Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume: Master Luthier, His Work and Influence

“What set him apart from the rest is that he was not only an artist without equal, but also a tireless seeker of perfection to whom there was no such thing as failure. It was this driving force which shone through his life and made his work immortal.”

Roger Millant, Paris 1972

Jean Baptiste Vuillaume

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798-1875) is rightly considered the most prolific and inventive French luthier of all time: a stringed instrument maker, restorer, dealer, businessman, he was characterised by a truly scientific spirit. In common with Antonio Stradivari (c.1644-1737) he dominated the stringed instrument market in Europe for an extended period, leaving an impressive legacy not only in terms of his own 3,000 instruments, but also an impression on the opinions and prejudices that circulate among string players and luthiers to this day.

Vuillaume’s instruments have been played by such great musicians as Joachim, Ysaÿe, Kreisler, Fournier, Ricci, Stern, Zuckerman, Rostropovitch and Hahn. So, what were the conditions that made this luthier’s instruments distinctive in terms of their roomy projection, complex sonority and aesthetic appeal?  

Perhaps, most significantly, Vuillaume lived through a period of rapid change and innovation. Born shortly after the French Revolution in 1789, music-making was becoming the centre piece of an emerging nation. With the departure, many by guillotine, of the aristocracy, unemployed court musicians were reemployed in the newly created national music conservatory and venues for musical theatre, comic operas and the Palais-Royal garden; the Café des Aveugles featured an orchestra and chorus of blind musicians.  

A troupe of blind musicians and their dogs confronting a rival street musician and his dog. Lithograph by Engelmann after S. Baptiste, 1828.

These venues, often more informal and sometimes raucous, needed more robust, louder instruments. The number of public concerts proliferated throughout Europe, and their performing practises took on more recognisable modern forms. Consequently, a giddy social atmosphere emerged among the middle class, with eager trips to concert halls, ravenous consumption of sheet music and periodicals, passionate support of performers and differing musical styles.

Meanwhile, 19th century composers of the Romantic era enabled violinists and their violins to develop increased technique and aural intensity. As composers adapted to the demands of audiences in concert halls, so stringed instrument makers responded with experimentation and expression: the violin neck was lengthened and tilted back so that the fingerboard rose at a sharper angle, leading to a higher bridge and consequently greater tension of the strings. As a result, the bass-bar had to be enlarged to help support the greater pressure on the belly of the instrument. These changes in the violin were clearly related to greater sustained lines, larger scale in dynamic contrast, and a more vigorous style of bowing made possible by the new designs for bows. Fingerboards were extended to enable the instrument to hit higher notes. The fingerboard was tilted as well, allowing the violin to produce more sound within larger orchestras.  

Musicians lived perilous lives travelling by coach from one country to another in search of patronage and concert careers. Sharing beds with strangers overnight in coaching inns at night, sitting for days with dull or condescending strangers on long journeys may have been arduous for musicians, but these bumpy journeys were also hazardous for their instruments. Musicians would have been adept at repairing their own instrument on arrival at a venue - reglueing cracks, readjusting soundposts and bridges were commonplace occurrences on arrival.  

Indeed, Vuillaume describes in a letter of 18th September 1855, the appalling weather conditions during a gigantic thunderstorm, which affected his journey in Italy. Twice the coach in which he was travelling almost toppled over:  

“quant à la seconde fois, nous étions sur un lit de pierres, la voiture aux trois quarts penchée, ne sachant où nous étions. Le Tarisio a sauté de la voiture en vociférant dans son langage contre le cocher et s’est mis à soutenir l’équilibre de la voiture pendant que je descendais dans la boue à demi jambe.”  
“on the second occasion we ended up on a bed of stones, the coach three-quarters toppled over, not knowing where we were. Tarisio leapt from the coach, shouting at the coachman in his own language, and began to support the balance of the coach, while I got down into the mud, up to my knees.

It is an often-overlooked aspect of assessing stringed instruments in the era before Vuillaume, that many of the finest, even the most celebrated, instruments have either suffered from substantial damage due to wear and tear, accidents, or often at the hands of luthiers who (especially in the case of cellos) cut then down in size or made other substantial alterations. Partly due to a culture of respect for the condition of these fragile instruments, but also the vast improvements in the comfort and safety of travel, meant that most of the instruments made by Vuillaume and his French contemporaries have survived to this day in good, or excellent, condition.  

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume was born in 1798, in Mirecourt, which was then, as it still is today, a centre for string-instrument manufacture. Continuing in the trade of his father and grandfather, Vuillaume moved to Paris in 1818 to work for François Chanot. In 1821, he joined the workshop of Simon Lété, subsequently becoming his business partner. Before long, Vuillaume was to set up his own business in the rue Croix des Petits Champs in 1827.

Vuillaume’s respect and passion for the older Italian school of instrument making came from intense study of the violins of Stradivari, Guarneri, Maggini and Amati. As far as possible he imitated their design, woods, scrolls and varnishes. In order to be as authentic as possible, he would travel to the Swiss valleys looking for benches, chairs, and staircases in order to find wood as old as the instruments he was copying. When making his own instruments, he always remained faithful to the essential qualities he imitated, their thickness and the shape of the arching. The only differences, always the result of a personal decision, were the colour of the varnish, the height of the ribs or the length of the instruments.

At the 1827 Paris Universal Exhibition Vuillaume successfully presented violins derived from old Italian models, but these were not ‘antiqued’ and were clearly labelled with the maker’s name. However, despite critical acclaim, the English firm of Hills observed:  

“Vuillaume soon found the sale of violins, issued as new works, without any semblance of antiquity, an unprofitable undertaking, and, recognizing the growing demand in all parts of the world for instruments resembling the great works of Cremona, he determined to apply his great skill as a workman, and his extraordinary familiarity with Stradivari’s models, to the construction of faithful copies of that great maker’s works. This was the foundation of his success, for the modern copies found a ready sale, and orders poured in upon Vuillaume from all parts of the world.”

Indeed, such was Vuillaume’s success, that he had to update his letter-heading several times in the space of a few years to include all the awards that his workshop acquired at each Fair competition.  

As to Vuillaume’s character, we have this telling testimony sent in a letter sent to Alfred Hill, in London, by Alexandre Delanoy (1850-1928) who worked with Vuillaume between 1867 and 1870:  

“He was that which it is agreed to call an honest man. Above all, he was a charming man with his clients. He was aware of his value, his fame, and knew perfectly how to use this to his own advantage. In conversation he did not have that obsequious politeness used by many businessmen towards their clients. He listened attentively to what the customers said, responding very charmingly (sometimes with a certain gaiety tinged with light irony) and, by questioning them very skilfully, he managed to make them tell him the things they knew, and which interested him, without giving anything of himself away. This did not prevent his clients from leaving him very satisfied with their conversations. The trick, he would tell colleagues, was to know when to speak and when to be silent. He possessed this quality to a very high degree.”

It is in the Guarneri violin copies that, in our opinion, Vuillaume found his greatest making. The design of these instruments allows the G string sonority to inform the colour over the entire range of the instrument. Much as we find in the width of the great Montagnana cellos, the bass frequency resonates and supports, illuminates, the sound in higher registers, giving a robust and well-rounded projection.  

The Vuillaume quartet which is currently available at Heritage by MyLuthier displays the master luthier at the full height of his powers, with an extravagant confidence to his eye.

Following the 1839 Exhibition, at which Vuillaume won a Gold Medal, the following commentary appeared in the Le Moniteur Universel:  

“We think…..that M. Vuillaume has for too long hidden behind the reputation of the old luthiers of Cremona. Today, now that his skill has been more than acknowledged by the general agreement of artists and by the gold medal he has just received (which was preceded by three silver medals awarded in earlier expositions for his instruments) it is under his own name that he must produce his work. It is necessary, finally, that in the future an artist will do as much justice to a Vuillaume as to a Stradivari, since it is well recognised that the two instruments have the same worth.”

Vuillaume ‘Quartets’

Vuillaume designed several string quartets of instruments. Most of them were ordered by aristocratic collectors: Count Armand Doria, begun in 1848, followed by quartets made in 1865 for Count Dmitry Nikolaevich Sheremetev and Prince Alphonse de Caraman-Chimay. 

In September 1867, Vuillaume wrote to François-Joseph Fétis:  

“I have not sent you any news about my Exposition [the Great Exhibition in Paris]. I exhibited two quartets which represent the totality of everything that I have done up until now, as they are near perfect in the precise reproduction and the exact imitation of the most beautiful classical instruments. The wood, the workmanship, the varnish, and the sonority – there is nothing left to desire – and [they] can bear comparison both visually and aurally with the most celebrated instruments of Cremona”

The “Evangelists Quartet” of 1863 has a devotional nature of its own, and must have had a strong meaning for Vuillaume himself, each dedicated to one of the four evangelists of the New Testament. He followed these with a violin dedicated to St Joseph in the same year, and in 1864 he made the ‘St Peter’ and the ‘St Paul’. In 1870 he made another ‘St Paul’ violin, and a ‘St Nicolas’ in 1872. In his biography, Roger Millant states that Vuillaume in fact made instruments dedicated to all twelve Apostles, although only nine seem to have survived. In 1844, Vuillaume gave a quartet of his instruments as a lottery prize to raise funds for the Association des Artistes Musiciens in Paris. But this ‘quartet’ was probably not a planned ‘set’, but rather four instruments taken from the year’s production. Vuillaume is said also to have made a set of instruments dedicated to birds: the ‘Nightingale’, ‘Thrush’, ‘Partridge’, ‘Quail’ and ‘Golden Pheasant’.

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