Pierre Baillot: Against the odds

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Pierre Baillot battled against financial hardship and suffered personal tragedy, yet he became a leading exponent of the 19th-century French violin school. Martin Wulfhorst reveals his importance as an instrumentalist, pedagogue and composer

‘Illustrious yet unknown’ – what Brigitte François-Sappey wrote in 1978 about Pierre Marie François de Sales Baillot (1771–1842) still holds true today. Most violinists would count Baillot among the main representatives of the French violin school, yet few would know much more about him than that he co-authored the Paris Conservatoire’s famous Méthode de violon (1803) with Rode and Kreutzer and published his own teaching compendium, L’art du violon: Nouvelle méthode (1834). The recent 250th anniversary of his birth offers us a welcome opportunity to re-examine his contributions to the development of violin technique and pedagogy, playing style, performance philosophy and concert formats.

Baillot never achieved the same international fame as Viotti or Rode. One main reason is that a sheer unending series of struggles seemed to prevent him from pursuing the customary career path for a virtuoso and from fully capitalising on his extraordinary talent and skills: ‘I have almost become accustomed to adversity,’ wrote the 26-year-old.

After a sheltered childhood in and around Paris, life struck him a first blow that left deep scars and placed a tremendous responsibility on him. In 1783 his father died (possibly by suicide), a few months after taking his family to Corsica, where he had been appointed deputy attorney general. This left Pierre the only remaining male family member, and therefore immediately financially responsible for his mother, his sister and his aunt (and later three other relatives, as well as his wife and three children).

Fortunately, twelve-year-old Baillot found a benefactor: his father’s superior and friend Bertrand de Boucheporn, who sent him to Rome to be educated together with his own sons, separating him from his family. During his one-year sojourn, Baillot (having previously had lessons in France with two little-known violinists) had the opportunity to study with Francesco Polani (1730–1803), a student of Nardini, and gave his first successful performances in private salons. Yet in 1785 he had to leave this stimulating environment. Boucheporn was appointed commissioner of three administrative districts in southern France and hired Baillot to his staff of secretaries, while also sponsoring him to earn a bachelor of law degree. This arrangement provided some income for young Baillot and his dependants, but it placed him in a region that must have seemed a cultural desert compared with Paris or Rome. Left without a teacher and without access to scores, Baillot pursued autodidactic studies, developing a highly individual playing style and honing his improvisational skills.

When the upheavals and violence of the French Revolution began to spread from Paris to the provinces and Boucheporn’s position was eliminated, Baillot decided to unite with his family. His return to Paris in 1791 initially seemed to open up prospects for a musical career: highly impressed with the 19-year-old’s audition, Viotti offered him a post in the orchestra of the theatre he managed, placing him in the second violin section next to his favourite student, Rode; but after five months Baillot resigned from the orchestra because he could not support his relatives on the meagre salary. He became a civil servant and for almost four decades worked on and off in various branches of the ministry of finance. The tremendous workload severely curtailed his playing and composing: ‘I am at the office from 9.30am to 2pm and in the evening from 5pm to 8pm. In between I have three students [children from wealthy families] who […] break my head and hurt my ears. This dual job exhausts me and bores me even more’ (letter to a friend, 23 April 1793).

Moreover, in spite of his hard work, Baillot’s economic situation worsened. When he was drafted into the army, in November 1793, his family’s income was reduced to his low soldier’s pay. Repeatedly, he had to borrow money from friends, and after his return to civilian life in May 1795 a famine forced him to take up work in a leather factory under the most dire conditions.

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