the English guitar from its German predecessors in the 1750s. Just as British makers and composers/arrangers (often German and Italian) created a whole new tradition that took off all over Europe, so did the Russians create a whole tradition utterly unlike the cittern fad that precede it.