Type: Lute > Chordophones.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Country: France, Germany, Spain
Region: Western Europe.
Description: The cittern or cithren [Fr. cistre; It. cetra; Ger. zitter; zither; Sp. cistro, cedra, cítola]. It resembles a 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.
Origins: The cittern is one of the few metal-strung instruments known from the Renaissance period. It 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]. 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; in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, the term “cittern-head” is used as an insult.
Usage: 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 Thüringer Waldzither in Thüringer 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, to distinguish citterns from zithers.
The cittern family survives as the Corsican cetara and the Portuguese guitar. The guitarra Portuguese is used to play the popular traditional, 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.
Stringing: The cittern generally has four courses 9-strings or five courses 10-strings, one or more courses 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.
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.