Makers of musical instruments in Germany
Cultural heritage simply bustling with activity

A musical instrument made in Germany has a good name around the world. This applies to the reconstruction of historical instruments as well as the construction of modern, top-of-the-range instruments. A variety of musical instrument collections has, moreover, preserved the cultural heritage in the field.

No other country in the world has a higher density of museums with historical musical instruments. There are special museums in Berlin, Leipzig and Mark Neukirchen, and there are large culturally or technically oriented institutions such as the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, the Deutsches Museum in Munich and the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. Even in smaller museums one often finds instruments, which demonstrate part of a widespread musical practice.

The website of the Committee for Collections of Musical Instruments in the International Museums Association, CIMCIM, provides information about some 150 collections in Germany, which include a "museum guide of musical instruments" that guarantees the reader easy access. Research funded by the European Union project MIMO (Musical Instrument Museum Online) has recently found that more than a quarter of the publicly owned European historical instruments are kept in Germany.

In the heart of Europe

Is Germany the country we most associate with musical instruments? Or is it only the land of the collector? If one thinks in terms of musical instrument brands, does one not tend to dwell on the Far East or the USA? Where are the German musical instrument makers anyway? The story of German musical instrument making is characterized by turbulent ups and downs which follow each other rapidly according to global demand and profound depression. As with the music itself, Germany is also influenced in the production of musical instruments by its central location in Europe. Over the centuries it harnessed the momentum of intersecting trade routes and reconciled itself to inventing things anew before propagating the results to the outside world.

The genesis of the clarinet, for example, took place in Nuremberg, after instrument makers had begun to imitate French woodwind instruments. The piano was invented in Italy in the Europe of the 18th Century, but it took the famous Saxon organ builder Gottfried Silbermann to develop the idea before it achieved any kind of breakthrough.

From a small state to a cultural centre

Vienna, Paris, London, New York: in the Germany of the 19th century, divided as it was into many smaller states, there was no similar cultural centre capable of using new ideas of instrument makers. There was no way for the musical avant-garde to bring its audience into fruitful contact with any kind of civic education. The export of the technology used to make better instruments along with the knowledge gained in that process remains therefore perhaps the most important historical feature of German musical instrument design. Mozart's Viennese piano maker, Anton Walter, came from the vicinity of Stuttgart. The real name of Guillaume Triébert, who stands for the modern French oboe, was really William. Henry E. Steinway, who wanted to build the best pianos in the world, was called before his emigration to the United States, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg. And the modern flute, which Theobald Boehm had developed in 1847 in Munich, was only accepted in German orchestras long after it had become the standard instrument abroad.

The flagship of German instrument-making and an important export commodity right up to the Great Depression, was the piano industry, with its hundreds of brands. From the splendour of high quality that firms of all sizes produced right up to an industrial scale, many businesses today – especially mass producers in the Far East – are now trying to profit by providing the market models that have been bought in or simply have German-sounding brand names.

A slow awakening

After the Second World War, the German music industry was never quite able to match its earlier success. Mass producers in Asia and the United States had obtained an unbeatable lead. This holds true today, not least in the field of electronic musical instruments, which is fed more from a prosperous industry for consumer electronics and computer technology than as part of instrument-making as a craft. After all, a 2007 study demonstrated that 70 percent of German production is exported.

The extent of the current success is not to be underestimated. At the heart of this are the old and new centres of musical instrument making, especially the Vogtland, that nestles between Markneukirchen and Klingenthal. But mention must be made of a centuries-old tradition of violin making in Mittenwald. Finally, after the Second World War, there emerged a newcomer, from the Sudetenland, a tradition carried on by refugees who set up shop in the busy town of Bubenreuth, near Erlangen.

Historic Musical Instruments

Outside the mainstream, one aspect of musical practice in the 19th century was to dominate the first decades of the 20th century: instrument makers who dedicated their skills to the recorder and the harpsichord revival of baroque instruments. Admittedly, these were still rather new creations, as are copies of historical instruments, but they gave the go-ahead for today's so-called historically informed performance practice.

As the knowledge of historical conditions grew, the demands of the players, along with several manufacturers, focussed on instruments that are constructed as closely as possible along the lines of the original instruments in museums. Although historically informed performance practice has influenced musical life today, the increasing number of historical copies does not represent any kind of mass market. Apart from harpsichords and recorders, which are produced in large quantities, the instrument maker still remains in the workshop. This is where baroque trumpets, lutes and viols, as well as oboes, clarinets and bassoons based on 18th and, increasingly, 19th century instruments see the light of day. Oftentimes, the customer initiates the reconstruction of a particular instrument held in one museum collection.

A new orientation

German instrument makers wisely did not try to enter the game of price-dumping and loss of quality, a competition so easily lost. Instead, they reflected on traditional measures of quality, relying on public appeal and the "made by" branding. They placed themselves amidst individual customers and entered certain obligations that demand the skills of the craftsman and business acumen, along with a highly efficient sense of industrial enterprises that suggests a combination of solidity and modernity.

This positioning in the market demonstrates the nature of the musical instrument itself, the price of which is a kind of lifelong personal companion. Unlike items in the consumer goods industry, musical instruments are not disposable items which are easily replaced if damaged. Over years and even decades, an instrument requires expert care and at one time or another, expert repair. Nationwide there is a network of over 1.200 instrument makers who are connected to a music store or, as in the case of the local violin maker, work on their own.

The basis for the high standard of German musical instrument making is a highly regulated and traditional craft apprenticeship, that takes place at one of three schools in Ludwigsburg, Mittenwald and Oelsnitz and which are connected to Zwickau University where a degree in musical instrument making may be obtained.

Despite the conservative market position as a land of musical instrument manufacturers, superlatives may still be applied and top positions still exist. Thus in Germany, the best bassoons are made, and the most prestigious piano actions. Europe's largest piano manufacturer is firmly rooted here too.