Zither Music Makes a Comeback in Davenport

Members of Davenport’s original Zither Club

If you’re looking for a winter concert that falls into the “slightly out of the ordinary” category, the Davenport Zither Ensemble will once again be performing on Sunday, November 26, at St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church in Davenport.

The German zither instrument itself makes a soothing sound, but this particular music-making is soothing for the soul as well, especially for those with a German heritage.

Davenport’s first documented zither ensemble, the Davenport Zither Club, dates back to 1885, and by 1913 zither clubs from around the country converged there for a National Zither Congress. But along with two World Wars came strong anti-German sentiment, and zither music (along with formal gatherings of German-speaking Americans) all but petered out.

Zither music made a reappearance in 1949 with the movie The Third Man. The film, set in postwar Vienna, Austria, featured a soundtrack entirely of zither music written and performed by Austrian musician Anton Karas. “As zither players in this current era, we are grateful to play The Third Man, because it opened the door for this beautiful instrument to have life once again in this country,” says Anne Prinz, the current Davenport Zither Ensemble Meister.

Anne explains how the zither made a comeback in the Quad Cities, a somewhat recent occurrence. “On November 4, 2001, a concert took place at the newly opened German American Heritage Center by Janet and Lou Stessl of the Chicago Zither Club. The performance was standing room only, and the audience was inspired and in awe,” she says, adding, “A sign-up sheet was generated for those interested in learning to play the zither.”

Apparently the interest was great. In 2002, the Davenport Zither Ensemble was officially reformed by retired music teacher Don Ockelmann.

The current zither ensemble includes guitar and autoharp.

This Sunday, November 26, the current ensemble (comprising ten members—the largest zither group in the Midwest) will be playing traditional German and Austrian zither tunes, folk music, and contemporary songs from the U.S., as well as a few you might recognize, including the beloved Third Man Theme.

One of Anne’s favorites is a tune called Lili Marlen. “This piece of music was a German love song that was very popular during World War II among both the axis and allied troops. It’s been recorded by different artists over the years,” she says. “Often when we perform this piece of music, we can hear people in the audience singing along as it brings back a memory for them. My favorite time was when we were performing in the Amana Colonies at the Homestead Church Museum. An elderly gentleman came in with his grandson and sat up in the front row. When we began to play Lili Marlen, he sang it with all of his heart in German as if he was a soloist in our concert. What a moving experience—his singing brought new life to the music! There was hardly a dry eye in the room.”

Everyone is welcome to enjoy the beautiful sounds of the German zither at Sunday’s free concert. And the next time you’re near the German American Heritage Center, stop by to hear the group “rehearse” for the community. They play there together every Saturday. Who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired to join this centuries-old, recently re-embraced tradition.