F. Zimmermann Concert Grand Autoharp
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
I first learned of this incredible example of American plucked string musical instrument history in Betty Blackley’s 1983 book The Autoharp. It contained a photo of the beautiful specimen that has been hanging on the wall of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto since before 1983 (it had been in Jon Lundberg’s shop before that).
When I first visited Gryphon in the 1980’s I made a point of locating their example of the “Concert Grand Autoharp” (aka “concert Autoharp” - both names seem to have been used).
I stared at it up on the wall for some time, before shaking my head in wonder and moving on (I was there to buy the mando-bass they had gathering dust in their attic). I had no idea if I’d ever see another of these in my life, but silently added it to my fantasy world “Miner Museum Wish List.”
A couple decades later and my lust all but forgotten, one of these Holy Grails showed up on eBay. It looked to be in decent condition and so despite having essentially zero funds I put in a healthy bid, only to find myself the underbidder (it went for over two grand). Since then, I often kicked myself for not going further out on a limb for what was clearly something I might never see again.
And then several years later another showed up on eBay. This time I actually had a bit of cash on hand; now the problem was that the condition of the instrument was marginal at best. After some soul-searching and researching the provenance – and rarity – of these mythic beasts, I put in a healthy bid anyway, fully expecting to gain – at best – nothing but an overpriced wall-hanger. At least it would be something.
I would learn later that the Autoharp community was (naturally) aware of the auction and watching it unfold, so I was surprised when I got it for half of my bid. When it arrived in August, 2014, having expected the worse, I was more than thrilled with this “basket case.” Still, could its condition be improved?
I had recently been in contact about fretless zithers with one Cathy Beyer, who referred me to Peter d”Aigle. I next discovered a YouTube video by a fellow named Michael Wolkomer demonstrating and discussing the history of his own concert Autoharp that had been restored by Pete. (At the time, I assumed this was the previous eBay instrument, but it was not). Contacting Peter, it turns out he was the guy – perhaps the only guy – able and willing to take on the project. A builder and restorer of Autoharps (and the occasional Dolceola), he also publishes the Autoharp Quarterly and so is smack dab in the center of the Autoharp universe.
Unsurprisingly (much like me with harp guitars), he knew of all the known surviving Concert Grands out there – of which mine was now only number six. Including mine, he has now restored half of them! He had completed Wolkomer’s (serial #17) in May, 2013 and that first eBay specimen in January, 2011 (serial #6, for a private collector). In the fall of 2014 he began the two-plus year project of salvaging mine, successfully completed at the end of February, 2017.
After complete disassembly, the box spent a full year in its own private sauna – a humidity tent designed to optimize conditions for straightening the soundboard (which was so warped, the top was touching the back!) and drawing together the three or four gaping cracks. I can only imagine my poor baby audibly creaking and groaning under Pete’s torture rack for months on end!
Meanwhile, all the mechanics were cleaned and restored, including custom fabrication of some of the missing pieces. Once disassembled, its serial number was revealed: Number 30. As it is normally hidden from view, we don’t (yet) know the numbers of the remaining three, which include Gryphon’s, one in the Oregon Benton County Museum and another in a private collection (examined by a friend of Peter’s). So at this moment we can assume that at least thirty of these extravagant tabletop fretless zithers were produced, which is a pretty small number, considering the Dolge Company’s aggressive marketing and high hopes of success for their new flagship model.
A patent application for this new “Harp” was filed on December 28, 1893 by co-creators Aldis J. Gery (soon to be the sole virtuoso performer on it) and Rudolf Dolge, son of industrialist Alfred Dolge who had bought Charles Zimmerman’s Autoharp company in late 1892 (while Dolge moved the factory to Dolgeville, New York, he retained the “C. F. Zimmermann Company” name). The patent was granted on June 5, 1894, and what was presumably Gery’s first prototype was completed in December, 1894.
Unlike all the surviving specimens, the patent includes a curious feature: an extra fretted string on the bass side (of which the patent allows “one or more”) – used as a reference in tuning the open chromatic strings and/or for playing a melody as in the concert zither. So in this iteration, it’s really a hybrid instrument – part fretless zither (the Autoharp) and part concert zither (which has fretted melody strings and open accompaniment strings).
Note the fancy covers over the mechanism ends with lyre-shaped cutouts (intended to allow more sound through!).
Blackley’s book included a wonderful photograph of Gery with his instrument; this c.1895 advertisement shows a similar, different image of him. Gery’s instrument appears to resemble the patent quite accurately, but has two extra fretted strings. I’m fascinated by the question of whether Gery’s advertised virtuosity on it (during a hundred concerts with Gilmore’s 22nd Regiment Band led by Victor Herbert) included some simultaneous technique on his melody strings.
The patent design was immediately altered to do away with the large lyre end covers and tuning fingerboard string, resulting in the model we know today, shown in this 1895 Dolge ad at left. Peter d’Aigle says that even this went through subtle variations in string length and number. The earliest had 50 chromatic strings (as #6 does), which soon gave way to 49 strings, as in #17 and my #30. These latter seem to represent the “standard model,” probably made from mid/late 1895 on.
The concert model appeared in the catalog until 1899, but may have only been built for a year or two. Its lack of success can doubtless be attributed to its price: $150 in 1894, then – probably once they learned what it took to actually build – $250 in 1895. That’s a serious investment for a desk top musical instrument at that time!
And now it’s become my serious investment. My only regret was the need to partially refinish it, due to the severe deformation and cracks in the soundboard, back and frame. Pete walked a fine line with a natural, aged look – and a nice repro label decal, as the original had come off and disappeared. But importantly, the thing plays – the soundboard still with some warpage, but significantly reduced with cracks closed up tight.
It’s a wonderfully impressive 20-˝ by 30” in size, and sounds correspondingly rich. Advertised as providing a full 72 chords, the diminished 7th chords (yes, a whole special bar just for those) are enharmonically the same for 9 of the 12, so technically, yes, 72, but 63 via the mechanisms. These you have got to see to believe.
Sideview diagrams are shown in Blackley’s book and the patent, and Peter demonstrates them on my instrument in his detailed video, something I will have to keep referring to if I am ever to figure this thing out!
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