Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Violin Making in Germany

Written by: Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins,
and Kevin Berdine

Lion's Head Scroll Carving by Jacobus Stainer

German violin making all began in Fussen, Germany. The German school of violin making, however, managed to infiltrate all areas of Europe: George Epp, the Hollmayrs, and the Fichtls took on Vienna, Andreas Ott and Bathasar Kogl were the founders of the the Prague cohort, Caspar Tieffenbrucker introduced violin making to Lyon, and Naples was home to Georgio Bairhoff and Eberle, while Michael Platner and David Tecchler lived and worked in Rome. The most famous of all German makers, to this day, remains Jacobus Stainer. His instruments became the model of excellence before Stradivari's instruments became the ultimate.

1668 Jacob Stainer Viola

To this day, Stainer remains one of the only non-Italian makers to be placed at such a high regard as Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri. Although his instruments have a beautiful sound, they lack power. At the time that Stainer was crafting his instruments the concert venues were smaller intimate spaces that did not require great carrying power. He spent his time perfecting the beauty and color of the sound. Many violinists claim his instruments modulate sound between the strings much like an orchestra: the g-string sound reminiscent of a french horn, the d-string matches the tone of an oboe, while the a-string and e-string have the warm timbre of a flute. His instruments manage to have beautiful tonal colors, but lack power due to his high arching and  wide f-holes. The arching of his instruments is such that the back puffs out as much as the bridge on the top, while the top is arched high enough that one can see through the f-holes when held horizontally.

1696 Jacob Stainer Viola

Jacobus Stainer was born in Absam, Germany in 1617 to a salt miner and worked there for most of his life. Records show that he spent some time in other cities throughout Europe and may have even studied violin making with Amati. Stainer's life, however, was not as ideal as his instruments' beautiful tone. Unfortunately, Stainer, while working for the Holy Roman Emperor, was found to possess Lutheran Materials. This heretical behavior caused him much strife and required him to repent for 10 years. Just before his death, in fact, he ended up in a mental facility for manic depressive episodes which are thought to be directly impacted by the accusations thrust upon him. Although the Catholic church was not happy with his behavior, they continued to support and purchase his instruments for their church orchestras. They knew he was creating the best instruments available.

Biber-Rosenkranzsonaten performed on a Stainer Violin

1714 Matthias Klotz Violin
1714 Matthias Kloz Violin

In the 17th century, Italian trade routes changed, for political reasons, thus taking the route directly through Mittenwald. This allowed a small town, known for the fine carvings of Saint figurines, to take their knowledge of woodworking and apply it directly to violin making. This was a serendipitous match that allowed fine trade to enter the town and fine instruments, created by former Saint-figurine carvers, to leave via the trade routes. In 1684 enough people were self-employed in violin making that a guild was created.

Another impact of the fine instruments of the German schools were Royal Court orchestras. Each court had in its employ a large orchestra that performed for church services and festivities. Such orchestras needed fine instruments, thus makers were well-suited to provide their services to the court. Many court musicians were actually dually-employed as musician and luthier.
Habsburgs Home

Frederic the Great and His Court Orchestra in Prussia
Another interesting bit about German instrument making was due to farming. It turns out that many Bohemian farmers near the German border would make instrument parts during their off-season. One farmer would make bellies, another backs, another necks and so on. They would then cross the border and sell their wares in Graslitz and Schonbach. This helped make ends meet for the farmers and provided a cheaper alternative to the expensive instruments being made single-handedly in shops. Although the quality lacked any regularity, some of these instruments can be quite exquisite in sound.

Due to poor growing conditions, many of these farmer/makers left their homeland and settled in the more prosperous towns of Germany, Klingenthal and Markneukirchen. These towns thus became a hub of instrument making. Once again, the number of makers in the town became large enough to create a makers guild. They believed in their guild to such a high level that they ensured quality members by creating a test. According to Karel Jalovec, in his book German and Austrian Violin Makers, "Each maker, to be entered into the guild had to have been apprenticed to a master violin maker, worked as a journeyman for 2 years, and made an accepted master instrument, with the following range of choice:
1. Create a Diskatgeige {instrument} of beautiful wood with well-set neck, with fingerboard ornamented by tarsia and threefold purfling on the back and table.
2. create a lute, or later a guitar, with beautiful wood and correctly placed frets; or
3. create a viola da gamba or viola da braccio with six strings and without any blemish"

Johann Carl Klotz Violin, c 1736

The Klotz (Kloz) family of makers has made instruments in Mitttenwald, Germany since the mid 1600s. Their instruments have been regarded as such lovely instruments that Edward John Payne claims "Nine-tenths of the violins which pass in the world as 'Stainers' were made by the Klotz family and their followers." This is a huge compliment as Stainers have been considered amongst the finest violins in league with the great Cremonese. So many instruments of this family have been made over the years as there are at least 25 members of this family who are listed in Henley's Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers.

Another violin-making dynasty in Germany, this time in Klingenthal, is the Hopf family. Instruments created by this prominent family range from the sublime to the mediocre. Due to some exquisite specimens, many violins that carry the Hopf name are impostors. That being said, there are at least 42 confirmed members of the Hopf family who have created violins. In 1712, Johann Michael Hopf died at an early age. His widow, Anna Rosina Hopf took over the business, was granted 2 journeymen, and joined the guild. This sort of equal opportunity was something that was very rare in Germany at the time, but the Guild realized the importance of the Hopf name.

Hopf Violin

image from the National Museum of American History

Another serendipitous moment, this time unfortunate, for German violin making occurred immediately after World War II when east German makers were forced out of communist Luby/Schonbach. In 1948, the communists nationalized instrument making under a newly formed national company named "Cremona." The forced out makers fled to Bubenreuth which has since been called the second Schonbach. Both Luby and Bubenreuth have even erected the same statue of a Luthier in both of their town squares.

The German school of violin making was created out of necessity, circumstance, and serendipity. Mitttenwald and Markneukirchen have given us great makers and wonderful instruments. Those great instruments have carried many budding soloists and virtuosos far along in their carers.

Are you a violinist or interested in becoming one? Take a look at our Fine Violins!

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