The Hauser Guitar – The Legend Continues

By Pasqualle Bianculli

Originally Published in our Classical Issue

In the final scene of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film about man’s first face-to-? er…what might be a face meeting with extra-terrestrials, Richard Dreyfuss, as Roy Neary is boarding the alien ship for his trip into the cosmos. Walking hand in hand with his alien friends into the spacecraft, he has an attack of acute awe and wide-eyed wonderment as he realizes the fulfillment of his dream. Dreyfuss’ facial expression makes us feel that something really big is about to happen – that his world, and ours, is about to change.

For guitarists like myself, a “close encounter” with a Hermann Hauser guitar can be much the same.  I knew nothing of the instrument when I first heard it played on a rather scratchy old Decca recording from the early 1950’s. It was Andres Segovia playing “Granada” by Isaac Albeniz on his 1937 Hauser I. At the time I was drawn to the music and more astounded by Segovia’s playing than by the instrument itself. I could not believe that Segovia could play all those notes, a melody and the chords with a flat pick!! Up to that point I had never seen or heard anyone playing the guitar using the fingers of the right hand, so I had no point of reference for this strange new style. This was my Hauser Close Encounter of the First Kind – hearing the instrument on recording, at 14 years of age.

The Hauser instrument building tradition begins in the Bavarian region of southern Germany. It dates back to Josef Hauser (1854-1939), a renowned luthier in Munich, builder of stringed instruments, mostly zithers and a few guitars, and best known as a composer of music for the zither. Not many of his instruments survive, but one guitar from 1890 recently came up for sale at Zavaleta La Casa De Guitars:

He had many influential friends who were inspired by both his instruments and his compositions. These include Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, a promoter of Bavarian folk music and fellow zither player and composer, and Ferdinand von Zeppelin, designer of the famed airship named for him, who also enjoyed Josef’s compositions. 

Herman Hauser I

Hauser I is Hermann Hauser, the first, (1882-1952), son of Josef. Hermann began his family’s tradition of attending the State School of Violin Making in Mittenwald. His son and grandson would follow him there. He continued constructing zithers, lutes and violins. 1924 was a pivotal year in his career. This was the year that he was introduced to Andres Segovia, and Segovia’s 1912 Manuel Ramirez/Santos Hernandez guitar. It was not the first Spanish instrument that Hauser had encountered, but experiencing the enchanting sound of the guitar through the hands of Segovia, Hauser’s future career was sealed. Segovia would play Hauser guitars around the world creating the demand for these high quality German guitars. After quite a few years of trial and error, Segovia finally got from Hauser what he called, “the greatest guitar of our epoch”. This famous guitar, made in 1937, is now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Segovia would play this instrument through the most important part of his recording career, until 1962.

Herman Hauser II

Triumph and tragedy always seem to exist side by side, and the Hauser family has had their share of both. In 1900, Josef Hauser lost his arm in a streetcar accident. This forced him to sell his shop to a fellow luthier, but made sure his son, Hermann would continue to build from that location. It would be a few years before Hermann Hauser I would re-open in his own shop in Munich in 1905. He would remain in Munich where he continued building along with his son Hermann Hauser II (1911-1988). The Hauser’s would again lose their shop during the Allied bombing of Munich in 1944. It was then moved to its Reisbach location where Hermann Hauser III and his daughter, Kathrin, now a 5th generation Hauser, continue to work together creating these extraordinary guitars. 

I heard and played a Hauser II for the first time, while a student at the legendary Guitar Workshop, a school started by Kent Sidon, and devoted to all styles of guitar. It was located in the bucolic Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, New York. For me, a young student and recent cross-over from electric music, Gibson, Guild, Goya and Favilla were the big names in acoustic guitars at the time. I knew nothing about high-end, hand-made classical guitars. The guitar that I saw, built in 1963, belonged to my teacher, Jerry Willard. He let me try it after one of his “you know, you really ought to think about getting a new guitar” lectures, having endured my $70, battered and worn Giannini, (a Brazilian-made guitar) for quite a few months of lessons. 

I was first drawn to the case, of all things. Black with sleek, curving lines, the guitar fit perfectly, caressed by its plush green interior. When I picked it up, light shimmered in the European spruce top, creating curvy patterns glistening in its bear claw grain. It was a beauty. On closer inspection details were revealed in the headstock, its squared string ramps cut to expose the layers of veneer and the green inlaid stripes running from the ivory nut to the top of its iconic headstock.

The guitar was already about 10 years old by the time I played it and though my playing was rather limited to a newly-learned Travis pick version of “Freight Train” and the Estudio in Em by Tarrega, my ears could hear that this was something special. Sitting across from Willard in that small teaching studio in Long Island, I heard Bach for the first time, played on a Hauser – my Hauser Close Encounter of the Second Kind. Willard is known for his surgically precise performances of contrapuntal music, and he played his arrangement of “Sleeper’s Awake”, from Cantata 140. Getting the outer voices to work on one guitar is standard fare for classical guitarists. Simultaneously playing the chorale melody on the fourth string with a rest stroke, used to separate it from the outer voices, is an Olympic event. For me it was the trifecta of composer, instrument maker and teacher: Bach, Hauser and Willard. I was hooked.

In 1960, RCA released an important album of classical guitar music. It was called “The Art of Julian Bream”. The cover of the album featured a photo of the great artist, Julian Bream, looking quite dapper with a full head of wavy dark hair and performing on his 1957 Hermann Hauser II.  It is to the guitar’s credit that its tonal range, distinctive timbre and it’s idiosyncratic technical demands can inspire a performer to play music from every period in music’s history. Bream took advantage of this, recording music from the Baroque composer, Frescobaldi to the more contemporary Albeniz and Ravel. Also included was one of the first recordings of Giuliani’s famous Concerto in A, performed with the Melos Ensemble.

The available research material online on Hauser II is quite scant compared to what has been written about his famous father. What is revealed is how closely Hauser II worked with his father in building instruments, a partnership that would last for 20 years. Hauser II would sign his first guitar in 1952, meaning that this was the first instrument built entirely on his own, and would build about 650 instruments during his lifetime. He would also continue to collaborate with some of the greatest guitarists of his generation, including Segovia and Bream. The family legacy would continue as voiced by Hauser I, “Only build few instruments, so that you can vouch for each single instrument, and only work for few, but content artists”.

I know. You are asking yourself if there will be a Hauser Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Well, of course there is! Some years later, 1997, and I am planning to record a duo guitar CD with my good friend, Harris Becker. Harris plays a beautiful Antonio Marin guitar from Granada and the instrument I owned at the time just wasn’t cutting it. The balance of the two instruments always required compensation while playing in order to make it “happen”. I was becoming upset and knew this would bother me on the playback. At this time my wife, a fine and accomplished baroque flutist, was working part time for a team of doctors involved in cancer research. Instead of taking the inevitable “teaching” route to retain a stable income as a musician, she chose instead a completely different field. 

Knowing of her music background and the fact that I was a classical guitarist, one of the doctor’s approached Kathy and told her that her family owned two classical guitars. While the children were growing up, they were stored in a closet and out of harm’s way. Kathy inquired about the brand, and the doctor responded that she only remembered that the name on the label started with “H”. When Kathy told me I immediately wrote it off saying that it was probably “Hohner” or “Hagström” or some other factory made guitar. The next day, the doctor came back with the news that she had checked the instruments and they were indeed two Hermann Hauser guitars!

I jumped out of my skin and into our car to make the drive to the other side of Brooklyn, all the while trying to control my enthusiasm. The couple that owned the guitars, both doctors, knew a little about their history. The wife could only play a few chords, but they were aware of the value of these guitars. 

Apparently there was an uncle in Florida, a professor at the university and amateur guitar player/aficionado, who was responsible for this family heirloom. But wait, the story grows even more interesting! As fate would have it, this uncle struck up a close friendship with Andres Segovia, who visited him regularly whenever his touring schedule brought him to Florida to play. It was Segovia who would purchase the guitars from Hauser II.

The two black cases were laid out on the floor before me. I opened the first, made in 1958. Everything about it was Hauser. All the details were there. Inside the case was the original bill of purchase, well under $1,000 as I remember. Sadly, the soundboard had cracked badly, a victim of lack of humidity and neglect. Indeed the case hadn’t been opened in many years. Even with the crack, the sound was still clear as a bell…no loose braces and no loss of projection that I could determine. It had a sweet sound and wonderful highs.

The 2nd Hauser was from the early 1960’s and was clearly the better of the two instruments. This one was closest to my teacher’s guitar that I had played years earlier. The soundboard was also cracked but it sounded deeper and richer than the older one. I remember feeling how easy it was to play both these instruments and how well they fit into my hands. It took so little effort to produce the rich and balanced tone characteristic of these fine guitars.

Whatever was written on my face as I played some Bach and Llobet, Tarrega and Sor must have spoken to our friends. Perhaps they saw the “awe and wide-eyed wonderment” in my own eyes. They knew I was about to make the CD, my first, and offered me the 1958 to play on the recording. At that point, I felt an alien taking my hand to lead me into that space ship with Richard Dreyfuss as John Williams’ passionate score soared in the background. For I knew that Segovia had played this guitar for sure and now it was in my hands. 

The CD was completed and released in 1999. It is called Catgut Flambo, on the Musicians Showcase Recordings label. An album of guitar duets, the Hauser can be most clearly heard in Sor’s L’Encouragement and Granados’ show stopping, Spanish Dance No.2, Oriental. In both pieces I am playing first guitar.

Luckily, for all of us, The work of the Hauser family continues. Herman Hauser III remains busy, producing about 17 guitars a year in the Reisbach workshop. From all I have read, the standard of quality, philosophy of building and sheer physical and tonal beauty have remained intact. Hauser III focuses on the player. Before any artistic decisions are made, the players needs and wishes are assessed. The guitar is built with the intent to achieve that which the player wants in his or her guitar. Both Andres Segovia and Pepe Romero have acclaimed Herman Hauser III guitars. I have yet to experience one of these instruments and will certainly write about the next Close Encounter.

And what of the future? How long can we expect the Hauser name to continue both its quality and cachet among guitar players? The answer is simple….forever. As I see it, this is due in large part to two significant contributions of Hauser III. First, he is teaching and encouraging his daughter, Kathrin Hauser, to build guitars. At present she works alongside her father and has already produced some instruments of merit. In Kathrin, we can be assured that old stereotypes are finally broken, and women will now be at the forefront in a field long dominated by men. Honing her skills in such an historic shop, her father at her side, the Hauser guitar lineage continues unabated.

Secondly is the establishment of the Hermann Hauser Guitar Foundation. I reprint from the website, the Mission Statement of the Foundation:

Mission of the Foundation

  • The intention of the Foundation is to broadly support and promote science and culture in the scope of guitar music and lute music. The Foundation operates on an international scale.
  • In particular, the Foundation achieves its aims by
    • exploring and presenting the historical basics of music development and instrument manufacturing, including the setup of an instrument collection available to the public,
    • arranging competitions in the range of composition and interpretation,
    • cooperating with and being involved in universities that operate in the field of guitaristic and setting up and running educational institutions for playing the guitar and the lute, if the financial capacity allows for it respectively
    • giving financial support to young talents who are in need 
    • establishing an expert group for the wording of educational standards and for evaluating education quality, advising external educational institutions how to implement the standards.

Hauser set the bar long ago for what makes a guitar GREAT! Hard work, trial and error and finally, fine craftsmanship are the hallmarks of this greatness. In a world seduced by immediacy and one which vaunts amateurism, it is reassuring to know that these values not only remain, but are encouraged to grow and proliferate.

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