The Guild of Funerary Violinists

A General Introduction to the Art and History of Funerary Violin


  Introduction Heironymous Gratchenfleiss The Hildesheim Trunk Wilhelm Kleinbach  


From its origins in the Elizabethan Protestant Reformation, to its final extinction amidst the guns of the First World War, the Art of Funerary Violin was characterised by many unique and frequently misunderstood qualities that set it quite apart from all other forms of music. Indeed it is these distinctive characteristics that make it a truly unique genre, with its own specific concerns, aesthetic and function. Throughout the many changes in culture and society between the foundation of the Guild of Funerary Violinists in 1580 and the death of Niklaus Friedhaber (the last of the practicing official Funerary Violinists) in 1915, it retained a trueness to its origins and function, and a commitment to purity of form and mode, unparalleled in any other Western European musical tradition: due, in part, to the exclusive social role it played in relating the greatness of the higher classes directly to the ears of the lower classes.

This unique combination of pomp, ritual and spiritual expression was originally born out of the protestant removal of the concept of intercession (that man, specifically a priest, can intercede with God on behalf of the soul of the deceased) from the funerary ritual, leaving a spiritual vacuum which was filled by the playing of the violin. How this shift happened so suddenly and so smoothly remains unknown, but at the time the violin had been in England for around 40 years and was rapidly becoming noticed for its ability to be expressive both indoors, and outdoors, and George Babcotte (the founder of the Guild in 1586) was undoubted a man of considerable political intelligence and charisma. Much like the inevitable success of pop music in the 1950s, the cultural hole was there to be filled, and the time was right; and within two generations each town, and even village, had its own Funerary Violinist (usually part time, and often doubling as a carpenter and coffin-maker) and larger towns and Parish Councils would have a full time official post with a modest annual salary (much of their income was made through tips from the family and friends of the deceased). By the end of the 17th century the practice had spread across much of Europe, particularly in the protestant heartlands, but it had also taken root in France, Saxony, and many other more Catholic areas. Though at times reduced to village folk music, the tone was set at court: it was the great improvisers, and later, composer-performers employed by the richest and most cultured in the land who carved out the distinct musical language that was to give us, not only the familiar funeral marches of today, but many more subtle forms of spiritual and commemorative musics whose influence is cast over much of the more familiar classical repertoire of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

There are a number of much-quoted written accounts of performances by Funerary Violinists, dating right back to George Babcotte’s performance at the funeral of Sir Philip Sidney in 1586, many of them profoundly moving and deeply tantalising, but until the end of the 17th century it was an entirely improvised tradition, and so has left no trace other than these tragically inadequate yet historically invaluable descriptions in words. The earliest known written example of Funerary Violin music is a short suite by Friedrich Heidebrecht dated 1670. Heidebrecht was a German trained Funerary Violinist working for the court of Louis XIV, and it is thought that he was inspired to fix his compositions (rather than freely improvise) by his knowledge of the success, amongst lutenists at court, of the form of the Tombeau, a commemorative piece dedicated to a specific deceased person. These Tombeaux were a courtly adaptation of the music Funerary Violinists, such as Heidebrecht, had been playing, and he clearly saw the advantages gained by authorship first hand. What is puzzling is that these early composed representations of the form (by Heidebrecht, Addleston, Meunier, Faustmann etc.) bear such little resemblance to the accounts of improvised performances, often by the same artists. It can only be assumed that the transition to the written form proved a difficult process, and that success on paper, and its intention of spreading the work amongst many other players, depended upon a general gentrification of form, structure and melody. Though many of these late 17th and 18th century pieces are of considerable interest and occasionally display some of the more unusual modal and rhythmic characteristic associated with Funerary Violin, their courtly manners belie the true spirit of the tradition.

It is not until the emergence of Herr Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss, in the 1770s, that a composed form of the music finally emerges that embodies the full impact of the earliest written accounts. Though schooled in the contemporary harmony of his day by G.K.Bach in Hildesheim, Saxony, he soon abandoned it in favour of the bold rootedness of more modal writing. Almost all of his pieces are rooted on G, the lowest open string of the violin, which he often uses rhythmically like a bass drum. But not all his pieces take on the essence of a march. He crystallised the other more spiritual elements of the Funerary Violinist’s function, evolving pieces to depict the panic of death, the seductive qualities of death, the dizzy confusion of death etc: what survives of what must have been a prodigious output, is more of an epic exploration of Man’s relationship with his own mortality than a set of functional ritual pieces. In his day his success as a sought-after Funerary Violinist brought him considerable fame, renown, and wealth, despite his many eccentricities, and his works were rapidly spread (though in very small quantities) around Europe, profoundly influencing the works of the next generation.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century Romanticism was well under way, and artists had become prophets, death had become fashionable, and spiritual contemplation was no longer the province of religion alone. The 1810s in France saw the sudden appearance of popular funerary duals amongst funerary violinists (the soon to be deceased would leave a fragment of melody with his will, and two Funerary Violinists would improvise in turn upon the theme at the funeral, each attempting to draw more tragedy from it than his opponent – the winner being the artist who drew the most tears from the assembled crowd) and in England, Funerary Violinists such as Charles Sudbury, were accepted as part of London’s artistic establishment, and the spiritual philosophy that underlay the art had evolved into a semi-religious cult that briefly caught the imagination of all Europe. But, tragically, all this was to soon come to an end, as the Great Funerary Purges were about to sweep across Europe, eradicating almost every trace of this once flourishing art.

Scholars are, as yet, uncertain of the specific causes of the Great Funerary Purges, and many varied arguments have been posited and discredited over time. It is, of course, possible that the answer lies in the archives of the Vatican, and that one-day these archives will reveal their secrets, but officially the Vatican has always denied all knowledge of the events. What is known is that it started spreading across Europe steadily in 1833, and that it originated in orders from Rome itself. The first signs went unnoticed: books went missing from libraries and private collections; there were a series of apparently unconnected burglaries in which paintings of Funerary Violinists were all that was taken; old violins with the traditional death’s head scrolls were either vandalised or stolen, (only to reappear years later “restored” with a traditional scroll); and many pamphlets were circulated which condemned Funerary Violin as the music of the Devil: but ultimately it amounted to the wholesale destruction of the Funerary Violin tradition, which had stretched back over 300 years, and the subsequent removal of any references to it. It is doubtful whether such repression could have taken place, or such results been achieved without the support and cooperation of government officials throughout Europe, but so little evidence remains that it is impossible to say. What little we do know has been painstakingly pieced together from a handful of fragments, and unsubstantiated and often unspoken rumours. Until a number of recent discoveries (such as the Hildesheim trunk, the writings of Charles Sudbury and the Chichester Suites etc.) there was little solid evidence that such a rich tradition had existed at all.


There have always been two strains of Funerary Violin music. Firstly the ceremonial march, which was originally in 3 time to symbolise the broken stride of the deceased, and to distinguish it from religious music which was in 4 time. Many of today’s funeral marches are descended from the works of Funerary Violinists, and the form has remained largely unchanged over the years. Though many such marches were composed and performed for the nobility and the cultured, they were always aimed at the subjects, the tradesmen, the servants etc, as an affirmation of the social structure, and as such they were never allowed to become too abstract, or suffer the many indignities of overdone artistry. Secondly, there is the more cathartic spiritual element, usually performed as part of the oration or service. The actual function and duration of this element of the Funerary Violinist’s role has varied considerably over the centuries, from the simplest of evocative hymns, to monumental seven movement suites, designed to appease the spirit of the newly dead, drive off the devils, cleanse the Soul, and send it on to the Lord. At times of Catholic suppression, Funerary Violinists would slip musical references to the banned liturgy into their performance to highlight the spiritual essence of their performance, but it was rarely presented so specifically. What comes across most clearly in the surviving descriptions of their performances, is the intense directness of their playing; how it seems to reach into the very hearts of those who are present.

To understand the true essence of the tradition let us consider for a moment what a Funerary Violinist would have actually done, not from a practical, but from an emotional perspective, for though manners and ideologies may have changed considerably over the years, emotions are unchanging, death remains death, and man’s concern with it is unerring. The key to this is spiritual sensitivity. The Chapel of Rest, church or graveside is filled with strangers (to the violinist), all in a highly emotional and sometimes desperate state, the coffin containing their loved one is laid out at the front, and whilst everyone is still stirring the violinist takes up his bow and begins the ritual. This moment is crucial and if misjudged can lead to disaster. In his tone he must first convey the deep grief that is present in the room and then transform it into a thing of beauty. By the time he is finished a deep and plaintive calm should have descended upon the room, and the bereaved should be ready to hear the eulogy. To achieve this the music must be simple. Any hint of flashiness, even the slightest breath of ego will destroy the spell. This is music as magic, with the ability to transform the mood and perceptions of the audience in a way far beyond the concert hall – and it only works on such a deep level because the audience is in a heightened emotional state. It is a position of great responsibility, akin in many ways to a priest or shaman, and should not be taken lightly.

It is for these reasons that the genre of Funerary Violin evolved in its own distinct manner, following a path of rooted modality and direct expression, and eschewing all displays of virtuosity, both in terms of performance and compositional artistry, to simply and honestly explore our relationship with our own and others mortality, in all the many and varied aspects that history and culture has thrown at it. Had it survived until today who knows how it would have reflected our current disowning of death as a painful memory, but it is certain that it would have proved more profound and deeply cathartic than the contemporary tendency towards recorded music played on a ghetto blaster. But then maybe a spiritless age deserves a spiritless death. It is not for me to judge.