Writer Emma John takes her violin to its birthplace in Southern Germany and confronts a musical mystery.
Photos by Christian Kerber
FAMILY ASIDE, my longest-lasting relationship has been with a piece of wood. My violin. My parents let me pick her out at a shop in London when I was 12, and we’ve now been together for more than two decades. Sure, we’ve had our musical differences—we’ve spent long months apart, and I even once abandoned her on a train—but ultimately, we’ve always been reunited.
She’s outlasted most of my school friends and become my most constant travel companion. We’ve taken road trips from the East Coast to Colorado. We’ve summered in the south of France. And while she doesn’t pay her way—our busking history is a penurious one—she makes up for it in other ways. When I travel with her, I’m never lonely. She’s gotten me invited to more dinners, parties, and jam sessions than I’d ever have managed by relying on my personality.
The more we traveled together, the more people asked me about her. They wanted to know where she was from, how old she was, stuff any decent friend ought to know. But all I could offer, in reply, was a peek through the curved f-holes on her front and into her belly. There, when the light’s angled correctly, you can make out a rectangular, slightly soiled label that says, in a cursive script, Mathias Klotz, Lautenmacher, Mittenvvaldt, in anno 1732. Lautenmacher means “luthier”; Mittenwald is in southeast Germany. The year is actually uncertain; the label is printed, but the last two numbers are written in pen and are hard to decipher. People who knew something about violins would nod approvingly at the name, and gradually I discovered that the Klotz family had been pioneers of German violin making. Mathias had left Mittenwald to study his craft in Italy, where some believe his tutor was Nicolò Amati, the man who also inspired the world’s most famous violin maker, Antonio Stradivari. Mathias took his newfound skills home to the Bavarian alps, married twice, and passed on his knowledge to his progeny, including son Sebastian and grandson Aegidius, whose instruments far outshone their father’s. A violin-making dynasty was born.
These bits of historical information piqued my own curiosity. Feeling slightly smug that my violin had such an interesting provenance, I decided to travel to her birthplace. After years of taking her for granted, it seemed only right to take her back home for a visit. Perhaps, I figured, we would even get to meet some of her more glamorous relations.
From Munich, it is a train journey of 65 miles to the Karwendel, the mountain range beneath which Mittenwald is hidden. It didn’t take long for the city to yield to dandelion-covered meadows that stretched to the horizon. By the time the blue haze of the Alps took on solid form, the fields were dotted with barns and tiny chapels and cows with bells around their necks.
The train passed through the fringes of forests that have provided generations of violin makers with their greatest asset: centuries-old spruce and maple. These are the wood types that, when fashioned into scrolls, ribs, and curved, arching bodies, give violins their unique resonance. Klotz and his descendants knew that the best material came from high altitudes, which produce wood with the tightest grain. But as we arrived, the Karwendel was hidden in clouds, its treasure undisclosed.
The town of Mittenwald, by contrast, couldn’t have been more inviting. It is a quiet retreat of some 7,000 inhabitants, its residences and businesses clustered around a handful of streets. The predominant thoroughfare is the Obermarkt, a wide pedestrian avenue between facing rows of 17th- and 18th-century houses, their roofs running together in a sequence of wooden gables. Brightly painted murals illuminate their exterior walls. They depict Biblical and historical scenes or describe the building’s former occupation; several represent the legendary Bolzano market, which was held here in the Middle Ages. The entrances to many of the houses remain large enough to accommodate horses, carts, and their goods.
A short stroll before dinner was enough to reveal the impact Mathias Klotz had made. Violins were everywhere. Their graceful silhouettes adorned shop signs and restaurant menus and the bottles of schnapps in the liquor store. Several murals indicated that buildings had been violin workshops or, in some cases, still were. On the edge of town stood the modern facilities of the Geigenbauschule, a world-renowned instrument-making school. Klotz had inspired an entire industry that continues to this day.
At the far end of the Obermarkt was the town’s 18th-century church, lavishly decorated with trompe l’oeil paintings, and in the shadow of its pink tower, on a large marble pedestal, sat a statue of a man. A profusion of curly hair escaped from the edges of a cap, and he was working on the violin that rested on his left knee. Underneath was the legend m. klotz. My heart beat fast with pride. My very own violin maker was the most popular guy in town.
In the restaurant of the Hotel Alpenrose, the ancient dining room smelled so strongly of sausage and cheese that the air itself seemed smoked. In a booth, a whiskered man picked at a zither, his whirligig tunes adding to the festive atmosphere. All the staff wore traditional Bavarian costume, as did several of the guests. My waiter explained that lederhosen and dirndls—the apron skirts worn by the women—are the Sunday outfit of choice for many locals. “This is a town where the old customs still matter,” he told me proudly.
Few places in Bavaria, I discovered, can claim as strong a grip on local tradition as Mittenwald. Its carnival, several weeks of masquerades leading up to Shrove Tuesday (40 days before Easter) and held to “drive out” the winter, has no equal in the region. The Alpine costume—with its expensively embroidered suspenders and its inimitable combination of leather shorts and knitted leg warmers—is worn on any and every occasion. Once every five years, the town even re-creates its medieval Bolzano market, shutting off the electricity and refusing to serve anything that wasn’t available in the 1400s. It’s probably the only German festival where you can’t buy a beer.
It was exciting to feel part of something centuries old and to try to imagine my violin’s earliest years in this place. At Alpenrose, I ordered a beer. The coaster said it came from Mittenwald’s own brewery, and it arrived with a large forehead of froth and a plate of bread and drippings. Dinner was a skillet of melted cheese and noodles. The only vegetable content was a crispy scattering of fried onion that served as garnish.
Later that night, as I waddled up to my hotel room, even my hair smelling of smoked gouda, I heard two men yodeling somewhere in the building. The music had a melancholic and surprisingly tuneful air, and I drifted to sleep to its soothing sounds. Mittenwald was clearly a musical place. Two hours later I was awakened by the rumpus of a brass band marching past my window, playing off-key.
Perhaps that’s why it took a while to find my stride the next morning. I mistook the large sign saying grüss gott for the name of the hotel restaurant, because the concierge kept saying it to guests as they emerged from their rooms looking for breakfast. (It’s actually the standard Bavarian greeting. “Guten tag” might do for the rest of Germany, but here in the south you wish your fellow folk “God bless you.”) Nor were my menu choices improving. Breakfast was an arsenal of bread and cold meats. Unprepared for salami so early in the day, I found some soft cheese instead. Only after biting into a liberal application of it on my bread did I realize how much garlic it contained.
And so, rather more pungently than I would have chosen, I headed into town, discovering more Mathias Klotz legacies along the way, including a street sign declaring Mathias Klotz Strasse. Close by I found a music shop, home to Anton Maller, a master violin maker who has been pursuing his craft for 40 years. He had gray hair and a mischievous smile, and was happy to tell me the history of violin making in the town. Klotz had shared his craft widely, and by the 19th century, when the violin’s popularity was at its peak in Europe, the industry consumed the town. There was barely a family in Mittenwald, Maller explained, that wasn’t involved in the violin-making business.
Whole production lines emerged, with some families making the fingerboards, some the necks, others the scrolls. A small cartel worked as dealers, marketing and selling Mittenwald’s chief product across the whole of Europe. “In the 1800s,” said Maller, “London was full of Mittenwald instruments.” Perhaps that’s when mine came to be there? “Perhaps.”
I took the violin out of its case and handed her over carefully; Maller looked her over, scrunched up his face, and brought her to the window for better light. Then he put her
down on his desk and measured, scrutinized, and stroked her. The master craftsman took out a dentist’s mirror and inserted it carefully through the f-holes, following it in with a tiny flashlight. His grin was succeeded by a frown, then reappeared, only a little chastened.
“No, this is not a Mathias Klotz,” he said. “It’s not made by any of the Klotz family. I can’t even say it’s from Mittenwald.”
If I am ever forced at gunpoint to appear on a soap opera, at least I now have the emotional experience for the role. I was the betrayed housewife, the illegitimate child, and the woman who discovers she has been unwittingly dating an evil twin, all at once. After my 20 years of taking it on trust that this violin was a 300-year-old German, she turned out to be a fraud. When people had praised her tone and her provenance, I’d been taking vicarious pride in a fake. I felt oddly ashamed.
A few hours later, I sat in front of the Alpenrose’s traditional Bavarian buffet. Four types of roast meat crouched on my plate alongside a boiled potato and some pickled cabbage, all doused in an intense gravy. My waitress plucked my sleeve and tried to encourage me up to the counter, where dozens of cold dishes awaited, none containing a single vegetable. It was the kind of meal that in any other circumstances would have made me carnivorously happy. But my appetite had vanished.
I had asked Maller how he could tell my violin wasn’t a Klotz, and he had pointed out a few details: she was a half-centimeter too short in the body, her scroll a little too flared, her f-holes a touch too wide. But really, he said, he could tell just from looking. It was as plain to him as seeing that a Fiat was not a Ferrari.
I forced down some veal and asked the waitress if I could have the bill. “First, ice cream!” she exclaimed, and a few minutes later the host paraded a giant meringue-covered dessert into the room on a silver platter, dosed it with liquor and set it ablaze. I went to bed with my belly groaning and my heart aching. My violin case sat in the corner of my room, unopened. I couldn’t face seeing her.
I didn’t particularly want to meet Anton Sprenger the next day. He was a violin maker whose shop overlooked the oldest part of town, known as Im Gries. I’d arranged to visit him because he could claim a line of descent from Mathias Klotz, 10 generations on. Now, walking into a showroom of beautiful handcrafted instruments, I felt mortally embarrassed. What had I to do with Klotz anymore?
Sprenger invited me upstairs to his workshop, which smelled sweetly of resin and alcohol. Tools of baffling shapes and variety hung from the walls; bottles of various liquids sat on the shelves. He explained that he made his varnish from amber and that wood needed to be dried out for decades if it was to make a quality violin. He was so warm and jovial that I was tempted to ask him for a hug.
Instead, I asked if he played violin himself. (Surprisingly few makers do.) He told me he played in a band, and we discovered a shared love of bluegrass music. Anton (we were now on a first-name basis) and I played a few tunes together. One thing led to another, and that night I found myself in a barely lit mountain-climbing shop surrounded by ropes and carabiners, jamming with Anton’s bandmates.
The shop belonged to Stefan, a guitar player. Peter, who played banjo, owned the digital printing business across the street. They got together once a week to play old-timey music, sitting around a wooden table at the back of the shop. But they were happy to share a classic Bavarian tune with me too, a sentimental ballad infused with love of their Alpine home. It was the kind of tune you might hear at family gatherings, where small groups of musicians played stubenmusik, literally “room music”—in the corner of a pub (or, say, a mountain-climbing shop). The zither playing at the restaurant and the yodeling I’d heard at the hotel would both have been stubenmusik; the brass band outside my window, however, was volksmusik, a more formal kind of folk music played at dances and the like.
“Did the band seem drunk?” Peter asked. I replied that it would certainly have accounted for the dodgy notes. Then, said Peter, they were probably staggering home from a dance.
We chose a song to play, and I reached for my violin. In Anton’s workshop, he and I had swapped instruments, and it had been a relief not having to play my faux Klotz. Now as
she came out of her case, I regarded her with a skeptical eye. If I played with a little less enthusiasm than usual, and a trace of sulk, it was surely only natural.
But gradually the music took over. It’s hard to focus on resentment when a trio of Bavarians is charming you with a serenade about the Snow Wind, the harbinger of the Alpine winter. And I couldn’t help but notice that the melody sounded rather pretty on my violin.
Over the next couple of days I found ways to take my mind off my violin-shaped disappointment. At Stefan’s encouragement, I walked up to the Lautersee, a mountain lake where the water is clear and green, and tiny flowers of pink, white, and mauve stud its banks with subtle color. I invested a lot of time in the town’s secondary industry, bakeries, of which there were almost as many as there were violin makers. With Peter’s advice, I even discovered a rare restaurant with vegetables on the menu—Osteria Viola, where I fell on a plate of tomatoes like Lawrence of Arabia reaching Aqaba.
But there was one place I had still to visit, a destination I’d been avoiding. The violin-making museum, situated in one of the charming old residences behind the town church, houses an impressive collection of instruments.
The more I’d learned about Mittenwald’s history, the more I’d longed to feel part of its fraternity. But the very first exhibit was an original Mathias Klotz. And however hard I squinted, it was clear that my own violin did not share a family resemblance. The chocolaty color of her varnish was far darker than this one’s, the grain of her wood more pronounced. From the curve of the f-holes to the arch of the body, the Klotz’s features were so markedly different, it was like staring into a stranger’s face.
Still, I scoured the cases in the next rooms. Could my violin have been made by one of Mathias’s grandsons? A nephew? A distant, distant relation?
The curator of the museum, Constanze, had heard I was coming, and asked me to bring my violin. When I told her the bad news, she wanted to see it anyway. She spent some time studying its insides, then made a phone call. “Ja, das ist, das ist . . .” were the only words I understood. She hung up, then told me that Wolfgang Zunterer, the leading Klotz expert in Germany, would like to see my violin. He lived 40 minutes away, but was driving here now. Would I wait?
Zunterer was a businesslike man in his 50s who did not toy with my hopes: The violin, he explained in German, had indeed come from an inferior workshop, now impossible to identify. But it was made in the 18th century. And he could tell from the wood that at least the bottom of the violin had come from Mittenwald. A rush of relief flooded me. I hadn’t traveled halfway across Europe for nothing.
There was, Zunterer added, something far more exciting. The label itself—that was a genuine Klotz. It turns out that putting fake labels in violins is a centuries-old tradition.
Not, apparently, to deceive customers, but to indicate the style of violin the instrument was modeled from. In the early days of the Mittenwald violin trade, some of the Klotz family even marked their own instruments with the name of Germany’s preeminent maker, Jacob Stainer, whose violins were more sought-after at that time than Stradivari’s. But to have a genuine label from Mathias Klotz’s own workshop—that was a rarity.
Zunterer himself currently had possession of a Mathias Klotz violin that didn’t carry a label.
“There are only six other Klotz labels in existence that he knows of,” Constanze translated, “and yours is the seventh.” Zunterer added something in German, and Constanze giggled. “He says he would rather have your label than your violin.”
On my final day in Mittenwald, my new banjo-playing friend, Peter, took me to a lunch of pretzel and weisswurst, warning me to first take the skin off the sausage if I didn’t want to look like a complete tourist. Then we walked to a tiny church on the edge of town, surrounded by an immaculate graveyard. It was, Peter explained, where every resident of Mittenwald eventually ended up, which was why the family gravestones, even those from decades ago, were cheerfully bedecked with fresh flowers.
Near the front door of the church was a plaque saying that Mathias Klotz, who had lived to the frankly miraculous age of 90, was buried somewhere on this ground. But that wasn’t what Peter had brought me to see. Inside, a modest collection of pews faced a large, ornate altarpiece. Peter hopped over the rope in front of it, and I, feeling scandalously sacrilegious, followed him. The back of the altarpiece was curtained with a sheet and he pulled it back to reveal its secret. Someone had carved a message into its wood in a large scrawl:
m k 16~4
n zo juhr
I recognized geigenmacher as “violin maker” and juhr as “year.” Whose the initials were, I could guess. “How did you know this was here?” I asked. “Everyone learned about Klotz in school,” said Peter. According to folklore, Mathias had come to the little church of Saint Nikolaus when he returned to Mittenwald and asked God to bless his new violin-making venture; when it succeeded, he left this ancient graffiti as a thank-you.
I looked at the marking, not so different from the label in my violin. The same man had created them both, and here I was, on the spot where he’d prayed for success. He may not have fashioned my own instrument, but he was still the reason for her existence. Without his dedication to his art, and to the town he lived in, she would never have been made.
My violin hadn’t changed. She was the same instrument I had chosen, when I was 12, for her warm, vibrant tone and rich, dark features. Did it matter that she wasn’t who she had claimed to be? No. I’d spent 20 years learning her secrets, and now I’d discovered the biggest one of all. I figured she probably knew worse about me.
This appeared in the August/September 2014 issue.