From The Director's Desk
Editorial Views and Opinions

In Memoriam: Günter Körber (1922-1990)

It is with a great sense of sadness and personal loss that we inform our customers of the recent untimely death of Günter Körber of West Germany. He was one of the great pioneers and leaders in the design and modern-day reproduction of medieval, renaissance, and baroque woodwind instruments. Although he was primarily noted for his excellent reproductions of renaissance double reed instruments, he also made fine renaissance flutes and cornetti and modern-pitch copies of baroque woodwind instruments.

In recent years, Körber had continued to expand the number of instruments available from his workshop. He developed conjectural models of medieval shawms and windcapped shepherd shawms based on iconographical sources. Most recently, he had produced a fine quartbass dulcian based on an original instrument in the Frankfurt Museum collection. He offered more than fifty different models of historical woodwind instruments and was clearly the most enterprising and productive maker of these instruments in our time. He had ambitiously planned to develop a series of renaissance recorders and another series of historical percussion, but his recent illnesses prevented him from bringing these additional projects to fruition.

Readers of Chrestologia are well aware that the past two years have not been very kind to either Mr. or Mrs. Körber; both of them have been in and out of the hospital with rather serious illnesses. His death was quite unexpected, however, in view of the fact that he had seemed to have been improving in health since the first of this year. Mrs. Körber had written us that he was definitely on the mend and once again at his workbench and able to be productive. We had in fact received three modest shipments of instruments from him during the spring and assumed that, sooner or later, he would eventually get caught up with the huge backlog of orders from us that had accumulated during his periods of illness. Alas, that was not to be. His health again took a turn for the worse and he passed away in July at the age of 68 years.

Günter Körber was a native Berliner who first learned to play musical instruments in German military bands and studied trumpet in Dresden. After the Second World War, he earned a living for a number of years as a commercial trumpet player. He later worked in association with the late Otto Steinkopf, a bassoonist and saxophonist with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, who had begun to make reproductions of renaissance and baroque woodwind instruments based on originals in the Berlin museum collection. When Steinkopf moved to Celle, West Germany in 1964 and sold his business to Moeck Verlag und Musikinstrumentenwerk, Körber founded his own home workshop in the Steglitz suburb of West Berlin.

He remained in West Berlin until October of 1980, at which time he moved his home and workshop to West Germany. He relocated in the tiny rural village of Brensbach in the Odenwald region. He confided to me at the time that the primary reason for moving from his native Berlin to West Germany was the difficulty of getting materials, equipment, and especially qualified employees in that divided, beleaguered, and insulated city, surrounded as it was by the totalitarian and hostile police state of East Germany. It is indeed ironic that Körber would pass away just when the unforeseen reunification of East and West Germany was obviating the need for his move from his Heimat just ten years earlier.

Körber’s instruments became well-known to many American early music enthusiasts in the mid-1960’s through their prominent use on the many wonderful Telefunken Das Alte Werk recordings made by American early music performer Thomas Binkley and his Studio der Frühen Musik in Munich. More recently, Körber instruments have been used exclusively in public performances, recordings, and radio broadcasts by the group Odhecaton at the WDR (West Deutsche Rundfunk) in Cologne.

Just shortly before his death, Körber was awarded the coveted Bundesverdienstkreuz by the West German government for his notable contributions to German cultural life. At the award ceremony, Körber, with typical modesty, credited Binkley and his ensemble for making his instruments the great success that they had become. His willingness to share his moment in the limelight with the performers who had contributed to his initial success a quarter century earlier was a characteristically humble and thoughtful gesture.

I first visited Günter and Helga Körber in West Berlin about fifteen years ago with the aim of obtaining some of his fine historical instruments for my own use. As a professional performer of renaissance music, I had become quite discouraged with the design and quality of the only historical woodwind instruments that were then readily available in the United States. The rich, warm, woody sound of Körber’s krummhorns and shawms was a pleasant relief from the thin, buzzy, plastic-sounding instruments produced by some other European makers.

My initial acquaintance with Körber instruments was in 1970, while pursuing my doctoral studies at Boston University. Dr. Murray Leikowitz, then chairman of the Music History Department, had had the foresight to acquire a trio of shawms and a quartet of krummhorns by Körber and was most generous in allowing me the use of these excellent instruments. I felt that Körber’s instruments were far superior to any others, but they were at that time virtually unobtainable in the United States, due to the fact that he had no designated American sales agent. A decade previously, Korber had evidently had a brief and apparently unsatisfactory relationship with a U. S. agent. When this arrangement went sour, Körber evidently lost interest in the fledgling American early music market. I have always suspected that he had been burned rather badly and had lost a good deal of money on his first American venture.

To be perfectly honest, Körber himself was never a very good businessman or correspondent. American customers who attempted to obtain instruments directly from him found that their inquiries were only occasionally answered and their orders rarely if ever filled. It took me several visits to Berlin to convince Körber that he should supply us and our customers with his fine hand-crafted historical woodwind instruments. Eventually, my persistence, aided by some facility with his native tongue, won him over. He agreed to supply us with his instruments, although he still seemed to be wary of being hoodwinked by fast-talking Americans and insisted on being paid immediately for his shipments. It was only some years later that his initial fears, probably born of bitter experience, were allayed and he granted us normal billing terms. His wife Helga eventually assumed complete responsibility for correspondence, bookkeeping, packing, and shipping of his instruments.

The American early music scene was growing by leaps and bounds in the late 1970’s and Körber did his best to supply us with a representative sampling of his instruments. Even then, however, the demand for his instruments exceeded the available supply. It was only after a number of years, during which we bought up as many Körber instruments as our finances permitted and squirreled them away against anticipated future orders, that we finally accrued a complete stock of his instruments.

At that time, Körber was also supplying some instruments to the West Germany firm of Hopf, for which we were the sole American agents. We convinced Hopf to sell us most of the instruments which Körber had sent to them. For several years, then, we were getting Körber instruments both directly from Körber and indirectly from Hopf. The bankruptcy of the Hopf firm in 1984 ended this euphoric period of double-dipping, which had enabled us finally to stockpile a wide variety of Körber instruments for immediate delivery to our customers.

I had the pleasure of visiting Günter and Helga Körber many times, both in West Berlin and later in Brensbach, and enjoyed their cordial friendship and generous hospitality. Correspondence improved greatly as our business relationship and personal friendship ripened in later years; we received long, informative letters which Helga banged out on an ancient manual typewriter. We also met frequently at early music festivals such as the small but prestigious yearly exhibition and concert series in Herne, Westphalia, and the annual Musikinstrumentenmesse in Frankfurt.

I had many a pleasant lunch or dinner with the Körber’s over the years and Günter always insisted on picking up the check. This commendable and endearing trait is not very common among his rather mercenary West German colleagues, many of whom were loath to spring for a cup of coffee. The Körbers lived very simply, although one of his few extravagances (and his pride and joy) was a old Mercedes-Benz automobile which he maintained in mint condition. In later years, he would always pick me up at the train station in Darmstadt, the nearest city with regular train service, and give me the most wonderful guided tours of his adopted Odenwald region, talking very rapidly and animatedly in a steady flow of narration about the passing countryside, gesturing with one hand and driving with the other.

Whereas Mrs. Korber spoke a very clear and proper Hochdeutsch and apparently knew some English, Mr. Körber’s German was heavily imbued with the accent of his native Berlin and, coupled with his rapid-fire delivery, was occasionally difficult for a foreigner like myself to understand. Like most Germans, however, he was enormously grateful for any effort made to speak his native tongue, since he had little or no facility in English himself.

The Körbers were quite cosmopolitan, coming from Germany’s former and soon-to-be once again capital city; I suspect that they always felt a little out of place in a tiny farm village quite distant from any metropolitan area. Mrs. Körber told me that her big-city German was apparently somewhat of a novelty among the local housewives in the village marketplace, where the local Hessian dialect was the lingua franca.

Although Körber had a number of apprentices and employees over the years, none of them seemed to stay for a very long period of time. Many European instrument makers have had a difficult time getting and retaining employees in recent years; I have frequently heard the German equivalent of the American cliché “it’s so hard to get good help any more these days” on my many visits to West German workshops. While a good deal of this problem can probably be attributed to the general and lamentable decline of the work ethic among the younger generation, as Körber often claimed, I also suspect that he was a very demanding and exacting employer and probably not the easiest person for whom to work. In addition, a trained woodworker (and there seem to be precious few of them left) could probably earn far more money working in the furniture business than for a tiny musical instrument workshop. After moving to the Odenwald, the employment situation seemed to be considerably better. Körber told me that he had several youths in apprenticeship and also had several townspeople producing keywork and other small parts for his instruments in cottage-industry style in their homes.

Over the years, Günter Körber and I had many long conversations about the problems involved in designing and reproducing historical woodwind instruments. He is one of the few makers of my acquaintance who really understood what was involved in the so-called “scaling” of original instruments to perform well at other pitches without compromising their tonal characteristics. In later years, he developed designs for some instruments for which there were no extant models — or so we thought. His conjectural series of Hirtenschalmeien or shepherd shawms patterned after iconographical sources was subsequently and dramatically vindicated when the treasure trove of instruments from the sunken Mary Rose revealed an instrument very similar to that which Körber had designed just a few years previously, a remarkable example of life imitating art.

Because of the health problems experienced by the Körbers during the past two years, the flow of instruments from their tiny workshop, essentially just the ground floor of their home, was reduced to a mere trickle. Whereas in the past we had been able to stock virtually every instrument made by Körber, we have in the past several years been continually out of stock on many items. Customers of our workshop who had placed backorders with us for out-of-stock Körber instruments have been informed that their orders cannot now be filled; we have cancelled all outstanding orders and refunded the deposits that had been placed on these backorders.

We still have a good number of Körber historical woodwind instruments in stock at the moment, in spite of the fact that some models are already sold out and no longer available. It is clear that his instruments have become collector's items and we anticipate that much of our remaining inventory will be quickly snapped as word of his death becomes generally known. We strongly urge those of our customers who prize these fine instruments as we do to acquire the few remaining Körber instruments for their collections before they disappear. Customers who have Körber instruments which they are not currently using and would like to sell are asked to let us. know what they have available. We would be more than happy to act as a clearing house for used Körber instruments and do our part in recirculating these instruments to new owners who will use and treasure them.

I have some wonderful, fond personal memories of Günter Körber; he was an intelligent but earthy, skilled yet modest, thoughtful and generous individual. We at Antique Sound Workshop have lost a valued supplier, colleague, and friend; the early music world at large has lost one of its most gifted and ambitious makers of historical woodwind instruments. There is, simply, no one on the present scene able to fill his shoes. We shall all feel the loss of his colorful personality and great talent. This issue of our customer newsmagazine Chrestologia is dedicated to his memory. May he rest in peace.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1990. All rights reserved.

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