top of page

Digging the Fifties | Part 7

The NMM is excited to bring to you this series of musical delights. Written by curator Ana Sofia Silva, "Digging the Fifties" takes readers through some unseen highlights of our collections, with intriguing stories, commentary, photos and more, celebrating our 50th Anniversary with 50 objects extraordinaire. Read more below to see how we're "Digging the Fifties!"

To view other Notes from this series, and download the full article, check out 


Digging the Fifties

A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections

By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator

The collections of the NMM would not be possible without the efforts of many passionate individuals and collectors of musical instruments. The NMM is home to the Paul and Jean Christian Collection, which is centered on zither-type instruments, like an autoharp (NMM 11950) and a psalmodikon (NMM 12650); the Witten-Rawlins Collection of early Italian stringed instruments, which includes a small French pochette fiddle (NMM 03350); and the Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection of brass instruments, represented in this special article through a soprano saxhorn (NMM 06850) and a valved hunting horn (NMM 07050).

Paul Jackson Christian (1920–2010) and Jean Loree (Dryden) Christian (1926–2011) began collecting musical instruments in the 1960s when they moved to the Twin Cities, and both taught at Bethel College (now Bethel University). Although they collected many non-Western instruments, they began with zithers, and therein lies the strength of the collection. Jean, who was an organist and music instructor, became interested in zither-like instruments because they were so varied to the point that she never saw two alike. It was not long before Paul, a professor of biology, used his taxonomy skills to organize and document the instruments in detail. Over the years, they expanded their collection interests, but the heart of the Christian Collection remained centered around their systematic assemblage of zithers, and zither-related materials and archives representing musical traditions and cultures from around the world.

A black autoharp on a white background.
Autoharp, Oscar Schmidt-International, Inc., Jersey City, NJ, ca. 1946. NMM 11950. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

Zither NMM 11950 belongs to the group of fretless zithers also known as autoharps, which are basically box zithers with open (non-fretted) strings that have a mechanism of damper bars, or chord bars, controlled by buttons. As the player strums the strings, he presses the buttons to mute all the strings that are not part of the chord he wishes to play. As one of the earliest types of American-made zithers, the “Autoharp” was patented in the U.S. in 1882 by the German immigrant Charles Friedrich Zimmermann (1817–1898), who built upon the design of a different chord zither (Volkszither) patented by Karl August Gütter (1823–1900) of Markneukirchen, Germany. Autoharps, like so many other variants of fretless zithers, became very popular instruments in the late 19th century, which led to a mass production of inexpensive instruments intended for amateurs and non-musicians. They soon became a mainstay of American mail-order catalogs and were marketed door-to-door by traveling salesmen. One of the best-known mass-producers of autoharps were the Oscar Schmidt “companies” that hailed from New Jersey. From a series of affiliations, merges, and partnerships, the company Oscar Schmidt-International Corporation (later Oscar Schmidt-International, Inc.) took over the zither-making business in the 1930s. Production rates were affected during the Depression and worsened during World War II, but afterward, the autoharp slowly came back with the expansion of the educational and school markets. During the sixties, it was again popularized with the “folk revival” and renewed interest in traditional American music. To this day, autoharps based on Zimmermann's design and bearing the Oscar Schmidt name are still produced. This NMM autoharp example is a 12-chord, No. 73 model from the post-war period. It has 37 strings, 12 chord bars with wooden buttons, and a plain soundboard with only the music scale decal of golden color. Both the music scale and the celluloid oval labels at the bars have chord letters and Zimmermann's musical notation figures. It also bears a four-digit batch number, #4648, in which the first two digits indicate the year of manufacture; a feature that the company only began to use by 1945.

A wooden, single string zither on a white background.
Psalmodikon, North America, ca. 1875–1900. NMM 12650. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

The next example, NMM 12650, is also a box zither, but of much simpler form and design. It consists of a narrow wooden box with an integral fretboard, having metal wire frets, and has only one gut string that is stretched with a tuning peg. So, in this case, we have a monochord (one-string) fretted zither that is usually known as a psalmodikon when it is associated with Scandinavian culture. With a concentrated presence in Norway and Sweden, the psalmodikon arose from the need to improve the quality of music within the church at the same time when musical instruments (at least the ones that were used in sinful dances) were not allowed in churches in the early 19th century. But choral singing was an important part of the Lutheran worship and for many of the rural congregations that could not afford organs, the psalmodikon presented itself as an ideal alternative and was well endorsed. Because of its simpleness and ease of playing, facilitated by numbered fretboards, the instrument not only improved the singing in church, but was also used to teach music in schools, and brought music into many homes. As such, many of the early Scandinavian immigrants took the psalmodikon and the sifferskrift (numerical musical notation) music along with them to America. The NMM rudimentary example has little provenance information, but considering the rich Scandinavian tradition in the Midwest, and the wood grain analysis done by former NMM Conservator, John Koster, identifying Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus; a pine native to eastern North America), one can say that it was most probably made in North America, perhaps in one of those early rural settlements. The Christians acquired it at an antiques store in St. Paul in 1972.

Margaret Martin, Alan Bates, and the Christians are examples of passionate individuals who collected extensively with the aim of building comprehensive collections of a certain instrument type so that these could be used for research and study. And that was a shared intent with both Arne B. and his son André, albeit with different nuances. While Arne B. collected as much as he could get his hands on, because he wanted to “collect their sounds” and learn as much as he could from the instruments themselves to share that knowledge as a teacher, André was more careful in his choices toward building a museum collection that would secure the NMM's role and identity as a major cultural institution. The diverse collections and collectors represented at the NMM reflect those differences in time as well and are an intrinsic part of the museum's history.

An antique pochette on a white background.
Pochette, France, ca. 1650–1700. NMM 03350. Photo by Bill Willroth Sr.

Perhaps the most significant mark in that history was the acquisition of the Witten collection in 1984, which placed the NMM on the international stage of musical instrument museum collections. Astute collector Laurence Claiborne Witten II (1926–1995) assembled a collection of the earliest, best preserved, and historically most important stringed instruments known to survive, as well as important archival materials to support and document the early history of violin making. Ambitiously driven by André, the purchase of this collection was made possible by USD alumni and NMM patrons Marjorie (Marge) Townsley Rawlins (1920–2009) and Robert (Bob) Ernest Rawlins (1911–1993), and so it became known as the Witten-Rawlins Collection. While some of the most important instruments from that collection are featured in the special exhibit “As Good as Gold,” NMM 03350 (one number short of the Amati “King” cello!) is the only object in this collection that falls under the selection requisite for this article. It is a small fiddle usually known as pochette, a name that derives from the French word poche for “pocket,” because the small instrument, designed for easy portability, could fit into a pocket. This example has a typical narrow, boat-shaped body, which flourished most during the 17th century. The maker is unknown, but due to its similarity in materials and workmanship to other French pochettes of the period, which include gold-painted decoration, it was probably made in France.

Another significant contribution that amplified the NMM’s international reputation was the acquisition of the Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection of Brass Instruments in 1999. Similarly to what Witten wanted to do with early stringed instruments, Joe Roy Utley (1935–2001) and Joella Faye (Jordan) Utley (1935–2019) assembled an inclusive collection of more than 600 brass instruments to tell the history of high-brass instrument-making during the past 400 years. That history is being documented and written by Dr. Sabine Klaus—who curated the Utley collection for more than 20 years—in the form of a five-volume book series called Trumpets and Other High Brass inspired by the instruments in the collection. For this article, the author chose three examples that not only illustrate the depth of the collection but also some of the reasoning behind the collection of certain instruments.

A brass saxhorn on a white background.
Soprano saxhorn, United States or Germany, ca. 1865–1880. NMM 06850. Photo by Mark Olencki.

NMM 06850 is a soprano saxhorn in E-flat made with an upright bell and three top-action, string-operated rotary valves. As hinted in the name, saxhorns were developed by Antoine-Joseph Sax (1814–1894), better known as Adolphe Sax, the Belgian-born inventor of the saxophone. But the designation of “saxhorn” became a generic name for the family of brass instruments sharing similar features, not just for instruments made by Sax. Although this saxhorn is unsigned, and one cannot presently determine the workshop where it originated, construction clues hint at some possibilities. Perhaps the most evident are the valves. String-operated rotary valves were an American development of the 19th century, and their increasing popularity led American manufacturers to employ them in saxhorn-type instruments with upright bells. Using the top-action variety, ensured that the players could keep the same playing position as other instruments with piston valves. However, the stylistic features of the braces (as well as comparison with other instruments) suggest German influence of the Saxon tradition in the construction, which may indicate the possibility of a Saxon import for the American market. According to Klaus, the bell-up E-flat soprano saxhorn is relatively rare compared with bell-up saxhorns in lower keys, and that speaks to the importance of collecting early unsigned instruments (Klaus, 2017).

The next example is placed on the opposite side of collecting modern instruments, which emphasizes the importance of buying new instruments to illustrate differences in manufacturing processes and document modern history. NMM 07050 is a modern hunting horn with valves that Dr. Utley bought new. This small horn is built in the tradition of the Fürst-Pless Horn, which was developed in the 1870s with the standardization of Prussian military hunting horns, supervised by Hans-Heinrich XI, Fürst (Count) von Pless (1833–1907). The double-coiled horn is typically wrapped in green leather and was traditionally a natural instrument with no valves. They were equipped with valves only at the end of the 19th century. After von Pless's death, the bell of these instruments featured an oval “Fürst-Pless” stamp or plaque. In Germany, these horns continue to be used in hunts, so manufacturers keep making both natural and valved models. The main difference between a Fürst-Pless hunting horn and the coiled post horn is in the bore profile: while the first has a predominant conical bore, like the flugelhorn, the second has a predominant cylindrical tubing, more trumpet-like.

A leather-wrapped hunting horn on a white background.
Valved hunting horn, Boehm and Meinl, Germany, 1990. NMM 07050. Photo by Mark Olencki.

Stay tuned for more posts in this special curatorial series - Digging the Fifties!



For all news, media, and press-related needs, reach out to our communications team today!

Press Inquiry? Want to know more?


Our brand new first-floor galleries are officially OPEN! The wait is finally over - come see the NEW NMM. Information on the galleries, hours, and more can be found on the VISIT & LEARN and EXHIBITIONS & EVENTS pages!

Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10am to 4pm, stop in to see our seven new galleries, concerts, events, and more! 

The Jason & Betsy Groves Special Exhibitions Gallery is OPEN! Come explore our current special exhibition HIGH STRUNG: FIVE CENTURIES OF STRINGED KEYBOARD INSTRUMENTS.


the NMM will be CLOSED until TUESDAY, 1/16

bottom of page