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  • The jaw harp in Thuringia: a visit to the jaw harp maker Andreas Schlütter

    Many jaw harp players – among them Anton Bruhin, but also Clemens Vogt and Sven “Roxy” Otto from DAN MOI – have taken the steep wooden stairs to the music and work room of Andreas Schlütter. The walls are decorated with bagpipes, drums, and flutes. All instruments are still in use, reveals Andreas Schlütter (AS), as the band “Thüringische Spielleut” use the place as their rehearsal room. Helen Hahmann (HH) met the instrument builder and musician in Zella-Mehlis on a winter afternoon. She visited his workshop and asked him about the traces of mouth harp playing in Thuringia.

    AS: We have been dealing with Old Music for a long time. My father started that. We lived in the local museum of Zella-Mehlis, and found a lot of old things. Right at the beginning we found jaw harps, too, but didn’t know at the time that these were actually jaw harps.

    HH: So in the beginning you didn’t know what these little items were all about. How did you find out?

    AS: After the war, we were allowed to clear out the warehouse of a music wholesaler to see whether we could use anything for the local museum. We found some strange wire hooks and had no idea what that was all about. Peculiar stuff. In the middle there was a spring. I was very little back then. My father was one of the guys who built up the local museum. So we said, “let’s put the stuff into the display cabinet, but not label them. So we can’t do anything wrong.” One day a guy from Arnstadt came by, a music ethnographer, who said, “Hey, you also have jaw harps!” – “Yeah, of course we also got jaw harps”, my father said and so we finally knew what these were. Then we started to research where these things came from. Probably from around here at the area of Schmalkalden, but wherefrom exactly, no one really knows. But these were the first jaw harps, we’ve had.

    HH: Probably one couldn’t really play the old jaw harps that you had in that museum. In the GDR jaw harps have been completely forgotten and one couldn’t just buy some new instruments. Actually quite a difficult starting point. How did your father end up becoming a jaw harp smith nevertheless?

    AS: My father got himself a better picture. What exactly is a mouth harp? What can one do with it? Are there different types? In the catalogue there were large, medium, and small ones. So we found out that the jaw harp is a very old music instrument, which in earlier times was much more common. Only in the GDR you couldn’t buy some. Then, my father started to build some. Of course he imagined that in earlier times music happened in restaurants without using microphones. With multiple instruments being played and people having conversations the jaw harp would hardly have been heard at all. So we concluded it must have been a louder, more powerful instrument. Later, he got around the fact that well-known jaw harp players merely played better. It took several years until the first fairly good instruments were built.

    HH: Back then you didn’t have anyone who could show you how to build a jaw harp and you found it all by yourself in a trial-and-error mode.

    AS: Yeah, we actually had to start from scratch again. Going to the museum, researching, asking people. The folklorist Ernst Stahl was a tremendous help, back then. He was the one who pointed us to the fact that jaw harps were common in earlier times. Thereupon my father started his business with music instruments and started to build mouth harps. We have been building jaw harps in Zella-Mehlis since 1973.

    HH: In the GDR you were the only jaw harp makers.

    AS: Yes. In Berlin there was an office for pricing. They decided what price we could ask for and who we could sell to. We were permitted to sell to one music shop only, which was in Suhl, 20 minutes away from Zella-Mehlis. They realised that jaw harps were produced in West Germany, too. Those instruments were much better packaged and more colourful. So our jaw harps were not suitable for export and no foreign exchange could be gained. We also were not recognised as a handicraft business. That’s why we carried on with a low-key approach. Only the jaw harp players that came to us realised that the instruments worked quite well. After the wall broke down we got in a car and offered our jaw harps to several shops and we received only good feedback.

    Jaw Harps from Kleinschmalkalden, late 19th century.

    HH: Now we’re talking about the recent history of the mouth harp in Thuringia, right. In Michael Wright’s book it is being speculated that the jaw harps being exported to England in the 12th and 13th century might have come from this area, that is to say Thuringia.

    AS: On a global level we identified three large jaw harp production hubs: Molln in Austria, Northern Italy and the region of Schmalkalden in Thuringia. In the town of Kleinschmalkalden one could find jaw harp smiths and workshops. In the local museum Heimatstube there are still some remains of original mouth harps. Unfortunately, the buildings with all the workshops were torn down. The jaw harp smiths of Kleinschmalkalden were, in most cases, locksmiths who also made doors and fittings. A document from the 17th century certifies the death of a jaw harp smith from the town of Bad-Salzungen. That is the proof of the profession being an independent trade by that time already.

    HH: Why was there a concentration of such smiths particularly in that area of Thuringia?

    AS: The region was well-known for its metalworking sector. There was mining, too. The mined iron was well suited for forging, but not so much for casting. That is the very reason why one could find many small hardware makers who made knives, springs, and also jaw harps.

    HH: Are there any characteristic elements in the production of jaw harps that you can see for this region of Thuringia?

    AS: The bow-shape I am still making today has been characteristic for this region. Nevertheless, any smith uses a unique procedure to attach the spring. Even today it is exactly the same procedure for current jaw harp smiths. Overall, there aren’t that many people around making jaw harps. But anyone of them follows his own form and style. Back then it was the same.

    HH: Now, the jaw harp is a life-long companion for you. What is the magic of the jaw harp for you?

    AS: The most beautiful thing about the jaw harp is that it is only half an instrument. The spring swings and the mouth cavity is the resonance chamber. And, since every mouth cavity is differently built it follows that every jaw harp has a different sound. The same jaw harp sounds differently when played by various people. Therefore, jaw harp playing is a combination of the player and the instrument. Only if both go well along together and one has a good connection to the jaw harp it sounds well.

    Andreas Schlütter is specialised in combining multiple jaw harps, and therefore multiple sounds. Often three jaw harps, which are tuned in a triad, are screwed together with a metal bracket to form a set:

    HH: In recent years there has been a development of strong connecting in the international jaw harp scene. Now, we find regular festivals in Taucha, near Leipzig, but also in Norway, Estonia, USA, Russia, and India. What’s your take on the emerging interest of those instruments after you spent so much time making jaw harps in relative isolation in the GDR?

    AS: I and my father didn’t know for a long time that there are other jaw harp smiths out there in the world. Only after the connection movement of the jaw harp players and makers since the 2000’s we have come to understand the true extent of dissemination. By the way, this exchange was also encouraged by the commitment of Clemens Vogt and DAN MOI. This is why we have met many jaw harp smiths. We don’t feel there is a competition as every smith has his own style and material, and his way of making the instruments. That’s why there is such an enormous diversity.

    HH: Are you discussing the making process with other smiths in detail? What is important if one would like to make a really good jaw harp? What needs to be considered?

    AS: As a craftsman, I am primarily interested in seeing what other smiths do differently. The whole process is quite complex, perhaps the same as with bell-making. This is also a science in itself. The tone pitch of a jaw harp depends on the length of the spring. The longer, the deeper. It also depends on the width of the spring. The wider, the deeper. It depends on the thickness of the spring, the toughness of the spring, and the angle of the spring as it works like a weight. The mouth harp only sounds well, if all factors are well aligned. After all these years I still try out something new once in a while, for instance what happens if I make the spring thinner. How do the overtones change in such case.

    Andreas Schlütter and his father Friedrich Schlütter not only make jaw harps, but also bagpipes, shawms, and Tibas.

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