The distinguished Austrian violin maker Jakob Stainer (c 1619–1683) was born into a family of miners in Absam near Hall in Tyrol. Nothing is known about his training, but stylistic characteristics of his instruments and his knowledge of Italian would indicate Cremona or Venice as likely places where he made his apprenticeship. His activities as a violin maker are first documented in a shipment of instruments to the Archduke of Salzburg’s court chapel.

Gute Beziehungen unterhielt Stainer zum Innsbrucker Hof der Habsburger, für den er wiederholt Instrumente anfertigen und reparieren durfte – auch für die dort auftretenden Konzertvirtuosen. So hat Stainer das zu London angefertigte, überaus kostbare Instrument des Konzertgambisten William Young nachzubauen versucht, wenn er 1678 in einem Brief schreibt: „Ich habe den form und manier von des Engellenders Violen.“

Stainer maintained good relations with the Hapsburg court in Innsbruck, often building and repairing instruments for it, including for the soloists who performed there. For example, Stainer built a copy of viola da gamba soloist William Young’s valuable instrument (that had been built in London), as documented in a letter dated 1678: “I have the form and the style of the Englishman’s viol”.

Verheiratet war Stainer seit 1645 mit der Haller Bergmeisterstochter Margareta Holzhammer (1624 – 1689), die ihm mehrere Kinder gebar; seine Nachkommenschaft erlosch jedoch bereits in der zweiten Generation. Mit seiner Familie bewohnte Stainer ein durch Tausch und Aufzahlung erworbenes Haus im Absamer Oberdorf, in dem er sich im Zuge des Umbaus eine Werkstätte einrichtete.

Stainer also enjoyed profitable contact with the elector’s court in Munich; the construction of a bass viola in 1645 is documented, as well as a particularly ornate violin adorned with ivory and ebony in 1655.

Stainer married Margareta Holzhammer, the daughter of a mining foreman in Halle, in 1658, and together they had a number of children. His descendants, however, came to an end already with the second generation. Stainer lived with his family in a house in Absam Oberdorf that he acquired through trade and wages and in which he installed his workshop.

In 1658 Archduke Ferdinand Karl of Austria-Tyrol issued him a letter of trade that carried the title of Retainer of the Archduke and that Emperor Leopold the First renewed in 1669. Stainer’s coat of arms features an ibex holding a violin.

Despite many orders and commissions Jakob Stainer was often in debt over a longer period of time. In 1659 he let himself get involved in a dubious transaction. A long and dangerous conflict with the Catholic Church due to possession of forbidden books began in 1668, leading to temporary arrest, house arrest, public trial and excommunication, and from which he finally freed himself after a public confession and three blows with a scourge.

The process, however, did not hurt Stainer’s business; he remained in great demand and delivered numerous secular and sacred courts with his instruments. A very interesting exchange of letters has been preserved with regard to a commission for instruments for the orchestra of the Fürstbischof von Olmütz. They provide a great deal of insight into his character and his method of working.

The last years of the instument maker’s life were clouded by a regularly returning dementia that made it more and more difficult to fulfill orders for instruments. Stainer, who never trained any apprentices, died in Absam in 1683.

Text: Christoph Brandhuber, Salzburg

Stainer and the Musicians of his Time

Jacob Stainer worked alone all of his life, refusing to take on apprentices or assistants. This is why his instruments (around 350) are so rare and why he did not reach such a large number of opuses as the Stradivarius or the Amati families, who always had many assistants working in their ateliers.

This also explains why Stainer’s style scarcely changed over the years. He developed his very unique and unmistakable style during his years of apprenticeship and it remained basically the same for the whole of his life. One can assume that he had little contact with other violin makers. He did maintain, on the other hand, very close relations with the musicians of his time. Stainer was a great admirer of world famous gamba virtuoso William Young, who performed at the court in Innsbruck for over a decade, maintaining regular contact with him.

Stainer selber muss ein ausgezeichteter Geiger gewesen sein und hat auch selber Konzerte gegeben. Es gibt mehrere Überlieferungen von ihm, in denen er schreibt, wie wichtig es für einen Geigenbauer sei, selber viel von Musik zu verstehen und das Geigenspiel zu beherschen.

Stainer himself was an outstanding violinist and also performed in concert. He repeatedly mentioned in letters how important it is for a violin maker to understand music well and to have command of his instrument.

Stainer’s instruments quickly became famous and were soon to be found in monasteries, courts and the houses of nobility near and far.

The names of many famous musicians are also to be found in his documents. We know from his letters that Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was in contact with him and probably also played his instruments. When Biber later moved to Salzburg, he arranged various commissions for his “colleague” Stainer.

The epoch of great Italian violin virtuosos began shortly after Stainer’s death. This led to his instruments becoming famous throughout Europe and England.

Francesco Maria Veracini was apparently a real Stainer “fan”. 26 music instruments are mentioned in his estate from 1715, including 10 Stainer violins. It is interesting to note that Stainer’s instruments were rated as being more valuable in price than those of the famous masters from Cremona. Veracini gave his two favorite Stainer violins the names Petrus and Paul.

Francesco Geminiani and Giuseppe Tartini also played on Stainer violins.

It is also documented that J.S. Bach’s orchestra performed on a number of very good violins and cellos from Tyrol; one can assume that a few Stainer instruments were among these.