Monday, May 16, 2016

German chorale melody (?) on a Pennsylvania German folk zither


What may be a Mennonite hymn "Ubermal der Tag Verslossen" played on a Pennsylvania zither to a variant of a melody by Joachim Neander (at least it sounds like a vernacular chorale variant) ... this YouTube clip was shared on the Nordiska Psalmodikonförbundet's Facebook feed the other day. Like the psalmodikon, the instrument called a "scheitholt" here is played on one string.

Förbundet members, who are knowledgeable about the history of the Swedish instrument, were fascinated with the construction of the Pennsylvania Dutch instrument. (The discussion is in Swedish, but you can get the gist of it by clicking on "Translate All" under the comments.) And there was just enough information about the hymn to whet my interest.

"Ubermal der Tag Verslossen" on Scheitholt Pennsylvania folk zither

Published at on Aug. 23, 2013, by YouTube user wherligig. He also has a clip of an Icelandic langspil. This note says:

The scheitholt, a member of the zither family, was brought over to the fledgling United States by German immigrants in the 1700s. Used primarily by the Pennsylvania Germans, the scheitholt soon traveled with them down the East Coast wagon trails as the settlers moved further south and west. That which went into the mountains as a scheitholt later came out as an Appalachian dulcimer through cross-cultural contact between the Germans and Scottish and Irish settlers to the New World.

The instrument in the video is a replica of a scheitholt made by the Mennonite teacher Henry Lapp sometime in the 1870s. (Replica made in 2012 by Ken Koons.) Lapp, who taught English and German in Bucks County, PA, played his scheitholt for classes called "spelling bees" during the day. At night he accompanied himself singing German hymns. His original instrument currently exists in the collection of the Mercer Museum ( In the early 1900s, the museums founder, Henry Mercer, interviewed Henry Lapp's son, who remembers his father singing the hymn "Spar Dein Buse Nicht" among others. A convoluted trail led to the melody played in this video. It was fairly common practice to mix and match hymn melodies with hymn texts; the hymn that Lapp played in the 1800s combined the melody here (composed by von Neander in 1680) with the alternative text, "Spar dein Buse Nicht." This performance uses the original hymn text, "Ubermal der Tag Verslossen."

Tracing this hymn melody proved difficult, and we are very grateful to musicologist Mitchell Morris for his help in tracking it down. We are also very grateful to historian Ralph Lee Smith, who has been responsible for piecing together the story of the scheitholt in the United States.

Recorded Aug. 22, 2013 at the World Community Productions Studios. Recording Copyright (C) 2013 Ken Koons and Ryan Koons.

Another webpage with a clip of the same video, titled "The Scheitholt: An Early Pennsylvania German Instrument," by Mark Hagenbuch on a Hagenbuch family history & genealogy website, says Henry Lapp was a Mennonite. His zither is in the Henry Mercer Museum and is mentioned in Dr. Mercer's 1923 article (for a download, link to or do a keyword search on the citation: Henry Mercer, "The Zithers of The Pennsylvania Germans" Bucks County Historical Society, 1923).

Mark Hagenbuch has another webpage:

"Music of Andreas Hagenbuch’s Time"

Posted Dec. 2, 2014 on Hagenbuch's website: "Music of Andreas Hagenbuch’s Time" -- speculative, since there is no information about music the family actually listened to in the 1700s, but very informative, with YouTube clips of music of the period. Andreas, 1711-1785, was born in Lomersheim, in in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and settled in Berks County, Pa.

Some excerpts:

Andreas Hagenbuch and his family were Lutherans, as were many Germans in that region [in Baden-Württemberg] after the Reformation. They undoubtedly attended church and were exposed to a vast repertoire of sacred music.

Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) was a prolific writer of Lutheran hymns. “Put Thou Thy Trust in God” (Befiehl du deine Wege) can be found in a German 1759 hymnal published in Germantown, Pennsylvania. It is likely that the Hagenbuch family heard and sang hymns such as this.

[click here for video embedded in original]

And this:

Once the Hagenbuch family left the city [Philly] for the wilderness of Berks County, they would have been in frontier areas primarily populated by Germans. We know very little about the music from here during the early 18th century. Though, Rufus Grider gives us some tantalizing insights from the nearby town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania which was founded in 1741 by Moravian missionaries from Germany.

According to Grider, an attack by American Indians in 1755 was averted by playing a dirge on trombones. Grider also notes that the first organ was installed in a Bethlehem church in 1751. Benjamin Franklin wrote to his wife that “he heard very fine music in the church; that flutes, oboes, French horns, and trumpets, accompanied the organ.”

New Bethel Church – where the Hagenbuchs attended in Albany Township, Berks County – likely began as a log structure and lacked an organ for many decades. As was common during that time, hymns would have been sung without accompaniment.

Additionally, Andreas Hagenbuch’s 1785 will makes no mention of any instruments. Given the value of something like a violin, it is reasonable to assume that if the family owned something like this it would have been listed.

Yet, we know that frontier families had instruments in their possession. Grider describes that Bethlehem farmers as far back as 1746 “…never failed to carry along besides (sic) their sickles, also their flutes (dauces,) and French horns, drums, cymbals, &c.” Even if the Hagenbuch family was without these instruments, they certainly knew people who owned and played them.

* * *
Scheitholt or zitter?

The vernacular German box zither from which the Appalachian dulcimer developed has been called the "scheitholt," which means block of wood, since the early 17th century. But the reference is literary, dating to a catalog of instruments compiled in 1618 by the court and church musician Michael Praetorius, and American mountain dulcimer players beg to differ. See, for example, the discussion at:

Consensus in the Appalachian dulcimer community is that the folk instrument in Pennsylvania should be called a "zitter," which is the Pennsylvania Dutch word for a zither.

A 23-minute audio file on the Koons brothers is available on the Hearts of the Dulcimer website at

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