The†cittern†or†cither†(Fr.†cistre, It.†cetra, Ger.†Cister, Sp.†cistro, cedra, citola) is a stringed instrument dating from the†Renaissance. Modern scholars debate its exact history, but it is generally accepted that it is descended from the Medieval†citole, or†cytole. It looks much like the modern-day flat-back mandolin and the modern†Irish bouzouki. Its flat-back design was simpler and cheaper to construct than the†lute. It was also easier to play, smaller, less delicate and more portable. Played by all classes, the cittern was a premier instrument of casual music making much as is the†guitar†today.
The cittern is one of the few metal-strung instruments known from the Renaissance period. It generally has four courses (single, pairs or threes) of strings, one or more course being usually tuned in octaves, though instruments with more or fewer courses were made. The cittern may have a range of only an octave between its lowest and highest strings and employs a "re-entrant" tuning†- a tuning in which the string that is physically uppermost is not the lowest, as is also the case with the five-string banjo for example. The tuning and narrow range allow the player a number of simple†chord†shapes useful for both simple song accompaniment and dances, however much more complex music was written for it.†Its bright and cheerful timbre make it a valuable counterpoint to gut-strung instruments. The†Spanish bandurria, still used today, is a similar instrument.
From the 16th until the 18th century the cittern was a common†English†barber shop†instrument, kept in waiting areas for customers to entertain themselves and others with, and popular†sheet music†for the instrument was published to that end.†The top of the pegbox was often decorated with a small carved head, perhaps not always of great artistic merit; references exist in†Shakespeare's†Love's Labour Lost.
Just as the†lute†was enlarged and bass-extended to become the†theorbo†and†chitarrone†for†continuo†work, so the cittern was developed into the†ceterone, with its extended neck and unstopped bass strings, though this was a much less common instrument.
In Germany the cittern survives under the names†Waldzither†and†Lutherzither. The last name comes from the belief that†Martin Luther†played this instrument. Also, the names†Thuringer Waldzither†in Thuringer Wald,Harzzither†in the Harz mountains,†Halszither†in German-speaking Switzerland are used. There is a tendency in modern†German†to interchange the words for cittern and†zither. The term†waldzither†came into use around 1900, in order to distinguish citterns from zithers.
| Modern citterns
The cittern family survives into the present day in the German 'waldzither', the Corsican†Cetara, Spanish†Bandurria†and†Laud, as well as the†Portuguese guitar, the descendant of English instruments brought into Portugal in the 18th century. The 'Guitarra Portuguesa' is typically used to play the popular traditional music known as†Fado. In the early 1970s, using the guitarra and a 1930s archtop Martin guitar as models, English luthier Stefan Sobell†created a "cittern," a hybrid instrument primarily used for playing folk music, which has proved to be popular with folk revival musicians.