Gerhard Meinl (b. 1957)

Instrument designer and manufacturer

The Langhammer/Meinl saga

From the Brass Bulletin Vol. 121, I-2003

From Christian Langhammer to Gerhard A. Meinl and JA Musik GMBH

For nearly three and a half centuries both the craft and industry of musical instrument manufacture have been located in the Sudetenland, in Graslitz for brass and woodwind, Luby (Schönbach) for strings, then later in Markneukirchen and Klingenthal, in the historic triangle between the former kingdom of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and Saxony.

Many families were responsible for establishing this tradition, but gradually the numerous individual brand names were amalgamated, especially under the regime of the GDR (German Democratic Republic). As Gerhard Meinl, chairman and managing director (CEO) of JA Musik GmbH and himself the descendant of one of the oldest and most active families, explains:

The Vogtland only came into being because of the Counter Reformation in the early part of the 16th century, when many Protestants from Graslitz took refuge in the territories of the King of Saxony, settling in Markneukirchen and Klingenthal. Names were even changed to distinguish between Catholics (such as Meinl or Klier) and Protestants (Meinel or Glier).

From Langhammer to Meinl

From the end of the 18th century to 1929 several generations of the Langhammer family (who as Catholics were not forced to emigrate) developed the musical instrument-making business in Graslitz, until the marriage in 1920 of Wenzel Meinl (1892-1958) to one of the daughters of Franz Langhammer passed the reins of the company into the hands of the Meinl family. Wenzel Meinl then founded a subsidiary company for wholesale and distribution in Klingenthal, Saxony. At the end of the Second World War, Czechoslovakia expelled all Germans from the Sudetenland (the border region of Bohemia with its large German population. Annexed by Germany in 1938, the region was returned to Czechoslovakia in 1945, but the population of German origin was transferred to Germany). The Langhammer and Meinl families, too, had to leave Graslitz, and Wenzel Meinl, as we shall see, would re-establish the business on the other side of the frontier. However, his son Anton was called up for military service in the German armed forces in 1941 and for a time nothing was heard of him.

The Epic Story of Anton Meinl

Born in Graslitz in 1922, Anton attended school there from 1928 to 1936. He then took a two-year course at the State Technical School for musical instrument making, after which he embarked on an apprenticeship, only for it to be interrupted when he enlisted in the German army in 1941. He was taken prisoner in Russia before being transferred to Budapest, where he learnt that the Sudeten Germans had been expelled into the Russian, American or British zones. Anton was anxious about his parents, not knowing where they were or what had become of them and in 1945, succeeded in escaping, spending two years in Vienna working as stringed instrument maker and repairer. Gerhard Meinl describes what happened:

My father had received a broad training in instrument making which proved to be very useful to him I Vienna. As a city, Vienna was largely undamaged, as immortalized in the film “The Third Man” (1949) by Carol Reed, with Orson Welles and the famous zither music of Greek musician Anton Karas (1906-1985). When the four zones of occupation were created after the war, my father’s instinct for survival, and his desire to be closer to those places where his parents might have landed up, encouraged him to pack a few things, mount his motorbike and make for Ried im Innkreis in Upper Austria, a fertile agricultural area where people could still eat their fill, and where he knew he would find the music shop of Maurus, a good customer of the family in the past. He arrived at the best possible moment, just when Viennese pitch had been raised to 440 Hz, with Maurus overwhelmed with work, and actually looking for staff to bring the old instruments up to pitch. One day in 1948, Taurus received some sales literature from the firm of Wenzel Meinl in Königsdorf! Anton’s heart was pounding as he stared at the piece of paper with his father’s signature on it. He lost no time in jumping on his motorbike, and so rejoined his family after six years of separation.

From then on, with Wenzel on the sales side and Anton on the manufacturing side, they combined their efforts to re-launch the business and instrument manufacture, while Anton completed his studies at night classes. They fitted out the barn belonging to a farm, and took on workers from the old sawmill, converting machines into polishers. Their first instrument were sold to the monks from a neighboring monastery. However, the heads in the farmyard began to drop dead after pecking at the brass scraps, to the great displeasure of the farmer. Time to move on!

Circa 1895 Catalog - Klingenthal

1949, setting up in Geretsried in Bavaria.

On the outskirts of Geretsried, Anton found an old military bunker, part of a munitions factory, which he was able to acquire for next to nothing. A shrewd move for with the partition of Germany, their firm was located in the free zone. The change to Viennese pitch also played its part in the remarkable development of the business, whether through the adaptation of old instruments or the manufacture of new ones.

The Meinl family then realized that with the plethora of Meinels and Meinl’s working in the same field it was essential to crate a distinctive brand name. So they launched the Melton series (Meinl+Ton = sound), and the 1950s saw the beginning of profitable business with the United States. Germany was then what the Asian countries are today for the industrialized world: an efficient low-cost producer. Soon the Meinl workforce numbered more than thirty. However, when they applied to register the brand name Melton in the United States they discovered that the name was already taken by a large four milling concern. Anton neatly solved the problem with “Meinl-Weston” (sound of the west).

From flugelhorn to tuba

Although they manufactured the full range of brass instruments, they came to concentrate on the tuba. Gerhard Meinl explains:

They were soon collaborating with well known professionals such as William Bell in the United States and Ronny Engels in Berlin. A dollar then was worth 5 DM and the tubas sold like hot cakes. At the same time, with no fuss, they were developing a significant market in individual components, large or small, which they delivered to makers or repair workshops throughout the world. It was beautifully simple: no final polishing, no advertising, no complications, yet supremely effective and profitable, and this is still keeping the machines turning today.

Other members of the Meinl family worked with Anton before setting up on their own, one of whom, Ewald Meinl, a cousin, specialized in bells before achieving world recognition for his reproduction historical instruments. Gerhard A. Meinl is proud of this continuation of a family tradition:

I do not believe you can have a philosophy for the development of mass instruments without a comprehensive infrastructure, both industrial (qualified workforce) and craft-based (master craftsmen), where you are responsible for all stage of the process. In this way, you can directly affect every aspect of manufacture. Without boasting, I believe we are the only firm in the world, apart from Yamaha, to manufacture absolutely all components of every one of our brass instruments.

Gerhard Meinl, project manager

The only son of Anton and Maria Meinl, Gerhard was born in 1957, just when early signs of the “German economic miracle” were beginning to show. After completing his studies in law and philosophy in Munich (1976-1983), he joined the family firm (1983) and began an apprenticeship in brass instrument making (1984-1987) as well as a variety of related courses, particularly in Fribourg (Switzerland). When he took over the management of Wenzel Meinl GmbH from Anton in 1987, Gerhard soon set his own stamp on the firm, for beneath a good-natured exterior and the physical evidence of good-living there was a dynamic, clear-headed businessman, who in a few short years succeeded in building up a powerful holding company within the specialist world of wind instrument manufacture. Taking advantage in 1991 of the unification of the two Germans, he threw the weight of Wezel Meinl GmbH behind the holding company (now JA Musik GmbH) which he had created in order to finance the privatization and reorganization of the VEB (Volkseigene Betriebe - the nationalized industrial facilities of the GDR) in Markneukirchen and Kingenthal - the Vogtländische Musikinstrumentenfabrik - with 600-plus employees in more than 26 separate workshops. Gerhard Meinl explains:

In order to rescue these state enterprises and make them competitive, we put our money on quality, on the development of instruments of professional standard and on the promotion o brands with their own distinct identity. Production, distribution and administration all  benefitted from a single, unified management, but it was nevertheless five hard years, not least because I always tried to preserve the character of the individual workshops in the group.

But Gerhad Meinl is a man of vision, and with Europe evolving and Germany reunified, there was the moment, if ever there was one, to prepare for a new geographical and economic order. Six months after creating his holding company, he acquired Kreul in Tübingen, an important woodwind specialist which owned SML Margaux in Paris, a maker of oboes but also wholesale supplier for France. In 1994, the old-established firm of Courtois was brought into the fold of what was to become JA Musik GmbH, with an emphasis on trombones. A modern factory complex of 6,000m2 was built in Markneukirchen at a cost of 5 million euros with the intention of creating a world-class place of pilgrimage for brass. Gerhard Meinl fought for all he was worth to find commercial partners and to finance his ambitious projects. He devoted much personal energy to ensuring the survival of the Markneukirchen International Music Competition. In 2001, anticipating the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, he founded the firm of Josef Sternberg in Budaörs, west of the Hungarian capital Budapest, as a centre for repairs and production of brass instruments, and he converted his holding company into JA Musik GmbH, with corporate control of his group. In addition, Meister Meinl is an active member of numerous professional bodies, both German and European, while at the same time establishing his local position in Geretsried where he is first deputy mayor. He explains the importance of all these relationships:

My priority now is to ensure the stability and consolidation of all our business. Our future depends on our close collaboration with the professional music scene and on the manufacture of top quality models. We are looking for further growth in the United States, which is an enormous market, and there will be considerable expansion in Europe from 2004 with the accession of countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, etc. I also chair the Association of German Musical Instrument Makers (BDMH) through which we are promoting a systematic approach to musical instrument teaching in all state schools (to date some 500 are involved) and above all in the music colleges (responsible for teacher training). Figures from the World Bank show that the North Americans spend $24 per head on a musical instrument (including rental), the Germans $12 and the French $8, which reveals very clearly the relative importance accorded to music in the educational system of individual countries! It is therefore a sector with room for growth and I am working on it. On the other hand, our manufacturing processes use the very latest technology which means we can be at the forefront of meeting the professional musician’s needs, whether in the development of modern instruments or the reproduction of period instruments which, following the trend to play music of different eras on instruments of the time, have undergone a re-evaluation. In other words, we can adapt to the most demanding requirements.

Globalization is present across all sectors in the form of large industrial conglomerates, for example in the United States, Asia and Europe. Despite this, small craft-based workshops are springing up everywhere as if by magic in increasing numbers, and we see it as our job to deliver to them the parts they need. We do not want to be seen as “competitors” so much as what I call “competimates.”

Gerhard Meinl possesses a sharp sense of diplomacy. He has good relations with Yamaha, and respects all his partners in the sector, probably because he is confident of his own strategy and the position he is keen to occupy in the world of music. Even though he expects one day, maybe quite soon, to see further growth of the Jupiter brand (Taiwan) and the mass-production of brass instruments in mainland China, he remains confident because he has understood that the future belongs to those who devote all their energy to creating the best products.

The future depends on the quality of confidence and collaboration existing between musicians and ourselves. So long as the musicians who take part in our development work (and whom I also like to hear play) become our friends and remain with us, then I think things are going in the right direction.

Will Gerhard A. Meinl succeed in the challenge he has set himself? That depends on a number of factors, not all of them connected with his own abilities or intentions. The economic situation in Germany, Europe and the world, is very fragile, while the world of music rushes headlong into the mass consumption of electronic music, and the world of brass (and of the other acoustic instruments) retreats into a state of cultural isolation. If the hopes of Gerhad A. Meinl, and ours, are to survive, there will have to be a significant cultural re-evaluation (revolution?) in terms of quality of life, quality of art, of food for the body and for the human spirit!

-Jean-Pierre Matthew
Brass Bulletin 2003