The German Violin Making Tradition

The German Violin Making Tradition

As with most industries, the history of German violin making can be traced to the history of Germany itself, with its twists and turns of economic and social trends, influence of outsiders, emergence of new technologies, and access to natural resources and trade routes.
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A Brief History

As with most industries, the history of German violin making can be traced to the history of Germany itself, with its twists and turns of economic and social trends, influence of outsiders, emergence of new technologies, and access to natural resources and trade routes. Longstanding German traditions of high quality, efficient production processes, and savvy evaluation of and response to market demands, combined to create a unique industry.

The regions around Germany's violin centers, Mittenwald and Markneukirchen, grew exponentially as a result of the violin trade. Demand in foreign markets for violins increased sharply, especially in the US, keeping the workshops busy. Industrial efficiency contributed to the growing output, with highly skilled workers specializing in the handcrafting of violin parts in a production setting. These "trade" instruments became ubiquitous worldwide, yet retained a high level of quality due to the strong German guilds and traditions.

Today's markets, in fact, continue to rely on the quality instruments produced in Germany long ago. As with so many German products of today, German violins are considered to be of very high quality, and available for a price that reflects efficient production techniques and a focus on quality control.

In the 1920s, the emergence of radio, especially in the US, displaced demand for inexpensive violins. This had a significant effect on German violin making. Starting in 1929, the Great Depression squelched what demand was left, leading to a profound change in the German violin making business. It was during this time that German violin making went back to its early roots and to the handcrafting of high quality individual violins. Markneukirchen was well positioned to make this shift, downsizing production, increasing quality, and increasing prices.

After 1945, east German makers that had settled in Luby, Czechoslovakia, were now forced out of the country. Most settled in Bubenreuth, Germany, which is today home to numerous violin makers.

Mittenwald and the Birth of German Violin Making

It is generally acknowledged that German violin making had its origins in Bavaria, in the far south of Germany near today's Austrian border. The Bavarian town of Mittenwald has been an important trade center for centuries because of its geography: it is situated in a low lying valley in the northern Alps, highly conductive to transportation. In what would prove to be key to Mittenwald's emergence as a center of violin making, Italian trade increased sharply through valley in the 17th century, enabling export of Mittenwald's fine carved statuary, and import of Italy's violins.

By the latter 17th century, violin making was firmly established in Mittenwald, and was further bolstered by the emerging guild system. The trees from the nearby mountains provided outstanding tonewood for this rapidly growing industry.

Jacob Stainer lived in nearby Absam, Germany (now Austria). Born in the early 17th century, Stainer gained fame in his day as the acknowledged greatest violin maker. Studying in Italy early in life, Stainer brought the Italian art of violin making back to Germany. Although he employed no apprentices, he produced well over 300 instruments.

Stainer was widely imitated, most notably by acclaimed Mittenwald maker Matthias Klotz, who produced countless Stainer copies, many of them so perfect that they have been mistaken for genuine Stainers for centuries. The Klotz family continued the tradition in Mittenwald into the 19th century.

Building on this solid foundation, Mittenwald emerged as a violin making center, second in Germany only to Markneukirchen (more on that below). During the latter half of the 19th century, violin making in Mittenwald became industrialized, as elsewhere, under such firms as J.A. Baader and Neuner & Hornsteiner. Led by King Maximillian II, the Mittenwald Violin Making School was opened in the interest of maintaining, and improving, the quality of violins made in the region. The school remains one of the leading violin making schools in the world.

As the economy grew in Mittenwald, local farmers began to be employed in the crafting of parts for violins, working at home after the growing season had ended. This provided a steady supply of violin parts for the workshops of the region, albeit of varied quality. During times of poor harvest, many of these farmers left for better opportunities, notably Klingenthal and Markneukirchen. This was the beginning of Markneukirchen's emergence as the main center of German violin making.

Markneukirchen: The Center of German Violin Making

In the Vogtland region of eastern Germany, on the Czech border, lies the town of Markneukirchen. Ideally situated in a region with an abundance of the timber required for instrument making, as well as the infrastructure for transportation and trade, Markneukirchen has enjoyed a prominent position as a center of fine craft and efficient production. With a legacy that goes back centuries, Markneukirchen today has a reputation for fine, handmade stringed instruments, and is often called "The Cremona of Germany".

With violin making roots in the Italian tradition going back to the 17th century, Markneukirchen has remade itself several times in its history. During the industrial revolution, efficient production processes were developed, enabling good instruments to be produced at low cost. In the new era of trade, Markneukirchen became a wealthy town, producing more instruments than any other place on earth. The famous German guild system was solidly in place, assuring a high level of training. Home workers stayed busy, making the various parts of instruments that were then delivered to the factories to be assembled. The serious emphasis put on quality led to the opening of a violin making school and a museum. Well coordinated alliances were formed among the government, businesses, and education, establishing a solid foundation for the future.

As mentioned in the introduction, German violin making returned to its handmade, individualized roots during the Great Depression, and Markneukirchen was no exception. With the organized and efficient techniques of business management and the high quality handmade products produced by skilled craftsmen, a new business around individually crafted masterpieces emerged, a practice which has remained in place to the present day.

Although there were some independent makers in the area during this time, a number of prominent firms created by dedicated and highly trained violin makers were formed. Most individual makers worked for these firms, since they were able to make fine instruments themselves from start to finish without having to deal with advertising, selling, purchasing materials, and the like.

Today, instruments from these makers enjoy a lively trade because they possess all the attributes sought after by musicians: aged and stable wood, very high quality hand craftsmanship, patterns based on the instruments of Stradivari and Guarneri, and impeccable varnish in the Italian tradition. The market prices are also a fraction of the prices of old Italian instruments. Legendary names drive today's market for these fine instruments: Ernst Heinrich Roth, Heinrich Theodor Heberlein, E. R. Schmidt, and J. G. Hamm, all visionary makers that have become legends in the violin world.

The German Workshops

The E.H. Roth Workshop
Founded in 1902 by Ernst Heinrich Roth, the E. H. Roth company has produced some of the finest German stringed instruments. It has also produced some of the best violin makers in Germany, who apprenticed with the firm and developed into master violin makers.

All Roth violins have the Roth label inside, with the names of the best makers appearing on the labels, and the model number of the instrument also appearing, indicating the level. Ernst Heinrich Roth himself is unquestionably considered the best maker at his family's company.

The Heberlein Workshop

The first Markneukirchen firm to artfully combine mastery of violin making with sound business practices, the great reputation of the Heberlein Workshop has lasted to the present day. Founded upon the principles of his family's violin making traditions, the company was started by Heinrich Theodore Heberlein Jr., who was born in Markneukirchen in 1843. His reputation quickly grew, with dozens of awards and medals to follow. Adherence to the highest possible quality standards in wood selection, craftsmanship, varnish and finishing, and especially superior tone, was noticed in international markets. In the United States, the Wurlitzer Company represented Heberlein Workshop instruments, proclaiming them as the "highest grades acknowledged to be the grandest tone instruments produced". Indeed, today's experts consider them among the preeminent German instruments.

The ERS Workshop: E.R. Schmidt

E. R. Schmidt (ERS) was established in Markneurkirchen in 1880, adding to Markneukirchen's reputation as a center of quality violin making. Ernst Reinhold Schmidt, born in Markneukirchen in 1857, trained as an apprentice violin maker with J. Kretschman, later working for firms in Leipzig and Berlin, then returning to Markneukirchen to open his firm. His solid earlier training contributed to the great success of ERS, which lead to strong growth, attracting talented budding makers. Focusing on quality, as well as developing several grades of instruments, from apprentice student to "artist" models, and "solo" models made exclusively by Ernst Reinholdt Schmidt himself, the firm earned a strong reputation for quality and workmanship. Instruments are often branded on their back buttons, as well as with the "E.R.S." brand on the label.

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