The Guild of Funerary Violinists

Herr Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss

This etching of Herr Gratchenfleiss was made in 1775, during his visit to London. Possibly as a reaction to the unsympathetic attitude of the English press to his eccentric dress, he has uncharacteristically chosen to be presented in the manner of a Classical music performer, dressed in the height of English fashion, rather than his usual late 17th century style of the long periwig and frock coat. It is probably for this reason that the picture was overlooked during the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s-40s and has survived, in the British Library, to this day. The scar, clearly visible on his left cheek, is thought to have been the result of a duel with Walter Kriebel in 1765. Though the cause of the duel is unknown, records indicate that Kriebel, Funerary Violinist to Duke Charles II of Würtemburg, lost two fingers from his left hand, resulting in an unceremonious end to his career.
  Introduction Heironymous Gratchenfleiss The Hildesheim Trunk Wilhelm Kleinbach  


Now long since forgotten, Herr Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss was, in his day, as famous as Paganini, Heifitz or Menuhin. Indeed, not just he, but the whole tradition of Funerary Violin has now passed out of our cultural memory; a testament to the destructive forces that can be unleashed when artistry, society, politics and religion collide. His tremendous fame, virtuosity, and tendency towards spiritual self-aggrandisement were to lead, in time, to accusations of demonic pacts and unholy unions, and ultimately to the destruction of the Art itself in the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and 40s..

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 qualities that set it quite apart from other forms of music. It is these distinctive characteristics that made it a 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 1586 and the death of Niklaus Friedhaber (the last of the practising 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.

Herr Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss, or Grauschenfliess (it was on a trip to London in 1775 that he so liked the English mispronunciation that he decided to adopt it) was born in Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony in 1736. In the mid 18th century it was common for the town or village undertaker/carpenter to double as a violinist for festivals and funerals and Gratchenfleiss came from just such a family. At court the role of funerary violinist as a dedicated specialist was already long established and the young Hieronymous, aged seven, was present at the funeral procession of Gustav Holtsbrunner, (a notable banker and friend of the Prince Elector), and saw first hand the artistry of Karlheinz Schinker, Funerary Violinist to Frederick Augustus II, who led the grand procession. This clearly made a deep impression upon him, for, as a result he turned all his attention to practising the violin, much to his father’s consternation, who considered undertaking to be the more respectable side of the trade.

In 1750, at the age of 14 he became a student of Gustav Karl Bach, in Hildesheim, Saxony, who was a less gifted cousin of the famous J.S.Bach, and it was under his tuition that Gratchenfleiss was exposed to all the latest musical and aesthetic ideas. It was also at this time that he first came upon the “ancient” music of the 17th century, amongst the private collection of his tutor, which was to have a profound influence upon his musical development. He clearly demonstrated exceptional talent as, in 1758, at the age of only 22, he took over the position that had so inspired him as a child; that of Kurfürstentrauerviolinistenmeister: Funerary Violinist to the Prince Elector of Saxony; a post he was to hold, (officially if not in practice) until his death in 1810. Few records remain to catalogue the many funerals he must have performed at, but it can be assumed that these would include all the notables of his day. We do know that by the 1770s he was performing all over Europe, to great acclaim, including a visit to London in 1775 where he played at the funeral of Sir Reginald Wellesley, a high ranking civil servant of the time, in a grand procession that concluded with a much talked about performance on the steps of Westminster Abbey.

By the 1790s, in his sixth decade, Herr Gratchenfleiss was exhibiting increasingly eccentric behaviour in the public execution of his work. The 18th century funeral was a highly charged theatrical event, with many rituals defining the appropriate costume and demeanour of participants, and it is likely that Herr Gratchenfleiss’ “eccentricities” were calculated to play upon this sense of drama, and certainly helped to spread his fame. A recently discovered letter, dated 14th September 1797, between an unknown man named Fredrik and his cousin paints a compelling picture: [translated from the original german]

Dear Gretchen,
I am regrettably writing to inform you that your cousin, and my own dear father, has passed away after a long and difficult illness…... For the service we asked Father Reichelderfer who spoke very beautifully, if a little boldly, and for the customary dirges we employed the renowned Herr Gratchenfleiss, who was most heartily recommended by the Father. Herr Gratchenfleiss proved to be a most difficult and eccentric character, and his demands that the ceremony take place precisely three days after Papa’s decease, to the minute, caused much consternation as he had died at three thirty in the morning. In addition, over the few years since the Father had last met with him, he had lost his voice to consumption of the throat which made communication all the more strained through the use of written notes and much gesticulation. By chance the moon was nearly full on the chosen night, and the weather was surprisingly mild. Herr Gratchenfleis appeared, disconcertingly, in a long frock coat of the old style, a long black wig, and his faced painted a vivid white with the occasional beauty spot, and an elegant sabre hanging at his side. At first it seemed to us that he himself may have risen from one of the many tombs around us, but when he put bow to string all our doubts were allayed. I cannot impress upon you enough how wondrous and appropriate was his playing, and amongst those assembled, myself most earnestly included, no matter how our hearts were weighed with sorrow up until that moment, upon his conclusion, we were all deeply uplifted, and left in no doubt as to the Eternal Peace in which dear Papa now walks. He is truly an extraordinary man, and the fee of 20 florins, which we first considered somewhat oversized, now seems to be paltry compared to the tremendous service he has done for our family…..

Of the few documents referring to his life and works that have survived, among the most revealing is a brief obituary that appeared in the Wolfsburger Anzeiger on 2nd May 1810: [translated from the original german]

On the last Sunday of April was buried Wolfburg’s most honoured and respected son, Herr Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss, the unquestioned master of the Art of Funerary Violin, who bore the official title of Master of His Majesty the Prince Elector’s Funerary Violinists for 52 years. Revered throughout Europe for his extraordinary ability to still the Soul with his violin, he too, now walks in the light of God. His funerary procession slowly wove it’s way though our humble town, and at it’s head there was not the customary single voice, but fifty of his students and followers, all bewigged and with their faces painted white; all playing the great man’s works in solemn unison. Never before and never again will there be such a funerary procession, so vivid and musical, so filled with subtlety and profound catharsis. So endeth the voyage of a great man. He will be forever honoured by us all.

The irony of that last phrase cannot be missed in the light of what was to come only two decades later.

The Great Funerary Purges, a phrase coined by Thomas Broadfoot (Historian and member of the Guild of Funerary Violinists) in the 1870s, describes what was certainly a radical shift in the sensibility of European funeral rites, but also, according to Broadfoot, the active destruction of the art of Funerary Violin by agents of the Catholic Church. In the wake of the French Revolution, and the sudden flourish of Romanticism that followed, many of the more formal aspects of life, including funeral rites, were to undergo radical changes, redefining themselves in a new and more emotionally modern light. It is at this time that funeral marches made they way into classical concert music with composers such as Beethoven and Chopin including them in their symphonies and sonatas. The followers of Herr Gratchenfleiss were to attempt the transformation of Funerary Violin into a more spiritually motivated semi-religious cult and it is known that the sudden resurgence in popularity of the Art in the 1830s, combined with the new self-defined quasi-priestly role of the artists did raise many objections, from the Catholic Church in particular. Many sermons were preached against it, some of which still exist to this day. However, according to Broadfoot, and backed up by records kept at the time by Matthew Connisten (President of the Guild of Funerary Violinists 1841-1859) there was an active policy of destruction aimed against the Art which manifested itself in burglaries, fires and the general destruction of property and records relating to the Art, that continued throughout the late 1830s and 40s. Whether this was an active campaign or a series of coincidences will never be known, but what is certain is that by the 1850s funerary fashions had changed radically, grief had become an item of public display, and the formal strains of the Funerary Violinist had entirely fallen from favour. Over the following 150 years the Art was virtually forgotten until the discovery of the Hildesheim trunk in 1983, which created a resurgence of interest amongst scholars of both music and social history.