Earlier this year, while travelling by slow train through northern Italy, we heard two gentlemen, father and son we judged, animatedly discussing violins. They spoke in reverential terms of Amati and Bergonzi, and then of course of Stradivari. “Where have you two travelled from?” enquired the older of the two men.
“From Germany,” we replied. “We stayed last night in Bavaria.”
“Another part of Europe renowned for its violins,” observed the younger man. “You’ve heard of Mittenwald? Not quite a Cremona perhaps, but a place to be reckoned with when it comes to violins.”
By now, our train was rattling across the flood plain of the River Po and about to stop in Cremona. Our fellow travellers took their leave, while we stayed loyal to the slow train along the Po Valley.
This is the story of Mittenwald, a small town in the Alps that has for over 300 years played second fiddle to Cremona, the most illustrious of Europe’s centres of violin making. Upper Bavaria, the Allgäu and the Austrian Tyrol very early established reputations for fine musical instruments. Many communities had distinct specialisations. Thus Innsbruck mainstreamed on organs, Füssen on lutes and Absam on violins.
These were not always separate and distinct trades. One of the most influential of the Füssen lute makers was Georg Gerle. Around 1560, he helped found the Füssen Lautenmacherzunft (Guild of Lute Makers), yet just a few years later Gerle moved to Innsbruck where he worked in the organ trade.
Nor were the instrument industries in the Alps conducted in isolation from the musical crafts in Brescia, Padua, Cremona and the other Po Valley cities. Jakob Stainer for example, the most famous of the seventeenth-century violin makers in the Tyrol, almost certainly spent a spell in Cremona working with Nicolò Amati. Matthias Klotz started in the lute trade, for some years working as a journeyman for a lute maker from Padua who had settled in the German Allgäu. Then around 1685, Klotz moved to Mittenwald and turned his hand to violin production.