In 1877, Markneukirchen in Germany was at the heart of the world’s string making industry. The townsfolk were so proud, they even composed a drinking song all about it. Kai Köpp explains what the lyrics (translated into English for the first time) reveal about this convoluted process

String making at the workbench

In 1877, to mark the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Markneukirchen string maker’s guild, the guild masters and their families organised a huge festival to celebrate their craft. Over the past century, the German string making industry had grown to dominate the world – and since the Vogtland region of eastern Germany was the undisputed heartland of the trade, and wire strings still too crude to be an option for serious artists, they had every reason to celebrate. As part of the festivities, the town’s postal clerk August Wilhelm Jäger was commissioned to write a song in praise of the town’s gut string makers. The son of a string maker himself, Jäger chose to write new lyrics to a popular song of the time, Ich bin der kleine Postillon, and filled 17 verses with the finer points of the maker’s craft. The Song of the Gut String Makers had its world premiere on 18 April 1877, and now stands as a testament to the unsung heroes of the 19th-century musical world, as well as the obvious pride they showed in their – at-times somewhat distasteful – work.

Not only do these lyrics give a fine example of a 19th-century German Tafellied (drinking song), but they also provide an insight into the long, tortuous procedure of turning raw animal intestines into high-quality instrument strings. Delving more deeply into Jäger’s words allows us to put some meat on the bone (so to speak), and discover more about this almost-forgotten part of stringed-instrument history. 

 

[1] I am a gut string maker’s son

I know just how the making’s done.

And now this gut string maker sings

Of how we make the strings.

 

[2] First, a skilful master must

Buy first-rate guts for little cost.

Whatever’s holey, black or burned

Should straightaway be spurned.

 

[3] Put them in a potash vat

To make them softer than a cat.

If they’re too weak, or else too strong,

You’ve got the balance wrong,

 

[4] The soaking will be finished when

You come in Monday morning; then

You’ll pull them up – but with finesse

So as not to make a mess.

 

[5] Then you scrape the guts about.

You’ll slime them in and slime them out.

‘Slime and slime! But make sure you

Don’t rip a gut in two!’

 

[6] Split the guts, but not in haste.

Already there’s a lot of waste!

Use great precision for each split,

To get the ‘bone’ to fit.

 

[7] Hoisting takes a head that’s clever,

A keen eye, well-trained hand – and never

Let a strong, weak, rough or fine

Gut across the line.

 

[8] When every part aligns the other,

The master checks them all together.

What ‘A’ will be, or ‘D’, or ‘E’,

It is for him to see.

 

[9] Each string is hung upon a loop

Attached to a revolving hoop.

Screech! Screech! And if you’re not too fast

Then they’ll be unsurpassed.

 

[10] Upon a wooden frame they’re spun

Before they’re taken off and hung.

The heat, the wind and sunshine fair

Will dry them in the air.

 

[11] Sulphuric gas will bleach them raw.

Just twist them – that’s an easy chore.

Then rub them with a pumice stone

And lightly oil each one.

 

[12] The strings should now be sparkling bright

And quite incomparably tight.

The master’s wife, content and wise,

Will cut them down to size.

 

[13] It’s quick work, tying into rings

And knotting every batch of strings.

Of this, a Rossbach girl’s the queen

And beats any machine!

 

[14] Line them all up, batch by batch,

And wrap them in a paper patch.

Off into the world they go

To make a lot of dough!

 

[15] The world is desperate for strings

For double basses, violins,

Guitars and harps, and all because

They tend to break, or buzz.

 

[16] Little David knew it all

Too well when he would play for Saul.

His harp sang at the king’s request.

As everybody guessed!

 

[17] Now I must end my song (almost)

So let me now propose a toast!

To this, our flourishing and free

String making industry!

 

[2] ‘First-rate guts’ would be dried in the open air and shipped to Markneukirchen from slaughterhouses all across Germany, and even from as far as England and Russia. Sheep intestines were the undisputed professional choice – in 1900 it was estimated that five million intestines were processed in a year – although earlier sources mention those of other animals as well. References have been found to the use of intestines of deer, cats and even wolves – one writer from 1779 recommends trying wolf guts ‘without fearing that wolf and mutton strings will not go well with one another, since the animals hated each other in life’ – but these references come from non-specialist sources, and only grazing animals such as sheep would have produced enough intestines for industrial use. Nowadays, only the small intestine is available for making sheep gut strings, because the wider diameters all go into the sausage industry. However, in this period the string makers would process the entire intestine – which could reach more than 20 metres from a single sheep. Today, beef gut is generally used; the reason they were uncommon in the 19th century is because a viable method to process them was only developed after the Second World War.

When Jäger refers to ‘burned’ intestines, he means those that have already spent too much time in the open sun, which will have dried them out too fast. He also mentions ‘holey’ intestines, as the raw material was delicate and easily torn. This could happen at the abattoir, as the intestines needed to be given an initial clean immediately after slaughter, so as not to trigger any unwanted decomposition.

[3] The first part of the process was to soften the dried intestines by soaking them for days in a bath of weak alkaline solution. This could be potash (potassium carbonate) or diluted caustic soda (sodium hydroxide). The concentration of the solution had to be increased each day, and checked with a hydrometer to make sure the balance was right. This so-called ‘wet work’ was facilitated by the softness of the water naturally occurring in Markneukirchen, another reason why the city had a head start over other German regions in string making. The use of hard water, containing for example calcium and magnesium salts, could result in deposits forming on the intestines over the course of the process.

[4] ‘Pulling them up’ refers not to the act of pulling the intestines out of the bath, but to disentangling them from each other, one by one. This was also the point at which intestines too weak to be made into strings were thrown away. This was a particularly messy part of the job, which required workers with a lot of experience to manage it properly. After that, all the intestines were hung up ready for the next step.

[5] ‘Sliming’ the strings involved removing the skin and outer layer of muscle tissue from the intestine, leaving just the inner connective tissue (submucosa). This comprises most of the finished string. Sliming essentially required scraping the intestines along their whole length, on a board made of wood or brass. It was a time-intensive process, taking up to 15 minutes per intestine, and the task was mostly carried out by women, known as the Schleimmädle (‘slime girls’), according to an 1860 journal. Obviously a mechanised way of carrying out this laborious (and somewhat repellent) process would have been preferable, and in 1874, three years before the song was written, a Markneukirchen company patented a machine to do the job instead. It was the first machine ever to replace a manual operation in string production, and soon saw international success. It continued to be made by the firm Seckendorf & Co. for many decades. It only took over part of the work, though, as human hands were still preferable for good-quality sliming.

Sring factory with big window for drying room

One of the string making factories in Markneukirchen. The large window shows the location of the drying room

[6] Splitting the remaining gut into halves was one of the most important parts of the process. It was regarded as a man’s job and kept as a secret by the guild masters. The fine, flexible tubes are not straight but curved, as the intestines grow in the animal’s belly. So the outer curve is longer than the inner one, and using uncut intestines would produce unequal tension within the string. Also, the inner curve is rougher than the outer because it was attached to the animal’s stomach tissue. So the smooth and slightly longer outer curve is of higher quality than the inner curve and was carefully split in half. To facilitate this, the string maker Christian Schatz designed differently sized curved guides made from bone (Spaltbeinchen), into which a sharp knife could fit. The different sizes correspond to the diameters of the intestines, and guide them so that the smooth outside of the tube automatically slips to the right, with the inner curve on the left. This was essential for controlling the quality of the resulting string, because the ‘right’ halves would make fine strings for the higher registers while the ‘left’ parts would be reserved for thicker strings.

[7&8] Next, the split threads had to be sorted and combined depending on their overall quality. This involved running the wet thread through the fingers to assess its properties and required a lot of experience. The string making master had to decide which threads would fit together, paying attention to the diameter and elasticity of each, to evaluate their likely playing characteristics. Threads destined for E strings, for instance, would have always come from the right side of the gut of younger sheep – an important point considering that E strings would be made from only three to five fine threads wound together. The A string would need two more threads, while the D consisted of twice the material for an E plus two threads. For the G string, a regular A string would be used as a core, which would then be wound again with silver, copper, or silver-plated copper wire. This made it thinner and more responsive than the equivalent in pure gut. By contrast, up to 120 separate threads could be used for the thickest double bass string, whereas the highest harp string could be made from a single thread.

[9] The next step was to wind the threads together to make a string. The combined threads of each one would be mounted on a kind of spinning wheel, via a series of loops made from hemp. The number of spins each string required depended on its final diameter, as well as the tone quality. A journal in 1823 stated: ‘If they are not spun enough, they soon fray and their tone is not pure… but if they are spun too much, and unevenly, the result is an uneven, dull tone. So this work requires special attention… The wheel needs to be turned 40 times for a G string, 60 times for a D, and 80 times for A and E.’

[10] By the time the spinning was finished, the individual threads would be no longer visible. To dry them, the strings were kept in the hemp loops and attached to a wooden frame so they were still under tension. The drying process would take between three and thirty days depending on the string diameter, and even this was convoluted: it had to begin in humid conditions at a low temperature, which would gradually be raised after most of the water had evaporated. The strings also had to be twisted periodically, to ensure the adhesive connection between each thread was maintained; the process would take longer for the thicker strings, where the gut core was more susceptible to unsticking, hence the moisture content between it and the outer wire had to be kept at a certain level. The complexity of the drying process meant it was particularly difficult to create suitable conditions. ‘The heat, the wind and sunshine fair’ hardly do justice to the technique’s complexity.

[11] At this stage, the strings would be a shade of brown, caused by impurities that remained in the intestine despite all the cleaning and drying. The Markneukirchen tradition was to whiten them before they went on sale. For this, they were taken to a separate building known as the Schwefelgewölbe (‘sulphur vault’), where they were exposed to sulphur dioxide fumes for up to nine days. Many of them would also have to be re-twisted, since they may have come undone during the long drying process. Sulphur dioxide is highly toxic to humans, requiring the ‘vault’ to be some distance away from the rest of the production facilities.

The last stage in the actual making of the strings was the rubbing and polishing. The song mentions a pumice stone, but equisetum, horsehair or powdered glass could be used as well. Players could take an active interest in this part: violinist Louis Spohr, for instance, in his Violinschule of 1833 stated: ‘The external characteristics of a good string are: white colour, transparency and a smooth surface. This last must not have been produced by grinding with a pumice stone, as with the German strings, since those strings are always wrong in tone, and scream.’ In fact, only the lowest-quality strings were heavily grinded in Spohr’s day. According to an 1828 treatise by Gustav Adolf Wettengel, the best-quality strings were never sanded off to correct the cylindrical diameter, but had a slightly rough surface like the Italian strings. Finally, each string was given a light rubbing with oil.

Splitting

[12] It was the job of the master’s wife (at least in the experience of the songwriter) to cut the strings off the frame and give them a quality-control check. Each one had to have a uniform colour and structure along its entire length; all the threads had to stick together properly and not contain any remaining impurities.

[13&14] To roll the strings up and tie them together, before they were wrapped in paper, the Markneukirchen makers had a machine operated with a foot pedal. It would curl the strings around a wooden cone, and knot a piece of green or red silk ribbon around them. According to the song, the machines’ superiority in this task was challenged by one girl in the town of Rossbach, who could do their job even more speedily (but of whom we know nothing more).

[15–17] The worldwide demand for high-quality gut strings had risen considerably in the few decades before the song was written. The Industrial Revolution had led to an expansion of musical activity encompassing new conservatoires, music publishing houses and orchestral associations. The people of Markneukirchen and the Vogtland region, already a heartland of stringed-instrument making, had responded to this demand by industrialising their string making processes, with the result that by 1876, the year before the song was written, a full 449 citizens were involved with the business of making gut strings. Changes in the market were just on the horizon: in December 1876, violinist Marie Tayau gave the premiere of Benjamin Godard’s Concerto romantique op.35 in Paris using steel A and E strings, marking the start of the transition to metal. But in 1877 the gut string makers were riding high, and their business seemed destined to dominate the world for a long time to come.

Song and article TRANSLATED BY CHRISTIAN LLOYD

The author wishes to thank Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency, for funding the research behind this article. More information on the project can be found at bit.ly/2O7w6wm