An Echo of Their Tunes

If I can find the time, one of the things I like to do every evening is practice the fiddle. I’m not good, but I’m getting better. There’s definitely a calming effect from it, like a walk on a mountain trail. I follow a trace left by someone else, but I never see things exactly the way they did. Sometimes I only find cacophony, and other times the effect is ethereal. It’s something that a psychologist could probably analyze with dramatic and devastating results, but I try not to consider the implications of this habit. It is, at least, constructive and it keeps me from being a complete consumer.

While music has had a continuous influence in my own life, I believe it to have had influences throughout the generations since we became Jewish and before. (If you haven’t read my previous posts, you may not understand that comment: the BRCA gene is passed on through some Jewish family lines. Until my close relative was diagnosed with it, my family had no clue that we shared this Jewish heritage. Now we suspect that the gene was introduced through my great-grandmother, Amelie Von Marquet Kuhnhausen.)

The proud owner of a new piano, purchased from a piano wagon out of Portland, Oregon. Photographs of her wedding to Karl (Charles) Kuhnhausen grace the top of the piano. This piano sits in my music room.

The proud owner of a new piano, purchased from a piano wagon out of Portland, Oregon. Photographs of her wedding to Karl (Charles) Kuhnhausen grace the top of the piano. This piano sits in my music room.

In my music room sits an old piano, which joined our family before 1906 (I have a photograph of the Jewish great-grandmother sitting proudly before it, published on a custom postcard which once carried a postmark of that year). The piano doesn’t get much play now. My daughter had been taking lessons on it before she died, and her music sat on the piano for months before I finally cleared it off into the piano bag she used to carry it to town. Now that music stands by the abandoned piano, both of them artifacts of people who have completed their turns on earth.

I recently laid another piece of music on the piano, as if someone had been playing it on the piano and got up and walked away. I think this music was from one of my German ancestors, and I had to special order it from the local music store. It is a booklet containing the music and text of a Passion of St. Matthew, composed by a minor baroque choir master, Johannes Georg Kühnhausen. Although this piece hasn’t caught on in the American choir repertoire, there are indications that performances of it have been laid to CDs twice in the past decade in Europe. The church where he was choir master when he composed the work back in the year 1700 held a special concert featuring the Passion a few years back. I haven’t been able to get a copy of the CDs, but I would love to hear it sung. I think it would be marvelous to be able to hear the words and music an esteemed musician who might be my ancestor composed so long ago.

The violin I play on is one I inherited from my father, who played it at all his Old Time Fiddlers Association gigs. The story goes that he was given this fiddle by my mother’s uncle, one of the generation who immigrated from Germany in the early 1880s. Uncle Paul, whose photograph shows a young hunter/frontiersman, supposedly played this fiddle…or perhaps violin…his entire life. Where he got it is open to debate.

The violin is like my playing: passable, not outstanding. I sometimes squeak on the E string: it may be the bow I use, or perhaps (God forbid), my playing. I’ve shown the violin to luthiers, and nobody swoons in recognition of a missing masterwork. The violin is stamped “Hopf” on the back. You can go online and see the discussions about violins like that. There are some that are genuine gems, others that are factory trash. One reviewer put it like this:

"A large number of makers of this name have operated in Klingenthal, Markneukirchen, and
elsewhere in Germany for generations. Some were tolerable workmen ; others most indifferent.
Most of them used to brand their work, and the name Hopf may be seen branded on productions
of the very commonest class, which are hardly fit to be described as violins."

My opinion is that our violin is one that is fit to be described as a violin, although it carries that brand. Eighteen or more luthiers built Hopf violins, and that was only within the Hopf family. Other makers used the name to denote the style of violin they produced, although their standards were less rigorous than the original makers. From what I can find, our violin stands apart from the lesser makes in that it was built to stricter standards. Inside, you will find corner blocks that support the structure of the box. These were discarded by imitators. This violin features a single-piece carved back, with the grain canted to allow for maximum strength where the back would be most vulnerable, at the points of the cutouts. (See the photograph below) There is the matter of the quality of the wood, too, but more convincing to me is the family history.

The Kuhnhausens, according to my grandfather’s two family histories, owned and operated an inn called Gasthaus Von Gruinen Garten at the village of Grossbreitenbach, in Saxony. Although he was certain that his parents migrated directly from Grossbreitenbach, my grandfather also placed the Kuhnhausen family in a nearby German town, curiously named Kühnhausen. Like so many hopeful genealogists, he claimed that we had once possessed a Von in front of the K name.

What my grandfather didn’t mention is that Grossbreitenbach has a strong musical history. Fine pipe organs were produced here, destined for cathedrals and churches throughout central Europe. Perhaps he was not aware of it, but my grandfather also overlooked the existence of the Kuhnhausen who was a minor baroque composer of church music.

So we have a family living in or near a famous musical center, possibly with a talented ancestor to their credit. Now, consider that the Hopf family of luthiers were located at Klingenthal, a town on the border between Saxony and the Czech Republic. Both of the villages associated with our family were within a few miles of Erfurt, a scant ten miles apart. Klingenthal is to the southeast, about twenty miles away from Grossbreitenbach, although with the winding local roads, it may have seemed farther. Klingenthal is another German burg with musical connections. It is perhaps best known for a style of concertina developed there, quite unlike the English concertina I play. This one is a heavy cubical beast with what seems like hundreds of buttons on each end. It is popular amongst polka enthusiasts and some East Europeans. Polish immigrants play polkas on them. The Klingenthaler concertina also made it to Argentina with the Germanic diaspora, where it is used to play tango music.

With a musical family in a musical village, a family that owned an inn, and was probably living comfortably for a while, is it inconceivable that one of the children would be encouraged to play the violin using one of the instruments produced in a nearby village by a well-known family of craftsmen? I have no idea when this violin was made, but I have a feeling it left the maker’s bench sometime in the 1830s. Uncle Paul may not have been the first family member to play it. Probably he wasn’t. Paul was born in 1875, one of the younger children of Karl and Amelia Von Marquet Kühnhausen. (Our family did away with the dots over the u when they hit these shores, perhaps to avoid complicated explanations such as the one a German friend named Jürgen had to give when he introduced himself: “My name is Jürgen, with two pricks.”) Paul was in the second shift of immigrants, not one of the sons that Karl took with him when he deprived Herman (father of the writer of the family history I quote below) of his ticket to America (see Illegal Immigrants, published on this blog in June, 2009). Paul was only around ten years old when he arrived in America.

According to my grandfather, the second Herman F. Kuhnhausen, Paul “loved music and got a violin and learned to play it quite well. The violin was the principle means of entertainment in pioneer days. Neighbors would get together and spend the day playing their musical instruments, and some were quite good at it considering they learned by themselves and helping one another.” Later in his book, Herman describes a neighbor, Henry Frank Troh, who organized a local band. “To start the music, he would say, ‘Ince, Swiy, Thri, Spail, Meir, Pete, Jebe [Herman’s transliteration]’ In English this would be “One, two, three, play, me, Pete, and Jebe.’ ” Herman recalls being thrilled by the shining brass instruments the band would play from the back of a wagon covered with star-spangled bunting on special days. If Uncle Paul got a violin, maybe it was one that the Trohs brought with them from Germany. It was hard to find instruments like this in the backwoods of Washington State in the late 1800s.

Amelia Kuhnhausen brought Paul and the remainder of her family to her half-sister’s home in Chicago, and later the whole bunch of them moved West in response to the ad placed by Antone Wellenbrock in German papers in that city. Mrs. Geisler, Amelia’s half-sister, was a child of their mutual mother’s second marriage, and she had moved to America with her husband years before. “Amelia Von Marquet,” according to Herman’s first book, History of the Kuhnhausen Family, “was the only child in her family, as can be assumed from all the facts I can gather. Her father passed away when she was a young lady. Her mother remarried and had two more daughters. They grew up and were married in Germany and came to the United States with their husbands. Aunt Schneidler and Mrs. Geisler were the only names I knew them by.”

He goes on to state that Amelia inherited her father’s estate, including “Gasthaus Von Gruinen Garten (Guest House Von Green Garden [Herman’s translation]) in Grossbreitenbach.” She met and married Karl Edward Kuhnhausen in 1857, bearing eighteen children over all. Twelve of them survived, ten boys and two girls. Grandpa, a backwoods author who relied mostly on the unreliable witness of family members descended from these twelve, reported that the Kuhnhausen family started “losing the Inn, so they were beginning to immigrate to the United States as they could.”

Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of these home-made genealogies, facts as conveyed cannot always be trusted. When Karl Kuhnhausen passed away in 1899 a local paper carried a brief obituary written by one of his sons, Hugo. This son stated that Karl had been born in a town called Hofgarten, in Saxony. That was probably an Americanization of the village of Hopfgarten, Saxony, around a hundred kilometers east of Grossbreitenbach, near Dresden. My experience as a genealogist has been limited to English-speaking environments, although I’ve been privileged to work with the internet, which extends my reach considerably beyond what my grandfather was able to do when he wrote his books. Perhaps this only demonstrates that people in Germany moved, too. Karl (buried in Glenwood as Charles) may have been born in Hopfgarten only to move on to Grossbreitenbach, where he met and married my Jewish great-grandmother.

So how does this relate to the violin I’ve been playing? Hopfgarten still lies within reach of Klingenthal. It’s just in the opposite direction. In fact, it lies between Klingenthal and the other big concertina capital of Saxony, Chemnitz, where the Chemnitzer concertinas originated.  I’ve discovered no evidence linking Hopfgarten with the Hopf family of violin makers. But isn’t it a coincidence?

A strong morning light picks up the way the luthier used a single piece of figured wood for the back. Notice how the grain was angled to provide maximum strength where the points are located above and below the cutouts. Decoration is used sparingly, with a single crescent of black mounted at the base of the neck.

A strong morning light picks up the way the luthier used a single piece of figured wood for the back. Notice how the grain was angled to provide maximum strength where the points are located above and below the cutouts. Decoration is used sparingly, with a single crescent of black mounted at the base of the neck.

The origins of this violin are likely to remain a mystery. I’m not really interested in spending effort, time and money on a definitive analysis. I enjoy fiddling with its history, creating stories about what it’s been through in its lengthy career. I enjoy putting my hands where people of an older generation placed theirs, with reverence and talent, and hearing the echo of their tunes.

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