I was 21 when I had the chance to enter the Apparut & Hilaire violin making workshop in Mirecourt, and the opportunity to work alongside Jean Eulry – the most gifted violin maker working in the town at the time. Three years later, I was accepted as a student at Étienne Vatelot’s workshop in Paris, and six months after that I met Bernard Millant, who had also learnt violin making under Eulry many years before. We quickly got know and appreciate each other’s gifts, and I asked him if he would take me on as an assistant after I’d finished my first year with Vatelot.
Bernard answered, ‘Yes, but at my workshop we are all makers of both violins and bows,’ and asked whether I would like to learn about bow making as well. I said yes, and joined Bernard in September 1972, first as his student and then as a bow maker. I remained there until 1989.
Before 1972, Bernard had employed many other assistants as well, but each of them left after a year. Jean-Frédéric Schmitt went on to work in Lyon; Jean Yves Rouveyre in Lyon and Valence; Daniel Terberg in Copenhagen; and Serge Stam in Utrecht. I was the first assistant who wanted to stay with him for longer, which immediately led to a special kind of relationship. Bernard never had a son, and I felt the bond between us was like that of a father and his adoptive son. He wanted to impart all his knowledge to me, explaining not only how to repair and restore bows, but also everything about the bow making world in general. He would explain the characteristic details of each individual maker, the periods, the styles and craftsmanship – everything it was possible to learn. His incredible generosity with his time and expertise was unlimited; he loved to tell me, ‘I’m giving you the “virus”!’
It took a long time for me to assimilate all this information, but after a year it started to make sense in my brain, and I started to recognise the different bows’ styles and periods. As time went by, our relationship deepened. Bernard would say, ‘I spend more time with you than with my wife.’ After five years, he and I could exchange remarks about bow details on a reasonably good level, as I had also been repairing bows in the evenings for other violin makers during that time. In this way, I had been able to see hundreds of bows each week and examine them in acute detail.
We had fun while we were examining bows together: one little game was for one of us to cover up most of the bow and allow the other to see just a small part of it. In the beginning, for example, Bernard would only show me the head of a bow that might be, say, from the middle period of the Voirin school. Identifying the maker was almost impossible because their models were almost identical! Then I might show him nothing but a bow button, knowing it would be just as hard for him. He would laugh and say, ‘That’s so difficult,’ but he’d accept the challenge and use all the research and expertise he had to find the answer. We played this game over and over, pushing each other’s knowledge and skills to the limit. Just one tiny detail can put you on the right track to identifying a maker, as I discovered so many times. I repeated this exercise with my own assistants – and, later, my successors.
After I had spent ten years with Bernard, he would ask my opinion whenever he considered buying a new bow. Although he would take my advice into account, the final decision would always be his; sometimes I would be right about a maker and he would be wrong (which would be difficult for him to accept!). When Bernard was in his sixties and had stopped making instruments and bows himself, I decided to leave his shop and establish my own on the Rue de Rome. Bernard would sometimes drop in with a bow in order to ask my advice, which I was always very pleased to give.
Some time later I met the viola player and teacher Bernard Gaudfroy, who proved highly knowledgeable about Baroque and classical bows. We came up with the idea of compiling a book about French bows, and quickly decided to get Bernard on board with the project. In 1995 I asked him to visit my shop as I had something important to ask him; it was a meeting I’ll never forget. I said hesitantly: ‘Mr Millant – I have decided to make a book on French bow makers…’ (at which he took a step back and I thought he was going to fall down) ‘…with you!’ He answered, ‘Ha!’ and took another step back – but at least he was smiling this time! He asked if he could have some time to think and I agreed; two weeks later he returned and said, ‘This is a difficult project you’ve pushed me into,’ but he accepted with pleasure.
It was the beginning of six years’ hard work. Bernard sought out information wherever he could think of. He tracked down records of the Tourte family in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and travelled to Château-Thierry in the east of France to sift through documents in the archives of the Lamy family. While I continued to work at the shop, I would write up the text for each entry, which Bernard would then check, adding more information that he’d gleaned from oral tradition or personal knowledge that he’d acquired. For example, the book contains remarks on the noise made by people climbing the stairs in the Morizot Brothers’ workshop in Mirecourt, something he could hear every day during his bow making apprenticeship. I was able to verify his recollection, as I had also been to their workshop once during my own time in Mirecourt.
After the publication of the three-volume L’Archet in 2000, we continued to have a close working relationship, studying bows and sometimes giving presentations together. Bernard taught more bow makers, such as Yannick Le Canu (nephew of Loïc Le Canu, who also collaborated on the book), and never hesitated to pass on his knowledge and expertise to anyone who asked him about bows. He helped a lot of young bow makers who had already completed their studies, giving them advice as they started a career in the trade.
I personally gleaned an enormous amount of information from Bernard, and it’s thanks to him that I can pass on everything I know about bows to my two partners, Yannick Le Canu and Sylvain Bigot, as well as to everyone else in the profession who requests it. I endeavour to pass it on in the nicest possible manner, in recognition of Bernard’s own style.
I certainly wouldn’t be in the bow making business myself if I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet him and work in his shop. I now understand the importance of the knowledge Bernard lent me, and how obliged I am to him. Dear Bernard, I would like to express my deep and sincere thanks to you for what you did for me – I will never forget it. I hope you are very happy having fun with François Xavier Tourte and Dominique Peccatte.
Photo: Millant (right) with Jean-François Raffin at a conference in Côme, Italy. Credit: Amnon Weinstein
The Strad’s July 2017 edition features a six-page tribute to Bernard Millant, featuring reminiscences by Pierre Guillaume, Stéphane Thomachot and others. It can be downloaded via The Strad App or on Pocketmags.