J.B. Vuillaume violin, 1865

Nineteenth-century Paris was one of the first places to be smitten by the allure of old Italian instruments. Musicians and gentry alike scrambled to acquire the great Italian masterpieces of the 17th and 18th centuries. But then, as now, not everyone could afford a Stradivari or Guarneri so an industry of artisans developed that specialised in making exact or passing copies of the originals. This was a great departure for French lutherie, which until then had produced violins that were – for the most part – boring, brown and small-sounding in comparison to the flashy masterpieces being made in Northern Italy.

Leading the pack of skilled copyists was the Parisian violin maker and dealer Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, whose workshop in the 1st arrondissement was the premier dealership in fine instruments. Vuillaume’s workshop made over 3,000 new instruments, a staggering rate of production of nearly 50 per year. Some were made to appear new but most were either antiqued to appear generically old or made as a copy of a specific instrument. Naturally the instruments he copied the most were those to which he had frequent access: the ‘Messiah’, the ‘Panette’, the ‘Cannon’, the ‘Duport’ and the ‘Alard’ among others.

The violin that Hilary Hahn currently plays was made by Vuillaume in 1865. Although not an exact copy, it is loosely based on the 1715 ‘Alard’ Stradivari, which was owned by Vuillaume’s son-in-law, Delphin Alard and was the inspiration for many Vuillaume violins from 1850 onwards. The broad model with strong and flat arching is exactly what made the original Stradivari so popular. At their best, Vuillaume’s Stradivari copies can sound as good as the real McCoy and were then, as they are now, a fair bit more affordable.

Commentary by Jason Price

Hilary Hahn, Wigmore Hall, Thursday 30 May 2019

Hilary Hahn on her Vuillaume violins

Hilary Hahn owns two Vuillaume violins. Her first, an 1864 Guarneri model, was her main instrument from the age of 14. Here she explains how the 1865 Stradivari model entered her life a few years ago:

Why did you decide to buy a second Vuillaume violin to go with your Guarneri model one?

I didn’t actually set out to buy another Vuillaume; it was something in the back of my mind, more as a curiosity than a replacement instrument. When I previewed the Sotheby’s Vuillaume auction in London a few years back, this one was in pristine condition. When I picked it up, I just had a hunch about it. It was almost like an underdog thing; it didn’t sound so amazing but I immediately and instinctively knew what it could do and I wanted to help it shine.

But it’s easy to get carried away by potential. The 1865 at that time wasn’t set up at all the way I would play it, and I needed to test its flexibility. I got permission to have a minor adjustment done on it and my sense of its potential was rewarded. I still didn’t know if it would work for me, but I loved that it was a beautiful sibling to my 1864 Guarneri model. My name is very connected to Vuillaume by now, and they are great touring violins. So I decided to buy the 1865 on good faith.

I continued to work towards getting it the way I wanted so it could be a backup instrument, but it didn’t quite click. Then I was dealing with an injury and didn’t want to rock the boat so returned solely to my 1864 when I went back on the road. Once I felt more solid, I revisited the 1865, and with a few more tweaks and the right bow, it suddenly surpassed my expectations. I felt liberated from the subliminal baggage of an instrument that carries the memories and habits of ages 13–35.

How would you say the two Vuillaumes compare tonally and in terms of playability?

It’s hard to say; I’ve had such different experiences with each, at different points in my life. I do know that the 1864 doesn’t feel quite as natural to play as it used to. Something changed about it over the years and I haven’t changed in the same direction. But these things can reverse on a dime, so I don’t discount it at all. It’s a powerful violin with a luscious but clear sound. The 1865 is right for me these days. It’s nimble but strong, responds to my subtler nuances, moves with me. It’s like an extension of myself. That difference may be psychological; a player-instrument relationship is as complex as an interpersonal one. The Tubbs bow I play it with brings out its earthier tonal qualities.

How do you decide which Vuillaume to play for a particular concert or recording? 

It’s pretty simple: I play the violin I’m playing on at the time. If I’m in a groove with a particular instrument, I stay in it.

This interview is part of our On Stage at Wigmore Hall series, in which we showcase the stringed instruments played at London’s Wigmore Hall.

  • J.B. Vuillaume, 1865, Hilary Hahn
  • J.B. Vuillaume, 1865, Hilary Hahn. Photo of top: J.& A. Beare
  • J.B. Vuillaume, 1865, Hilary Hahn
  • J.B. Vuillaume, 1865, Hilary Hahn