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MARCH 23, 2023    

By James N. McKean

Copyright held by author; all rights reserved.

 Part 2

A series of articles originally running in Strings Magazine that take a look at the antique instrument market from a different perspective -- that of the performing musician.


While the works of the Italian makers are grossly inflated when viewed purely from the player’s perspective, and German and American instruments are correspondingly undervalued, the French instruments are, for the most part, priced as they should be: they might be expensive, but they give good value. The trick in finding an affordable one is to avoid the upper ends, where prices now reflect the same name inflation found among the Italian instruments, and to exploit a common prejudice against what is dismissively referred to as the "French sound."

The "French sound" does exist, but it is not universal. It is due to a peculiarity: while the French have provided the world with artists of stunning originality, from David to Cézanne, from Berlioz to Debussy, their violin makers have, from the beginning of the 19th century, almost exclusively been copyists. Even the French method of construction – the use of an outside mold – was developed as an attempt to standardize the results, to remove all traces of individuality in favor of the regularity derived from templates. Luckily for the contemporary musician, the models used were almost universally the patterns of Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesù, traced from specific instruments. The characteristic sound, however, arises from more than just a common use of similar patterns. It is also a result of trying to correct the perceived wrongs of the Italian models being copied. The French makers feared that the old Italian instruments would not withstand the increased tension exerted by their modernization, when they were fitted with longer necks set at a steeper angle. A key French approach, and one that in hindsight was disastrous, was to perceive as a defect the saddle that all major Italian makers incorporated into the arching of the top. Instead, they made the top arch the same as that of the back, an even curve. This, as they correctly concluded, is immensely strong. Unfortunately, it is also immensely rigid. The movement of the top that creates the depth and richness of the sound is greatly restricted, making the sound quite bright. Many French makers also tended to leave extra wood where it wasn’t needed and where it further reduced the ability of the wood to vibrate – in the ribs and linings, for example. Lastly, there was a tendency toward exaggeration – perhaps in the mistaken belief that if what is there is good, then more of the same must be better. As a result we find del Gesù copies in excess of 14 inches, a full quarter-inch longer than Guarneri himself ever made them, with a few notable exceptions. (We really can’t be too hard on them for this, however–I know of virtually no maker who has had the courage to make a del Gesù copy along its correctly diminutive lines. The sight and feel of a real del Gesù is, for most people, a real shock – they are tiny instruments).

The French Stradivari copies tend to be equally massive. While it is true that Stradivari in what is known as his "alonge period," made instruments reaching 14 1/4 inches, he quickly abandoned the idea ("quickly" for him was after a decade). While these fiddles were long, they were also graceful. The French Strad copies are often oversized all the way around–longer and wider, which can give them a truly formidable appearance and feel, to say nothing of the volume of sound they produce. After a few hours of practicing on them, it becomes clear why louder is not always better.

As for arching height, the French makers tended toward flatness; for cellos, they used as their model the "Duport," which is probably the lowest arch Stradivari ever executed. The result is a more powerful sound, but if it is not well handled – if the saddle is omitted, and if it is not feathered properly to the edge – the result is a mighty stiff piece of wood, with a correspondingly edgy sound. This is from our perspective, of course; considering how popular these instruments were, it must have been a popular sound at the time. Of course, they were using gut strings, which mitigated the harsher aspects of the sound; but it could be that the music that they were playing, and the style that was popular, was one that favored a more soprano tone. Certainly the concertos of Vieuxtemps are not celebrated for their dark introspection; and the era was launched with the tremendous success of Paganini, who was the closest to a rock star classical music ever got - except, perhaps, for his fervent disciple, Franz Liszt.

Not every maker, however, succumbed to the lures of these "improvements." Those who did not, produced some truly outstanding instruments, and they did so in staggering numbers. The quantity of instruments of every quality, and particularly of the first rank, produced in France from the early-19th through the mid-20th centuries is extraordinary. As for technical achievement, the abilities of these luthiers are unsurpassed. Any maker today looks at their toolwork with respect and envy, for these men were not only extremely accurate, but they also worked at a dazzling pace. They did not have a corresponding originality, but one must recognize their market – what sold were Italian instruments, and copies of them for those who couldn’t afford the "real thing." Even factory instruments were quite respectable, and they were produced in a surprisingly wide range of refinement, from the cheapest Salzard to the best of the Derazey or Laberte workshops.

Cellists and violists might also consider looking into the earlier French makers – such men as Guersan, Salomon, and Castagneri. Although primarily working in the manner of Stainer, they made some cellos and violas that can work quite well for a modern musician. There were also several lesser-known makers active at the time, and their instruments will be correspondingly less expensive. If an instrument can be found that is described as "early French school," then the price will be markedly lower.

The story of violin making in France revolves around two places: Mirecourt and Paris. Paris was where the great shops were found, but most of its makers, as well as the bulk of French instruments, came from Mirecourt, a small town in Lorraine, near the Vosges mountains. Dozens of the best makers in France (and later throughout Europe and the U.S.) served their apprenticeships in Mirecourt before making the journey to Paris. Some of them eventually returned to set up the factories for which the town is now famous. Paris itself became dominated by several large shops during the 19th century. Nicolas Lupot, born in Stuttgart but of an old Mirecourt family of luthiers, is generally considered to be the greatest of the French makers – a fact reflected in his sobriquet as the "French Stradivari." The name was not inappropriate, for he was one of the first to popularize the Stradivari copy, along with Francois Pique, whose instruments are well worth searching out. Lupot was originally established in Orléans, where he made somewhat indifferent violins before moving his own shop to the capital in 1794.

The next generation saw the beginnings of shops that assumed dynastic proportions – the businesses of Georges Chanot, for example, and of Simon Lété, who took over from François Pique and then entered a partnership with the young J.B. Vuillaume. Charles François Gand arrived in Paris (from Versailles, where he was the son of a silversmith) and became an assistant to Lupot and eventually almost his adopted son. Sebastien Bernadel, who also worked for Lupot, was to found a family dynasty of his own, as was the excellent maker Jacques Thibout. The works of these luthiers are now all quite expensive, and some, such as those by Lupot and Vuillaume, command prices that are Italianesque. It is the succeeding generations that become interesting for those seeking affordable top-class instruments.

The reason for this is simple: the era’s large shops devoted a good part of their time to making as opposed to repairing, a situation that lasted well into the 20th century. (Vahakn Nigogosian told me that, as an apprentice of Marcel Vatelot in the 1920s, he spent the mornings making instruments and the afternoons engaged in repair and restoration.) The standards were high and the competition among makers intense. René Vannes in his Dictionnaire Universel des Lutbiers lists more than 500 violin and bow makers, and these are only those he knew by name. Since the big shops get the attention (and the higher prices), it is worth seeking out instruments made by the employees of those shops, who often made and sold instruments under their own names. For example, a violin by J.B. Vuillaume might now set you back $80,000 or more; but instruments by his workers–such men as Joseph Germain, Honoré Derazey, Nestor Audinot, August Darte, Paul Bailly, George Gemunder, and Charles Adolph Maucotel (not to be confused with his older brother, just plain Charles, who worked for C.F. Gand before going on to London), can be found for a third of that. The works of these makers are eminently respectable, and many musicians playing a "Vuillaume" are actually playing the works of these assistants.

The sons of Gand and Bernadel joined forces in the mid-19th century to create one of the largest and most productive of the Parisian shops. Interestingly, they often used American maple in their instruments. Unfortunately, they also used a chemical–probably potassium bichromate–to stain the wood and dramatize the figure. Time has made the effect quite unpleasant, because the wood takes on a dirty, sometimes almost black, appearance, an effect not helped by the varnish, which usually is a thick, cold red. The sound of the instruments tends toward what people mean when they speak of the "French sound"–edgy and loud, yet still covered, like Ethel Merman with a head cold. Better to search out the work of contemporary Parisian makers less well known and correspondingly less expensive makers such as Claude Miremont (who also spent some time in New York City), François Fent, Charles Gaillard, who worked for Gand, and Joseph Chardon, who worked for Georges Chanot. Because Parisian making continued at a high level into the 20th century, it is also worth looking at instruments by Charles Enel, who worked into the 1900s.

While French making might have been centered on Paris and Mirecourt, there was quite a bit of excellent lutherie going on in other parts of the country. Brussels, while not a part of France geographically, can be considered so in terms of violin making. Its most prominent shop went by the name Vuillaume–run by Nicolas François, the brother of J.B. (To round out the Vuillaume family saga, there were two other brothers named Nicolas who were luthiers, albeit rather indifferent ones, and Sebastien, who established his own shop in Paris after working with his uncle J.B. The other Vuillaume one sometimes comes across was a certain Chipot-Vuillaume, who was actually a family imposter. Chipot married the daughter of a shoe maker conveniently named J.B. Vuillaume; he appropriated her last name, hyphenated it with his own, stated on his label that he was the son-in-law of J.B. Vuillaume–which he in fact was–and did quite a tidy business.) Like his brother, N.F. Vuillaume employed a number of craftsmen who were top makers in their own right. Three of them were members of the Darche family–Charles François, Nicolas (who left to start his own shop in the city of Aachen, or Aix-la Chapelle, as it was known then), and Hilaire, considered the best in the family, who went on his own in Brussels.

Another maker of outstanding instruments was Pierre Joseph Hel, who traveled the familiar route of an apprenticeship in Mirecourt followed by a stint in Paris (with Sebastien Vuillaume), and who then went on to Aachen to work with Darche. He founded his own shop in Lille, where he was succeeded by his son Pierre Jean. Pierre Joseph’s violins are of the first order, showing an originality rare in French making, and usually finished with a beautiful red oil varnish. He employed Emile Laurent, also an excellent maker. Laurent’s son and pupil, Emile Jr., is also held in high regard; after taking over his father’s shop, he moved to Paris in the early 20th century.


This brings us to the end of a look at the violin market as a source for a working tool. The world that saw the birth and perfecting of the violin has long since passed into history. But, like a cult that continues to revere and emulate the life and teachings of a long-departed saint, all the particiants in today’s world of the violin–the makers, dealers, musicians, and writers who wax rhapsodic about the romance of the past achievements–have persisted in a hierarchy of values that has little to do with the basic purpose of the instrument: making a good sound in a modern hall. One of the more bizarre results of this has been that the world of violins has become an almost uncanny replica of the social hierarchy that obtained when these instruments were first being made.

At the very top we find the royalty: the king, the queen, and the immediate family. In the kingdom of the violin, the thrones are occupied by Stradivari, with Nicolò Amati as his consort; a fitting match, as the arriviste king is joined with a family of a suitably august lineage. Guarneri del Gesù is admirably suited to the title of Prince–the wild scion, the dark genius who succumbs to the madness of greatness and suffers an early death. The assorted dukes and earls are embodied by the lesser Cremonese, Ruggieri, Bergonzi, the other Guarneris. As for the aristocracy, they are the rest of the Italians, along with the two foreigners accepted by the court, Stainer and Lupot. Like the historical aristocracy, the instruments of these makers are a diverse group with one thing in common: membership is by birthright rather than achievement. They range from those that exemplify cherished ideals–the works of Montagnana, Goffriller, Grancino, and Gagliano–to those who, while impoverished, cling desperately to the distinction of their birth. Just as the forms of aristocracy continued into the 19th century, and even our own, we often find that in the violin world, the Italian makers have also been accorded membership in that socially august group with a claim of entree by birth alone.

As with the social pyramid of the 18th century, there is a vast populace of the works of lesser violin makers to support the tiny aristocracy. At the bottom we find the peasants, some in virtual serfdom; these are the crude yet industrious makers of the mountains of southern Saxony, the anonymous creators of the "nach Stradivari" and the branded Stainer. A step above them are the artisans, the men of great skill who quietly provide the era with its hallmark standard of excellence: the Bohemians and Germans, whose contributions are taken for granted and undervalued still. Next in line are the mercantile classes, those men of independent spirit who prefer to tread their own path to success and prosperity: the English. And as in the 18th century, with its struggles for power, here we find the prosperous upper classes, a new legion of the cultured well-to-do, making their fortunes and trying to emulate the class they aspire to join. These are the French makers, and they are now undergoing that transformation that inevitably befalls all those blessed with the inheritance of great financial success–new money becomes old money, and is, perhaps grudgingly, admitted to the ranks of the aristocracy. Finally, the Americans are found in a position exactly corresponding to that of their social antecedents of the period: intriguing, perhaps, but for the most part unschooled, unsophisticated, and on the whole considered unsuitable.

And yet, these men – Americans - were the first to free themselves from rule by birthright and privilege. Musicians might do well to look to their example, and that of their own musical forebears, who heard Viotti and Paganini and asked them what they played – not to place them in a hierarchy of achievement, but because they had found a better tool. The proper criterion for choosing a violin is simple: it has to let you be a musician. The rest is window dressing.

     James N. McKean has been making, restoring, and dealing in fine violins in New York City since 1977, when he graduated from The Violinmaking School of America. His articles regularly appear in Strings Magazine, for which he is a Corresponding Editor. He has served in a number of positions on the Board of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, including President.

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