Scheitholt

David Bennett               24 April 2015

IMG_2161The most recent addition to my music instrument collection is a Mercer Museum reproduction scheitholt made by Ben Seymour of Kudzu Patch Dulcimers

OK, you say that’s nice but what exactly is a scheitholt and why should I care? Here’s how this early instrument fits in our dulcimer world.

Cherry Schietiholt2

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Ben

Here is a video of Ben Seymour playing “My Own House” on my cherry scheitholt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04SJhtJUGWM

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The predecessor (or at least “a” predecessor) of the American folk instrument commonly called the mountain dulcimer, or Appalachian dulcimer, is a German folk instrument sometimes called a scheitholt. The scheitholt is known to have existed since at least the early 1600s and possibly back to the Middles Ages.  The Appalachian dulcimer was created and appeared in regions settled by the Irish and Scots though the instrument has no known precedent in Ireland or Scotland. However, several diatonic fretted zithers existed in several European countries and bear a distinct similarity to the dulcimer and the German scheitholt is a good example and is perhaps the most prominent of these.

 T1886 Wood Engraving Art Syntagma Musicum Instrument Michael Praetorius Violin bhe earliest known description of the scheitholt (see item 8 in plate XXI) in print is from the book published in 1619 by Michael Praetorius (1571–1621), Syntagma Musicum II. By all accounts this is the first published use of the term scheitholt to describe the instrument that eventually became the mountain dulcimer.1 In Praetorius’ book he noted that the scheitholt had been a part of folk culture for centuries. Ralph Lee Smith in his book Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions gives the following translation to the part of Praetorius’ book regarding the scheitholt, “…Although this instrument should rightly be listed among the low-class instruments: So I have nevertheless / since it is known to few / wanted to describe it here…2 (bold emphasis mine)

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Update: On 8 November 2015 Wilfried Ulrich, the author of “The Story Of The Hummel”, sent me this nice e-mail:

The oldest Hummel in Germany from around 1630 was nearly next to the Praetorius Scheitholt. The oldest mention of a Hummel is from 1508. So it was just by chance that Praetorius got a Scheitholt and not a Hummel to describe!

I’ve added my latest research about the oldest Hummel in Germany. You can use it if it is of interest for your readers:

best regards from Germany

Wilfried Ulrich   http://www.ulrich-instrumente.de/

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Praetorius “gave the dimensions of a four stringed instrument with unevenly spaced frets fastened directly to the soundboard. The fret spacing was set up diatonically, not like the chromatic scales of other fretted instruments…” 3

Ralph Lee Smith tells us “…Scheitholts are diatonically fretted, and a majority of American scheitholts have fret patterns that are identical to that of most old-time dulcimers! With both instruments, if you start at the third fret on the melody string and run down the fret pattern tone by tone, you will produce the major scale. Alternatively, some old scheitholts and some old dulcimers are fretted in such a fashion as to produce the major scale from the open fret…” 4

Other sources tell us essentially the mountain dulcimer is a fret board sitting on a sound box and the scheitholt is a fretted zither that is pretty much just a fretted sound box. Zithers, such as the Alpine Scheitholt, have narrow rectangular sound boxes and fewer melody strings, their three or more bass strings providing merely a dronelike accompaniment on the tonic and dominant (first and fifth notes of the scale).5

“…A scheitholt typically has straight sides and a narrow width that grows wider near the strummed end of the instrument.  The frets are placed directly on the soundboard and there is no separate fretboard as in a mountain dulcimer.  However, the fret pattern or scale is identical to that of the early mountain dulcimer. Some historians believe that the scheitholt was introduced by German immigrants into the Pennsylvania portion of the Appalachian Mountains, and as it spread throughout the mountains, it was modified into the mountain dulcimer. Several versions of the scheitholt have been found in the Appalachians with some dating back to the 1700’s…”5

The scheitholt was played similarly to the modern zither. It was placed horizontally on a table, or on the player’s lap, the left hand pressed the strings with a wooden stick sometimes called a ‘noter’, while the thumb and index finger plucked the strings either directly, or with a horn or wooden plectrum, or with a goose quill. Some strings functioned as drones.6

Chris Nogy tells us in an article about scheitholts, “Well-regarded historical treatises regard the scheitholt as “a ‘low’ instrument, a folk instrument of base origin and use.”  Yet regional histories tell us this was an instrument for “accompanying recitations, for dancing and celebrating, for ballad song and to promote the enjoyment of time spent with friends and family.”7 

The name “scheitholt” originally referred to firewood or kindling, presumably because it had a similar shape and size, to cut firewood. Another possible explanation for the name “scheitholt” is that, being a folk instrument, some musicians may have had the attitude that it was worthless as a musical instrument and only good for kindling or firewood.

German settlers to the Appalachian region, according to Ralph Lee Smith, did not call their instruments a “scheitholt” but more likely merely a “zither”.  Mr. Smith writes, “The scheitholt came to America with the early German settlers… However, the name did not come to America with the instrument, and thereby hangs one of the naming problems in our tale…”8

IMG_2166Dr. Henry C. Mercer wrote in the opening pages of a paper he presented to the Bucks County Historical Society in January 1923 regarding what we now call the scheitholt, “A time long past through social changes rather than by years, has left in our museum eleven remarkable narrow box shaped string instruments, so little known, so forgotten or overlooked by musical antiquaries… locally known among the Pennsylvania Germans, who made and played them, by no other name than zithers (pronounced by them “zitter”)…”9

The German scheitholt was made for playing slow hymns and was generally finger picked or occasionally bowed. It is believed the eventual development of the Appalachian dulcimer came about primarily because the fret board being a part of the sound box the scheitholt was not conducive to playing the faster fiddle and dance tunes of the Scots-Irish and Brits. Early American scheitholts in museums show damage from this type of playing and one can imagine that when a scheitholt was worn out that it was used for firewood. Because of the damage to the scheitholt when played fast and furious at some point in history someone came up with the idea of putting a raised fretboard on a sound box and decided three strings were plenty, giving us the “dulcimer”.

In summary as Ralph Lee Smith has concluded, “…Historians no longer doubt that the German scheitholt is the ancestor of the Appalachian dulcimer. The scheitholt entered the early Appalachian frontier with early German settlers as a scheitholt, passed across cultures to the English and Scotch-Irish, and emerged as a dulcimer. Historians further strongly suspect that the earliest dulcimers greatly resembled the oldest Virginia-style instruments that we possess…”10

Some background on the Mercer Museum and its scheitholt collection

The Mercer Museum of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, established by Dr. Henry C. Mercer in 1897 and completed in 1916, is recognized as one of the most extensive assemblages of artifacts associated with pre-1850 American folk-ways and technological history.11

On display at the Mercer Museum is a collection of scheitholts and mountain dulcimers.  Here is Mercer Museum description of the scheitholt my replica is patterned after: 12

Object Title Plectrum Zither or Scheitholt   Object Name Zither               IMG_2142  Date 1800/01/01-1899/12/31

Object Description Composite Chordophone. [Note:  A chordophone is a musical instrument that makes sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points] Tapering, rectangular wooden body made of thin soft wooden pieces 3/16” – 1/8” thick, glued and pegged together with treenails. Rectangular wooden block at base. Solid wooden head with ornamental scallops and carved spoked motif on its left side, holding the tuning pins. Five steel wire strings stretched from straight row of five headless iron pins driven into base and extending to a single group of square topped hand-forged iron tuning pins screwed into head. Fourteen wire frets, stapled into left side of sounding board (no fret board) and spaced at musical intervals. Heavier wire nut crosses entire instrument and catches all five strings. Two fretted strings, three drone strings. Bridge is a low, flat wooden strip, glued to board. Two sound holes (one a circular perforation and the other a heart-shaped perforation). Small paper label with illegible inscription glued to head. Faint ornamental pattern of black “Xs” alternating with blackened squares on the sides. Little evidence of wear either on or between frets, or near the bridge from noting, plucking or strumming.

Label/Mark/Inscription Cookerow (Inscription, underside of body) heart and circle (carving, middle section of body) circular flower shape (carving, top section of body)

Length: 37.75 in         Height: 3.125 in          Width: 3.50 in

 For additional reading see The Zithers of the Pennsylvania Germans. This paper was read by Dr. Henry Mercer before members of the Bucks County Historical Society in 1923 and details the museum’s collection of zithers. A downloadable copy of the 1923 paper by Dr. Mercer “The Zithers of the Pennsylvania Germans” is available at http://www.zither.us/files/zpg.pdf

Two Hearts of the Dulcimer dulcimuse.com podcasts about Scheitholts:

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For more dulcimentaries on the Athens Dulcimer site see https://athensdulcimerclub.wordpress.com/dulcimentaries/

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Footnotes:

  1. The Virginia Dulcimer, Roddy Moore and Vaughan Webb- July-August 2013 issue of The Magazine Antiques http://www.themagazineantiques.com/articles/the-virginia-dulcimer/
  2. Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions (2nd ed) Ralph Lee Smith p 22 http://www.ralphleesmith.com
  3. Restoration of 1850-1865 Pennsylvania German Scheitholt by Ron Cook http://www.roncookstudios.com/assets/richard-latker-repair-log-final.pdf
  4. The Appalachian Dulcimer’s History: On the Trail of the Mountains’ Secrets, Ralph Lee Smith http://archive.dulcimersessions.com/jul03/Appalachian.html (link no longer works)
  5. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/873125/Scheitholt &

http://gibsondulcimers.com/Dulcimer%20History.htm

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scheitholt
  2. Scheitholt, Chris Nogy, 2011, http://instrumentsofantiquity.com/scheitholt.html
  3. Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions (2nd ed) Ralph Lee Smith p 24
  4. The Zithers of the Pennsylvania Germans, Dr. Henry Mercer (January 20 1923), Bucks County Historical Journal, Volume V., printed 1926.
  5. The Appalachian Dulcimer’s History: On the Trail of the Mountains’ Secrets, Ralph Lee Smith http://archive.dulcimersessions.com/jul03/Appalachian.html (link no longer works)
  6. Mercer Museum, http://www.mercermuseum.org/collections/mercer-museum/
  7. Mercer Museum http://starweb.mercermuseum.org/starweb/MercerCollections

3 thoughts on “Scheitholt

  1. Wonderful sound!! Ben’s tune is perfect for it. What tuning is it in?
    A low class musical instrument? 😉 I don’t think so!
    Margie

  2. Thank you sir, for the additional info. I know you have researched these instruments more than anyone. Also, I wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed your book, “The Story Of The Hummel”. I need to re-read your book.

    David Bennett

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