Friedrich von Huene, 87, renowned maker of woodwind instruments
A musician since his childhood in Germany, Friedrich von Huene mastered an array of other talents that he practiced in precise harmony while becoming one of the world’s most sought-after makers of historical woodwind instruments.
Scholar, toolmaker, engineer, and businessman, he was as comfortable with a bandsaw as he was with a music score. “I consider myself sort of a cross between a musician, an artist, and an artisan,” he told the Globe in 1976.
With an ear for pure notes and an eye for pure beauty, he visited museums and private collections to study ancient recorders and flutes. Returning home, he “would stay awake late into the night doing exquisite drawings of instruments in perspective,” his son Andreas recalled.
“What was unusual about my approach, I think, is that I had an artist’s eye for the aesthetics of the instrument,” Mr. von Huene told the Globe in 1995. “When I looked at old instruments, I saw how beautifully done they were. I noticed the Baroque shape that most modern makers simply didn’t bother about anymore.”
Mr. von Huene, who formerly ran his instrument business with his wife, Ingeborg, with whom he also founded the Boston Early Music Festival, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease Sunday in HillHouse Assisted Living in Bath, Maine, where he had lived since last fall. He was 87 and previously lived for many years in Brookline, where he and his wife operated the adjacent Von Huene Workshop and Early Music Shop of New England.
“He had tremendous focus, but he was always kind when you came and asked a question. He didn’t mind being interrupted, but you learned it would be better if you didn’t interrupt at certain times,” said Andreas, who lives in Arrowsic, Maine. “Making musical instruments in some ways is like being a conductor, but instead of conducting musicians you’re conducting materials and tools. You’re juggling a lot more in the air than linear thinking allows.”
From the beginning, Mr. von Huene’s instruments drew attention and praise. While working in Boston in the late 1950s as an apprentice to Verne Q. Powell, a well-known maker of flutes and piccolos, Mr. von Huene grew dissatisfied with the mass-produced recorders available for purchase and decided to craft his own.
Bernard Krainis, a recorder virtuoso and a cofounder of New York Pro Musica, purchased one of the first recorders Mr. von Huene made. Krainis began using it in performances, and in no time Mr. von Huene had 14 new orders. He and his wife opened their own business in Waltham in 1960 and moved it a few years later to Brookline, where Mr. von Huene established a far-reaching reputation.
Barbara Lambert, former curator of musical instruments at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, called Mr. von Huene “the most distinguished wind instrument builder in the world” in a 1979 Globe interview.
“The very best players in the world play his instruments,” the late LaNoue Davenport, the first national president of the American Recorder Society and a pioneer in reviving early music and period instruments, told the Globe in 1979. “They’re the best.”
Mr. von Huene’s ambition and confidence matched the praise of his admirers. In 1966, a Globe reporter asked him if he made the finest recorders in the United States. “No,” he replied, “I make the finest recorders in the world.”
The oldest of six children, Mr. von Huene was born in 1929 in Breslau, a community that was then part of Germany and is now in Poland. His father, Heinrich A.N. von Hoyningen genannt Huene, was from a Baltic German baronial family. His mother, Aimée Freeland Corson Ellis, was a US-born descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrims and had grown up in Connecticut. In a harbinger of the life that awaited Mr. von Huene, his parents attended a harpsichord concert the night before he was born, according to “Well-Tempered Woodwinds: Friedrich von Huene and the Making of Early Music in a New World,” by Geoffrey Burgess, which was published last year.
Mr. von Huene began studying music as a boy, while staying with his grandparents in Dresden for a couple of years. During World War II, his father served in the German Army and was shot and killed as his regiment participated in an offensive into the Soviet Union. At the end of the war, his family had to flee the advancing Soviet Army.
In 1948, Mr. von Huene emigrated to the United States, where his mother settled the family in Brunswick, Maine. He finished high school and entered Bowdoin College, leaving after a year to serve in the Air Force, playing flute and piccolo in a military band.
After being discharged, he finished his bachelor’s degree in music at Bowdoin and turned down a scholarship to study music at Harvard University, choosing instead to apprentice with Powell.
He also became a US citizen and, in 1954, married Ingeborg Reiser, whom he had met while they were in high school together in Germany after World War II. “We always played music together and went to concerts,” he told the Globe in 1995.
The von Huenes came up with the idea of launching the Boston Early Music Festival at the beginning of the 1980s, and they were performers, too. They were charter members of the group now called the Boston Camerata.
A few years after opening his business, Mr. von Huene was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study early woodwinds in Europe. Over the decades, he designed instruments for companies in Germany and Japan, and he restored historic instruments, including some at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Mr. von Huene’s honors include receiving the American Recorder Society’s first Distinguished Achievement Award, an honorary doctorate from Bowdoin College, and the Curt Sachs Award from the American Musical Instrument Society.
In a blog post, Joel Cohen, music director emeritus of the Boston Camerata, praised Mr. von Huene’s “wonderful presence in, and enthusiasm for, the art of early music,” along with his “enormous contribution to the early instrument revival, his pioneering studies of historic wind instruments, his success in creating an independent business, and his profound influence on a younger generation of craftsmen/instrument makers.”
A memorial gathering will be announced for Mr. von Huene, who in addition to his wife and son Andreas leaves three other sons, Patrick of Sudbury, Nikolaus of Lexington, and Thomas of Brookline; a daughter, Elisabeth of Wiscasset, Maine; three sisters, Brigitte Reid of St. Clair Shores, Mich., Dorothee von Huene Greenberg of Pleasantville, N.Y., and Sigrid MacRae of New York City; and eight grandchildren.
“I feel that musical instruments are an art object,” Mr. von Huene told the Globe in 1995. “They also are useful for making beautiful music. They combine two aesthetic [principles] in one.”
His love of music and instruments reached back to boyhood, to life on a family farm with no electricity and just a few records for the hand-wound Victrola. “If we wanted to hear music, we had to make it ourselves,” said Mr. von Huene, who during his many years making instruments would relax by picking up one of his creations.
“After I have spent a day standing behind a noisy lathe,” he said, “I like to sit down and play some Bach and Handel.”