For 200 years, German luthiers supplied musicians with serviceable and affordable stringed instruments. Yet their story remains largely unknown.
Originally published in Strings Magazine, October 2005
Almost every day someone walks into our shop (and probably most other large violin shops in the United States) and presents an old, tattered violin case with loose bow hair sticking out. I know instinctively what lies inside. After 25 years, I’ve seen thousands of old “German” violins that have usually been in the same family for generations. Each one has its own story, excitedly told by the owner. Inside, the instruments often have some sort of facsimile label of one of the great Italian masters; Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, or perhaps the Tyrolean Jacob Stainer.
These violins always have a great deal in common and are among the millions of generally inexpensive student violins made for the vast, mostly American market at a time before radio and television, motion pictures, or even recordings, when people had to entertain themselves. If you’re a string player who started your studies more than about twenty or thirty years ago, the chances are good that you began your musical career on one of these instruments. I know I did. In fact, several generations of musicians learned to play violin (and continue to play) on these instruments.
Photo: Inside the Musikinstrumenten-Museum in Markneukirchen
Look at a Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog from 100 years ago and you’ll find page after page of violins, priced from about $2 to around $80. In those days, the violin was the most popular form of musical entertainment, next to the piano. To meet the demand, a thriving industry developed in a remote area of eastern Germany on the Czech border, a region then known as Western Bohemia. The center of this industry was the town of Markneukirchen in the state of Saxony. It was by no means a new industry. The area had been the center of German violin making since the early 1600s and many of these violins were made, finished, and shipped to distant ports.
There were also many makers in Klingenthal (about 20 kilometers north) and some other surrounding towns and villages. These makers were the mostly anonymous skilled laborers quickly turning out a simple, inexpensive product. The elite of the German and Bohemian violin makers, who may have been born and trained in Saxony, usually worked in such large cities as Berlin, Dresden, Munich, and Prague making fine and more-expensive instruments, serving wealthy, important clients.
Markneukirchen was the financial center of the German music industry and before 1914, it had more millionaires per capita than any other city in Germany.
Photo: Bohemian Rhapsody - The pastoral German town of Markneukirchen
Yet this small but vibrant town had a population of only 7,847 in 1900. There was so much trade with the United States that the town was home to an American Consulate with a trade attaché You need only walk around Markneukirchen today—observing the many fine homes, mostly of late 19th-century architectural styles—to realize the great wealth that must have existed in this area 100 years ago.
Each year from the latter 19th century until 1914, about 200,000 stringed instruments (and far more bows) were shipped from there, although no one knows the exact number. That’s about seven million violins, violas, cellos, and basses from 1880 to 1914. The American music industry was dependent on these German exports, since America never developed any kind of commercial violin-making industry for student-quality instruments. On the other hand, the Germans already had a great violin-making tradition dating back to the mid 1600s
When we look at these inexpensive instruments today, it’s easy to assume that they are German from Markneukirchen, c. 1900 (or 1880 or 1910). But it’s a bit more complicated than that. The entire area, today called the Musikwinkel (Music District), is the Voigtland area of Saxony. Although it centers around Markneukirchen, it also includes Klingenthal, other surrounding villages, and, over the border into Western Bohemia, the towns of Schönbach and Graslitz.
This is where their story gets intriguing.
Many years ago a German violin maker visiting our shop told me that in the late 19th century, Bohemian makers from near the German border would carry violins they had made in sacks strapped to their backs from the town of Schönbach (renamed Luby after World War II) and the surrounding area in Bohemia (about 15 kilometers from Markneukirchen) over a well-worn path, a kind of “trade route”, into Germany to sell their wares. In talking to other makers from Germany, I learned that this is part of the well-known oral tradition in violin making of the region.
Photo: Trade Route - Path from Luby to Markneukirchen
The cost of living in Bohemia was much lower than in Germany, so violins could be produced more cheaply. Logic tells us that if a violin sold at retail for $2, the cost of production would need to be a fraction of that. It had to pass from maker to exporter to importer to retailer before it reached the purchaser. This made me wonder, were many violins labeled “Germany” or “Made in Germany” (after 1891, all goods imported to the United States had to be labeled with the country of origin), actually made in Bohemia? I was so intrugued with this story that I decided to travel there to see the area and actually walk the route.
It took several years before I could satisfy my curiosity and travel to the area. My wife and I had planned a trip to Prague and Germany but such events as the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Prague floods got in the way. In May 2004 we finally had the chance. We made the two-hour drive from our base in Prague and as we approached the Czech-German border, the landscape changed. Fields of rolling hills and pastures changed to dense forests of tall spruce trees.
It was easy to see why the violin-making industry grew here with this wonderful source of raw materials. In fact, one of our long-time suppliers, the firm of Alois Sandner, now in Bubenreuth, started business three generations ago in Schönbach (Luby) as woodcutters and suppliers to the violin trade. My first stop was the Musikinstrumenten-Museum in Markneukirchen. I spent the afternoon there, talking with museum director Heidrun Eichler, who provided fascinating details about the history of the area.
I also viewed the many violins on display, mostly of 18th- and early-19th-century vintage, by individual master makers like members of the Hoyer, Ficker, Meinel, Pfretzschner, and Hopf families and many others.
My main interest was in the later instruments, however.
There is a misconception that the instruments from this era were made in big workshops, employing hundreds of people. While this was true of the French workshops in Mirecourt, among companies like Laberte and Thibouville-Lamy, this was not the case in Saxony. Most of the work was done in home workshops by "out workers" who delivered their instruments to the workshops where they were finished and shipped. Before he retired, Carl Götz of the C.A. Götz Co. told me that almost all of the actual making was done by these out workers. The best master makers were mostly involved in varnishing. This cottage industry is a very old German tradition and is still evident in places like Bubenreuth in Bavaria, where many German and especially Bohemian makers of German descent went in the 1950s.
The second day of our trip was a German national holiday and all businesses were closed. It was the perfect chance to walk the path that so many makers walked 100 or more years ago. My wife and I drove to Wernitzgrün, which is about eight kilometers east of Markneukirchen and only a half kilometer from the Czech border. This is some of the most beautiful landscape you will ever see: rolling hills and meadows lined with dandelions and tall pine trees. When we were there, the rape seed plants were in bloom, the hills covered in gold.
We walked the short distance from the parking lot to a gate at the unguarded Czech border. The path is now a paved road, which can be driven by Czech drivers, but it can’t be entered from Germany. Klaus Götz tells me he often walks from his office in Wernitzgrün to the border where his Czech suppliers meet him and drive the route to Luby. We made the six-kilometer walk to Luby with a number of Germans out for a holiday hike.
Photo: Sight Seeing - This statue commands the city center at Luby, Czech Republic.
Luby itself appears a bit worn from years of neglect under the Communist regime, certainly far less prosperous looking than Markneukirchen. In the center of Luby is a statue of a violin maker. After a stroll around the town and a quick lunch at a charming little Czech restaurant we walked back to Germany. The trip back was mostly uphill. I thought of those makers a century ago with their batches of violins on their backs, trudging up this steep terrain. In the winter, the area gets a great deal of snow, so the makers would don large snowshoes just to make the trip possible. We made the walk in ideal weather, but I can imagine what it was like during a winter snowstorm or in the rain.
Two days later I had an appointment in Bubenreuth, a two-hour drive south of Markneukirchen, with Bernd Dimbath, violin maker and owner of the Heinrich Gill Co. He spoke of those Bohemian makers and how they would make the trip, going from door to door in Markneukirchen, peddling their wares for pennies to the wealthy owners of the large musical-instrument firms. Such were the injustices of the time.
After World War I, the world and Germany were much different. The German economy was in ruins with runaway inflation and massive unemployment. In the United States, radios, recordings, and later, sound-motion pictures provided mass entertainment. People no longer needed to provide their own music. Business fell off and the violin makers left the area to find other employment.
Photo: A Slice of History - The Musikinstrumenten-Museum
Some found work building roads and manufacturing armaments. It's interesting though that in the 1920s, such Markneukirchen firms such as Ernst Heinrich Roth, E. Reinhold Schmidt, and Heinrich Heberlein produced superb, beautifully made instruments that today are in demand and fetch increasing prices. These master-made instruments are among the best to come from the area. It was at this same time that the French workshops in Mirecourt were at the peak of their production.
There was a great deal of trade that went from Bohemia to Germany. But after 1933, with the rise of Nazism, there was mounting prejudice in the United States against German imports, especially in the music business. According to Eichler, some companies, including the Pfretzschner family, took German instrumants to Schönbach, where they were labeled "made in Czecho-Slovakia" and shipped to America.
By the 1930’s Czechoslovakia—formed in 1919—had become one of the world’s largest industrial powers. In western Bohemia in the 1920s, there were workshops—such as those of Ladislav Prokop, Josef Čermàk, Jan Băsta, and Josef Lidl—making inexpensive student instruments under their own labels. I’ve seen lots of these instruments in Prague violin and antique shops on my trips there, but I never see them in America. I suspect that they were made mostly for the Eastern European market. We do see many student violins labeled “Made in Czechoslovakia” with facsimily labels of the Italian masters. These instruments have their own unique appearance and are different from the pre-WWI instruments.
While in Prague, I visited the violin shop of Jiri Hron, in an interesting part of central Old Town. He told me about a Bohemian maker named Krotsch who provided white (unvarnished) violins for some of the better-known German makers, including Ernst Heinrich Roth, among others, as well as important Czech makers. Hron stressed Krotsch’s importance in Bohemian violin making, but he seems to be a shadowy figure. I can find no mention of him in any of the standard references. It is possible that some of his “white violins” were purchased by Parisian makers.
By the early 1940s, the economy of the Markneukirchen region had gone from bad to worse and most violin making there had ceased. I’ve seen only a few instruments from that area dated as late as 1941. After the war, Czech residents of German ancestry were expelled from Czechoslovakia and since most of the Bohemian makers were German, the effect on the violin making industry was dramatic. After years of rootlessness many of the makers and their families (1,600 people in all) came to Bubenreuth, Bavaria, a community created especially for them.
When the Communists took over in 1948, there were still some makers in the region, but very little of their output came to the West. Most of their property was confiscated and the Markneukirchen makers were required to ship most of their work to Russia at low prices as a form reparations, but according to Eichler, the Russians were more interested in balalaikas than violins. Some makers stayed in the area and managed to survive the Communist era. Others were able to slip out to the West.
Today there are a handful of mostly individual makers there and no real commercial student-violin industry. The German governmant has returned some of the confiscated property to the original owners to stimulate growth in the Eastern States. The well-known old firm of C.A. Götz was given back its beautiful late 19th-century buildings in Wernitzgrün (in horrible condition after 50 years of neglect) and the company returned home after 50 years in Bubenrueth. The Ernst Heinrich Roth company was given its large original building in Markneukirchen, but there are only three makers working there today with only two more in Bubenreuth.
In Luby, there are a number of Czech makers, producing violins in a range of qualities. The Akord Kvint organization markets inexpensive student instruments under the Lorenz name as well as higher-quality instruments by a number of makers. While violins are still being make in the Voigtland region, today’s growing market for stringed instruments is mostly being supplied by makers in Eastern Europe and especially China. The making of student instruments requires one important thing: low production costs. And today, German labor is not cheap. Czech labor, while low by German standards, is getting more expensive all the time.
Meanwhile, many of the old instruments from the late 19th and early 20th centuries haven’t survived or are beyond repair because of decades of neglect, sitting in attics, garages, and basements. Yet some still exist and with some restoration work are very useable. One of the big advantages the region had was a plentiful supply of good-quality wood, and the wood in these instruments has been aging for the past century.
These millions of violins and their mostly anonymous makers are an important part of the history of music in general and the violin in particular. They supplied generations of students, amateurs, and professional musicians with serviceable and affordable stringed instruments. Yet a big part of this story remains unknown outside of the German violin-making community.
Photo: Captains of Industry - Ernst Heinrich Roth violin workshop