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Adolf Gratzer




The following biographical article was written by Linda Curtis, Family Living Editor for The Albertan. It originally appeared in The Albertan, Saturday, February 18, 1978, p. 29. (The Albertan was a local newspaper that eventually became the Calgary Sun.)

Master of musical wood

... adjusting bridge on violin

Adolf Gratzer is a master violin and guitar maker . . . an old-world craftsman. He's made and repaired instruments that have produced some of the sweetest music this side of heaven, yet his own life has been filled with discord and despair.

He fervently hopes that his recent move to Calgary is the beginning of a coda of harmony and happiness.

A native of Carinthia, Austria, he grew up to the sound of music. His mother was a professional pianist and singer whose family were all musicians. A cousin was accompianist for the Vienna Symphony.

Adolf loved music and, at the age of eight, bought himself a mouth organ with money saved from his allowance. His favorite haunt was a music shop where they made musical instruments and he was allowed to watch as the skilled artisans fashioned and fixed the items of great beauty and tone.

One day the manager said: "I think you are the right young man to start to learn this trade. Would you like to come and work here?"

Thrilled to his boots, young Adolf rushed home to announce the good news, only to have his father turn thumbs down on the plan. He expected his son to follow his footsteps and take up law.

However, fate stepped in on the side of the boy. A close family relative died and his six children were taken in by Adolf's parents. With their own six, that meant a dozen young mouths to feed. Even a lawyer's salary was taxed to meet this burden.

So, at 14 years of age, Adolf went to apprentice at the instrument shop.

"But I do not resent my father," he said this week. "He was a wonderful man. He would come home at night, put on an apron and start in mending shoes."

Adolf learned his trade quickly and well and eventually was awarded a citation and a gold medal by the Austrian government for his outstanding work, which included serving both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Carinthia Symphony.

He not only mastered his craft, but became a skilled musician himself. At 14 he performed in a stringed orchestra, at 17 he and his brother formed a four-piece band, with Adolf doubling on piano accordion, button accordion, guitar and mouth organ. At 21 he had his own 12-piece band, gave accordion concerts and taught music in his spare time. His records are still played on the radio in Austria.

In 1954 he finally opened his own instrument shop.

He had married by this time, but his father-in-law, a wealthy farmer and restaurateur, had wanted his daughter to marry a farmer . . . "somebody who could plant potatoes."

Though Adolf did his best to win his affection, working in the fields while his wife worked in her father's restaurant, they never became friends. In fact, relations deteriorated to the point that the lives of Adolf and his wife were in danger as her father went after them with a shotgun.

That's when they decided to leave Austria.

"There was no sunshine in our lives, only tears and arguments," she recalled.

They applied to emigrate to Sweden, but 13 times something intervened. Finally there was an opening for them to come to Canada or Australia. They chose Canada. Montreal became their new home and English their new working language. Altogether, Adolf now speaks eight languages, including Yugoslavian, Polish and Russian.

"My English is not too good yet," he apologized.

In Montreal, his first job was in a factory that made furniture for churches. His wife worked in a plastics plant. It was more than a year before he managed to get into his own craft . . . joining Peate Musical Supplies, the largest shop of its kind in Montreal.

But this was destined to end in tragedy.

When their youngest son was just 10 days old, an explosion and fire demolished the shop. The older son, who had been there at the time, was guiding his father out of the holocaust, but they became separated when he had struggle to open a jammed door. When he turned, his father had disappeared.

He kept telling the firemen that there was still one more person in the blazing building, but it was some time before they located Adolf in a back room where the windows were covered with iron bars.

They finally rescued him and rushed him to hospital where he was under treatment for two years. The heat and smoke had damaged his windpipe and he had a bad head injury.

"I will never forget that day," sighed Mrs. Gratzer. "My son came home and said: 'Mother, please don't cry. I left Daddy in the fire!' My daughter looked after the baby and I rushed to the hospital."

"I was in bad shape," nodded Adolf. "I only lived for that little baby of ours."

While working in Montreal, he repaired instruments for musicians ranging from members of the symphony orchestra to rock bands. An elderly European craftsman with whom he worked said: "Never have I seen work like yours, even in Mitterwald." That is the centre of violin, cello and double bass making in Austria.

"I repaired a 300-year-old bass one time," mused Adolf. "It was falling to pieces. A music professor who worked at a Playboy Club brought to me. It cost $3,000 to repair it. The owner turned down $20,000 for it later. He said it not for sale. It had such a beautiful tone, the walls shook when he played it.

"In Austria they choose wood for violins, cellos and bass very carefully. Russian spruce makes the best top, Yugoslavian maple is best for the back.

"In selecting the wood, they test the trees with hammers, looking for a certain sound that tells them if it's time to cut it. Only the old craftsmen know this sound.

"The wood is then left outside for maybe 10 years to let the rain, sun and weather play on it. Then it's brought inside to be dried in storerooms with special temperature and humidity controls. Where I worked, we had wood over 100 years old."

Adolf also worked on the zither that Martin Dopplehamer used to play the Third Man theme in the movie of the same name. It had cracked, so Adolf took it apart and rebuilt it. The owner was overjoyed with the finished work, saying it was even better than when it had been new.

Adolf has worked for some of the world's greatest guitarists . . . Andrea Segovia, Chet Atkins, Tony Mottolla. Rock musicans such as the Rolling Stones, Mahogany Rush and April Wine have also sought him out.

He and his family are now living in Calgary, having come here five months ago because the dry climate is better for his health. Three months went by before he found a job, although promises were profuse. However, he is now associated with Harmony Lane at 4117 4 St. N.W. In April he'll be moving to new quarters at 4040 17 Ave. S.E., where Harmony Lane will open one of the largest music centres in Western Canada.

Owner Jim Klippert considers Adolf a real find.

"I never saw anybody work like he does," he told me. "And he really knows his business. What's more, he has a wonderful way with people. Whether they're little kids or older people who think they know all about instruments, in no time they're looking at him with the greatest respect.

"He's anxious to pass his knowledge of a lifetime on, too, so we're hoping to establish a kind of apprenticeship program for people who want to learn the business."

So, at long last it looks like things are coming up roses for Adolf Gratzer, a talented gentleman of the old school.

                     Mr. Adolf Gratzer, father of Mrs. Sonja Raela of the Cook Islands, Mr. Alexander

                     Gratzer of Montreal, Mr. Rudy Rhodes of Calgary and husband of Olga Gratzer of

                     Calgary, departed this life at the Rosedale Hospice on August 16, 1998 at the age

                     of 79 years. Adolf was born in Laibach, former Yugoslavia on August 23, 1918. On

                     August 21, 1959 he and his wife and two children immigrated to Montreal to find

                     new life and expression for his musical talents. Over the years he built and repaired

                     thousands of musical instruments. The Montreal Symphony, the Beatles and other

                     top and lesser names in the industry called on his services for over sixty years.

                     The last twenty years were spent in Calgary. Besides his three children, Sonja,

                     Alex and Rudy, Mr. Gratzer is also survived by three grandchildren, Heidi, Wendy

                     and Lara; two great-grandchildren, Solan and Sage; and a sister Emmi in Austria.

                     Relatives and friends are invited to Prayers at McINNIS & HOLLOWAY'S "Chapel

                     of the Bells" (2720 Centre Street North), on Thursday, August 20, 1998 at 7:30 p.m.

                     Funeral Mass will be celebrated at St. Mary's Cathedral (219 - 18 Avenue S.W.), on

                     Friday, August 21, 1998 at 10:30 a.m. with the Rev. John A. Bastigal, Celebrant. If

                     friends so desire, memorial tributes may be made directly to the Rosedale Hospice,

                     920 - 7A Street N.W., Calgary, Alberta T2M 3J3. In living memory of Adolf Gratzer,

                     a tree will be planted at Fish Creek Provincial Park by McINNIS & HOLLOWAY

                     FUNERAL HOMES "Chapel of the Bells", 2720 CENTRE STREET NORTH.

                     Telephone: 403-276-2296. 

                     Publication Date: 1998-08-19; Calgary Herald Obituatries

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June, 2004