George Gemünder.

George Gemünder's Progress in Violin Making online

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[Illustration: Geo. Gemünder]




_Entered According to Act of Congress, in the Year 1881.
In the Office of the Librarian of Congress._


George Gemünder was born at Ingelfingen, in the kingdom of Wurtemburg,
on the 13th of April, 1816.

His father was a maker of bow instruments, and it was, therefore, from
Gemünder's earliest youth that he devoted himself to the same art and
the studies connected with it.

When he left school, it was suggested to his father that George should
become a school-master, as he at the time wrote the finest hand and
executed the best designs of any among his classmates. His father was
not averse to this proposal and decided to carry it out. George was,
accordingly, directed to prepare for the seminary. The plan was not,
however, in accordance with his own tastes or inclinations, and he
followed it for a period of but three weeks, only to abandon it finally
and forever, to take up that employment which accorded with his natural
gift and gave scope for the development of his genius.

After his father's death, which occurred when George was in his
nineteenth year, he went abroad, and worked variously at Pesth,
Presburg, Vienna and Munich. Fortune smiled upon him, and more than once
an opportunity was presented of establishing a business; but nothing
that promised simply commonplace results and a commonplace life could
attract his eye, since his mind, aspiring to improvement in his art, was
constantly impelling him toward that celebrated manufacturer of violins,
Vuillaume, at Paris. He plainly saw that in Germany he could not reach
in the art that degree of accomplishment for which he strove, and,
therefore, he resolved to find, if possible, at Strasburg, such a
position as he had had at Munich. Through the mediation of a friend he
obtained a call to go to a manufacturer of musical instruments at
Strasburg; but upon his arrival he was astonished to learn that the man
was a maker of brass instruments! Here was a dilemma. Disappointed in
his effort to find employment, winter at the door and far away from
home, what could he do? The manufacturer, whose name was Roth,
perceiving his perturbation, was kind enough to ask Gemünder to remain
in his house until he should have succeeded in finding such a position
as he desired. Gemünder accepted the profered kindness, and after the
lapse of six weeks he formed the acquaintance of a gentleman with whom
he afterward became intimate, and who promised to write for Gemünder a
letter of recommendation and send it to Vuillaume at Paris. Meanwhile
Gemünder remained in Strasburg. One day, while taking a walk in the park
called "Die Englishen Anlagen," he seated himself on a bench and shortly
fell asleep. In his sleep he heard a voice which seemed to say: "Don't
give way; within three days your situation will change!" The voice
proved prophetic, for on the third day after the dream his friend came
to him with a letter from Vuillaume, which contained the agreeable
intelligence that Gemünder should go to Paris. The invitation was
promptly accepted and Gemünder immediately started on his journey. When
he arrived at Vuillaume's another difficulty was encountered, for
Vuillaume had mistakenly supposed that Gemünder spoke French. By mere
good fortune it happened at the time of Gemünder's arrival that a German
professor was giving music lessons to Vuillaume's twin daughters, who in
the capacity of interpreter informed Gemünder that M. Vuillaume was
sorry to have induced him to come to Paris, because it would be
impossible to get along in his house without French. Vuillaume kindly
offered to pay Gemünder's traveling expenses from Paris back to
Strasburg, but said, however, that should the latter be satisfied with
nominal wages at first, he would give him thirty sous a day until he
should have learned enough of the language to be able to get along.
Gemünder accepted the proposition, which greatly astonished Vuillaume
because he had not supposed that Gemünder would be contented with such
small wages! Then he showed him a violin and violoncello as models of
his manufacture, and asked him if he could make instruments like those.
The answer being in the affirmative, Vuillaume smiled, for he was sure
it could not be done. On the following day he provided Gemünder with
materials for making a new violin, in order to see what he could do. He
soon perceived that Gemünder possessed more theoretical than practical
knowledge. When the violin was finished, he made him understand that
their way of working was different, and he desired to have his own
methods adopted. Gemünder did his best, and being a good designer, he
soon acquired a knowledge of the different characters of the propagated
Italian school in regard to the construction of violins.

After the lapse of three months Gemünder's wages were increased ten sous
a day, and although he now saw his most heartfelt desire fulfilled,
namely, to work in Vuillaume's manufactory, yet he did not find it
possible to stay there permanently, because his fellow-workmen, who had
observed the kindness with which their employer had treated his new
workman, became filled with feelings of jealousy, and resolved to
harrass him and compel him if possible to leave. So thoroughly did they
succeed in embittering his life, that Gemünder finally resolved to leave
Vuillaume and go to America, and with this firmly fixed in his mind he
began his preparations secretly to carry out his plan.

When everything was ready, he went to Vuillaume to make known his
intention and to explain to him the cause of his leaving. The latter,
astonished at this intelligence, declared that Gemünder should not leave
his house at all, and assured him that he would not meet with further
unkindness from his fellow-workmen, even if all should be dismissed,
although some of them had already been in his manufactory for many
years. He further assured Gemünder that should he not desire to remain
in Paris, he would establish him in a business similar to his own,
either in Germany or elsewhere, but he dissuaded him from going to
America, for the reason that the art of violin making was not
sufficiently understood there at that time. This kindness and
benevolence upon the part of his employer so touched his heart that he
was constrained to remain, and he began to construct new violins, in
some of which he imitated the Italian character thoroughly, and also to
repair injured violins.

One day Vuillaume handed Gemünder a violin, with the remark that he
wished him to do his best work in repairing it, for a gentleman from
Russia had sent it. Vuillaume especially called Gemünder's attention to
a certain place in the back which was to be repaired, which was almost
invisible, and he gave Gemünder a magnifying glass for his assistance,
but Gemünder returned it, saying that he could do better with his naked
eyes, and when finished Vuillaume might examine it with the glass. When
completed, the work proved to be all that Vuillaume had wished, and
satisfied the owner of the instrument so thoroughly that in his ecstasy
of delight he presented Vuillaume, in addition to the payment for his
work, with a costly Russian morning gown.

On the return of Ole Bull from America, in 1845, that distinguished
performer brought his wonderful "Caspar da Salo" violin to Vuillaume to
be repaired, and requested the latter to do the work himself, as it was
something about which he was very particular; but Vuillaume answered
that he had a German in his workshop who could do it better than he.
Impelled by curiosity to become acquainted with this German, he asked to
be shown to the place. After some conversation, Gemünder undertook the
repairing of the violin and completed it in as masterly a manner as he
did in the case of the Russian gentleman.

After an interval of three years, while Gemünder was still working at
Vuillaume's, the latter showed him a violin and asked his opinion about
it. Gemünder, having examined it, replied that it was made by some one
who had no school! "I expected to hear this," returned Vuillaume, "and
now let me tell you, that this violin is the very same that I engaged
you to make when you came to me. I show it only that you may recognize
what you are _now_ and what you were _then_!" Gemünder was not only
surprised, but amazed, and would hardly have believed it possible. This
incident is only mentioned to show that as long as the eye has not been
fully cultivated, those who fancy themselves to be artists are not such,
and in reality they cannot distinguish right from wrong. Gemünder has
often experienced this in America. He knows no other violin maker who
deserves to be compared with Vuillaume in this respect, for he correctly
understood the character of the outline and form as well as the interior
structure of the different Italian instruments.

Towards the end of 1847, when Gemünder had been four years at
Vuillaume's, his two brothers, who were in America, invited him to go
there, as the interest in and taste for music was improving and they
intended to give concerts. Gemünder therefore determined to accept this
invitation and left Paris. He arrived in November, at Springfield,
Mass., and, meeting his brothers, arrangements for concerts were made
with an agent, who engaged several other artists to make up the company.
The instrumental quartet consisted of a clarinet, violin, flute and bass
guitar. This music made quite a sensation, and the houses were always
crowded, yet the Gemünder brothers did not receive anything from the
proceeds. They soon comprehended that they had had too much confidence
in their agent, and after the lapse of a week they gave up the

For George Gemünder, who had then very little knowledge of the English
language, which fact increased the difficulty of his position, there
remained no other choice but to settle as a violin maker. He borrowed
from a friend twenty-five dollars, and with this money he set out for
Boston, Mass., and established himself there. The violins which he made
he sold at fifty dollars each, and made repairs at low prices.

In 1851, when the first exhibition of London took place, Gemünder sent a
quartet of bow instruments, in imitation of Stradivarius, and one violin
according to Joseph Guarnerius, and another according to Nicholas Amati.

As his business in Boston did not prove sufficiently lucrative, Gemünder
left the city after eighteen months, without waiting for news of the
result of the exhibition, and established business in New York. Later he
learned that his instruments had received the first premium at the

When, in the following year, 1852, Gemünder received his instruments
back from the exhibition, he learned that Ole Bull was in New York
again, and, as he had formed his acquaintance in Paris, he paid him a
visit and gave information that he had established himself in New York,
and also that he had obtained the first premium at the London
exhibition. Ole Bull was highly astonished at this news, as he said
"Vuillaume is the best violin maker, and I have on one of my violins the
best specimen of his workmanship as a repairer." He thereupon showed
Gemünder his "Caspar da Salo." "Here," he said, "look at it, find the
place where the repair was made." But Gemünder replied: "Sir, have you
entirely forgotten that when you went with your violin to Vuillaume, he
made you acquainted with a German in his studio, whom he directed to
repair this 'Caspar da Salo' violin, and that this German was myself?"
Upon hearing this a light seemed to break upon his mind, and he
exclaimed, "Yes, yes, I do remember. Now you shall become in America
what Vuillaume is in Europe."

Meanwhile the advantages which might have been derived from the London
exhibition were lost, in consequence of Gemünder's removal from Boston
and establishing business at New York. Spohr, Thalberg, Vieuxtemps and
many more of such authorities, examined his violins in the exhibition
and were much surprised at the excellent qualities of the instruments.
Spohr observed: "These are the first new violins that I ever saw, tried
and liked!" When they were played upon by him and others, they attracted
hundreds of admirers and would have been sold at high prices had
Gemünder not failed to make arrangements to dispose of them.

The results obtained at Paris and Vienna were similar, his instruments
attracting much attention in each exhibition. In the Vienna Exposition,
held in 1873, Gemünder gained the greatest triumph that was ever
obtained by any violin maker. The "Kaiser" violin sent by Gemünder in
response to an offer of a prize for the best imitation, was declared by
the professional judges to be a renewed original; a genuine Guarnerius
not only in regard to its outer appearance and character, but also as to
its wonderful quality of tone and ease with which the tones come. To
find these qualities in a new violin was beyond all expectation, since
it had hitherto been taken for granted that such a result could not be
obtained, because that object had been the unsuccessful study of
different makers for hundreds of years. This proves, therefore, to the
musical world, that Gemünder has solved that problem which has generally
been considered impossible. In spite of all this, however, Gemünder had
learned by painful experience that the prejudice existing among most of
the violinists was not to be wiped out. These people are incapable of
judging reasonably, and it is easier for them to say that Gemünder makes
his new violins of wood prepared by a chemical process, or that it has
not yet been proven that his violins have kept their good quality for an
extended period of time, notwithstanding that Gemünder has been
constructing violins in America since 1847, and that nobody can prove
that any violin of his making has lost its quality of tone. On the
contrary, they have invariably proved good. Gemünder, however, confesses
that a few of his first made violins in America do not equal those of
his present construction in regard to tone and varnish. The cause of it
was that Gemünder being unacquainted with the woods of the new country,
was not so successful at first in the choice of wood for his violins,
and naturally would not be until his experience had improved. The
prejudice above referred to would, however, be likely to exist for
another century, could Gemünder live for that length of time among those
people, the most of whom would persevere in their opinions.

The impracticability of the theory of using chemically prepared wood for
violins is sufficiently understood at the present time to render it
useless to pursue the discussion in these pages. Gemünder has informed
himself as to the degree of success attained in the use of the
different chemical preparations of wood, as well as those prepared with
borax, by which, the inventor asserts, the wood becomes richer in tone
and lasts longer than that which is left in its natural state. Yet,
without opposing the inventor, Gemünder follows the principle of the old
Italian violin makers, because their productions have been in use to
this day; therefore the material left in its natural state has proved
good and has satisfied the musical world for these three hundred years.
He has indeed succeeded in constructing new violins of material in its
natural state, which produce not only an extraordinary power of tone,
but also a strikingly equal quality of tone, and the quality of easy
speaking, and the outward appearance of the old violins has been so
faithfully imitated that he who has not been told the fact, will take
them for genuine instruments made by Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Maggini,
Amati, and others.

It is therefore assuming not too much to say that George Gemünder has
surpassed in this art all the violin makers of the present and past
times; for where the Italian masters ended with their knowledge, George
Gemünder commenced and improved, which fact can be proved to the
satisfaction of every critic; for George Gemünder has not only gained
the same results as those achieved by Stradivarius and others, but he
has sketched a better acoustic principle for producing tone. It is for
this reason that August Wilhelmj, the great violinist, calls George
Gemünder the greatest violin maker of all times, for Wilhelmj had
learned by ample trial of the instruments made by George Gemünder that
they were incontestably all that the latter claimed for them. Wilhelmj
admired Gemünder's "Kaiser" violin at the Vienna Exhibition, as it was
the only violin of importance which attracted his attention, and this
aroused within him the desire to become personally acquainted with its
maker. By means of his renown as the great violin virtuoso, an
engagement was offered him to go to America, which he accepted, and thus
his wish was fulfilled. On the day after his arrival in New York,
Wilhelmj went to see Gemünder at Astoria, and from that time has been
Gemünder's friend and admirer.

Wilhelmj and other artists have expressed astonishment that a man of
George Gemünder's capabilities in this art was to be found in America.
Although he enjoys the highest renown in his art, yet he lives in a
country in which the appreciation of that art is still in its
development; for the number of amateurs such as are found in Europe, who
spend enormous sums in instruments, is very small here. The fact is that
George Gemünder lives here at too early a period, for his productions
are a continuation of those which the great Italian masters brought
forth. Taking into consideration all the foregoing circumstances it is
fair to suppose that George Gemünder has had to contend with
extraordinary difficulties during this long time. For ignorance and
arrogance can do much damage, in this respect, not only to the artist,
but also to the amateur, as these often times place their confidence in
those musicians who have no knowledge of violins, and who can only
mislead them.



Gemünder had learned that the knowledge of arrogant violinists and
amateurs in regard to tone did not rest on any correct basis, and that
their prejudice rested on a tradition arising from the decline of the
manufacture of violins since the death of the celebrated Italian makers.
All attempts of late years to make good violins having failed, an
aversion to new violins has been gradually spreading, so that the most
of people at the present time do not believe it possible for violins to
be both new and good. Firstly, because it has been found that new
violins have not been constructed so as to possess the tone of old
Italian instruments; and secondly, that those made of chemically
prepared wood did not stand proof for a great length of time. Many
musicians and amateurs have in consequence of this prevailing prejudice
gone to an extreme and disregarded new violins, no matter what tone they
might have. To this class of people belonged especially the violinist
Wieniawski, who had an opportunity to play on one of the best violins
made by Gemünder, which opportunity he ignored, because the violin
looked new. Instruments imitated by Gemünder were placed before him as
genuine violins, and he admired them. Ole Bull was equally surprised
when an imitation according to Stradivarius was handed to him in
Columbus, Ohio, and he declared it to be a genuine original.

When Vieuxtemps gave concerts in America for the first time, and went to
see his friend Vieweg, Professor of music in Savannah, Ga., the
Professor showed him his Stradivarius violin. Vieuxtemps, catching sight
of it, said: "If he had not been quite sure that his violin was at home,
he would think it was his own." But when his friend told him it was a
Gemünder violin, he was astonished and observed: "The d***l knows how
Gemünder can bring such a tone in new violins!"

At about the same time a violinist came from Germany and visited
Gemünder to hear his violins, because Spohr had praised him so much; but
at the same time he doubted that new violins could sound like those of
the old Italian masters. Gemünder first showed him some having the
appearance of being new; the violinist played upon them and then
uttered: "They are as I thought; they have not that sweet, melting tone
of the Italian instruments." Hereupon he asked Gemünder if he had no
Italian violins, in order to show the difference. Gemünder then opened
another box, and showed him an imitation of Amati for a genuine one. No
sooner did the instrument strike his sight than his face brightened up
and he said: "Everybody can see at once that there must be tone in
this," and after playing upon it he was so pleased that he said to
Gemünder: "Yes, there are none of the present violin makers who have
brought it so far!" Hereupon Gemünder informed him that this was also a
new violin of his making. Scarcely had the visitor heard this, when,
ashamed of his prejudice, he took his hat and went away.

Similar incidents often occur. In 1859 Gemünder sent violins to the
Exhibition of Baltimore, after which, on one occasion, he was invited to
a soiree at which his violins were played. He also had a genuine
Guarnerius among his own instruments. An amateur, Mr. Gibson, a very
good player, was present and anxious to hear the Italian violin. During
the performance of a quartet on the violins made by Gemünder, this
amateur, who was possessed of the popular prejudice against new
instruments, and who fancied he heard the Italian violin, was so
exceedingly delighted with it that he observed, "To hear such violins is
sufficient to keep any one from ever touching new ones." But when
Gemünder told him they were new ones made by him, the amateur stared at
him as much as to say, "Do you make fun of me? These violins do not look
new at all!" Gemünder, however, convinced him of the truth of his
assertion. This fact surprised the amateur to such a degree that he was
at loss what to say, and later, upon learning the price of one of the
instruments, bought it. Sometime after this he valued it at two thousand
dollars in gold. Since then the violin has been sent several times to
Gemünder, either for a new bridge or other slight repairs, and each
time new anecdotes have been related of it. Of especial interest is that
one of Father Urso, who was looking for a genuine Guarnerius to give to
his daughter Camilla, the celebrated violinist. He took Professor Simon
with him to see the instrument. Both were very much surprised at it, not
only on account of its undoubted genuineness, but also that it was kept
so well. Gemünder then let them know that he had perpetrated a joke, and
that the instrument was made by himself.

One day Mr. Poznanski, from Charleston, S. C., in company with his son,
who was already an artist on the violin, visited Gemünder. Although
still young, his father intended to send him to Vieuxtemps for his
further artistic accomplishment, and with this purpose in view he was
willing to buy an Italian violin. As Gemünder had none on hand, he
showed him a new violin, but Poznanski declared that he would not buy a
new one. Gemünder then showed him an imitation, as if it were a genuine
original. The son played on it, and both father and son were highly
satisfied with it; they expressed their wish to buy it and asked the
price, which was given as five hundred dollars. When Poznanski was about
to pay down the money, Gemünder told him that this instrument was also
new. Whereupon Poznanski replied in an excited tone, "Have you not heard
that we do not want a new violin?" and they left the Atelier!

When Vieuxtemps left America, in 1858, Poznanski's son went with him to
finish his studies under his direction. After the lapse of eight years
he returned an accomplished artist, and visited Gemünder again. He then

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