A copy of the ‘Servais’ Stradivari.
The celebrated Belgian violinmaker Nicolas-François Vuillaume is often overshadowed in history by his more famous older brother, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, whose genius as a maker and entrepreneur in the nineteenth-century propelled him to the centre of the violin making trade in Paris and the world. However, the relationship between the two siblings was more equal than first appears. After Jean-Baptiste had established his business empire in Paris in the 1820s, his brother expanded it by setting up in Brussels, the next great city of the Francophone musical world. Eventually he became luthier to the Royal Conservatoire, spreading the fame and influence of his family name. Throughout their lives, surviving letters relate to the close business relationship that the two brothers shared.
As a maker, Nicolas-François was likewise strongly connected to his brother’s workshop, and even after he had set up his business in Brussels in the 1830s he was making instruments for his brother to sell. Instruments survive by Nicolas-François that are labelled as made in Paris during his numerous visits to the city, and his name is occasionally found written on the bottom of labels in the instruments of Jean-Baptiste, but otherwise indistinguishable from others by the more famous of the two brothers. Whilst these demonstrate Nicolas-François’s high skill working with the Stradivari model, back in Brussels he appears to have been influenced by local interest in early music, probably inspired by the musicologist Fetis, and the collections of early instruments that were being collected by Mahillon that would be turned over to the Royal Conservatoire (eventually forming the Brussels Musical Instrument Museum). The result was a preponderance towards making Brescian models of violin inspired by Gaspar da Salo and Maggini for the Brussels market. These instruments with ornate double purfling, unusual modelling and often outsized proportions are often less commercially interesting to contemporary players but are no-less brilliantly made.
The violoncello of 1862 featured in our March 2013 sale is a masterly blend of Nicolas-François’s priorities towards the Brussels market and his deep understanding of Stradivarian violin making. In Paris, Jean-Baptiste had understood the importance of associating himself with the most celebrated instruments known within Parisian society. Hence, even though he never owned Paganini’s ‘Canone’, it became one of the principal models for his Guarneri copies. The same applied to the 1711 ‘Duport’, one of the most famous cellos in Paris which was at the time owned by one of the most influential performers of the century. It became the principal influence for Jean-Baptiste’s cellos. For his brother, the Stradivari cello belonging to Adrien-Francois Servais fulfilled that role.
Servais was named by Berlioz as “the Nicolo Paganini of the violoncello”. He was a giant of a man, and the first to use the endpin as an essential part of virtuosic technique. Servais’ cello was a Stradivari of 1701 (now preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC) made to the model Stradivari described on his paper templates as “Violoncello di Venezia”, with a slightly longer back length of 788mm (31 inches). Thanks to Servais’s size he had no problem playing a large instrument and it escaped the nineteenth-century practice of being reduced in size.
This 1862 ‘Servais’ copy is an impressive tour-de-force of Nicolas-François’s powers as a copyist of Stradivari. The choice of maple superbly compliments the ‘Servais’ and the extremely wide grained spruce used for the top is likewise reminiscent of the original. The deep red varnish captures the essence of the ‘Servais’, although this remains in near-pristine condition on the original whilst Vuillaume’s copy has aged gently over a century and a half of professional use.
Violons, Vuillaume, (Cité de la musique, Musée de la musique, Paris, 1998).
Roger Millant, J.B. Vuillaume: Sa Vie et son Oeuvre, (London, W.E. Hill & Sons, 1972).