THE PROKOP VIOLIN-MAKING FIRM OF CHRUDIM
This article aims to record the development of Prokop, the Chrudim-based violin making firm, from 1875 when the family moved from Hlinsko to Chrudim; tracing its growth through the post-World War II period up to the firm’s closure in 1948. It documents the economic circumstances of individual generations as well as underlying trends and reasons for the company’s growth.
The practice of violin making has already been well documented and analysed in specialist publications [Jalovec 1959, Pilař, Šrámek 1986] and hence is not the main focus of this article. The situation after 1948 has also been meticulously captured and documented [Sejkorová 1994].
Several factors led to the writing of this article. First and foremost was the rigour of L. Prokop [b. 1909], who preserved a good many family documents; the next was a chance finding in 2000. Old accounting books and price-lists from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a sort of database of the firm’s clients, were discovered in the attic at number 88 Štěpánková Street, and returned in the process of restitution. These provided a general overview of the firm’s life and growth-trends. Lastly, the recollections and information provided by individual family members proved invaluable -- in particular that of Ludmila Prokopová, née Zemanová, Ludmila Řídka, née Prokopová and Věra Dolečková, née Prokopová.
Several factual notes follow. These will introduce the broader context of the material presented and will shed light on the family roots in Hlinsko.
1777 to 1874, Hlinsko.
The first documented family member, Antonín Prokop, was born on October 9th 1777 in Hlinsko. He worked in the production and tuning of pianos and is likely to have made guitars as well. He owned a small house and several acres of land. By his wife Anna Činková, originally from Jaroměřice na Moravě, he fathered nine children. The torch of musical instrument production was, however, passed only to his oldest son, František Dominik. Antonín died on the 21st of August 1862.
František Dominik was born on October 4th 1803 in Hlinsko. His character and life-experiences were outlined in the writings of his son and successor, Ladislav František. [Prokop – Notes. 1981].
F. Dominik initially worked with his father, but around 1821 he left to go to Vienna and work under luthier Johann Georg Stauffer. In Vienna he also privately studied drawing. He was proficient at the piano and guitar and also enjoyed playing percussion. Around 1827 he went to Pest, where he worked for approximately 6 years as a luthier. Around 1832, at a time when cholera erupted in Pest, Dominik returned to Hlinsko. By that time he seems to have been a successful and able luthier. Upon his return to Hlinsko in around 1834, he married Anna Tůmová, whom he had met during their mutual stay in Vienna, and they moved in to number 222 in Hlinsko, which until then had belonged to the Tůma family.
As Anna Tůmová had four sisters, the fields, meadow and forest were divided into five parts and each sister took charge of her own part. The house was worth approximately 2,500 gold coins at that point. František Dominik was therefore responsible for paying his sisters-in-law 500 gold coins each. It was not an ideal start to a marriage, or to a new life begun on his return from abroad. He apparently received no money from his father’s house. During the next 15 years he had six children with Anna Tůmová. After Anna’s death, František Dominik married Tereza Laštovková and had a further three children. He died on December 19th 1862.
The work of F. D. Prokop was highly esteemed, and in 1851 his cello won the gold medal at the international exhibition in London. It was valued at 400 gold coins, which at the time was equivalent to the annual salary of a lower state clerk. F. Dominik’s violin was exhibited in 1947 during the Prague Spring, at a master-craft musical instrument exhibition in the Rudolfinum. The instrument featured a very pure finish with an interesting double inlay. Material wealth rarely accompanies artistic ability, and the somewhat Bohemian character of this master violin-maker did not bring any permanent financial security to the family.
The first financial collapse of the Prokop family came after the death of F. D. Prokop, leaving seven unsupported children, a small house at number 222 in Hlinsko, a small amount of land and debts. The situation was saved by uncle Matyáš Zrůst, husband of Dominik’s first wife’s sister. Zrůst had to sell the house at number 222 in order to pay off the debts and also to repay T. Laštovková. On March 11th 1863 Zrůst also became guardian to all seven children, to whom he left land in the estate. Among them was Ladislav František Prokop, the only family successor in the violin-making craft.
Ladislav F. Prokop was born on August 14th 1843 in Hlinsko as the fourth child of F. D. Prokop and his first wife. Between the age of ten and fourteen he worked with his father making cages, suitcases, small violins, matchboxes and other oddments, while also working in the fields and delivering goods in the area. Between 1857 and 1860, under his uncle Johan Prokop, he learned carpentry, and worked with his father in his workshop from 1861 to 1862. He made his first guitar six months later, his first violin after a year. He did not, however, receive any certification of skill as the partnership was cut short by his father’s death.
At the beginning of March 1863, thanks to his guardian’s enterprise, Ladislav set out on foot for Vienna with a letter of recommendation to luthier David Bittner. He was 20 years old and had ten gold coins for the trip. He probably arrived in Vienna around May 15th 1863. Because he had only a carpentry certificate, David Bittner – the owner of a musical instrument workshop – did not initially want to take him on, but agreed to a week-long trial period. Ladislav’s job was to plane the wood, and he managed to commend himself by repairing the old blunt planes that were given him for the job. He impressed Bittner and was allowed to stay, though he only had a basic knowledge of German.
As an apprentice he received food (Sundays excepted), lodging and clothes and one gold coin per week. (Lunch would have cost 20-40 Kreutzers.) After two months, he received two gold coins per week. (The weekly wage of general workman in those days was twelve gold coins.) He repaired and helped to make new guitars, but he also assisted in the production of new violins.
At the end of the summer Ladislav became ill with arthritis, spent a week in bed and was then hospitalised for six weeks. The illness forced him to return home. He probably returned in October or November 1863 and was not welcomed back gladly by his uncle. The text in the notes implies that he was ill for two months prior to his departure from Vienna. This indicates that he worked in Vienna only from mid-March to the end of September 1863, approximately five months. For commercial reasons it was later occasionally stated that he was a foreman there.
In the aforementioned notes [Prokop 1981], Ladislav František Prokop left us ample evidence of his life experience and details of his participation in the war efforts in 1866, up to the autumn of that year. His presence in the army is documented up to August 12th 1867, when he wrote a letter to his uncle and guardian M. Zrůst, from the military base at Bruck an der Leitha in Austria.
After completing military service, around 1868, Ladislav returned to Hlinsko and married his cousin, the daughter of Matyáš Zrůst. This marriage afforded him relative security, as he had no other material wealth.
The Prokop family’s subsistence in Hlinsko was partially dependent on agriculture, and so this continued for the next seven years. Violin-production in a home workshop did not suffice to feed a larger family, so was supplemented by the making of other, smaller wooden goods, which were delivered to markets and fairs in the vicinity. It was not often that Ladislav managed to work on specific orders, and these in any case did not lead to material wealth: the economic collapse of the family after the death of F. Dominik Prokop is a good example of this. Ladislav was an accomplished violin-maker nonetheless.
A significant change to this way of life and enterprise happened after his family moved to Chrudim.
1875 to 1919, Chrudim
On the night of October 2nd 1874, part of Hlinsko was destroyed by fire, leaving almost 600 people homeless. Even Ladislav F. Prokop’s family house and workshop were burnt down. Family history states that all that was left of the property was a shop doorbell, which to this day is considered a family heirloom. Amidst all of this, on November 22nd 1874, two months after the fire, their first son Ladislav was born. The young family was thus faced with the challenge of planning a future.
Matyáš Zrůst, Matylda’s father, helped them at the beginning. In 1875, the family purchased building material and repaired the house. His wife also had her eye on Chrudim from around February 1875. A sum of two gold coins spent on train fares to Chrudim – for himself and later for his wife – was recorded in the expense diary on February 20th. Within a year Ladislav F. Prokop had decided to end his stay in Hlinsko and moved his family to Chrudim where he expected greater prospects and better business for his trade. He received his confirmation of residency on the 12th of October 1875 at the address Chrudim I/115.
Beginnings are always hard. In the period between 1875 and 1888 the family lived in at least four different places. In his accounting book L. F. Prokop noted not only finances but also the names of the owners of houses where he worked. From 1875 to 1877 at 115 Široká Street, from 1878 to 1879 at the Pešeks in Chrudim III / 179, from 1880 to 1882 at the Béms in Chrudim I / 91, from 1883 to 1888 at the Tázlers, probably in Chrudim I / 93. We have partial economic data from his time with the Bém family. Sales in this period were annually around 4,000 gold coins and the flat and shop rental was 500 gold coins.
From 1889 he finally landed his own house at 88 Štěpánková Street. He built a one-storey dwelling there in 1888 for 3,000 gold coins. That was the first significant investment of L. F. Prokop in Chrudim. The house was built on old foundations with an old cellar. The cellars have two floors today, but were probably originally deeper, with a well below the Chrudimka river. The ground floor facing into the street has served as the shop and stockroom from the beginning. In the back, facing towards the city ramparts, was Prokop’s workshop, the kitchen and the living room. The rest of the house was used as needed by the growing family and the growth of business. One part served as a storeroom for materials.
At the beginning of their enterprise in Chrudim, the family business developed in two directions, of which violin-making was one. L. F. Prokop repaired and made string musical instruments. His wife Matylda opened and ran a haberdashery shop selling goods from Nuremberg. The range of products gradually grew to include toys and stationery. In 1886 Matylda also received a licence to sell religious literature – prayer books. The licence was for eighteen precisely specified works of church literature by named authors. The shop at 88 Velké Podsíni had the business name “By The City of Paris”. The original shop door-frame is preserved to this day, the street however is now called Štěpánková. The original metal advertising signboard of the violin workshop was discovered in the attic of house at number 88 [see photo].
From his early days in Chrudim, Ladislav began to take part in public and cultural life. He attended a constitutional meeting in July 1882 as a member of the Industrial Association of Chrudim. He was the founding active member of the ‘Blackbird’s Nest Association’ which enabled him to meet with a certain strata of the Chrudim intellectual elite and make personal contact with key representatives of music in Chrudim: Josef Klimeš, Antonín Hnilička and Jindřich Emanuel Siegl [see Kobetič 2002] to name but a few.
L.F. Prokop had three children – two boys, Ladislav and Bohumil, and a daughter called Matylda. The life of Bohumil and Matylda are recorded in separate articles. The elder son, Ladislav, played an important part in the continuation of the firm. Having graduated from a Chrudim business academy in the first decades of the twentieth century, Bohumil significantly contributed to the bookkeeping, marketing and advertising of the firm.
A more complex body of data regarding the family material wealth comes from 1894. That year L. F. Prokop requested an allowance for the payment of his son Bohumil’s tuition fees at the business academy, and this request was accompanied by a declaration of wealth. His wife Matylda owned the house at number 248 in Hlinsko, worth 600 gold coins, that had been inherited from her parents, and the couple also owned the house at number 88 in Chrudim, worth 4,000 gold coins. The family also owned land in Hlinsko worth 245 gold coins, which was rented out. The property in Hlinsko, however, had debts amounting to 380 gold coins, and the house in Chrudim, similarly, to 3000 gold coins. Income from trade activity came to 5,069 gold coins that year. Expenses, especially for new material, came to 3,375 gold coins. Taxes came to 50 gold coins. The total family disposable income was approximately 1,700 gold coins per annum, which had to cover the costs of the whole family. (For comparison, the annual rental for a flat and shop at that time was around 300 gold coins.)
Musical instruments, especially string instruments and their accessories, were purchased by L. F. Prokop mainly in the northwest borderlands of Bohemia, especially from makers in Schönbach – present day Luby – Kraslice and other places in the surrounding area, all the way to Cheb.
In 1885 he purchased musical instruments and materials worth 1,135.05 gold coins from local violinmakers and other traders. The balance sheet for individual traders and locations is as follows:
- Schönbach / Luby/ - brothers Placht (203.22 gc), Eduard Loos (107.90 gc), Johan Siebenhüner (6.26 gc)
- Fleissen / Plesna/ - Gustav Friedl (194.90 gc), Josef Ignac Schuster (118.36 gc)
- Kraslice – Johan Schmidt (355.12 gc)
- Johnsdorf – Kajetán Kohler (149.29 gc)
This made up almost 40% of the overall expenditure for purchased material. The remaining material was purchased predominantly in Prague (43%) and in Vienna or from other smaller suppliers (17%). This remaining material included stationery and shop supplies.
The total income of all trading activities in 1895 came to 5,170 gold coins. Total expenses are not known.
Further financial growth of the firm will be given in crowns. For the currency transition period the exchange rate was one gold coin to two crowns.
The next trade record comes from 1905. Since 1902 there had been a rapid growth in revenue, which in 1905 was approximately double that of1895. The growth tendency of material purchases was even faster. The economic situation in the firm was positive, and so they purchased materials worth CSK 27,420 as compared to CSK 21,104 of sales. The means that were used to finance the purchase of material was not discovered. It is most likely that a credit was provided directly by the suppliers in some cases. The account books hold notes of debts to individual suppliers up to 1904. Some were significant sums. On January 17th 1895, for example, the debt to Klemperer in Prague was 573 gold coins. In subsequent years L. F. Prokop made a note in his account books at the end of each accounting period, ‘I do not owe anything to anyone’, which he signed.
The firm undertook material purchases in 1905 in the traditional north Bohemian region from the following suppliers:
Schönbach – Andreas Manna (CSK 1,699.90), Johan Liebenhauser (CSK 86.80), Andreas Loos (CSK 1,817.10), Johann Heinzmann (CSK 3,187.95), Heinrich Volkman (CSK 2,896.30), Christian Gamnitzer (CSK 5,195.36), Josef Hammerl (CSK 150.04), Johan Siebenhüner (CSK 2,301.34), Josef Hammerschmidt (CSK 45.40), Johan Winter (CSK 2,632.70).
- Kraslice – J. Köstler (CSK 79.60), Hanz Heinzmann (CSK 2,811.74), Johan Schmidt (CSK 643.23).
- Fleissen – Gustav Friedl (CSK 1,581.08),
- Johnsdorf – K. Köhler (CSK 344.46),
- Steingrub u Chebu – J. Klier (CSK 110.94)
- Markneukirchen – G. A. Hoyer (CSK 1,720.46), Herman Thretschman (CSK 116.00).
During the cooperation between F. L. Prokop and his suppliers over many years, very specific relations and business partnerships developed, which in many cases led to personal friendships across whole families, encouraged by Ladislav František’s personality: he was approachable, meticulous in business and a good communicator. The economic situation of the firm must have been healthy, as in 1906 another floor was built onto the house at number 88. The building works were done by the company of builder Alois Prokop (probably a coincidental name without any family connection). The value of performed building works was CSK 8,715.87. The loan for the building works was paid off by 1919.
A positive growth in sales continued, and in 1912 they reached CSK 55,729. We have further evidence of the quantity of materials stored in the firm’s storerooms in the period after 1910. Based on preserved photographs it is possible to state that in the period between 1910 and 1920 the stores in house number 88 included at one point at least 1,500 violins and violas, 40 cellos, 20 double-basses, 35 guitars and mandolins, 14 sitars, 30 trumpets, 80 clarinets, 80 flutes, 15 drums, numerous accordions and other instruments that cannot be specified because they were stored in paper wrapping. It is more than likely that there were numerous bows, hundreds of strings, rosin and other musical essentials including note-material.
The price-lists from this period promoted a stock range of around 100 items, in a range of price brackets. Violins alone fell into twenty price brackets, but could be bought by the dozen for lower prices, with discounts for teachers and music-teachers. Further advertising stated that the firm had available stock of over 4,000 violins, 150 cellos, 50 double-basses and 500 wind instruments.
Advertising material existed in many forms, including detailed price-lists of around sixty pages, plus letter-paper, envelopes and paper bags for strings. After the firm moved behind the station, postcards with photographs of the firm’s head office were also available. Such material was printed regularly with pricing updates (undated, however), using reusable metal printing-blocks. Preserved price-lists include pictures of individual musical instruments, photographs of the stores [photo studio Syřiště Chrudim], and photographs of L. F. Prokop and his workshop. Price-list publishing years were deduced from the dates on letters of thanks from customers, which were often quoted in the price-lists themselves. It was ironical that few customers realised, in their enthusiastic compliments to this fine Czech firm, that they were actually purchasing goods made by German craftsmen and masters in the northern borderlands!
The books held by the firm as databases of their customers deserve their own mention. In the period between 1897 and 1909 the firm had names and addresses of approximately 4,000 customers who had at least one business dealing with the firm. Every customer had their name and address recorded into two parallel databases. One was categorised in alphabetical name order and the second in alphabetical order of the cities and towns the customers came from. There were more than 2,000 cities and towns recorded, predominantly from Bohemia and Moravia. The books, 22x33cm in dimensions, were constantly updated, and active customers had a record of all their new orders. Updated goods’ price-lists and advertising material were derived from these records, and it is likely that Bohumil Prokop played a significant part in such work.
It is interesting to note that the firm established a business relationship at this time with the Czech master violin-maker Františkem Špidlen, who was luthier for the Tzar’s conservatory in Moscow. The Špidlen family were the pinnacle of the violin-making craft at the time.
The next financial information is available from 1916:
Sales worth CSK 50,000, rental of land and house number 248 in Hlinsko CSK 770. Expenses for material is unknown, but the remaining expenses totalled CSK 7,712, of which taxes were CSK 1,032, interest was CSK 300, water CSK 50, insurance CSK 80, and wages CSK 5,950. Both sons, Ladislav and Bohumil, are recorded in the wages records. Each had an annual wage of CSK 1,500. The total gross profit was CSK 9,770, net profit was CSK 2,062. These figures were obtained from various notes made by L. F. Prokop and most probably were not meant for the tax office.
In 1917, apart from the house at number 88 Velké podsíni (Štěpánková Street), the family also owned a house at number 179/III, purchased in instalments, in which the eldest son Ladislav lived with his family.
This is the period of the firm’s greatest growth, from practically nothing in 1875 to being a successful wholesale enterprise, capable of further developing trade-activity. The family was forced to change its lifestyle under these circumstances. From family-run craft and agricultural activity in Hlinsko to a trade with a shop in Chrudim. L. F. Prokop continued with his work of making and repairing stringed instruments. Business was increased by the enterprise of his wife Matylda, whose haberdashery and stationery shop subsequently included the sale of instrument-accessories, note-material and instruments bought from other makers. All this required a new approach to work and new qualifications, and L. F. Prokop met these challenges head-on.
Prokop’s communicative nature and his life-experiences in times of peace and war were put to good use in changing the family lifestyle. His eldest son Ladislav adapted well to to this new enterprise: though not committed as a violin-maker, he managed to shine in business, as did his brother Bohumil, whom his father had allowed to study at the Chrudim Business academy. Bohumil’s knowledge most certainly showed in the firm’s accounting and tax records, and the firm’s growth in advertising and marketing during this period was no doubt due to Bohumil’s practical knowledge and application. This collective work of the family as a whole ended with the death of L. F. Prokop in 1919. Then the firm was divided, and this affected the family as well.
1920 to 1936
Ladislav Prokop was the dominant figure at this stage of the firm’s growth. He was born on November 22nd 1874 in Hlinsko, shortly after the big fire that destroyed his parent’s house on October 3rd 1874. Together with his parents he moved to Chrudim in 1875, where he lived until his death on May 28th 1936. He was the first-born son of violin-maker Ladislav František Prokop and Matylda Prokopová, née Zrůstové. Both parents hailed from Hlinsko. Ladislav had two younger siblings, Bohumil [b. 1879] and Matylda [b. 1882].
His state education lasted from 1881 to 1889; then from July 15th1889 to March15th 1892 he entered his parents’ shop as an assistant. At this time the house at number 88 in Chrudim - Velké Podsíni – was officially a haberdashers, with goods from Nuremberg, writing accessories and musical instruments. Ladislav continued to work there for some years, during which he, and later Bohumil, played an active part in his parents’ business -- especially the trading of musical instruments.
Ladislav applied himself only marginally to his father’s violin-making craft, which he studied between April 1st 1904 and April 1st 1906. His father, however, didn’t certify his apprentice documents in violin-making until 1912. This would indicate that between 1889 and 1904 he did not work systematically in the violin trade and that the apprenticeship document was only a qualification assurance for the future. All his activity focused on business, though not covering the full scope of his parents’ business, but specifically focusing on the trade of musical instruments. He focused on this in his parents’ house up to 1923, when he finished building a new house above the station, number 495/IV. The break in trading during the First World War, when he was a soldier in Pressburg and Eger in Hungary, did not have an effect on his business activity thanks to his ambitious wife Karla. He married her on the 10th of June 1905 and they had three sons together.
Ladislav used and further expanded his father’s contacts, especially with violin-makers from the Kraslice and Schönbach regions. Goods purchased there dominated the business activities of the firm in subsequent years. Due to this, the continuity of master violin-making was broken, and after the death of Ladislav František in 1919 most instrument-repair also ceased. The financial turnover of the firm continued to increase during this period however, and the family house at number 88 became too small for further enterprise: one floor was already used for storage, leaving no space for packing and expedition of goods. From 1910 onwards Ladislav must also have felt the adverse effect of living apart from his parents and siblings, at 179 u Pešků near the Na Kateřině church, which he rented with his wife Karla (nee Drbohlavá). These circumstances, plus his father’s death in 1919 and the positive growth of the firm, led him to build a new business centre behind the station in Chrudim, which was completed in 1923.
After L. F. Prokop’s death, the family wealth in its entirety went to his wife Matylda. On February 22nd 1921 Matylda passed the entire house at no. 88 to her children Bohumil and Matylda. (The debts incurred by the house had already been paid off.) Bohumil and Matylda pledged that their mother could live there rent-free until her death and that they would care for her, feed and clothe her. Ladislav Prokop was allowed to continue using the rooms for his violin enterprise rent-free. Since the wealth was evenly divided, therefore, it pre-empted the final departure of the violin business from the house. Bohumil Prokop was thus split from having any effect on the running of the firm, though he did remain a silent partner with the right to half of all business goods and any yield from these goods.
L. Prokop had to try to incorporate his family and enterprise into one building. He owned more than a hectare of land above the Chrudim station: it required significant investment, but the economic situation of the country in those years was consolidated and Prokop was successful in his business dealings. Unexpected financial assistance occurred, also, during this period.
In 1920 A.C. Zvolánek from California visited the violin-making firm. Originally a Czech businessman and orchid grower from Lompoc, Zvolánek ordered a violin from Prokop and lived with the family for a short time (probably in July). They became friends and even went on trips together. In a letter dated August 9th 1920 from Krucemburk, he referred to the time spent with the Prokops with excitement and gratitude.
On May 21st 1921 Zvolánek wrote from California that his violin had arrived. With reference to their conversation of the previous year, he informed the Prokops that he was sending a loan of 1,000 dollars via his friend Mr. Skacha. This was an interest-free loan to build rooms for the business, with no repayment deadline, but only a request for an additional room to be made available when he came to stay for a week or two. In 1921 the exchange rate as per the New York stock exchange was CSK 100 for every USD 1.26. In subsequent years the Czech crown strengthened, the National Bank in pre-Munich Czechoslovakia maintained an exchange rate of USD 2.90 to 3.03 for CSK 100. A. Zvolánek financially supported the building efforts of L. Prokop with an amount between CSK 40,000 and 80,000, going by the contemporary exchange rate.
So L. Prokop embarked on his expansion programme and on June 28th 1922 received permission to construct a new building. Work began that same year. The project was designed by Arch. M. Šnobl and J. Uhlíř, Prague II, Ječná 36.
Prior to planning permission the project underwent many changes. The building as a whole was enlarged. The manufacturing space, planned as a ground floor hall with glass roof windows, was reduced to about a third, and windows were placed to the side. Josef Zizius, a builder from Chrudim, took on the building works in the period 1922-1923. The builder’s budget for bricklaying and labouring work was approximately CSK 80,000. The overall budget has not been preserved, but probably surpassed CSK 200,000. Practically the whole project was financed by a mortgage.
Ladislav Prokop built the new headquarters of the firm, by then presented as the wholesale of musical instruments in Chrudim, above the station, Na Skřivánku č. 495/IV. The building was made up of two sections. The living quarters and the violin workshop with adjoining extensive goods warehouse. The violin workshop was spacious enough to accommodate three violin-makers, and the warehouse was large enough to store all the aforementioned goods. Prokop traded all kinds of musical instruments, including organs, pianos and pianinos.
In the twenties, the business continued to grow successfully. Although specific economic data from this period has not been found, it can be assumed from the preserved advertising material that the firm prospered. Thanks to the substantial warehouse stock, the firm managed to cope with the economic crisis of the early thirties, reducing the purchase of new goods. The Czech musical instrument manufacturing industry was greatly affected by the economic crisis, as is evident from the catalogue of the 1935 Jubilee exhibition of musical instruments in Prague. During this period the export of musical instruments was less than 50% of the previous years.
Following the death of L. F. Prokop and the relocation of the firm, there was no master violin maker who would create a qualified base for business, especially where repairs of expensive and rare instruments were concerned. Ladislav Prokop was predominantly a businessman, and so tried to bridge this gap of one generation of violin-makers as quickly as possible. He did not allow his eldest son, born in 1909, to complete his education at the Chrudim gymnasium, but, upon his completing the fourth grade, sent him to Schönbach to learn violin-making craft and theory at a specialised violin-making school. Here, under the leadership of master George Lankl, he built his first violin.
At the end of June 1926 Ladislav returned home to Chrudim, but on August 16th he started an apprenticeship with master violin-maker Karel Josef Dvořák in Prague. Alongside this apprenticeship, he completed his education at the school of wood carving. L. Prokop was awarded a bronze medal in August 1927 at the provincial exhibition of apprentice work in Mladá Boleslav. In 1930 he passed his trade examination and returned to his father’s firm in Chrudim. He served his military service between March 1932 and June 1933 with the railway regiment in Pardubice.
In 1934 he left to take up a specialist violin-making internship in Italy at the firm of Settimio Soprani al Figei in Castelfidardo; then in autumn 1935 he stayed in Haag, Holland, with master J. Vedral. He was now thoroughly prepared for work in the family firm. Ladislav Prokop played cello with the Chrudim Philharmonic Orchestra until 1959, where he dealt with the upkeep and repair of musical instruments; he was also a proficient violinist.
The creative and personal profile of Ladislav Prokop the violin maker has been detailed by Stanislava Sejkorová, his granddaughter, in her thesis at the department of education at the Institute of Music of the University of Hradec Králové. Her thesis includes precious material, sourced from numerous personal interviews with her grandfather in 1993, and documents not only his personality but also his work and personal experience. [Sejkorová 1994].
The younger son, Bohumil, also learnt the violin-making craft between 1929 and 1933 under K. J. Dvořák. His focus however was, like his father, more on business.
Ladislav Prokop died aged 62 on March 28th 1936. His wife Karla Prokopová and her sons Ladislav and Bohumil took over the running of the firm. His youngest son Miroslav studied to become a chemist, moving with his own family to Choltice, where he bought a house and practised his trade.
1937 to 1948
The firm was consolidated both financially and from a business perspective during this period. The material property was distributed quite disproportionately, however. Half of all goods and profits from the business still belonged to Bohumil Prokop, the brother of the deceased L. Prokop. Ladislav Prokop set out in his will that his half of the house at number 495/IV was to be distributed equally between sons Ladislav and Bohumil – i.e. a quarter each. The other half remained the property of Karla Prokopová, who was also allocated three quarters of the garden.
Half of the firm’s net profit continued to belong to Bohumil and his half was bequeathed in equal parts to his wife Karla and his sons Ladislav and Bohumil. To counteract potential losses, he instructed his sons Ladislav and Bohumil to pay CSK 6,000 at the end of each year to their mother. He also instructed his sons to follow their mother’s suggestions in all important business decisions. The firm’s debts would pass solely to his sons. His sons’ wives were asked not to participate in the business.
Karla Prokopová had now been involved in the leadership and economic policies of the firm for some time. Her position was strengthened after the death of her husband. The third son, Miroslav Prokop, was to receive equities, shares and cash at a minimum value of CSK 100,000. In his will, he requested that his brother Bohumil sold his share of the goods and materials at market value to his nephews Ladislav and Bohumil. This did not happen, however. It is clear from the will that the aim of L. Prokop was to maintain the firm as a strictly family-run business with a minimal number of shareholders. Karla Prokopová was placed in a dominant position and took charge of the firm’s financial policies.
In 1938 two additional living quarters were built for the families of Ladislav and Bohumil. The building works, valued at CSK 876.60, were undertaken by Cyril Luhan from Chrudim. These works were also financed by a mortgage.
Due to the Nazi occupation, business stagnated. At the time, people had other priorities than musical instruments, and business connections in the annexed northern borderlands were severed during the protectorate. After World War Two there was the anticipation of a return of the firm’s prosperity and the firm started to get back on its feet. Ample stock enabled a smooth return without high financial outlay. The firm employed the Prokop brothers, their mother and the violin maker Jaromír Doležal, plus two to three labourers for dispatch, housekeeping and other auxiliary work. There were at least 1,000 violins, more than 300 bows and numerous other materials, all valued at approximately CSK 850,000 at 1959 prices. This would have been a good basis for the firm’s growth in the post-war period. This, however, did not happen.
A period of significant setbacks began with the political coup in 1948. L. Prokop was called upon to hand over his trade certificate in November 1949, giving up the business. The firm was nationalised on December 1st 1949 and placed under the New Apartment national company. This company used most of the warehouse space to store furniture and left only the workshop for musical instrument repair, where both Prokop brothers were employed. The workshop was expanded to repair accordions. These repairs were performed by Mr. Potůček. For a short time, even drums were made here. This period of the firm’s liquidation lasted for only a year and a half. On August 3rd 1951 the Local National Authority (LNA) passed a bill which definitively ended the violin making profession in Chrudim. The following paragraph is a quote from the beginning of the two-page bill:
“The Local National Authority in Chrudim governs in accordance with the proposal of the military authority, as per statute par. 2 of law no. 94/1950 Col. and as per statute par. 1 and par. 6 of the statutory order no. 5/1951 Col., that Mrs. Karla Prokopová, Mr. Ladislav Prokop and Mr. Bohumil Prokop as co-owners of the house at no. 495/IV in Chrudim, are obliged to provide all rooms, spaces and facilities including the yard and garden of the house at no. 495/IV in Chrudim for the use of military services, for the period of services’ actual need, and hand them over vacated, within three days from the receipt of this bill, to the town military in Chrudim.”
Military vans arrived two days after the delivery of this bill, probably to pre-empt any technical difficulties. Soldiers began loading the property of three families, comprising five adults and four children. The house at number 79/IV in Chrudim was allocated as compensatory accommodation. The rooms assigned to Bohumil Prokop were not as yet vacated and so Bohumil Prokop and his wife and daughter had to live at their cottage by Křižanovice for a time.
Due to the liquidation of the violin making enterprise L. Prokop and B. Prokop had to request employment at the job centre. The authorities were consistent and passed decisions with conformity. The only work offered to these skilled violin makers was labouring in the stone quarry, opened to build the Křižanovice dam. They worked at the quarry for a full year from September 3rd 1951 to September 12th 1952. Bohumil himself worked until the end of February 1953.
The story of the Prokop firm in Chrudim was ended; the firm dissolved. It was a harsh time, but worse was to come.
Both brothers were permitted to return to the violin profession at the industrial complex in Pardubice after a year of compulsory labour at the quarry. The company permitted them to repair musical instruments; the making of new instruments, however, was forbidden.
The garrison that had the use of the family firm’s premises soon lost interest. Because Bohumil Prokop persisted in requesting the return of their original accommodation at the firm’s premises, the Chrudim authorities increased their vehemence – the expropriation of the whole premises. The house and garden of these premises formally remained the property of the Prokop family, even though the military authorities forbade access to the house to any family member. In September 1956 the Eva national company, later known as Elite Chrudim, requested the premises to be expropriated for the purpose of installing a boarding house for their trainee shop-girls. The expropriation process began in the national court in Chrudim on November 20th 1956, based on a proposal of the ONV in Chrudim. Despite the opposition of the owners, the premises were expropriated and handed over to Eva Pantihose Chrudim in the land registry on the September 10th 1957. The Prokop family retained only a part of the garden. The laughable figure of CSK 119,409.70 was granted as compensation for the expropriation of the premises, but was never received by the true owners.
The last stage of the post-February liquidation was begun by the Chrudim authorities on February 12th 1959, when the district attorney permitted house searches of all rooms and premises used by both Ladislav Prokop and Bohumil Prokop. Any remaining goods not handed over during the nationalisation of the firm in 1949 were kept there. The house searches took place, the goods were discovered and on February 13th 1959 the district attorney put both brothers in custody and secured the property. On February 17th a house of the mother, Karla Prokopová, was also searched, but this yielded no results.
Both accused brothers were allocated a lawyer on February 18th by the district attorney. Goods worth approximately CSK 350,000 had been confiscated during the house searches, including almost 900 violins, several hundred bows and a large amount of lesser materials. This was the last material property of the firm, which could have led to a rebirth and future prosperity. But now the Prokop company in Chrudim was wholly destroyed, both in name and materially.
On April 3rd 1959 the brothers were charged, and on the 16th a sentence was passed. Both Ladislav and Bodhumil were accorded a seven year imprisonment, which was unconditional. As part of the sentence, the whole estate of the accused was to be confiscated, and they were to lose all civil rights. The county court in Pardubice confirmed this sentence on the 6th of May.
These circumstances had a devastating impact on all family members of the accused, particularly those living in Chrudim: the daughters of the brothers, Ludmila and Věra, were immediately expelled from their studies at the gymnasium and had to begin employment at the garden centre of Chrudim utility services, where they later completed their training. The wives of both accused brothers, also, were placed in a very difficult position in Chrudim. Ladislav and Jiří, the sons of Ladislav Prokop, had by this point completed their specialist education, the first in geology, the second in the machine tool industry. By employment Ladislav was tied to the uranium industry away from Chrudim, Jiří undertook basic military service and subsequently worked for Rubena Náchod.
Ladislav Prokop was released from prison on probation on August 29th 1963; Bohumil remained imprisoned until July 8th 1964. Ladislav returned to violin-making and until his retirement in 1970 worked for the co-op Tvar in Pardubice. He continued to practice at his house, 280 Opletalová in Chrudim, from 1970 to 1993, as a member of the Association of Violinists and Craftsmen, both restoring and constructing new instruments. 42 master instruments were created in this way, of which 35 were violins and seven violas.
On October 1st 1991, in the new social atmosphere after the 1989 revolution, Ladislav Prokop filed a petition to the Attorney General in Prague for restitution. The petition was positively settled for him and his brother Bohumil. They were fully compensated on March 17th 1992. Ladislav Prokop died after a short illness at the age of 84 on 16th September 1993. His brother Bohumil Prokop did not live to see the restitution. In 1964 he returned from his imprisonment in poor health and never returned to the violin craft. He died tragically on July 3rd 1975.
The Prokop violin making firm existed in Chrudim for almost 75 years, beginning in 1875. Its founder, Ladislav Prokop, began working and living in Chrudim with only the knowledge of his craft, a strong will and determination. He succeeded with the help of his family, founding a firm that entered the collective consciousness of the Czech musical public in the first half of the twentieth century. The firm successfully grew and developed over the next two generations. After 1948 the work of these three generations was completely destroyed within a few years. The state succeeded in liquidating the firm and taking their estate, but was unable to steal the violin craft from them. Ladislav Prokop, the last co-owner of the firm, was deprived of his estate and his freedom, but the instruments made by him after the firm’s dissolution are still played by musicians in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to this day. The line of Prokop violin makers has now entered its fifth generation from its beginnings in Chrudim in the second half of the twentieth century. The continuation of the violin making tradition appeared tenuous after 1948, following the confiscation of the entire estate, the imprisonment of the representatives of a whole generation and the exclusion of the following generation from the violin-making circle. Despite this, with only a minimal break between the third and fifth generations, the family craft was resurrected. The youngest practitioner, Ladislav Prokop [b.1973], after experiencing the atmosphere in his grandfather's workshop, felt inspired to follow the same path.
- Jalovec K.: Čeští houslaři. Státní nakladatelství krásné literatury, hudby a umění, Praha 1959. [Czech Violin Makers. State Publishing House of Fine Literature, Music and Art, Prague 1959.]
- Kobetič P.: Osobnosti Chrudimska. Okresní muzeum Chrudim 2002. [Chrudim Celebrities. Regional Museum, Chrudim 2002]
- Pilař V., Šrámek F.,: Umění houslařů. Panton, Praha 1986. [The Art of Violin Craft. Panton, Prague 1986]
- Prokop L.: Zápisky. Editor J. Keller. Nakladatelství Kruh, Hradec Králové, 1981. [Notes. Editor J. Keller. The Circle Publishing House, Hradec Kralove, 1981]
- Prokop L.: Matylda Prokopová. Chrudimské vlastivědné listy, ročník 14, číslo 5, Chrudim 2005. [Chrudim Homeland Study Documents, Volume 14, Edition 5, Chrudim 2005]
- Prokop L.: Bohumil Prokop. Chrudimské vlastivědné listy, ročník 14, číslo 6, Chrudim 2005. [Chrudim Homeland Study Documents, Volume 14, Edition 5, Chrudim 2005]
- Sejbal J.: Základy peněžního vývoje. Brno 1997. [Basis of Monetary Development. Brno 1997]
- Sejkorová S.: Chrudimský houslař Ladislav Prokop. Diplomová práce na katedře hudební výchovy Vysoké školy pedagogické v Hradci Králové 1994. [Chrudim violin maker Ladislav Prokop. Thesis for the Department of Musical Studies at the University of Education in Hradec Kralove 1994]
- Katalog Jubilejní výstavy hudebních nástrojů v Praze 1935. [Catalogue of the Jubilee Exhibition of Musical Instruments in Prague 1935]
RNDr. Ladislav Prokop