In focus: Vuillaume's 'Evangelists' quartet

Evangelists crop

 

I recall being shown the ‘Evangelists’ quartet of instruments by a very proud Étienne Vatelot when I visited his shop as a student in the 1970s. That he should take the time to talk to a shabby English stranger I took as an indication of his own pleasure in and appreciation of this unique work of Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, which he had recently acquired. 

The quartet obviously has a devotional nature of its own, and must have had a strong meaning for Vuillaume himself, who constructed these four instruments in 1863 – each dedicated to one of the four evangelists of the New Testament – apparently without a particular commission. He followed these with a violin dedicated to St Joseph in the same year, and in 1864 he made the ‘St Peter’ and the ‘St Paul’. In 1870 he made another ‘St Paul’ violin, and a ‘St Nicolas’ in 1872. In his 1972 biography of the maker, Roger Millant states that Vuillaume in fact made instruments dedicated to all twelve Apostles, although only nine seem to have survived. 

No other equivalent works are known, and there is no obvious way to understand Vuillaume’s motivation in creating these unusual instruments. He had already made a quartet to the order of Count Armand Doria, begun in 1848, and this was followed by quartets made in 1865 for Count Dmitry Nikolaevich Sheremetev and Prince Alphonse de Caraman-Chimay. But the 1863 ‘Evangelists’ quartet seems to have had no starting point other than Vuillaume’s initiative alone… 

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