Brass makers in the East Block during the Cold War

In Russia and the neighboring states that became part of the Soviet Union, private industry such as brass instrument making ceased to exist following the Communist Revolution that began in 1917. Part of the Soviet ideology was the collectivization of all production and commerce, thereby eliminating the competitive forces that, along with capitalist profit motive, were the driving forces behind the oppression of the working class. At least that was the theory.

Brass music came to Russia fairly late, brought there first by the desire of Tsar Nicholai for European style military bands only, but then greatly expanded by Tsar Alexander III (1845-1894) who was a cornetist and hosted Jules Levy for several months, during which time the Grand Russian Fantasy was first written. The brass instrument works of Czarist Russia were small workshops, and instruments bore the maker’s name. The majority of high-end brass instruments in Russia had come from outside, particularly Germany and Belgium, but there were exceptions – most of them Germans or Czechs working in Russia. An example of this would be the Josufe Schediva Instrumental-naya Fabrika ve Odessie, established around 1882 by a former Cerveny employee Joseph Schediva (1853-1915). His Catalogue for the production and ordering of metal wind instruments was one of the few Russian catalogs. Another would be the last Court Maker to the Tsar, a Dresden native Franz Eschenbach who operated in St. Petersburg from 1882 until the first signs of revolutionary violence with the military suppression of workers riots in 1905.

There were few large enterprises. Perhaps the largest would have been the Zimmerman works in St. Petersburg. Julius Heinrich Zimmermann (1851-1923) opened a music store in 1875, and rapidly expanded to manufacturing with satellite operations in Moscow, Riga, Leipzig and London. The Zimmerman works were nationalized in the Revolution, and, per the statement on the modern company’s own website, “The (Leningrad) Musical Wind Instruments Factory, the successor of Zimmerman Factory, though related to the Zimmerman factory, was, as the matter of fact, new-created. Masters managed to create absolutely new and unique instruments without drafts and essential tools.”  This state enterprise was one of the more prolific, ultimately producing 20,000 units per year. It was privatized in 1991 and now does business as the St. Petersburg Musical Wind Instruments Factory making alto, tenor and baritone horns in the oval wrap pioneered by Cerveny as well as tubas.

Almost overnight, without the inertia inherent in larger corporate logistics, the system of small private shops easily transformed into a state bureau of instrument production and faceless factories making instruments that bore only production number designations devoid of maker, model or brand names to garner recognition and following in the marketplace. Many factories were nameless, and of those that had names, it was typically that of a city or district. One very Soviet exception to this was the “Factory of the Fifth Anniversary of the Revolution”, which had the distinction of actually appearing on an instrument – those used to celebrate the fifth anniversary.

More common would have been an unknown enterprise that prolifically produced rotary valve trumpets in a form modelled on the flat SARV configuration common in the North of the continent prior to the revolution. Soviet factories were grouped by function under administrative bureaucracies. As a result, the generic title for all factories in that administrative block might be very mis-representative of what was made there. In this case, a particular “Moscow Tool Factory”, the unit number of which is unfortunately not known, produced brass instruments. An example is below.

The seemingly exclusive use of rotary designs results from the preferences of the European craftsmen who had been working in Russia prior to 1917, and the lack of any structural motivation or facilitators for innovation in the near century that followed (in any business model within the USSR).

In time, of course, Russian musicians whose considerable talents flourished in a state that promoted music and the arts as a demonstration of cultural superiority and thus rewarded them greatly despite the at best inconsistent, and more commonly poor quality of instruments, eventually became jealous of their Western counterparts perinet piston valved instruments.

Below is an example of the Russian answer to piston valves, a push-button vertical linkage by which the rotaries are actuated. Similar designs appear about a century earlier in the United States.

The bell markings on these horns reflect the systemic imperative to suppress maker and brand identity in their simplistic stamps of model and perhaps manufacture date codes.

In practice, collectivization served the central control imperative of the new communist state. The Soviet Union was a dictatorship by a political elite. Unlike a hereditary monarchy, the only requirements to rise to ultimate power were connections, understanding of patronage, and political savvy. The collectives eliminated the business sector of society, replacing it with bureaucrats, who were motivated not by profit, but by leverage and indebtedness in the political mono-culture (which can be thought of as rackets – only running countries). In such a system, creativity, innovation, and even efficiency are not rewarded – only tribute in the patronage system and mindless compliance. This is devastating to both technological advancement and quality control in manufacture.

Because of this Soviet instruments today are not valued, and almost nothing is known about where, how or by whom they were made. This is despite the considerable state-mandated importance of military bands, opera companies, ballet companies, municipal orchestras and other ensembles in expressing the advanced cultural merit and achievements of the Soviet System.

In August of 1991, as the Ukrainian Soviet, soviets being a single-party legislature that had evolved out of the revolutionary worker’s committees under Communism, successfully asserted its independence from the control of the Supreme Soviet of Socialist Republics (CCCP) in Moscow, the horn below was manufactured by the Ministry of Local Manufacturing facility in Slavutych Ukraine.

The instrument is already quite interesting in that Slavutych was built very rapidly by labor from all over the Soviet Union to house the displaced Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant workers and the rest of the community of Pripyat following the abandonment of that city forced by the catastrophic reactor explosion. Slavutych boasted some of the best housing, most dachas, most abundant and educationally diverse schools, theaters, auditoriums, recreation facilities and cultural opportunities for its young, highly educated and above average income population compared to that of any other Soviet city. It even, apparently, had an instrument manufactory.

Sitting North of the Kiev reservoir on the Dnepr, it occupies a “safe” peninsula of lightly contaminated land stretching Westward into the radiologic exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl. Perhaps this, together with youth and education, made the residents of Slavutych more aware of the political and economic realities that surrounded the potential for a collapse of the Soviet system. The small folded paper, which exhibits the same slightly elevated radioactivity as the case (the wood and cloth fibers being from local sources where the plants absorbed cesium from the fallout as they grew), contains some amazing attributes that would have been unthinkable in a managed economy such as the USSR only a short time before.

First, like the bell of the horn, there is a brand logo graphic, which was remarkably already in use by 1971. This is something that would lead to the consumer developing a sense of brand identity for the factory – which was prohibited in the Soviet economy as brand loyalty could mis-align consumption, and all production needed to have a market.

In quotes below the logo, the document carries “Orpheus”, which appears similarly emphasized throughout. This is an actual brand name. (The top of the page reads simply “Ministry of Local Manufacturing, USSR, at ‘Slavutych’”)

At the back of the pamphlet, on the page titled “Proof of Purchase” at left below, some even more remarkable details can be found. The center paragraph reads ” Your opinion about the quality of the product and wishes for improvement are requested at address: 252151, r. Kiev 252151, Street Volinskya  48/50”. The factory was inviting customer feedback and attempting to set itself apart as a customer-service oriented firm. This sort of marketing was a complete departure from the concept of a managed economy, as it looks to earn customers and to reflect their wishes rather than simply produce as mandated and satisfy solely the wishes of the state.


Below the brand “Orpheus” repeated here, there are also two lines relating to registration with the Russian Anti-Piracy Organization – apparently even the Russians were having problems with knock-offs as early as 1991. At right is the QC page, formerly a bureaucratic statement to prove no crime against the state and people was committed, but here another appeal to the marketplace with the key date 08-91.

On another page, the documentation expands into marketing language detailing how the horn plays reminiscent of the sound of wind instruments before the modern era of Bb horns. It is a professional orchestral trumpet of the design most common in Soviet orchestras and premier military bands.

A great many Soviet instruments were made, and many played in amazingly powerful performances in the East Block throughout the cold war, but one would be hard pressed to name a single instrument of merit that could be tracked down and obtained – among other reasons, because the particular one that worked was probably as much by chance as by design and care in manufacture. In the Central-European states occupied by the Soviets after World War Two, the situation is somewhat different.

From 1946 to 1948, the ancient instrument making center of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire which had ironically been located in the independent state of Bohemia, was decimated by the expulsion of all ethnic Germans from newly declared “Czech lands”. This ethnic cleansing included the often inhuman torture and murder of what was later estimated to be over 200,000 men, women and children along with the typically more peaceful dispossession and deportation of some 6 million persons – all with the blessings of the Allied powers who met at Potsdam. Notably, all persons of Jewish faith who had managed to survive the preceding decade were designated “German” and deported.

Bohemia and Moravia, which make up two thirds of the modern Czech Republic, had emerged as feudal states after the fall of Rome, populated by an intermixing over the prior millennia of immigrant Romans with tribal Baii, Thuringians, Goths, Scirians, and Allemanni. This is the same ethnic make-up as Bavarians, North Austrians, and many Southern Germans. In subsequent centuries, the Russ, Tartars and others to the East pushed each other and earlier Slavic peoples ever Westward as they expanded violently. These refugees were welcomed into the largely unpopulated Bohemian and Moravian territories as they provided a source of cheap labor for the landowners. This was common regionally and part of the socio-cultural basis for the formation of Austro-Hungary just to the South. By the 19th century, the Slavic population of these lands equaled the Germanic. After World War One, Czechoslovakia was created by Allied powers seeking to weaken and separate Germanic cultures. This ultimately led to the mis-designation of the region as “occupied” in 1938, which was then used as justification for the expulsion of the native population in favor of the immigrants at Potsdam.

A Bohemian-made pea-shooter style trumpet by Bohland & Fuchs from just before World War II is below.

The Bohemians were sent by train anywhere the trains would take them. In 1946, there was no Berlin Wall or exclusion zone yet and people travelled relatively freely between East and West. While the bulk of the trains headed into East Germany, and the East German government (such as it was in 1946) set up a resettlement program for these refugees, many had probably had enough of Soviet control with their eviction and did not remain in the East.

For example, Wenzel Meinl, a Kingenthal Bohemia merchant who had married an heir to the Johann Langhammer workshop (est. 1810) and is rumored to have been working at Bohland & Fuchs, used his 50kg of luggage (all the property of the expelled citizens was seized except what they could carry – no more than two pieces of luggage, no more than 50kg) for tooling, plans and some smuggled capital. He set up shop in a barn in Konigsdorf, Bayern (translates as Kingston Bavaria) and was soon joined by his son. Anton Meinl had been captured by the Red Army during the war and ultimately escaped from prison in Siberia travelling across the NorthEastern portions of former Austro-Hungary (with which a Bohemian would be well acquainted) and eventually found his displaced family in Konigsdorf. He and his father bought two ammunition bunkers in Geretsried Bavaria and expanded into full scale production in the 1950s. 

The Keilwerth clan also settled in the West. The Julius Keilwerth firm had been started by Johann Keilwerth, a woodwind maker, in 1920 with his sons Max, Richard, Joseph and Julius. In 1925, Julius incorporated a firm to make a variety of instruments including saxophones and “tone king” brass. Following the deportation, Julius established a new factory in Nauheim West Germany. Max “was allowed” to stay behind in Bohemia for nearly a decade to help integrate the firm into the collective. The new Keilwerth would subsequently sue the Czech collective that had usurped the family assets and successfully barred it from using the Keilwerth and Tone King names in 1955.

A Keilwerth Toneking trumpet is below.

These examples and Soviet control notwithstanding, Markneukirchen seems to have been the #1 destination for the musically inclined. This was likely due to an already extant, albeit then small, instrument making culture there.

In Czechoslovakia, among the first consolidations was the merger of the original Keilwerth and Bohland & Fuchs with many other smaller Graslitz firms into the Amati Kraslice collective (Kraslice being the Slavic renaming of Graslitz). The ethnically Czech firm of Cerveny also merged first with Lidl and then into Amati. Cerveny was privatized after Glasnost as was Amati and both operate as independent firms today.

Those German firms that found themselves in the Soviet zone at the end of World War Two were likewise condemned to collectivization. At first, the East Germans had a lot of rebuilding to do before getting around to consolidating instrument makers, but they did reclassify the once private firms, making them Volkseigener Betrieb (or nationalized companies).

Three of these firms Walther, Ernst Hess Nachf, which was renamed Saxon Musical Instrument Works, and the workshop of Max B. Martin renamed SignalInstrumentenFabrik Markneukirchen were combined to form Blechblas und SignalInstrumentenFabrik in 1953. To this were then added G.H Huller, Oscar Adler and the Monnig firm. A further integration of the state-owned companies occurred later under the name Vogtländische Musikinstrumentenfabrik (VMI) which then included Blechblas und SignalInstrumentenFabrik (B&S) as a division. Markneukirchen became the center of this state-run industry.

Post-glasnost, Gerhard A. Meinl, grandson of Wenzel, merged the family firm with Triumph-Adler creating TA-Musik, and then a further expansion as JA-Musik. The company began collecting other European maker names, both from the West and from the East, ultimately merging in the VMI collective’s holdings which were renamed the B&S Group.

With operations in Germany, France, the United States and China, what began as Meinl in a rural barn in 1946 is today a part of the massive Buffet-Crampon conglomerate that emerged from the millennial venture-capital catastrophe known as The Music Group. The Buffet-Crampon conglomerate includes Buffet, Meinl-Weston, Hans Hoyer, Scherzer, Keilwerth, Schreiber, Powell Flutes, Antoine Courtois, B&S, VMI, Strasser-Marigaux, Besson, Boosey & Hawkes, and even J.W. York and Sons, though some of those brands are idled. Today VMI makes inexpensive and stencil brass that are often mistaken for Chinese product, the B&S name remains as a higher-end brand in conjunction with the Antoine Courtois firm, and the Wenzel Meinl brand continues to sell premier low brass instruments.

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