By Andrew Dipper

In 1711, the year that Antonio Stradivari built the “Duport” cello, Cremona had suffered 11 years of the effects of the War of the Spanish Succession. The death of Charles II, King of Spain, in 1700 and the politically motivated choice of Phillip Duke of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV, as the new king, was disputed by the Austrians under Leopold I. In 1701 Austrian troops under the command of Eugene of Savoy invaded Spanish Lombardy by crossing through the neutral territory of Venice. To counter this audacious move, Cremona was chosen as the headquarters of the French Sardinian alliance that sought to counter the expansion of the Austrian state, and over 2,000 French troops and a smaller number of Irish Catholic mercenaries were billeted within the city walls of Cremona.

In 1702 Prince Eugene of Savoy led the Austrian troops in the “Surprise of Cremona,” an incursion and attempted takeover of the city by the full force of the Austrian army, in which over 2,000 combatants on both sides were killed or wounded in the city streets, a day-long exchange of epic proportions resulting in the capture of the French field marshal Villeroy, who was taken to Innsbruck and held for ransom. In 1706 Cremona was finally captured by the Austrian army and the commerce of the city, its taxation, and civil government were fundamentally altered. Spain’s influence in Lombardy dimmed and Vienna’s rose.

Despite the effects of the war on trade, the destruction of agriculture, the lack of upkeep of the dikes and waterways, and the deplorable condition of the roads, this was a period that coincided with Antonio Stradivari’s most innovative and productive stretch of work, the so called “Golden Period.” The opening of Cremona to foreign influence—to the generals and field marshals of both sides—and the visit to Cremona by Philip V, King of Spain, in 1701, gave the Stradivari shop a captive audience of aristocrats and politicians from all over Europe and beyond, while the importation of the materials of war into Italy from the Tyrol and beyond made the finest materials available for instrument production. War greased the financial wheels that allowed the profits of conflict to flow freely in the architecture
of commerce.

In 1709 Antonio Stradivari responded to the requests of these new clients from outside the borders of Italy by designing a new, smaller form of violoncello that took advantage of advances in over-spun string production. This stringing was a considerable technical advance that allowed a more flexible and shorter vibrating string length for the C and the G strings, while maintaining their just tension.

This new cello, the Stradivari Forma B, was considerably shorter and more petite than its larger and older cousin, the so-called violoncello di Venezia that had a different tuning than the modern cello. Both forms of cello continued to be made and used concurrently for the next 70 years or so, while the smaller form gradually gained prominence because it allowed virtuoso playing styles.

This smaller form cello was not an invention of Stradivari, but his genius for efficient design ensured its ultimate success. In 1707 the small-form cello had already been popularized, first by Domenico Gabrielli (1651–90) in Bologna, and then by his pupil Giuseppe Maria Jacchini (1663–1727) in the same city. This new use, which capitalized on the instrument’s capabilities as a virtuoso instrument, was also explored by the Bononcini brothers Giovanni and Antonio, who traveled throughout Europe in the early 1700s popularizing and advertising the potential of the new instrument.

Dimensions

The Duport cello of 1711 was made on the same internal form as the Stradivari “Mara” and “Parke” cellos, which it strongly resembles in both character and workmanship. The concept of design of these cellos is Romanesque classicism in instrument form, borrowing motifs and proportion from ancient architecture, including the scrolls of Vitruvius and the architectural profiles of Roman-column pediments in the borders and fluting of the plates. It is a world away from the comparative gothic taste of the early Amatis.

The varnish has the usual dichroism of the Cremona varnish process, for which the Stradivari shop is renowned, with that peculiar ephemeral blush in certain lights that reminds one of reflected twilight on rose blooms.

It was built to the precise requirements of tone production and amplitude, with a considerable attention to fine detail and finishing that only extremely careful work with scrapers and fine sharp tools can give. The wood, too, is very carefully chosen, with attention to the exact direction of grain and medullar ray that is typical of Stradivari’s interest in lightness combined with strength and stability under load.

The model, with slight modifications, was used from 1707 until 1719. The body length of the Duport is 75.5cm, the upper bout 34cm, with the cc’s 22.8 and a lower bout of 43.6cm. The body stop is 40cm, or 15.75 inches. The wood of the two-piece back is very even and strongly flamed, descending from the center line with some interlocking of the flame seen only in the finest of Stradivari instruments. The ribs perfectly match the back while the scroll has a lighter and less prominent flame consistent with the extra strength needed for the peg-box. The varnish has the usual dichroism of the Cremona varnish process, for which the Stradivari shop is renowned, with that peculiar ephemeral blush in certain lights that reminds one of reflected twilight on rose blooms.

Provenance

The history of the Duport cello is quite well-documented. According to W.E. Hill, in 1711 on his return from a trip to Italy, a doctor from Lyon made an order to the Stradivari shop for a B-form cello. It is likely that this doctor was François Chicoyneau (1672–1752), who was a private physician to Louis XIV. The account by the Hills states that this cello was specially designated to be of exquisite workmanship and material, an instrument par excellence, for which Stradivari charged double his normal rate.

Chicoyneau died in 1752, and the Hills seem to confirm the importance of this date in their account of the instrument’s history. The French amateur cellist M. Poigné recounted the following story to them that had been passed down from Jean-Louis Duport. Upon the first owner’s death, the cello was sent to Paris to be sold by the notable dealers of the time, which in 1752 would have been Jean Baptiste Dehaye (Salomon), a notable dealer in Italian instruments. This effort, only 15 years after Stradivari’s death, met with no success and sometime before the years of the French Revolution, the instrument was put up for public auction.

The young cellist Duport happened to be at this auction with two of his friends, the Royal Prince de Soissons and Prince de Guéménée, (Henri Louis de Rohan, 1745–1809) and these two were very enthusiastic about the instrument. With this support Duport was inclined to bid more than once because the instrument was plainly superior to his Amati cello, but his funds fell short of the purchase price. The auction attempt having failed, the instrument was put on consignment with the luthier George Cousineau. There it remained for another stretch of time until the owners contacted Jean-Louis Duport, who then had the funds to purchase it for a bargain price of 24,000 French francs; about two and a half years’ average wage in today’s money.

The brothers Duport, Jean-Pierre (1741–1818) and Jean-Louis (1749–1819), played the Duport cello at various times throughout their long careers in Paris and Berlin and other cities of Europe. Slowly the Stradivari cello B form became the accepted instrument par excellence of a new generation of solo cellists that included Francisco Brunetti, Luigi Boccherini, Charles Baudiot, Bernhard Romberg, John Crosdill, Jacques-Michel Hurel de Lamare, Giovanni Mara, and Rosenberg. Romberg writes in his method for violoncello (1840), “The instrument on which I play is an Antonio Stradivari from 1711. There are many interesting anecdotes concerning the instrument, perhaps the most famous of which is the story about Napoleon Bonaparte, who invaded a concert given by Jean-Louis Duport at the Tuileries. Entering the room, the general listened for awhile and then at the end approached Duport in his usual egotistical manner, saying, “How the devil do you play this thing?” He extricated the cello from Duport and sat down with it, grasping it between his spurred boots, while Duport, recognizing the precariousness of the situation, cried, “Sire!” in such a pitiful manner that Napoleon returned the instrument immediately. Duport played the instrument without an end pin in a particular grip that if Napoleon had tried to emulate certainly would have left the lower ribs vulnerable to the spurs.

During Jean-Louis Duport’s visit to the French poet Voltaire in Ferney in the south of France, Voltaire was said to have remarked on hearing the Stradivari: “Sir you make me believe in miracles, for you have turned an ox into a nightingale.” Ox gut, rather than the sheep gut of violin strings, is the better material for cello strings.

Jean-Louis Duport generally played on the instrument with a Tourte bow, with a rather light but agile hand, and was particularly careful with his technique of bowing. His 1805 Essai sur le Doigte de Violoncelle was a foundational work on cello fingerings, and was used as a basis for teaching at the Paris Conservatoire until after the time of Auguste Franchomme (1808–84). He played with some of the best musicians of the time, including Beethoven, and elicited praise for his utmost taste in execution of phrasing with the purest and most beautiful tone, easy command of the bow, clear intonation, and most expressive sound.

The Road to Rostropovich

On Duport’s death on September 7, 1819, the instrument passed to his son, who was first a cellist in Lyon and then a piano maker in Paris. Ultimately the instrument came up for sale and it was J.B. Vuillaume, the great Parisian violin maker and dealer, who recognized the possibility of a sale to the cellist Franchomme, the natural successor to Duport’s legacy. This sale was concluded in 1842. J.B. Vuillaume was to choose this model, the Duport, as the foundational inspiration for the main design of his own violoncello production.

Franchomme succeeded Louis Pierre Norblin as first cello professor at the Paris Conservatoire. He played in one of the first professional quartets, the Alard Quartet, with Jean Delphin Alard (1815–88) and Jules Garcin on violin, and Desire Trombetta on viola. Charles Halle contributed to quintets on the piano. They performed sonatas, trios, quartets, and quintets of Mozart, Haydn, and early- and middle-period Beethoven.

The instrument served Franchomme through his long, influential, and productive career. He formed a close friendship with Mendelssohn during Mendelssohn’s visit to Paris in 1831, and was a contemporary and intimate friend of Chopin, who dedicated his Cello Sonata, Op. 65, to Franchomme. It was noted in the Weekly Chronicle and Register that Franchomme “carefully abstains from all abuse of the tremolo and of the exaggerated expression, which are the distinguishing features in most modern violoncello playing.”

According to Franchomme’s daughter, the price paid for the cello was 25,000 French francs. At Franchomme’s death in January 1884, the instrument was sold by the family to W.E. Hill and Sons in London. In 1892, it was sold to famous violin collector, the Baron Knoop, the best client the Hill firm ever had. 

In 1906 it sold to Mr. John S. Phipps, in 1927 to Horace Havemeyer, and in 1968 to Gerald M. Warburg, who confided in the violin dealer Etienne Vatelot that the instrument should only be sold to the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

This sale occurred in 1974.

Rostropovich was renowned not only as one of the great instrumentalists of the 20th century but also as an outspoken champion of artistic freedom in the Soviet Union during the last decades of the Cold War. On his death in 2007, the New York Times carried an obituary that stated: “He dazzled listeners with both his richly personalized interpretations and a majestic warmth of tone. His graceful accounts of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello illuminated the works’ structural logic as well as their inner spirituality.” His family, it seems, has retained ownership of the cello—one hopes for the use of the next and perhaps greatest cellist of all time, but that would be a hard-won competition. 

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