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"Woman with a cister". Painting from 1677 by Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt .
Cister . Part of the illustration Instrumenta polychorda from: Athanasius Kircher , Musurgia Universalis . To distinguish it from the other instruments shown there, it is referred to here as Cythara Germanica et Italica .

The cister is a plucked instrument from the box-neck lute family . It exists in a variety of designs, which is why the Cister is not viewed as a specific instrument, but as an instrument family.

Derived from Greek κιθάρα kithara - see also guitar - are numerous name spellings and regional forms, for example Zister , Cyther , Bergmann zither , neck zither , resin zither , Luther zither , Thuringian Zither , Waldzither and Middle High German dithering . These instruments should not be confused with the zither .

History and design

The cister was derived from the lute between the 10th and 12th centuries . In contrast to most lutes, cisters always have metal strings. These are double strings ( choirs ) made of steel, brass, iron or occasionally silver. The number of strings varies and the tuning is by no means uniform. Often an open mood is used with cistern .

The body of the cister can be teardrop or pear-shaped, or it can have a shape similar to a bell (Hamburger Cithrinchen). It has ribs that widen towards the neck and a sound hole . The frets are firmly embedded in the fingerboard .

The mostly rather small scale length as well as the open mood led to the fact that the cister became very popular in the Renaissance period as well as by beginners as a folk instrument that is easy to play.

The Orpheoreon and Pandora also belong to the cistern family .

Variety of names

In the German-speaking area there are different names for cistern, which always caused and still cause great confusion. In addition to the terms mentioned above, the terms Citer , Cithar , Citter , Cythar , Cytthar , Sister , Siter , Wartburglaute , Ziethar , Ziter , Zithar , Zütter , and Zyther were used in the course of history . The old name Zitter and all names that contain -zither make it easy to confuse it with the zither . The name Halszither (zithers have no neck), which is particularly well known in Switzerland, enables a clear distinction. The term Luther zither evidently originated in the 19th century through the assumption that Martin Luther should have been a "master of the cister". However, there is no historical evidence for this.

Playing technique and mood

The choirs are struck with the right hand with a pick or a quill , the left hand grasps. There are different moods with cistern, mostly one encounters open moods like: cc ee gg c'c 'e'e' g'g '(six-course); occasionally also on mandola moods . During the Renaissance, cisters usually had four (e'e 'd'd' gg hh) up to ten choirs, modern variants usually have five to six.

Originally the cister was used for medieval drone playing , as indicated by the so-called Italian tuning (hh gg d'd 'e'e') and the French tuning (aa gg d'd 'e'e') in four-choir cisters of the 16th century. Century down: The melody was picked up on the 4th or 3rd choir, and the two next lower choirs were struck empty as drones. In the Renaissance period, the polyphonic way of playing developed. Cisters can be used as a pure melody, as an accompanying instrument, but also as a polyphonic solo instrument.

Types and names

English guitar

A certain type of cistern that was common in Europe from around 1750 to 1850 was called English guitar from around 1800 . The English suffix was created to distinguish it from the Portuguese guitar . The guitar, which in contrast to today - mostly six individual strings - had five choirs at the time, was not yet widespread around 1800, especially in England , and the names for cister ( cittern, cithern , cetra or citra ) and guitar ( gittern, guitar or guittar ) were used synonymously from around 1750 .

The strings of the English guitar were plucked with the fingers like a lute or guitar, and not struck with the plectrum, as is usually the case with the Cister. The English guitar usually had a teardrop-shaped body, and two bass strings and four choirs in the open tuning ce gg c'c 'e'e' g'g '( C major ). Since around 1760, the English guitar had a so-called Preston's machine , a peg mechanism made of vertical screws that were connected to small hooks that protruded through slots in the head and on which the strings were hung. With a special key you could turn the square heads of the screws at the back and thus tune the strings. Often there were holes drilled into the fingerboard between the first three or four frets, into which a capo could be attached. Due to the simple handling, the open tuning, and the easy applicability of different keys through the use of capos, the English guitar became very popular in the middle class.


Carl Michael Bellman with 12-string Cithrinchen, painting by Per Krafft the Elder (1779)

The Cithrinchen , also spelled Citrinchen , is a smaller version of the Cister with a bell-shaped body. In the painting by Per Krafft it has 12 strings, but it can also have only 10 strings like the English guitar.

Portuguese guitar

Portuguese guitar

The Portuguese guitar ( guitarra portuguesa ) developed in bourgeois Portugal in the 19th century . Nowadays it is a widespread, independent further development of the Renaissance Cister and the English guitar and became very popular through its use in Fado . She has six choirs and the mechanics of Preston's machine . There are two different types of the modern Portuguese guitar, which developed in the two traditional university cities of Coimbra and Lisbon . The somewhat larger Coimbra model has the tuning cc 'gg' aa 'd'd' g'g 'a'a' and the Lisbon model the tuning dd 'aa' hh 'e'e' a'a 'h 'H'. The octaved lower string choirs are often used in solo play for variation (music) and give the Portuguese guitar its sometimes described as "tearful" sound. Traditionally, the strings are torn with the tapping of the index finger, mostly with the help of a kind of fingerpick . Picks are uncommon these days.

Kriens neck zither

Around 1880 a variant of the cister with a small, guitar-shaped body, the Kriens neck zither , was created in Kriens , Switzerland . Together with mandolin, guitar, double bass and table zither it forms part of the Kriens house music.

Forest zither

Early 20th century in Germany a more modern design of the cittern, the Waldzither , as part of the Wandervogel movement a popular folk instrument. In the 1970s it found more use in German folk music , and since the 1980s / 1990s also occasionally in the music of the medieval scene , for example by the medieval rock group In Extremo .

The forest zither usually has four choirs and a single bass string. It is mostly tuned in the open C major tuning c gg c'c 'e'e' g'g '.

Flat mandolin and mandola

The mandola , the mandolin in the form of a flat mandolin and the mandocello can be viewed as closely related to the cister or as belonging to the cister family. They have metal double strings and the flat body of a cister. The mandola and mandolin have four string choirs, which are usually tuned in a fifth row - with mandolin gg d'd 'a'a' e''e ''. Open tunings are rather uncommon with these instruments.

Irish bouzouki

The Irish bouzouki has only the name in common with the bouzouki . It was developed in Ireland in the 1960s . It usually has four choirs and the broad, flat body of the cister, in contrast to the pear-shaped rounded body (bowl-neck lute) of the Greek bouzouki. Some instrument makers also provide the Irish bouzouki with a vaulted top.

See also


  • Cister . In: Anthony Baines: Lexicon of Musical Instruments. JB Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart and Bärenreiter Verlag, Kassel, 1996, pp. 60-62, ISBN 3-476-00987-4
  • James Tyler: Cittering. In: Grove Music Online, 2001
  • Franz Jahnel: The guitar and its construction - technology of guitar, lute, mandolin, sister, tanbur and strings. Erwin Bochinsky publishing house, Frankfurt am Main 1963, 7th edition 1999, ISBN 3-923639-09-0 .
  • Andreas Michel: Cither, Cithrinchen, Zister. Contributions to the history of a traditional musical instrument in Germany. Suhl, 1989.

Historical literature

Web links

Commons : Cister  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Cister  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations