David Laurie, a prominent violin expert in the first part of the nineteenth century, gives an interesting account in his memoirs of one of his adventures in Paris that has almost a Sherlock Holmes flavor about it. He relates how Gand, the famous Parisian violin dealer came to visit him at his Hotel one day to ask if he would favor him with an appraisal on a certain violin. Gand would give no further details. They fixed the following day at 11 AM, and at the appointed hour Gand arrived with a cab, and off they went together. It was a long drive, and Laurie was extremely curious, since Gand would give him not the slightest indication of what it was all about. Gand was in fact careful to keep their conversation on anything but the fiddle they were going to see. Eventually they arrive at a large house that had been divided into flats, and together they went to one of these on the first floor. The door was opened to them by a tall, fairly elderly man of gentile appearance and manner who invited them in, Laurie felt, in a peculiarly formal way.
Following a short conversation with Gand concerning nothing in particular this man withdrew and returned shortly with a double violin case. This whole time Laurie's curiosity had been mounting with every minute, and he looked appealingly now at Gand hoping he would enlighten him or give him at least some lead in the matter. Opening the case the owner took out the single violin it contained and passed it over to Laurie. "This, sir, is the instrument upon which your valued opinion is required," he said stiffly.
Laurie went over to the window, and sat with the violin on his lap. Again he looked back for some guidance from Gand who was by this time sitting in another part of the room in earnest muffled conversation with the owner. Laurie turned the violin over and over in his hands with that expertise born of long experience. The scroll, the sound holes, the varnish, the purfling, the ribs, all received the closest scrutiny.
The instrument was extremely well preserved though had obviously been well used. The light red varnish had a great depth of beauty. The archings were slightly higher than usual, and the purfling somewhat near the edges. The choicest of wood had been used in its construction and the shaping and setting of the sound holes were absolutely perfect.
Italian? Yes, but by whom? Probably Venetian? Laurie was still puzzled.
Its small and neat purfling and that flatness of the ages reminded him strongly of Gofriller, but other features were not in line, the table, especially, which lacked the usual rise of this maker. By similar reasoning it could not be the work of either Strad or Guarnerius. The deep incision of the bouts could point to Carlo Bergonzi, though here again the shaping of the top and bottom of the bouts was quite out of character to have been by this maker.
Laurie searched his memory in vain, trying hard to recall if he had even seen a violin like this before - he certainly had not. At this stage he apologized to the other two for keeping them waiting so long, but the owner brushed his apology aside, and made some remark to the effect that he was glad to see him examining the instrument in such detail, and to take his time.
Another half hour passed, and Laurie still continued to examine the violin. He was extremely puzzled, to say the least, for he had certainly in all his wide experience, never seen an instrument by this particular maker before. Unable to come to any decision at all, he at length handed the violin over to Gand in stony silence, and with a shake of his head.
"Well, David," asked Gand, "can you name the maker?"
"No, I certainly cannot," was the dry reply.
"Have you ever seen another by this maker?"
"Could it be an eccentricity of Strad's do you think, or could it be the work of one of his pupils which the Master finished?"
"Definitely not. The hand that made that violin was a deft one. Whose work required no correction, and it's difference in model, from the violins of Strad shows an independent mind in the artist. It is a work of art and no slavish copy."
At this, Laurie noted a gray look of dismay descend on the owner's face.
He found this strange, since he had spoken so much in praise of the violin, but was then told that both the owner's father and Gand had always assured him that it was a violin by Stradivarius.
It was at this point that the veil of mystery on the affair was at last lifted and some explanations given.
The violin in question was the property of the late Pierre, Baillot, the great French Violinist, and the present owner was his son. This son had been a professor of the piano forte, and been a methodical man he had planned his life in such a way that he would work for a certain number of years during which time he would save as far as possible for investment. He had his father's 'Strad' and was told from reliable sources that the value of these instruments was rising steadily year by year. He felt that by the time he retired he would, with his savings and the sale of the violin, be comfortable off. He had, in fact, just now reached this retirement age, and the violin had for a considerable time, now been promised to a titled Government Minister for the use of his son, who now looked forward eagerly to shortly owning the 'Baillot Strad'.
The price now asked was 30,000 francs (about £1,200) and the buyer thought the price was excessively high, and said so. However, Baillot somewhat put the man over a barrel by telling him that he had already let it be widely known in Paris that one day soon he (the intending purchaser) would own the 'Baillot Strad'.Thus, the buyer finally agreed, but with the provision that the violin had a Certificate of Authenticity from the finest expert in France, whom he
considered to be Gand of Paris.
"Certainly," replied Baillot, "I will obtain a certificate from M. Gand for he knows the violin well, - he won't even require to see it again. You may just take it with you." However, this, the intending buyer refused to do, saying he would prefer to await the Certificate before finalizing the transaction.
Baillot duly called on Gand but without the instrument, and explained the position, asking for a certificate. However, Gand was inclined to hedge a little and demanded to see the violin before he could issue such a certificate it as it was some years since he had actually seen this instrument and he had not then the experience of fine instruments that he had now. Additionally, he had lately taken into partnership the two Bernadel brothers and now felt he had a responsibility to them in all such business dealings.
Off went Baillot and returned within the hour with father's precious violin.
"Now," he said with some impatience, "surely there can be no more delay. You must recognize it as the Stradivarius that my father used?"
Gand looked at the violin closely, but unfortunately he did not recognize it as a Strad at all, but he was a kindly man, and noting the distress on the face of his customer he felt it prudent not to tell him so in too forthright a fashion.
Thus, he left Baillot standing somewhat bewildered and apprehensive in his shop, whilst he retired to the little back room that all such fiddle shops have almost by tradition, where sat Eugene Bernadel and his brother Gustave, and these two he carefully explained his present predicament.
Here was a violin now known to the whole world as the 'Baillot Strad' yet here was he, the violin in his hands, knowing full well that it was not a Strad at all. What should he do? They decided, after some consultation that the circumstances demanded another opinion, and that from an expert of the highest reputation. This would not only reinforce Gand's opinion but relieve them all of the onus of a most difficult decision falling entirely on their own shoulders.
So they told Baillot that in their opinion there was some doubt as to the instrument being a genuine Strad, but suggested that another expert should see it, and recommended David Laurie, whom they knew in fact to be in Paris at that particular time.
Naturally, Baillot was perturbed, and showed it, but he finally agreed.
"Yet, suppose this man whom you recommend and praise so greatly recognizes it as a Stradivarius - what use would that be to me?" he asked. "It would not help the sale one bit, even if it satisfied my own feelings in the matter, as it is your certificate that the buyer demands, no other will do!"
"In that case," replied Gand, "if Laurie says it is a Strad and is willing to put into writing the points which lead him to form that opinion, I have no hesitation in saying that we, having such faith in his judgment and honesty, will endorse his statement with the name of our firm."
The circumstances were such therefore, that Baillot had no alternative but to agree to all this.
Now, let it be said to their credit that both Gand and the Bernadels had acted in strict accordance with their undertaking, and had certainly not breathed a word of all this to Laurie, hence the air of mystery that had pervaded this whole affair up till now.
Poor Baillot's disappointment at Laurie's decision can therefore now be well understood. In point of fact as we shall see, it so affected him as eventually to subscribe to his actual demise.
Here was the case of a violin always having been known as a 'Strad' by reason of the fact that a certain Frenchman originally purchased it only a week following the great maker's death, from his sons in Cremona. It had remained in this man's family for three generations, always been referred to as 'The Strad' and one of this man's descendants had in fact presented it to Pierre Baillot as a token of his admiration.
Pierre Marie Francois de Sales Baillot (1771-1842) was one of the greatest of the French Violinists of that era, though his musical career was somewhat patchy.His father was a schoolmaster at Passy and young Pierre showed musical talent at a very early age, and was given instruction on the violin by an Italian named Polidori. Later, he went to a French teacher, Sainte-Marie from whom he learned considerable artistry and upon this solid foundation
Baillot's playing was destined to become world famous.At the tender age of ten he had the opportunity to hear Viotti, the memory of this experience living with him for many years afterwards and actually becoming something upon which he was eventually to mold his won technique.
Life was far from easy for Pierre Baillot however.His father dies suddenly in 1783. A certain M. de Boucheporn. An important Government Official hear of the boy's plight and adopted him, sending him with his own children to Italy where Baillot was fortunate in being sent to study under Pollani, a pupil of the great Nardini. However, for some five years, he appears to have had little or no opportunity to further his violin studies as he was traveling extensively with Boucheporn and acting as his private secretary all this while.
Arriving in Paris in 1791 he approached Viotti who eventually found him an appointment with the band at the Theatre Feydeau. This did not for some reason last long however, possibly the cause was financial since Baillot had no private means, and he soon resigned and took a job in the Minister des Finances as a clerk, merely playing his violin in leisure hours as would any other amateur. Immediately following this he was obliged because of his age to put in his twenty months military service, returning to Paris in 1795 where he seems to have taken up his violin again, for we find him giving a concert in which he played one of Viotti's Concertos with such success that was offered an appointment as Professor of violin playing at the new Conservatoire in Paris.
By 1802 however, he was on the move again, entering Napoleon's private band, and later traveling in Russia for some three years (1805-8) with the famous 'Cellist Lamare' and it is said that this tour brought both of them fame and fortune.
In 1814 he was responsible for the establishment of a string quartet in Paris, and gave a great deal of attention at this time to chamber music in general in that city. His actual playing is described as clear and concise, with a full round
tone, and just intonation coupled with high musical ideality. There are quite a number of accounts of this man's playing, and particularly attractive is the following extract from a letter written by Mendelssohn on April 10th 1825 from Paris to his home.
"Rode persists in his refusal to touch a violin. But the other day I played my quartet in B minor at the Kiene's with Baillot, Mial and Norblin.
Baillot was rather confused at the beginning, and played carelessly, but at one passage in the first part of the first movement he caught fire and played the rest of the movement and whole Adagio very well and with much vigor. Then came the Scherzo; he must have liked the beginning for now he began to play and hurry in earnest, and the others after him and I in vain trying to stop them. But who can stop three runaway Frenchmen? And so they took me with them, madder and madder and faster and louder. Baillot especially at a place near the end where the theme of the trio is taken up again, played fearfully loud; and as it happened to him to make a mistake several times before, he got into a perfect rage with himself. When he had finished he said nothing but 'Encore une fois ce morceua' - now everything went smoothly, but wilder even than before. IN the place quite near the end where the theme in B minor comes in once more fortissimo, Baillot produced a hurricane in the strings that pt me in fright of my own quartet. And as soon as he was finished he came up to me, again without saying a word, and embraced me twice as if he wanted to crush me."
During the years 1815 and 1816 Baillot traveled through Holland, Belgium and England. He performed at Philharmonic Concert in 1816 and became a member of the Philharmonic Society. In 1833 he made his final tour of Switzerland and Italy.
Undoubtedly, he was the last of the Classical French School of violin playing, for after him came the great influence of Paganini and his many followers. He composed, and wrote the famous 'Methode de Violon' in conjunction with Rode and Kreutzer, also a like work for the 'Cello. His 'Art du Violon' became a standard work on the subject and his definitions of bariolage (alternate repeated notes on two strings, one open and one stopped, giving a peculiar color to the tone) and other matters relating to the finer points of stringed instruments playing, being particularly brilliant for their time.
We cannot doubt therefore that his violin, whatever its pedigree may have been, must have given him excellent service during his lifetime. May we now return to the memoirs of David Laurie, for this same violin was to turn up yet again some years later, and rather resolve the first affair regarding his appraisal for Gand. It was many years after the affair previously described, when Laurie was asked for an opinion on a certain violin during one of his many visits to
Paris. On taking it out of the case he immediately recognized it as the ill-fated 'Baillot Strad' and on making further inquiry discovered that Baillot's son had died some years previously, it being said that his disappointment over this particular violin following Laurie's verdict seemed to have preyed on his mind. He had never offered it for sale again, and indeed the present owner had bought the instrument from his widow. The moral here seems obvious. No violin is unless it is certified, and no amount of hearsay can alter the fact. A player, no matter how fine a performer he may be is often the worst possible judge when it comes to a matter of authenticity or pedigree of an instrument. Of course, in the particular case it may well be that the difficulty stemmed from the story of this violin having been bought from Strad's son. This may well have been untrue and the product of someone along the line being led to give the instrument a false value, but the interesting speculation arises as to whether or not with his excellent business
connections Strad also dealt in instruments by other makers, or took them say in part exchange against his own, and that this was one such from his stock.
Certainly the question of its authenticity never arose during the lifetime of Baillot who through his whole brilliant career never once questions that he was playing on anything other than a genuine Strad.