The history of saxophones and other instruments produced by the predecessors of Amati-Denak is complex, confusing and convoluted. The instrument makers were directly impacted by European wars of the Twentieth Century, Nazi and Soviet expansionism and the Cold War. My goal is to provide some insight in the evolution and revolutions that have taken place to result in the Amati-Denak company of today. I will leave it to some scholar in the future to write the definitive history, with names, details and facts that I have not included in this short summary. I admit my Czech-Canadian heritage and that I am a bit of a "shill" for the Amati brand. I do believe that Amati's line of saxophones and instruments deserve a fair consideration from Canadian and American consumers.
I especially want to thank Klaus Dapper (www.saxophon-service.de) and Klaus Schneider (www.klaus-a-schneider.de); as their websites provided the basis for this article. I used the online Google translation service for the translation from German to English.
Finally, I take full responsibility for the content of this article, and I invite corrections and improvements where they are required.
One of the most important areas for the production of musical instruments in the world is the area in and around Kraslice in the now Czech Republic. A violin maker's guild was established there in 1669, and was the start of over 300 years of musical instrument making tradition in Kraslice. From that date on, production of musical instruments of all types flourished in the area.
Prior to Czechoslovakian independence in 1919, the region was a German speaking area of North West Bohemia. From 1526, Bohemia was a province of the Hapsburg Empire, (also known after 1867 as the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
The Empire had 50,000,000 citizens with its capital Vienna and a vibrant musical tradition. Composers who were active in the Empire were, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Salieri, Beethoven, Dvorak, Smetana, Fucik, Janacek, Schubert, Weber, Liszt, Brahms and Mahler. There was as well a corresponding great number of symphony orchestras, concert bands, military bands, ensembles, all requiring quality instruments. These three towns supplied the vast majority of violins, violas, cellos and other string instruments as well as percussion, brasswind and woodwind instruments for the Empire and all of Europe.
Graslitz was the German name of this small town located in the border region of what is referred to the Sudetenland. This area always had very close ties with the German province of Saxony just over the border. In fact the Kingdom of Saxony was a military ally of the Austro- Hungarian Empire prior to the unification of the German states in 1871.
Just across the border in Saxony, 10 kilometres by foot, is the town of Klingenthal. Klingenthal is also noted for musical instrument production. Yearly in May, there is an International Accordion Competition held in Klingenthal.
About 20 kilometres east of Klingenthal is the town of Markneukirchen which was the original home of the VEB Brass Instruments which produced the B&S line of Saxophones. As well Oscar Adler began operations in Markneukirchen in 1885. The Köhler brand saxophone was also produced here from 1933. It is the home to the Museum of Musical Instruments founded in 1883 and it hosts an annual International Instrumental Competition and master classes.
Kraslice, Klingenthal and Markneukirchen had very close business and economic interrelations between all the instrument makers. There was positive interaction between designers, production facilities, suppliers, contractors and workers.
The Sax Makers of Kraslice
Saxophone production initially began in Kraslice in 1900 by the firm V Kohlert and Sons. Kohlert produced the entire saxophone family from Sopranino to Bass. Kohlert tooling and manufacturing had an excellent reputation and by 1939 had earned 23 major prizes at international fairs and exhibitions.
The second major saxophone producer in Graslitz between 1920 and 1938 was the company F X. Höller Co. Third major producer in Kraslice was Julius Keilwerth family.
With numerous Saxophone makers in the three towns, there were business relationships between the companies. One supplied components to another. Another firm would do stencils for another's customers. Remember there were B&S, Adler, Köhler, Kohlert, Huller, Keilwerth, Monnig, Schuster and likely several others, all operating in the area between 1919 and 1939. It is not inconceivable a sax could have parts and components from a number of different makers in the area, and even be sold under an English or American name. This partially explains why Saxophone historians have such difficulty determining the lineage of specific saxophones from this region.
Freedom and Growth in the 1920's
There was some grumbling by a few ethnic Germans with the founding of the country of Czechoslovakia in 1919. Prior to this time the German speaking residents in the Sudetenland were members of the German speaking Austrian Empire, and the Czech speakers were a minority in the Empire. However with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the ethnic Germans in the Kraslice area and other parts of the Sudetenland became a minority in the new Czech speaking Republic.
Amendments enshrined in the Czech constitution guaranteed the German speakers the rights and privileges they always had enjoyed. Under this tolerant policy the Instrument makers of Kraslice prospered and developed between 1920 and 1938.
One of Hitler's goals was the expansion of German territory, and to justify his territorial demands he began protesting about the "Oppressed German minorities" in other countries. The European powers in October 1938 allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. Sudetenland was the mountainous border region and it was heavily fortified by Czechoslovak Army with forts and other defensive measures to protect the country from military invasion. With the Nazi occupation, the Czech army was forced to withdraw to the un-defensible central plain. Then in March 1939 Hitler made an offer to the Czechoslovakian government, "surrender the rest of the country or I will destroy it". Since the country was militarily indefensible, the Czechs reluctantly surrendered.
From a military point of view the Nazis had a superior air force and navy compared to the Czechs. However with the seizure of the Sudetenland defensive lines, and the military assets of the Czech army, the Nazis vaulted into first place as having the most advance mechanised weapons of war.
Nazis seized from Czechoslovakia thousands of tanks, wheeled vehicles, trucks and artillery pieces which were used very prominently and effectively in the conquest of Poland and France during the next 12 months. They also seized the Czech Gold reserves from the National treasury which allowed the Nazis to finance further foreign conquests.
In the Kraslice area, all musical instrument factories were forced to switch over to Nazi war production, primarily making components for aircraft. As a side note, no ethnic Czech men served in the Nazi Armies, (they were forced to work in German industries) yet a significant number of young men from the Kraslice area who were ethnic Germans were conscripted by the Nazis and died in the hostilities.
End of the War and Re-Organization in Kraslice
As one can imagine there was extensive political and economic turmoil in the Kraslice and all Europe by 1945. The Red Army had effectively destroyed the Nazi Empire in the east. Patton's Fifth Army had stopped just kilometres away west at Karlovy Vary.
The economic infrastructure was in dis-array. It only made sense that Keilwerth, Kohlert and Huller should merge into a manufacturing co-operative in 1945.
The production of the Amati saxophones began in 1945 in the former building of the company Julius Keilwerth employing the Czech staff from the companies Kohlert, Huller, and Keilwerth. Initial saxophone production was of Keilwerth models with the brand name Keilwerth (labelled "JKG" until 1955). Of course this made sense as Keilwerth was a founding member of the Co-operative. These instruments were stencilled for several companies including the Austrian firm Musica as "Musica Steyr". Amati operated as a privately owned co-operative until 1947. The Communists seized the Czech government, banned all democratic activities and nationalized all industry including the Amati co-operative.
The Allied Powers allowed Czechoslovakia in 1945 to expel ethnic Germans who supported or collaborated with the Nazis. None of the leaders of the music industry appear to have been in this category. However when the Communists came to power in 1947, they began to expel all German businessmen and landowners and anybody they felt was a threat to the Communist "utopia". It was under the Communist regime that many of the management of the Musical Instrument companies left.
In 1947 after nationalization, a number of the old Kohlert management and workers left Kraslice and established a new saxophone manufacturing company (Kohlert & Co) in Winnenden near Stuttgart in West Germany. Unfortunately their products never reached the previous acclaim and success.
Julius Keilwerth and other family members also went to West Germany in 1947 and established the Julius Keilwerth Company of today. Max Keilwerth left Kraslice in 1949 and produced saxophones for the Hohner Company, and Richard Keilwerth left in 1951 also for the West Germany and produced woodwinds under the name Richard Keilwerth.
Even though Amati was now operated as a nationalized state controlled enterprise its products were much better than one would expect from a typical communist industrial firm. There were three reasons for this.
- First, there was the long tradition of innovation and quality instrument making in Kraslice. The workers knew how to build great instruments they had the skills, tools, facilities and the infra-structure.
- Second, music is an intrinsic part of the Czech culture. One third of all Czech homes today have a musical instrument of some type. To produce sub-par instruments would be a national disgrace.
- Finally the State Central Planning understood that musical instrument sales would be an important source of foreign currency and the Amati co-operative members had experience in overseas sales.
From the 1950's through to 1990 there had been few major design changes in the saxophones produced by Amati. They were in fact the basically the same saxophones produced in the 1930s. Amati instruments in most cases were of very good quality and very economical to buy with western currency.
During this period Amati produced stencils for numerous other brands sold on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It is believed that models of King Lemaire, Corton, Boosey and Hawkes, Crescent, and Keilwerth were all produced by Amati) as well as producing the Amati Classic and Classic Deluxe saxophones under their own name.
On November 16, 1989 the "Velvet Revolution" began in Czechoslovakia, and by December 29, 1989 the Communist Party was out of power and today the Czech Republic, (Slovakia separated peacefully in 1993) is an independent country, a full democracy, member of NATO and the European Union.
The fall of Communism meant the end of State owned enterprises. Amati evolved into a modern corporation called Amati-Denak. With this change came an influx of fresh investment capital, which was used to purchase new and improved manufacturing technology. The saxophone line was thoroughly reviewed and new products were designed and produced.
For the latest generation of saxophones Amati used a similar system as Yamaha to designate the various models and this has lead to some confusion in the marketplace. For example the initial entry line Alto was AAS 21 while Yamaha offered a YAS21. Some people jumped to the incorrect conclusion that the Amati saxophones were Japanese copies. Amati had no reason to copy Yamaha or any other brand as Amati and its predecessor companies had been designing and producing award winning state of the art saxophones for 90 years at this point!
The Amati brand of instruments and saxophones particularly, do not have the brand awareness and respect in the West they likely deserve. This is due to four factors.
- The Iron Curtain isolated Czechoslovakia and its products from the West from 1947 to 1989.
- Amati saxophones that were sold in the West were marketed based on low price, so they developed unfairly, the related stigma of low quality.
- Dealers in the West tended to only carry the entry level models, and as a result Amati was considered a "student" level instrument.
- Some "experts" who make negative comments about Amati saxophones never owned one that was properly set up, and have biases about Central Europe carried over from the Cold War period.
In reflection it is amazing that there is Amati instruments being made today. Considering the wars, the economic upheavals and the political turmoil that has impacted on this little community in North East Czech Republic one could understand if the company would have gone defunct.
The fact Amati today is the largest Musical Instrument maker in Europe and one of the largest in the world validates the years of tradition in producing high quality musical instruments and the dedication and loyalty of the craftsmen of Kraslice.
Should you buy an Amati Saxophone?
- Amati saxophones have an outstanding reputation for intonation and ability to stay in tune.
- They are really undervalued in the used instrument market. I was able to purchase a mint ASS62 for $270.00 on eBay recently! What would you have to pay for the equivalent Keilwerth EX90?
- Even brand new they are priced competitively with the quality Taiwanese horns, while maintaining the feel and tone of a fine European horn.
- They have an improving North American Sales and Service network with Headquarters in New Jersey.
- Amati design teams target their top of the line models to compete with Selmer Paris and Keilwerth in Europe.