On the history of the US American Gemunder violin maker dynasty, from Ingelfingen, Boston, New York to Astoria
The last of the booming city of New York's historic churches and buildings were being torn down to make room for new construction during the period when German immigrant Johann Georg Gemünder from the southern German village of Ingelfingen became the New York violin maker George Gemunder (dropping the umlaut in his name along the way). Like his mentor in Paris, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, George Gemunder understood the value of well-aged wood, and in the course of his travels he would occasionally add a plank or two of highly sought-after American spruce to his collection of European woods. The "sound of New York" is also the voice of an old Gemunder violin in which American and European woods harmonise. It sings an immigrant's story in the New World, a story that is both commonplace and exceptional at the same time.
From Johann Georg Gemünder to George Gemunder
It all began at the atelier of Johann George Gemunder, Sr., who was the luthier at the court of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen in southwestern Germany around the turn of the 19th century. Very little is known about his work. After his death in 1835, his three sons — August Martin Ludwig, Johann George, Jr. and Albert — gradually left home and pursued different routes, all of which eventually led them to emigrate to America, as so many of their contemporaries had. August and Albert Gemunder reached Springfield, Massachusetts in 1846, presumably after several less fruitful attempts to establish themselves in Germany as a luthier and organ maker, respectively. George Gemunder initially wandered through Europe in search of ways to work as a violin maker and perfect his skills. He was not terribly successful on his travels through Hungary, Austria and Bavaria until 1843, when a happy coincidence led him to Paris. There Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume recognized the talent of the artisan, who at 26 was no longer considered a young man. Under Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, George Gemunder learned the secrets of French and Italian violin making and refined his art, thanks in part to encounters with great violinists such as Ole Bull, who was one of Vuillaume's regular visitors.
In his memoirs, "The Violin: George Gemünder‘s Progress in Violin Making“ the author emphasised his rapid ascent in the Vuillaume atelier and the envy of his colleagues. These statements were both justified and not entirely free of pride — one of the less pleasant character traits of the American violin maker who constantly sought affirmation. In 1847 George Gemunder left Vuillaume (with whom he maintained strong and mutually respectful ties) for Lynn, Massachusetts, to start a musical career with his brothers. Barely a year later, their endeavour ended in financial ruin, whereupon George Gemunder settled in Boston as a violin maker and began to craft American violins that met exceptionally high standards. Massachusetts' capital city was an important harbour and one of the richest American cities, and the constant stream of immigrants kept it growing. Despite this, however, the conditions there did not seem at all favourable for opening a violin maker's studio. As a result, in 1852 Gemunder moved to New York, the only city on the continent where there was a professional orchestra and regular concerts featuring international soloists. Here George Gemunder was able to make the most of the skills and experience he acquired under Vuillaume, since it seemed that at the time, he was the only luthier of his calibre in the booming city that was obsessed with culture.
The 1850s and 1860s were years in which George Gemunder experienced a dramatic rise: his fortunes multiplied, his atelier expanded several times, and he hired talented assistants, both from the US as well as from his native country of Germany. One sign of both his success and his growing self-confidence was his decision to buy a farm in Astoria, a remote and comparatively exclusive part of Long Island where predominantly German immigrants had settled. Perhaps he was inspired by another German family that went on to great success in the field of making musical instruments: no less a name than Steinway & Sons also moved its production facility to Astoria around the same time in the 1870s, founding a colony for their workers known as "Steinway village". While George Gemunder's atelier never grew to a comparable size, but the quality of his work still gave him a sterling reputation amongst the great musicians of his day. His admirers included the aforementioned Ole Bull as well as Louis Spohr and August Wilhelmj.
The fact that Gemunder as the best American violin maker of his day continued to take part in major European exhibitions indicates two things. First of all, the standards in his artistic field were still being set in the Old World; second, his ongoing participation in such events reflects the ambition and the longing for affirmation that motivated Gemunder throughout his entire life. In 1851, a complete quartet's worth of his instruments won top honours at a London exhibition, and this was by no means Geroge Gemunder's only great success. However, he was never satisfied and felt he was surrounded by "ignoramuses" who wanted the Gemunder name but low prices: he sold such clients less carefully-crafted instruments. His spirit of artistic revenge distorts the posthumous perspective we have of his work, and it has not been until recently that a critical look at his best pieces have helped Geroge Gemunder re-claim the respect he earned.
August Gemunder and Sons
The George Gemunder name ultimately drifted into obscurity after his death in 1899 and the death of his son and successor George Gemunder III in 1915. But this fading was at least partially related to his initial decision to move to Astoria. Gemunder was so profoundly convinced about the winning nature of his craftsmanship that he was certain his business would not be affected by the distance between his atelier and downtown Manhattan. This miscalculation became fully evident when George received competition from none other than his brother, August Martin Ludwig Gemunder. Albert and August Gemunder had originally run an organ-making factory in Springfield, Massachusetts from 1846 to 1859, and they gave it up to join George in his New York atelier. In 1864 August struck out on his own in the city, not only making and repairing violins but also selling historic instruments. Despite the fact that his pieces were of far lesser quality than his brother's, his company enjoyed far greater successes and quickly became known amongst New Yorkers as the true Gemunder atelier. August Gemunder certainly profited a great deal from the reputation which George had created for himself.
From 1890 until his death in 1895, August Gemunder operated his studio with his sons under the name "August Gemunder and Sons," which was one of the largest businesses in all of New York. August, Rudolph and Oscar Henry Gemunder sold simpler instruments as "Art Violins" which they imported from Europe – usually as violins in the white – and then adapted to their own models and coated with a varnish that was a family recipe. A large part of the atelier's work focused on re-varnishing old and imported instruments. While the Art Violins were rather simple, the better instruments (most of which were French) were given the label "August Gemunder and Sons". The bows they sold were also of varying quality: some came from the highly regarded ateliers of Bausch and Pfretzschner, whereas others were cheap German mass produced imports.
Despite the fact that George was the better luthier, August Gemunder played a part in good reputation that the Gemunder name still enjoys to this day. August was an esteemed musician who knew how to use writing effectively as a means of incorporating both his expertise and his strong contacts in musical circles. In 1899 he released a treatise on musical aesthetics, "What Constitutes Good Music?" and ran the magazine "Violin World" from 1892 on. These are early examples of corporate publishing that shaped the Gemunders' image, and the catalogues that August Gemunder also created were a perfect complement.
"strong>August Gemunder and Sons" stayed in business until 1946, when Oscar Henry Gemunder died; however, the death of Rudolph in 1916 and August in 1928 both affected the business in ways it never fully recovered from. The market for making and selling stringed instruments in the US had grown over time, and new competitors had emerged. These included Rudolph and Rembert Wurlitzer, whose thorough training in Europe created new benchmarks, as well as American violin makers such as Walter Ewing Colton, who trained under George Gemunder. It would be an exaggeration to describe the Gemunder atelier as the cradle of the art of violin making in the New World, yet without doubt it was a bridgehead from which new standards arose – and a place in a foreign world where, after years of wandering, three brothers from Ingelfingen finally settled and discovered their paternal heritage.
Bibliographical references: Philip Kass, The Gemunder Family of violin makers. In: Journal of the Violin Society of America, Nr. 6(3)/1983, Flushing, NY 1983, p. 36ff. Georg Gemunder, George Gemünder´s progress in violin making, with interesting facts concerning the art and its critics in general. Astoria, NY 1881.
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