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IN AN ANCIENT building in the town of Mittenwald, celebrated for the beauty of its location in the heart of the Bavarian Alps, there is a small shop that seems to have been cut out of a page of medieval history.

And in this shop clogged with violins and other string instruments — a shop dark and musty, with a thousand different kinds of tools sharing creaking shelves with magazines and old newspapers — there sits an old man with a straggly mustache with all of the gentleness and kindness of the whole world in his eyes.

He sits bent over one of his violins, carefully appraising each detail for any sign of flaw. Occasionally he carelessly brushes back a few wisps of hair on his balding head, nods appreciatively as if satisfied with his work, then selects a bow hanging from a cord suspended from the ceiling and proceeds to play. From the violin comes an echo from Mozart, Bach and other masters who have given beauty to the world.

The old man is Johann Reiter, one of the great violin makers of the world. And it is not unusual to see this grand old man standing in the doorway of the ancient 14th Century building he occupies, holding his violin and regarding the crowds of sightseers. For Mittenwald is a tourist paradise and master Reiter is one of the town's celebrities.

There aren't many masters of violin making in Mittenwald today — perhaps six or seven. But there are a large number of apprentices, most of whom attend the state-sponsored violin makers' school in the town. The school was founded by King Ludwig I in 1858.

Once upon a time Mittenwald, which nestles in a lovely valley surrounded by an impressive mountain panorama, enjoyed what its history recalls as "The Golden Age." This, was during the Renaissance period when all the trade between the mighty merchants of Venice and the fabulously wealthy Fuggers of Augsburg or the shrewd merchants of Nurnberg ran through Mittenwald. The medieval transport of goods brought prosperity to the town.

The Venetians suddenly decided to move their marketplace from Mittenwald to Bolzano, Italy. It was a deadly blow to Mittenwald's burghers. The town faced ruin and want when all trade was summarily cut off.

In 1684, a young man named Mathias Klotz, later to become the founder of violin making in Mittenwald, decided to go out into the world to seek his fortune. He crossed the Alps and came to Cremore, Italy, looking for the job he could not find in his impoverished village.

Cremona was even then world famous for its violins. As a matter of fact all violins at that time came from Cremona, for no one in France, Germany or England understood the secret.

Young Klotz walked the streets of Cremona. Suddenly he heard music — an instrument he had never heard before. He entered a small shop cluttered with violins, lutes and lyres. An old man asked him what he wanted. Klotz said he was looking for a job and, to his surprise, was taken on as an apprentice. The old man was Amati, the great Italian violin master, and under him Klotz learned the secret of violin making — a secret he took back with him to Mittenwald years later.

Upon his return to his birthplace Klotz set up his own workshop, took on apprentices, and violin making as an industry started in. Mittenwald. Money poured in on the industrious Klotz and soon Mittenwald was holding a high place as a violin production center and Klotz won fame and admiration for the quality of his work.

At first, the best customers were in the numerous cloisters located near the town.

But soon the village was sending traveling salesmen, carrying heavy wicker baskets with violins on their backs, to the markets of Europe.

Most masters select their own wood. Each spring they go to the forest and cut maple, pine and spruce. They select the best parts of the trees, cutting the wood into sections about two feet long and an inch or so in thickness. The wood is put away for 15 years or longer before it is used.

Reiter, whose shop is 271 years old, has been making violins for 57 years. He's about 76 now. He obtains the wood in the forest nearby and exercises the greatest care in his selection and cutting. To build a proper violin maple is used for the lower structure and pine for the upper.

The wood is carefully stored for drying and kept from the sun. When the wood is completely dry after its long period of storage it gives off a resonant sound when struck.

A violin is made of 56 pieces of wood. It is an exacting labor requiring understanding in the making of not only the instrument but the ability to play it. Each craftsman must be able to play a violin, for only in that way can he understand its tone and quality. Reiter not only plays the violin in his shop but is a member of a musical group which meets frequently for evenings of Mozart and other masters.

The Staatliche Berufsfachschule fur Geigenbau in Mittenwald, or violin school, has 30 students. These take courses lasting 3½ years, but when the course is finished they are by no means master craftsmen. That takes many more years. They do learn not only how to make or repair violins, but guitars, cellos and other string. instruments. Some learn how to play all of these instruments, but all play the violin.

Students come to the school from many countries. Represented there now are students in violin making from Britain, France, Finland, Sweden, Holland, Poland, Austria and the U.S. The American student is Rolf Wunderlich, of Detroit, who has been there for two years. Upon completion of his studies he will join his father as a violin maker and repairer in the Michigan city.

A geigenbauer (violin maker) always strives for perfection in his work. It is not only the aging of the wood but the quality of the instrument itself which brings the highest price. Even the instruments produced at the school are in wide demand and each student is closely supervised by Leo Aschauer, who has been director of the school for 30 years.

It takes about two months to make a fine violin, but the entire process, from wood cutting and drying to study and creation, takes 17½ years. But then the instrument brings from $50 to $2,000.

The famous Mittenwald Violin Museum is housed at No. 3 Obermarkt, not far from Reiter's shop at No. 29. The museum, with its old string instruments, is one of the finest in the world. It is housed in a building dating back to the 16th Century and its connection with violin making is reflected on its ancient shutters, which bear replicas of violins.

The hallway is arched and dark and the walls are decorated with pictures of all kinds of musical instruments. An old spiral staircase leads to the floor which houses the museum. Cabinets in a long hall display instruments in all forms and color. There is another room devoted to the exhibit of violins. Then there is a quaint old workshop with all of the necessary woodworking instruments.

The whole setting of the workshop is authentic — old furniture, pictures, original violins made by Mathias Klotz.

Then one sees a collection of various wind, string and pluck instruments, such as guitars, zithers and lyres, all dating back to medieval days.

Another noted violin maker in Mittenwald, one of the masters of the craft, is Hans Nobel, whose shop is at 5 Dammkarstrasse, and whose product is also in wide demand.

Students at the school know that it takes years and years to develop into a master craftsman and that by then they will be middle-aged. But violin makers appear to enjoy longevity. Most masters live until they are 80 or even older.

Ludwig I and Ludwig II of Bavaria were very popular in Mittenwald. Both left their marks in or near the town, which in their time was known as the "Home of the Wooden Nightingale" or "The Village of a Thousand Violins."'

Ludwig I founded the school which still occupies the same building it did 98 years ago. In a shed near the school are thousands of pieces of wood, each marked with the year of its cutting. They will be used in the manufacture of violins and other string instruments.

Finishing the violin is a process most master craftsmen keep secret. When the violin has been assembled it gets its first coat of shellac. But from that time on each successive coat is the master's own formula. In Reiter's family the secret has been handed down from generation to generation.

Each coat has some bearing on the quality of the instrument. The price of the violin is often contingent upon the number of coats of shellac and varnish it has received. An apprentice seldom, if ever, knows the chemical content of the formula and, in time, has to develop his own.

Despite its exactness and precision, despite the expert technical and musical knowledge required in violin making, students —girls and boys — as well as the masters themselves would do no other work.

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