Dr. Alfred Stelzner (1852-1906)

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Dr. Alfred Stelzner (1852-1906) Photo from 1904Dr. Alfred Stelzner, a forgotten 19th century German polymath, thought himself a failure at the time of his suicide in 1906. His advanced education in mathematics, physics, and music had come together in his determination to explore the science of violin acoustics and in his decision to redesign the violin family according to modern acoustical principles. His success in doing so and the acclaim his instruments received buoyed him for a time, but he could not endure the ultimate failure of the business he established to make them and the disgrace of his personal bankruptcy.

His accomplishments included not only a new design for the sound-box in the violin, viola, cello, and bass but also the invention of two new members of the family, the violotta, played on the arm like a viola but tuned a fourth below the viola, and the cellone, played on the knee like a cello but tuned a fourth below the cello. He composed music for his new instruments (including several operas), got others to compose for them, formed a company to make them, and personally promoted them.

Despite the enthusiastic support of the leading European players and composers of his time, his instruments faded into obscurity in the chaotic events of Central Europe that followed so soon after his death. Some found their way into dusty museum store-rooms. Many of the artifacts of his life disappeared at the end of World War II in the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, where he had lived and worked. Until very recently, his history survived only in brief encyclopedia entries and in the memories of remote relatives.

Now, his resurrected story and the restoration of his instruments add further to the romance and mystery of the violin and its relatives.

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