Jakob Stainer

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.

Stainer maintained good relations with the Hapsburg court in Innsbruck, for which he often could build and repair instruments, including 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”.

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, a 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. An 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 died in Absam in 1683.

Text: Christoph Brandhuber, Salzburg


Jacob Stainer worked alone all of his life, refusing to take on apprentices or assistants. This is why his instruments (around 350 are documented) are so rare and why he did not reach such a large number of opuses as the families of Stradivari or the Amati, 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 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.

A detailed biography of Jacobus Stainer, written by the historian Christoph Brandhuber and reflecting the latest state of Stainer research, can be downloaded here. With kind permission of the publisher Traugott Bautz.

The Gift

In 1951 Gustave Huguenin from Corseaux-Vevey presented the Musikkollegium Winterthur with a gift of «a quartet of original works by Jakob Stainer», a truly unique donation. The contribution was made in memory of his father, who went to school in Winterthur, as well as in memory of his own year of «apprenticeship» in Winterthur, during which time he played in the City Orchestra. Another important factor was his friendship with Georges Zellweger, the longest-term member on the Kollegium’s board at the time. Both men were aficionados of music and collectors of string instruments. The benefactor wanted the Stainer quartet to «remain in the permanet possession of the Kollegium» and to be played «frequently» by the members of the board as well as by the Winterthur String Quartet.

The Stainer quartet was inaugurated by the Winterthur String Quartet in a «soirée» ceremony on 22 November 1951. Further use of the instruments was defined in the so-called Stainer Statutes of 1951/53.

Dr. Gertrud Muraro-Ganz


The conditions regarding the use of the Stainer quartet was so restrictive that the valuable instruments rarely were played, and with time even less. Specific changes to the instruments and a liberalization of the statutes were made in the 1990’s with the goal of renewing interest in the quartet, but without great success. Some musicians were not satisfied with the instruments because they lacked a «big tone», despite the changes made to them in the 19th century. And proponents of historical performance practices avoided them exactly because of these alterations.

Within the framework of the major Jacob Stainer Exhibition that took place at Schloss Ambras near Innsbruck in 2003, the department for historical music instruments at the Kunsthistorische Museum Vienna suggested the Musikkollegium Winterthur to restore the two violins completely to their original condition and to restore only the fittings of the viola and the cello to their Baroque origins since original historical models did not exist for them. Aline Oberle, a master violin maker from Steuerberg/Kärnten (Austria) made these restorations for the Musikkollegium Winterthur in 2003 and 2004. It was also in connection with the Stainer Exhibition in 2003 that all doubts about the authenticity of the four instruments could be eradicated.

Dr. Gertrud Muraro-Ganz


Most of the instruments of the famous violin makers from the 17th and 18th centuries underwent major alterations during the late 19th century. As concert halls grew in size and compositional styles changed it was the popular belief that instruments should be altered with regard to tone and playing techniques in order to accommodate these changes. Also the two violins by Jacob Stainer «suffered this fate».

In order to restore an instrument to its assumed original condition a certain amount of preparatory work is necessary. Most important is to find a violin from the same maker that was not «modernized». For these two «sister» instruments I found an instrument (J. Stainer 1668) at the National Music Museum of the University of South Dakota to serve as the model for the restoration.

The procedure for the restoration: the belly had to be removed first, and the neck, saddle and purfling had to be refitted. The bass bar was replaced with a shorter, lower one. The top block in which the modern neck was fitted was removed and replaced with a new one. The modern neck (fitted into the pegbox) was removed, refitted into the pegbox and mounted at a lower angle to the ribs on the top block with a nail. The fingerboard, a spruce core with an ebony veneer on the three visible sides, was fitted like a wedge onto the neck and into a groove on the edge of the belly. A Baroque neck is thicker in width than a modern neck when cut to fit.

The fittings of a Baroque violin look different than those of a modern instrument. The tailpiece is made of pearwood with an ebony veneer; the holes for the strings do not have any grooves, they are fixed with gut. The plumwood pegs were turned, stained black and ornamented with bone tips, the knobs likewise plumwood. Unfortunately an original bridge from one of Stainers instruments does not exist; I chose to use a Stradivarius model for the two violins.

Aline Oberle, master violin maker; Steuerberg, March 2007

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