Last week the Department of Musical Instruments opened the exhibition Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin, on view through December 7, 2014, in the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments. Christian Frederick Martin is best known as the founder of the C. F. Martin & Co. guitar company, which has been building guitars for 180 years and is still family owned and operated in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
The exhibition features thirty-five instruments, most of which were made by Christian Frederick Martin in the years after he moved to the United States in 1833. Born in 1796 in the town of Markneukirchen, Saxony, Martin learned to build guitars in the Viennese tradition, exemplified best by the guitars of Johann Georg Stauffer. In 1833, due to a long-running dispute between the furniture-maker and violin-maker guilds about who controlled the craft of guitar making, Martin moved to the United States, where he first set up shop in New York City; by 1838 he had relocated to Nazareth.
Thanks to recent scholarship by researchers, collectors, and curators, the book Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C. F. Martin and His Contemporaries has been published, and there is a new appreciation for the innovations of Martin. When he first arrived in New York City, Martin was building instruments in the style of the Viennese makers, but he soon encountered guitars from the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. The popularity of the Spanish guitars, which were used by traveling virtuosos as well as teachers and students in New York, led Martin to begin copying those models. Eventually, through a process of experimentation, Martin established his own ideas for a guitar that drew from both the Viennese and Andalusian traditions. His design was a uniquely American guitar that would influence generations of builders and musicians that followed.
Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin features the largest number of guitars by Christian Frederick Martin and his contemporaries ever assembled. Events scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition will provide many opportunities to hear Martin guitars from all periods.