300 years of German violin makers

by John Dilworth

The alpine mountains are a harsh and implacable decider of a violin maker’s fate. Historically speaking, any luthier born south of the Alps is deemed far more worthy of interest than any poor soul working to the north. Groucho Marx famously said ‘the lord Alps those as Alps themselves’, and the best thing northern violin makers could do to help themselves was to head south.

Many did, and the southbound paths began for most of them in Füssen, in Allgäu, Bavaria. It remains a beautiful mountain town guarding one of the important routes across the Alps, the Lech Gorge. Richard Bletschacher’s study of the town’s instrument making legacy is hard work for non-native German speakers, but it makes clear the authentic German ancestry of so many of the revered Italian schools, particularly in Rome, but also in Venice, Naples, Turin, Genoa - in fact almost everywhere but in Cremona.

In the natural way of most medieval towns, geography and local resources determined the industry. Each town had its product; wool, linen, cheese, clogs. In Füssen, it was lutes. Spruce tonewood came from the mountains, hardwood for necks and backs from the impenetrable deciduous forests to the north that had defeated Caesar’s legions. And as time went on, the skills of lute making were translated into viol and violin making.

The most important figure in any account of Northern European lutherie making is Jacob Stainer. One can argue that he was an exception to the simplistic ‘north alps bad, south alps good’ rule, and in his time, he was. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, his work was consistently valued no less, and often higher, than that of the Amati. Quite how he learned his trade is still a mystery, and there is always the question of the single label of his, attached to the top block of a violin, which puts him in Cremona c.1645. And so he may, briefly, well have been. But there is precious little evidence to flesh out the many romanticised accounts of him travelling widely north and south of the alps.

What is known of Stainer plants him firmly in Absam, near Innsbruck, for his entire working life. Undoubtedly, he was one of the finest craftsman ever to lay a thumbplane onto a bookmatched billet of spruce, and he single-handedly defined the character and style of German violin making for the next two hundred years. But that in itself was the problem. Stainer established a demand throughout Europe for his particular form of full arched violin, which became the very definition of the ‘Baroque’ instrument. There were hordes of skillful (and not so skillful), and traditionally trained workmen in alpine villages ready and able to churn out cheap and profitable imitations. And German (if it is allowed to use the description, well before there was such a thing as a German State) violin makers thereby lost initiative and openness to innovation.

Mittenwald is not far from Füssen, only 45 kilometres, and it was there that the first real successor to Stainer was established. Matthias Klotz was probably first trained in Füssen, but also worked with another Füssener, Peter (Pietro) Railich in Padua, on the southern side of the slopes. He brought his skills back to Mittenwald and started making instruments in the recognisably Tyrolean style of Stainer in around 1685, only a few years after the death of Stainer himself. Mittenwald has remained at the very core of German, and latterly world-wide violin making ever since, through the State School of violin making, founded there in 1858. It was Matthias Klotz who, to our knowledge, first began making violins there. His work is very fine, although it neither follows the technical, constructional pattern or remarkable standard of Stainer’s work. Nevertheless, it is artistic work, made to an excellent standard.

Klotz’s descendants continued this tradition, to a greater or lesser extent. From the 1730s, the Klotz family was reinforced by the Jais and Hornsteiner families, who formed an enthusiastic and prolific clan of luthiers. It is around this time that the obvious shift from quality to quantity took place. The violin as an instrument was firmly in the hands of the public, who wanted affordable, usable instruments that closely resembled the Stainers of the elite aristocrats and professionals. Instruments such as harps, guitars, and pianos went in and out of fashion over the next few centuries, but the trick of making decent, consistent bowed instruments seems to have stayed in the Tyrol.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the system of anonymous specialised individuals producing particular parts of the instrument, assembled and varnished by yet other hands, had become established. In the nineteenth century, the Hornsteiners were joined by the Neuner family, and with the firm of J. A .Baader the business of making stringed instruments achieved an almost industrial scale. It was now harder and harder for individual artist-makers to produce stylish work of integrity and distinction, as it was anywhere in Europe. By the end of the great classical Cremonese era, the great innovations of Stradivari and del Gesu were swamped in the avalanche of straightforward Stainer copies emanating from Mittenwald and elsewhere. What remains impressive about the Mittenwald school, however, is its general high standard of finish and varnish. Shortcuts in varnish are almost inevitably disastrous, and while Mittenwald did largely depend on fairly hard, chippy spirituous varnishes, they are generally well-coloured and transparent. Even the notorious craquelure of some of the softer, oily recipes used are not much worse nor more compromised than the lauded Montagnanas and Venice, from south of the Alpine divide.

Further north, in Klingenthal, Vogtland, a similar story unfolded. Here, the Hopf family established something like a franchise in the violin trade. Caspar Hopf was a founder of the Klingenthal luthier’s guild in 1669. He was born in Graslitz, now Kraslice in the Czech Republic, in a region of historically blurred nationality and allegiance. The work produced by the family is superficially in the Stainer style, but the pattern is a little degenerate, with noticeably squared-off upper and lower bouts. As in Mittenwald, other families joined the numerous Hopfs; the Dörfel, Hoyer and Glass families being particularly significant. But by the mid nineteenth century, the boom had bust, and in 1887, the Klingenthal guild ceased to exist, having overseen the production of tens of thousands of instruments in the previous two centuries, many with the heavy brand of ‘Hopf ’ on the back.

At the risk of being repetitious, the Markneukirchen story is much the same. Only a very short distance south west of Klingenthal, it established its luthiers’ guild in 1677, and Caspar Hopf of Klingenthal was one of its founders. The guild here very quickly became ‘industrialised’, with individual scroll cutters, back carvers, rib makers, even peg makers. By the early eighteenth century the Markneukirchen guild, hitherto open only to craftsmen, had embraced J. E. Pfretzschner, a businessman and merchant who founded one of the most durable German marques. Importantly, he established a line of German bow makers: H. R. Pfretzshner was a pupil of Vuillaume, and brought with him to Markneukirchen techniques and models of the best French work. A great contribution to the town’s reputation was made by the Roth family, and the general realisation that had escaped other German makers, that the late, fatter-arched Cremonese model was superior to the traditional Tyrolean Stainer, Klotz and Hopf patterns. The Heinrich Theodore Heberlein, born in 1843, was a very distinguished craftsman, and his family workshop sent instruments to the Wurlitzer company in Cincinatti for sale. The Wurlitzers themselves were a Vogtland family of violinmakers, and under Rembert Wurlitzer became the leading violin dealers in New York in the twentieth century.

The Guild in nearby Schönbach, now Luby in the Czech Republic, is as old as those of Markneukirchen and Mittenwald, and the earliest known makers there are the Pöpel and Placht families. These makers did have a quite different and individualistic approach to the violin, quite separate to the Tyrolean schools. It is historically intriguing that the methods of construction found in these seventeenth century Saxon instruments, made without linings or corner blocks, the rib ends pinched together, the bass bar carved out of the wood of the front, and the neck inserted through the upper ribs without a top block, are the most widespread in northern Europe. Makers in the Netherlands and England followed the same course. As to the origins of the method, they are certainly not Cremonese, but in Pöpel’s extraordinary work there are strong reflections of the early Brescian School.

The town of Schönbach is most frequently attached to the poorest of eighteenth and nineteenth century factory produced instruments. It seems to epitomize the cottage industry approach to craft, with anonymous tradesmen in numbered allotments producing instruments by the hour, under an overseer, placing fantastical Stradivari or Amati labels in the most meagre work imaginable. This is a cruel but not completely inaccurate picture. The nadir was certainly reached in the nineteenth century, but practices had improved by the time of the disaster of the Second World War. In the redrawing of boundaries after the war, the German makers in the newly defined Luby were driven out, and the enterprising Friedrich Wilfer founded a business in Bubenreuth, which remains a separately established centre of the violin trade in Germany. Luby then became a focus for new makers trying to rebuild a Czech tradition of violin making, embracing the Stradivari forms that are virtually standardised as ‘the modern violin’.

Beyond the southern regions, Ferdinand and Leopold Wolff established a factory in Kreuznach in the Rhineland in 1864, and the well-modelled Stradivari copies made there were quickly exported all over the world.

Moving to the borders of Switzerland and the lesser-known Alemannischer school, there are more examples of this apparently crude, early Brescian style work, executed in the late seventeenth century by the Straub, Krouchdaler and Meyer families. The earliest of known Brescian makers is Zanetto di Michelis. His hallmarks - long centrally jointed rib corners, very long soundholes with pointed wings and broad, curving nicks, are common to all these makers, and reinforces the idea that Brescian instruments were the first to find their way across the alps. The Alemannischer school never developed into the commercial mass production of the other south German centres, but does perhaps show a purer, more ancient and certainly pre-Stainer origin for the ideas and methods of the Saxon school.

The dominance of mass production in the regions of southern Germany has eclipsed the individual makers of the nineteenth century, as they did many violin makers elsewhere who struggled to produce work that could compete in price with the Saxon imports. Eventually, the work of Pressenda, Rocca, Panormo and Vuillaume in Italy, England and France swung the balance back in favour of the individual craftsman, able to adapt to changing styles, understanding and absorbing the superior work of Stradivari into their own art and responding to individual musicians.

Perhaps it was partly the fault of the rigidly applied guild system, which seems to have defined the nature of craftsmanship in these areas. Guilds certainly existed in other parts of Europe, but almost always more flexibly applied. In England their influence was minimal, and elsewhere their function was merely to keep outsiders from ousting local workers. But the Tyrolean and Saxon guilds encouraged long dynasties of families passing the profession on, with tests of ability required before acceptance into the guild and permission to work. It also required the newly graduated apprentice to take on journeyman status, working outside his home town for another master before establishing his own business. In this way, working methods and practices were stabilised and spread.

However, the quality of instruments produced by the guilds makes it hard to ignore the notion that many makers who went through this process were not vocationally motivated. Elsewhere, it is rare to find the profession of violin making passed down through more than three or four generations before someone begins to wonder if there might be a better way of making a living than following in ‘the old man’s footsteps’. In Vogtland, in the later seventeenth century, the career choice seems to have been very limited – either working the near-exhausted mines or entering the luthier’s guild. Today, we take it as read that a violin maker is an enthusiast for their own craft, driven by a personal desire to do their work well.

Individual makers in Vienna, Mainz, Stuttgart and Berlin defined particular schools of work in the great cities of Germany and Austria, and also in Prague and Budapest. The imperative to move outward continued. The Fendt family from Fussen established themselves in Paris in the 1760s and later in London, where Bernard Simon Fendt encountered John Lott of Gottingen, the father of one of the most famous English makers, John Lott II. George and August Gemunder of Ingelfingen introduced fine violin making to America in 1846, coming to Boston and then New York. Rudolph Wurlitzer arrived in Cincinatti in 1856 from Markneukirchen, while Emil Herrmann moved from Berlin to New York in 1924, where he became a leading dealer.

Today, the Mittenwald violin making school continues this tradition of sending highly trained craftspeople all over the world, and the health and influence of German violin making is as strong as it ever was. Both the fine mountain spruce and the people with the skills to fashion it into musical instruments still flow in all directions from the Alps, if at least, geographically speaking, mostly downhill.

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