When the Gemünder Brothers Ruled American Violin Making

When George arrived in Astoria in the 1870s, he was America’s preeminent violin maker; among his chief rivals was his brother, August Martin Ludwig

By Brian Wise | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

For a visitor to the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, the Steinway name is inescapable. It appears on a local pharmacy, a wine shop, a pizza joint, an optometrist’s office, and a main thoroughfare. The Steinway & Sons piano factory looms in the district’s northern corner, producing more than 1,200 pianos a year on the same property it has owned since the 1870s.

But the neighborhood contains no evidence of another pioneering, German-born instrument maker that settled here in the 1870s. George Gemünder & Sons made stringed instruments in what was then “a sleepy and rather shabby little town” on Long Island, according to an 1885 report in the New York Tribune (Queens did not become part of New York City until 1898). The workshop occupied a two-story building on a blind lane “with a bit of primitive forest in the back.”

When George Gemünder arrived in Astoria, he was America’s preeminent violin maker, having trained at the J.B. Vuillaume workshop in Paris and worked in Manhattan for 20 years. A shrewd self-promoter, whose copies of Stradivari and Amati instruments fooled experts as being genuine articles, Gemünder won first prize at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. His instruments were used by virtuosos—including Ole Bull, Louis Spohr, and August Wilhelmj—and regularly received flattering newspaper coverage.

Among George Gemünder’s chief rivals was his brother, August Martin Ludwig Gemünder, whose stringed instruments also drew raves from prominent clients. He, too, excelled at copying old Italian masters, with Pablo de Sarasate once claiming that his copy of an Amati was as good as the original. Though August lacked the technical expertise of his brother, he surpassed him in business acumen. A third brother, Albert Gemünder, became a successful organ builder and moved to Columbus, Ohio.

“They were making instruments that people could buy and use,” says Philip Kass, a Pennsylvania-based violin expert and author. “The instruments were better quality than the kind of things you got from Sears, Roebuck and Co. And during their great heyday, from the 1880s to the 1920s, the Gemünders—along with the Friedrichs and H.R. Knopf—were probably the leading violin makers in New York City.”

This past December, a matched set of instruments by August Gemünder & Sons was presented in a concert at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art by the resident Catalyst Quartet. The instruments, built by August Martin for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, were donated to the museum in 1946 and have been out of public view since.

Jayson Kerr Dobney, the lead curator of the Met’s department of musical instruments, told the audience how the set was built for presentation, with birdseye maple adorning the backs and the maker’s initials inscribed on the tailpieces.Between performances of works by Haydn, Gershwin, Price, Montgomery, and Glass, the Catalyst members described the instruments’ characteristics: the complementary dark and bright timbres of the violins, the sweet tone of the contralto viola, and the cello with an original endpin that felt “cozy, like a warm, velvet-green armchair,” according to cellist Karlos Rodriguez.


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Though the Catalyst had several months to acclimate to the set, the instruments’ long dormancy made for a contained sound. Rodriguez tells Strings that, unlike his own “ex-Gérard Hekking” Gustave Bernardel cello, the Gemünder lacks the ability to soar above an orchestra. “It’s nice not to have to temper yourself, in a way,” he says. “It does what it was intended to do. It’s just lovely and very nice not to have to hold back.”

“They weren’t innovating violin making,” he adds of the Gemünder brothers. “They were just trying to make good instruments.” 

  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 front, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 front detail, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 back detail, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 treble side detail, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 bass side detail, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 scroll bass side detail, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 scroll treble side detail, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 scroll front detail, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • George Gemünder I, New York, 1856 scroll back detail, Courtesy of Tarisio

Bringing European Craft to the New World

The Gemünder family saga begins with Johann Georg Gemünder, a violin maker who served the court of Prince Hohenlohe, in the western German town of Inglefingen. Sons August and George (born Georg) assisted their father in his workshop until his death in 1835, at which point August inherited the business and moved it to Regensburg. Younger brother Albert pursued organ building.

George, meanwhile, moved to Vienna, Munich, and Strasburg before securing an apprenticeship with Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, the noted French violin maker. He rapidly progressed, and in 1845, when Ole Bull brought his favorite Gasparo da Salò violin to be repaired, Vuillaume reportedly turned it over to Gemünder as a vote of confidence.

August and Albert emigrated to the US in 1846 and opened an organ and piano building company in Springfield, Massachusetts. George joined them the next year, and the three brothers, joined by a fourth musician, formed a touring quartet of clarinet, violin, flute, and bass guitar. When life on the road didn’t pan out as hoped—an unscrupulous manager pocketed their proceeds—the brothers fell back on their training, and George moved to New York City.

“There had been nobody of that level of quality until that time,” says Kass. August soon followed George, establishing a separate Manhattan business and producing violins that were “very ordinary, decent-quality German instruments, inspired a little bit by Knopf or Friedrich, who would have been the other principal makers in New York at that time. But they’re not in a class with what George was making.”


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Philadelphia violin maker Christopher Germain says that George’s work under Vuillaume leveled up his skills. “Rather than slavishly copying a particular example, George is able to convey the spirit of the original instrument, while exhibiting his own personality and character,” Germain writes in an email. “His instruments are distinctive in his choice of woods, which is often American, as well as his characteristic varnish, which generally has a bright, transparent rose tint to it.”

George Gemünder’s wood stock was idiosyncratic and included the salvaged spruce beams of a 200-year-old Dutch church in Lower Manhattan. Once, he convinced the owner of an Astoria beer garden to hand over a table whose wooden top he admired. Still, his business suffered from his move in 1874 to Astoria, which was only reachable from Manhattan by ferry. (August benefited, having often been mistaken for his more celebrated brother.)

Stocky and bearded with a taste for meerschaum pipes, George never underestimated his accomplishments, peppering his third-person autobiography with gushy quotes from the likes of Wilhelmj, who purportedly called him “the greatest violin maker of all times!”

“George rubbed everybody the wrong way,” says Kass. “He constantly said the things that antagonized people.” In 1889, George suffered a serious stroke, prompting his sons George Jr. and Hermann Ludwig to take over daily business operations, marking the start of the workshop’s slow decline. After George’s death in 1899, they continued making instruments in their father’s name, but the creative spark was missing, and both died penniless in the early 1910s.


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August’s workshop met a different fate after his death in 1895. When his sons, August Martin, Rudolph, and Oscar, took over, they imported instruments from France and Germany and successfully labeled them “Gemünder Art” violins. Still, troubles surfaced after Rudolph’s death and an interfamily lawsuit in 1916, followed by the death of August Martin in 1928. The business folded after Oscar’s death in 1946. 

  • August Martin Ludwig Gemünder, New York, 1878, front, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • August Martin Ludwig Gemünder, New York, 1878, back, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • August Martin Ludwig Gemünder, New York, 1878, scroll, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • August Martin Ludwig Gemünder, New York, 1878, inscription, Courtesy of Tarisio
  • August Martin Ludwig Gemünder, New York, 1878, brand, Courtesy of Tarisio

A Blustery Showman

Recent sales history has been favorable to George Gemünder’s instruments, with violin prices averaging around $18,000 over the past five years, according to data published by Tarisio (the highest record sale was $37,375, for a violin in 2004). Sales figures for August Martin Ludwig’s instruments have averaged at about $4,000 over roughly the same period (having peaked at $17,700 for a cello in 2016). Though some of the brothers’ instruments are prized by collectors, their price range tends to be well suited to advanced students or young professionals, says Rodriguez of the Catalyst Quartet.

The Gemünder brothers aimed high. In bringing European designs to the New World, they were savvy about tailoring the quality and price of their instruments to the market. George had the added aura of a blustery showman, once sending an imitation Stradivari violin to the 1867 Paris Exhibition, and to test its merits, labeling it as the genuine article. The jury panel proclaimed it an original and called George an imposter when he (correctly) claimed to be the maker. George nonetheless embraced the moment.

The brothers also infused into their instruments an extra, indefinable ingredient of cultural cachet. The latter part of the 19th century was an era of superstar performers, and George especially touted his high-profile endorsements—real or otherwise. Yet as demand for top-quality instruments grew, higher-end workshops proliferated in Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, and other cities. The Gemünder brothers lost some of their New York edge.

In 2017, a George Gemünder violin worth some $40,000 went missing after its owner, a local freelancer, accidentally left it in a Boston train station, drawing international headlines. Upon its recovery by the police, the owner said the violin was “like my child” and called the recovery “the best news of my life.” One could not help but wonder if George Gemünder would have relished the attention and affection given to his dear old instrument.