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Saxony's instrument makers hold on to tradition despite hardship

For more than three centuries, Germany's Vogtland region has been known for making some of the world's finest musical instruments. Reunification shook up the industry, but a few lucky ones are carrying on the tradition.

A woman playing the violin

Some of the world's top musicians buy their instruments in the Vogtland region

Since the 17th century, all kinds of musical instruments have been produced in Saxony's mountainous Vogtland region - from violins and guitars, to lutes, accordions, wind instruments, bows and accessories. Several centuries and many political regimes later, every family in this area is still tied to the instrument industry in some way.

"There's nothing but instrument-making in the Vogtland region," expained 40-year-old Bjoern Stoll, who took over his father's cello and double bass workshop. "Here, you start to learn the trade as a child."

Stoll has strong hands and wears jeans and a plaid lumberjack shirt. His workshop, which overlooks the garden of his parents' home, would not have looked any different 300 years ago. There are no big tools, just dozens of planers, tongs and whittling knives hanging against the wall.

Reunification a tough transition

Bjoern Stoll works on a cello in his atelier

Bjoern Stoll took over his father's workshop

Prior to World War I, 80 percent of the world's musical instruments came from the region. Those who distributed them earned profits of up to a thousand fold. They became millionaires and built prestigious villas in the hills. The woman wore stylish hats and on Saturdays the wealthy would take a taxi to go for dinner in Leipzig.

The United States deemed Markneukirchen, one of the Vogtland villages, so economically significant that it ran a consulate general there from 1893 to 1916. The magnificent neo-Baroque and Art Nouveau facades bear witness to the good old days.

It wasn't war, economic crisis or four decades of communist rule that curbed the success of the instrument makers. Rather, the heftiest blow to the old tradition was German reunification in 1990.

During the communist period, the state-run foreign trade organization had dealt with marketing. After the fall of the East German regime, instrument makers had to learn to position themselves in a market economy. In some cases, this hurdle proved so challenging that the older generation simply passed the business on to their children, who were better able to adapt to the new system.

Nevertheless, Vogtland's share of the world musical instrument market dropped to 1.5 percent following reunification. Around 7,000 jobs have been cut over the past 20 years. Larger companies were hit the hardest and many did not survive.

Determined to make it

Gabriele Herberger presents one of Harmona's top accordians

Gabriele Herberger presents one of Harmona's top accordians

Around the year 2000, the Vogtland instrument makers started fighting back. They received special funding from the German government, which had been set aside to develop regions with unique selling points.

The instruments makers also founded Musicon Valley, a network aimed at effectively marketing the region, both to potential customers and tourists. The network helped Gabriele Herberger when she came to the region from Frankfurt to manage the world's oldest accordion-maker, Harmona, in the village of Klingenthal.

After reunification, investors from the West suddenly showed keen interest in Harmona. Their real concern was a takeover to eliminate competition. Since the early 1990's, the business has changed ownership three times, said Herberger.

It's unusual for Germans to move from the West to the East for business, but Herberger reasoned, "Some travel to the desert for survival training, but I thought: Let me go to Klingenthal! And it's for a good cause, too - to keep people employed."

The corporate consultant's intention was to keep the century-old tradition alive by involving her workers in the responsibility of success. Restructuring the production, strengthening the assembly of highly individual products and expanding to the Eastern European market were some of her targets. Flexibility was her secret.

The sieve of fortune

B&S brass instrument workshop

B&S has industrialized the process of making fine brass instruments by hand

Looking back on the 20 years after reunification is sobering for Gabriele Herberger.

"In the beginning of German reunification we failed to see what was good in East Germany and what we could have transferred to the new reunified Germany," she said. "I suppose the reunification process went too fast and developed its own momentum which could not be steered."

Twenty years after German reunification, this assessment comes too late for many instrument makers in the Vogtland region.

Bjoern Stoll is certainly among the lucky ones.

"It was a long and winding road. But eventually, it yields fruit," he said. "At the moment, we're busier than ever. Talking about a crisis is totally out of the question. If a customer comes today, I put him off until next year."

Author: Peter Zimmermann

Editor: Kate Bowen

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