Viotti & the Revolutionary Violin in Washington

Posted on October 22nd, 2011 by

Viotti & the Revolutionary Violin in Washington

Viotti as musical director, his ‘bow of cotton’ firmly grasped in his ‘arm of Hercules’. The bow in this picture is not a modern ‘Tourte-model’ but a long earlier type. Perhaps Viotti preferred to not use the Tourtes, with their ‘fini precieux’ for the more risky business of directing. Berlioz recalled Habeneck’s willingness to break his bow in frustration, so perhaps conductors reserved their finer instruments for concertantes.

Lecture Recital given at the Library of Congress- May 9th 2009

Peter Sheppard Skaerved playing Violins by Stradivari (Castelbarco, Betts), del Gesu (Kreisler), & W E Hill and Sons

Click  on the ‘play’ arrows to hear the lecture recital in sequence, or the highlighted links in the boxes for related material

Viotti walks out of a lesson with a feckless nobleman... Lithograph published by Chez Martinet (ca. 1814)


Viotti and the revolutionary violin

Viotti Walks out

Locatelli-‘The Harmonic Labyrinth’

His Violin-Viotti today


The musical fury of Revolution

Michael Woldemar-Reve No. 1 

Michael Woldemar-Mountebank Genius

Michel Woldemar

Giuseppe Tartini-‘Tasso’

Tartini-Per ben suonare-bisogna ben cantare

Giuseppe Tartini

Giovanni Battista Viotti-Suonata

Viotti and the solo ‘Suonata’

The manuscript of Viotti’s ‘Suonata’

Pierre Baillot-Chant des Litanies

Anton Reicha-Duo Concertant for Pierre Baillot

Pierre Baillot

Giovanni Battist Viotti-Ranz des Vaches

Viotti and Rousseau-Children of Nature

Charles de Beriot-Prelude, or Improvisation

Charles de Beriot-Solo Works & Duos

Charles de Beriot in later life


In the era of the ancien régime, the salon was the privilege of the court, of the nobility, and of those with access.  By the end of the age of revolution, the post- Jacobin era, the salon had become the playground of the new bourgeoisie.  The social revolution began to accompany the industrial revolution and then the salon ceased to be exclusive of class.  These years saw the birth of the notion of leisure time, of free time, even of play time. This became a commodity which was available to an ever larger cross section of society. What was first seen in the word games, political sparring, elegant musical performance, hot chocolate in porcelain, and philosophising, in the salons of pre-revolutionary Versailles gradually morphed into the family ‘singsong’ around the piano, its legs carefully covered, on which there might stand a mass-produced bust of the Prince Consort, and the daily newspaper, in a terrace parlour in a North Country mill town, one hundred years later.

However, the salon has always tended towards exclusivity; initially this was an exclusivity of money and class.  Money and class, prior to the revolution, might buy one education, the knowledge to survive the various ‘hazings’ that seem to have marked out the history of all exclusive clubs such as the salon.  As the exclusivity offered by money, class, and connections, faded, knowledge itself became the mark of the initiate, the habitué, the saloniste.  Salons have always tended to shibboleths.

I am not suggesting that salons were the purveyors of the homicidal behaviour described in the old testament, but rather that there have always been certain passes, be they shibboleths, modes of behaviour, or indications of previous access to the right knowledge, or simply, being one of the ‘in’ crowd, which has guaranteed their exclusivity.

In March 2008, I was waiting in the lounge of the Gibson Music School at Bowdoin College, Maine, about to give a talk on the salons of the pre- and post-revolutionary period in Paris, and had with me all my usual armoury-music by Gluck, Viotti, and Woldemar, the first hand accounts of Madame de Hausset, the Comtesse de Boigne, and so on.  Even in this venerable institution, founded by the descendants of French émigrés on the European principles exported by Thomas Jefferson, I was worried that my talk would have no relevance whatsoever for an audience of university students and New Englanders.

I gazed up at the walls, somewhat despondent, and found myself looking at a series of dark-stained wooden panels, carved in a series of decorative bas-reliefs.  All of these seemed to depict musical instruments, which was not unusual.  What was remarkable was that all of them were so accurately depicted; a bass-viol, two violins, with decorated pegs and clearly carved baroque model bows; a dulcian, a serpent, and their progeny, an early keyed bassoon, a variety of recorders, and many more.

The instruments were represented in great detail, and the carving itself (beneath a molasses-like coat of varnish), was of very high quality and clearly French.  A brass panel on the wall clarified the origin of these extraordinary pieces.  They were carved by l’Assurance for the music room of the Hôtel des Sens in Paris, in 1730.  On a snowbound campus in Maine, were to be found the very wooden panels which adorned one of oldest locations of the Parisian salons, dating back to 1475.

The Hotel des Sens today

The ‘modern’ instruments depicted in L’Assurance’s panels provided a wealth of information, as to the thickness of viol strings (always a bone of contention), tailpiece construction, and even depicting two types of ‘open-ferrule’ bows.  These would not be   widely changed until the early 1800’s, when Tourte ainé and Viotti, using the ‘closed’ ferrule, permanently changing the attack and articulation of the bow.  The depiction of the early bassoon even included a clear representation of a carrying ring, which would enable the instrument to be played in procession.

What struck me as particularly remarkable, was that the generation of Viotti would have been active in the music rooms and salons surrounded by the technical information as to the performance practice of their musical grandparents, the generation of Leclair and Locatelli, from which they were  diverging, and their philosophical ideals, which they were enhancing, amplifying the classical/biblical dialogue, with the post-Rousseau-ean notion of the primal, the hunt for the ‘noble’ savage’ , and the birth of the ‘cult of genius’.  They, like us, were constantly faced with choices, from the past, of what to embrace, and what to reject.

Not only did the panels provide a wealth of information as the design and set-ups of the mid-eighteenth century instruments, but three of them spoke to the conflicted origins of what we have come to call ‘classical’ music.  One panel was dedicated to the first and most notable musician in the Bible, King David. David’s harp is only ever depicted where music is to be sounded, obviously on the top of organ cases, and in this case, in a music room.

As a bridge between the two ancient worlds and the ‘modern’, a single panel depicted a dynamic opposition, contrast, or counterpoint.  Western and eastern weapons of war and military instruments were crossed, the ancient conflict between east and west, in ‘antique’ form, but referencing a very present reality.  At the time that these panels were installed, the fear of war with Turkey was a real as the awareness of the jihad is today.  In the same decade, the library in Neuberg an der Donau in Bavaria was decorated with multicoloured wood carvings of dismembered body parts of Saracens, Arabs, Circassians and Ottomans.

The most significant cultural legacy which the Ottomans brought, beyond croissants, cappuccino and war, was the art of noise.  The Sultan’s armies marched into battle with discordant brass instruments, Janissary’s cymbals (which found their way into British military bands as ‘jangling johnnies’), and thundering drums.  This was an army whose ‘martial sounds’ were thoroughly clangourous; very necessary, to scare their opponents, as their armies become ever less effectual on the battlefield.

Come the Terror, the salons failed, and the panelling of countless such music rooms was torn out, some of it ending up, unnoticed, in the scruffy student lounges of a north-eastern American colleges.  The legacy of the revolution is to be found everywhere. We just have to look.