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Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume was the most successful French luthier of his time, but the first years of his career are still shrouded in mystery. Jonathan Marolle examines some of his earliest instruments to uncover the evolution of his technique and style
Three of Vuillaume’s earliest violins: numbers 2 and 8 (both from 1823) and number 17 (1824). By the end of his career, more than 3,000 numbered instruments had come out of his workshop
Label from Vuillaume’s violin number 2 (1823);
signature inside number 39 (1826);
that of number 53 (1827)

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume is, along with Nicolas Lupot, the most famous French luthier in history. Today his instruments are sought-after and appreciated by musicians just as much as when they were first crafted in the mid-19th century – perhaps even more so. As a luthier myself, I feel a sense of pleasure every time a Vuillaume instrument appears on my workbench, and it’s heartening to note the ever-increasing interest from players and customers in the works of our illustrious predecessor. Vuillaume can accurately be called ‘a mid-19th-century maker’: his first labels are dated 1823, and he died in 1875. His career was one of incredible richness as well as resounding success, a testimony to his brilliant entrepreneurship given the turbulent times he lived through. One could say it was an almost perfect success story – although not a universal one. Despite the plethora of books and articles about the middle and later parts of Vuillaume’s career, hardly anything has been written about his early years. This short period is still a grey area for most musicians, and indeed luthiers, even though it explains much about the formative influences on the great 19th-century master.

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About The Strad

In a French-themed issue, the Ébène Quartet discuss their huge Beethoven project and we examine the early violins of J.B. Vuillaume. There’s a look at Michel Colichon and Nicolas Lupot, and Jean-Luc Ponty gives his Sentimental Work. Plus a Masterclass on Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata.