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Alemannic violins (Alemannic School)

Scholars who study the history of instrument making define the tradition known as the Alemannic School as a particular style prevalent in the 17th and early 18th century. It has specific stylistic criteria that distinguish it as an independent movement in the region ranging from the southern Black Forest down to Basel and Bern ― an area which largely overlaps with the High Alemannic dialect spoken in those parts of Germany and Switzerland. There are hardly any documents confirming direct links between teachers and students, although these lines of succession can be deduced by analysing the instruments which have survived. Joseph Mayer as well as his stepfather and master Adam Kirner are considered the founders of this tradition or are at least its earliest known representatives. The generation that followed included Hans Krouchdaler (Krauchthaler), Johann Konrad Stoppel (Stobbel) and Franz Straub.

The aesthetic of Alemannic string instruments is often described as archaic and shows significant differences in comparison to Italian violin making, which subsumed the Alemannic School – along with other regional traditions – in the course of the 18th century. The defining characteristics of the Alemannic style are a body shape that is slightly angular, an extended middle bout, drawn-out beestings and strikingly high and vertically positioned sound holes. The magnificent lines of the scroll are exceptional, as are the unusually rich ornamentations with inlays that many instruments feature. These ornamentations in particular are a conspicuous confirmation of the artisanal qualities of Alemannic instruments: exquisitely coloured woods were used to create heart- and ribbon-shaped embellishments, often extending from the centre inlay of double purfling, as well as floral and geometric details.

There are, however, other details of the design that are typical of the Alemannic School. For example, the bass bar does not run along the bass side of the top under the left foot of the bridge; instead, it is a grid-like reinforcement along the centre joint crafted of the wood of the top. This approach was compelling in its time as a solution both in terms of craftsmanship and because of the solid unit formed by the upper block and neck: it resolved many of the structural problems that were inherent in the traditional Baroque practice of gluing and nailing the two together. The unconventional construction of Alemannic violins is also a testament to the truly independent methods of these masters. The instrument’s body was assembled without an inner mould and with hardly any corner blocks or linings at all. The ribs were often glued into the upper joint and neck or – in some basses – into grooves on the top and back as well. The bee-sting corners were cut at an angle and directly glued together, which explains their eye-catchingly long contours and dramatic curves.

Historians assume that the pristine nature of Alemannic violin making corresponds to the relatively isolated musical culture that is thought to equate to the limited area in which these instruments were played. The styles that were common in courtly music had little influence on the Alemannic school, meaning that the musical innovations of the French and Italian baroque movements did not make their way into the region until fairly late. Musical performance was probably more or less restricted to the work of German composers, with a preference for smaller ensembles (“collegia musica”). The stringed instruments of the Alemannic School were well suited to this purpose, and conversely, researchers have made assumptions about the acoustic preferences which were historically commonplace in the German music of the early Baroque era.

For modern listeners, the voices of these instruments sound exotic and take some getting used to. An interesting CD from the “Klingendes Museum” series issued by the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum can help win people over. It is there that interest in the Alemannic School was rekindled in the late 1950s, initiated and steered by Olga Adelmann, a restorer who died in 2000. A student of Otto Möckels and Curt Jungs, she completed her master examination as a luthier in 1940 and made her way to the workshop of the Musical Instrument Museum in 1955. The collection of artist Fritz Wildhagen was donated to the museum in 1957 and included two unusual instruments with inauthentic Gasparo da Salò labels ― a treble and a bass violin. Adelmann spent years of detective work consulting with luthiers, collectors, musicians and multiple European museums before she realized that these two instruments belonged to an independent tradition that was unfamiliar. Eventually some 30 instruments were attributed to the Alemannic School, pieces that had previously been considered more or less “styleless” and unrefined “odd jobs” – or perhaps thought to be enigmatic missing links which were used to explain the development of the violin from its medieval roots. Adelmann reported about her adventurous quest and painstaking research in a monograph and a lecture which appeared in the 2000 yearbook of the musical research centre Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung.

Literature and further information about the Alemannic School (German only):

Olga Adelmann, Annette Otterstedt: Die Alemannische Schule – Geigenbau des 17. Jahrhunderts im südlichen Schwarzwald und in der Schweiz. Berlin: SIMPK, 1997. 203 Seiten, zahlreiche Abbildungen. ISBN 3-922378-15-3
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Olga Adelmann, Die Entdeckung der Alemannischen Schule. In: Jahrbuch des Staatlichen Instituts für Musikforschung Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Berlin, 2000, S. 277 ff. ISBN 3-476-01793-1
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Annette Otterstedt, Die Bedeutung der Entdeckung der Alemannischen Schule für die Praxis. In: Jahrbuch des Staatlichen Instituts für Musikforschung Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Berlin, 2000, S. 259 ff. ISBN 3-476-01793-1
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CD Klingendes Museum 10 – Die Meister der Alemannischen Schule. KM 2016-2
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Instruments by Alemannic School masters on the SIMPK website …

A Krouchdaler violin on …

Scientific project by the Gent Conservatory …


Nils-Christian Engel ist begeisterter Amateur-Cellist

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