It is with pleasure and some pride that we look back on a long and successful company tradition. It all started in 1864, when Johann Nepomuk Kuhn, a master organ builder, settled in Männedorf and founded his own company. A native of southern Germany, he had completed his training near Weigle in Stuttgart. He first saw the shores of Lake Zurich in 1863, when he came as an employee of Eberhard Friedrich Walcker to build a new organ for the church in Männedorf. He was so taken by the region that he decided to stay and set up his own company.
Within the space of a few years, Kuhn had made a name for himself and began to acquire major orders, such as one for a concert hall organ at the Tonhalle in Zurich (1872). Other highlights in his career included prestigious commissions to build the organs in St. Gallen cathedral (1875) and the superb Minster in the old town of Zurich (1876).
In terms of sound and technology, Johann Nepomuk Kuhn was very much indebted to the age he lived in and the traditions of his southern German origins. He only built mechanical cone chest organs. To make its larger instruments easier to play, the company used the Barker lever or «pneumatique», as it was generally referred to then. In keeping with the fashion of the times, Nepomuk’s organ cases were usually neo-Gothic, but he was also careful to integrate other revivalist styles.
After Nepomuk‘s death, his only son, Carl Theodor, took over management of the company in 1888. He had completed his musical training at the School of Music in Zurich and learned the craft of organ building in his parents‘ workshops. In order to further his education, he spent his journeyman years travelling and working in France, Germany and North America. The importance of an international approach, then, was recognized at Kuhn from very early in its history. Theodor was especially impressed by the work of Cavaillé-Coll, which led later to his decision to open subsidiaries in France, first at Bellegarde and Nancy, then at Lyon. Thanks to a combination of expert craftsmanship and commercial foresight, the House of Kuhn prospered.
Around the turn of the century, the craft of organ building was developing at breakneck pace. Industrialization had changed the face of labour. Smoking factory chimneys were status symbols to be proud of and even graced letterheads. It is no wonder, then, that Theodor Kuhn pushed on with technological development, particularly the switch to instruments with pneumatic action. As was normal for his time, he even registered a number of patents.
The First World War plunged the world economy into crisis, and Theodor Kuhn was forced to close his branches abroad. In order to secure the enterprise‘s future, he founded the present-day limited company in the year before his death. He also displayed an acute sense of social responsibility, and at the first annual General Meeting, successfully established a support fund for the workers and employees of his company. Even today, the model of this fund remains the backbone of the company’s outstanding staff pension fund. Theodor’s social conscience was also reflected in his foundation for the training of socially disadvantaged apprentices, which still exists today and is administered by the community of Männedorf.
In its new form, «Orgelbau Th. Kuhn AG» not only had to survive the hardships of depression in the 1930s but also yet further developments in technology and sound, particularly the demands of the «Orgelbewegung», a «renaissance» of the Baroque art of the organ in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the highlights in Kuhn’s history during this period was the restoration of the organ in Berne cathedral in 1930. Here, pneumatic stop channel chests were abandoned for the first time ever: the pipework stood on tried-and-tested slider chests.
Kuhn never abandoned its leaning towards the Romantic, keeping it alive at a time when demand was almost exclusively for neo-Baro-que organs. The general trend towards – or, more correctly, back – to the symphonic con-cept in the 1980s confirmed our conviction that it was right not to give up the swell organ or the Romantic concepts of sound. And when the popular ideal of the way an organ should sound began to coincide with our own, we were perfectly prepared.
Since the late 1970s, our company has turned its sights increasingly to the scientifically based restoration of valuable organs of all epochs and, in the process, has created an international name for itself. In the very recent past, we have been putting strong emphasis on innovation, with a view towards further developing and perfecting the traditional art of organ building.
The fact we cherish our traditions has nothing to do with nostalgia: the present is much too vibrant and exciting for that. Nevertheless, our company‘s history bears the stamp of values which are important to us and which we continue to cultivate. Tradition and innovation go hand in hand. And in this sense, we should like to go on writing history for a long time to come.