The sheer quantity of J.B. Vuillaume’s instruments has led to a certain prejudice against them. But as John Dilworth explains, his finest creations, such as this 1865 ‘Sheremetev’ cello, rank almost as high as those of the Cremonese masters
This article first appeared in our June 2013 issue
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In some ways it feels liberating to be describing a non-Italian instrument in terms of greatness, but it is also something of a burden. Jean Baptiste Vuillaume has his supporters and detractors, both equally fearsome. On the one hand, he was a supreme businessman and a copyist on an almost industrial scale. He was what we might now cynically refer to as a brand. On the other hand, he was without doubt a great craftsman and a superb connoisseur whose work and legacy can be examined, analysed and enjoyed from almost the same perspective as the best work of the Cremona maestros.
The age of innovation in violin making was plainly over by 1750. Everything had been done to perfect the combination of form and function that a Nicolò Amati, Stradivari or Guarneri offers to the artist and performer. Even these three great luthiers and most of their contemporaries were, in a sense, copyists themselves, working as closely to earlier makers’ templates as their skills would allow – Antonio Stradivari being perhaps the only exception at that time. Vuillaume was a brilliant man who saw his own gifts clearly and was ready to explore them as far as he could in every direction. Few would dispute that Vuillaume was also a genius, albeit of a different age and with a different outlook.
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