Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mirecourt, France. Headwaters of French Violin Making

Written by Andy Fein, Violin Maker and Owner, Fein Violins, Ltd.

Many of France's best violin and bow makers from the 1700s to the present day share a very similar biography - Jacques (or Jean-Baptiste, Jeanne, Rene', Renee', Andre', Emile, etc.) were born in Mirecourt where they learned the trade from their father (or uncle, grandfather, brother,mother, sister, etc.). Starting at about age twelve, they worked at the bench with their family making instruments and bows... A shop owner in Paris (Vuillaume, Chanot, Caressa, Francais, etc.) heard of their talent and invited them to come to Paris. In Paris they received great acclaim for their work... Or didn't, so they slunk back to Mirecourt and toiled away in one of the production workshops there.

An H. Derazey violin, Mirecourt circa 1860

The first violin maker in Mirecourt was probably a luthier named Tywerus, a luthier to the court of the Prince of Lorraine in the early 1500s. He is early enough in violin making history, and a identifiable instrument of his so rarely encountered, that I would classify him in the category of violin making proto-history or legend. Whether he in fact made violins doesn't matter nearly as much as the fact that the Prince of Lorraine had a court luthier. Even in that early time, stringed instruments were an important part of the culture of the area!

Mirecourt was originally independent of France, in the principality of  Lorraine. It had a vibrant mercantile life, with Mirecourt  merchants travelling across Europe and as far as Greece and Turkey. This brisk trading life contributed to the rise of a violin making tradition in Mirecourt. In the 1735 taxpayer list at Mirecourt, there are listed about 30 violin makers.

By the  mid 1700's, Lorraine was transitioning to French governance.

By the late 1700s, the fame of the Cremonese makers- Stradivarius, Guarnerius Amati and others- had spread to other parts of Europe. While the Cremonese makers seemed to have thrived on experimentation and matching form to function, the Mirecourt makers went down a different path. They became great copyists! While some people might view that as a downgrading of the art, I see nothing wrong with it. In fact, most modern instruments are made as models or copies of these same great Cremonese makers. The Mirecourt makers were the trendsetters in this regard.

Remy Violin, Made in Mirecourt, France circa 1800
Remy Violin, Made in Mirecourt, France circa 1800
Remy Violin, Made in Mirecourt, France circa 1800
From Mirecourt, great luthiers such as Chanot, Vuillaume, Collin, Nicolas Lupot, Renaudin, Audinot, Clement, Derazey, LeClerc, Serdet and many others made their way to Paris.

Many other fine makers stayed in Mirecourt. Not only because they were deemed less skilled or less productive than their Paris peers, but family, business ties, and lifestyle choices kept them in their beautiful village in the Vosges region. Why go to the expensive and cutthroat streets of Paris when your skills can be nurtured in Mirecourt? Many other makers travelled back and forth from Paris to Mirecourt and had workshops in both places.

A George Chanot violin, Paris, circa  1897

Most of the luthiers in Vuillaume's shop were from Mirecourt. The same is true of the violin making workshop of W.E.Hill and Sons.

By the mid 1800s, huge workshops had been established in Mirecourt and they eventually morphed into violin making factories. One of my favorite large workshops is the shop of Jerome Thibouville-Lamy. Established in 1790, by the early 1900s the JTL "factory" employed over one thousand luthiers and produced more than one hundred fifty thousand violins, violas, cellos, bows and other instruments each year! An interesting aspect of the JTL factory (really a large building with a tremendous number of workshops) was their use of hydraulic power. They didn't generate electricity from the flow of the River Madon. Instead, through a series of pipes and hoses from the river to the workshops, pressurized water was used to "pump" wood working tools. I wonder if they ever sprang a leak?

The factory/workshop output of Mirecourt has often been denigrated. Heron-Allen, in Violin-Making As It Was and Is describes the production of "thousands of crude 'noise boxes'." But he then goes on to say "these are extraordinary for the quality and carefully mounted and strung and played, the tone and results obtained from which at a concert in Vienna were most satisfactory." Not a bad review. A satisfactory violin that has quality and tone. For cheap! The truth is the Mirecourt factories and workshops turned out everything from simple beginner's instruments to master made, artistic instruments,"Lutherie Artistique".

The French National School of Lutherie was established in Mirecourt in the 1970s and has trained many fine violin and bow makers.

Some of the other fine workshops of Mirecourt were Collin-Mezin, Cousenon, and Laberte et Magnie'.

Of course, there were also independent fine master luthiers working in Mirecourt. Over the years these have included Joseph Aubry, Emile Audinot, Charles Bailly, Rene' Morizot, Leon Mougenot, Rene' Jacquemin, Paul Bisch, and many other very fine, artistic master violin makers.

A violin from the Mirecourt workshop of Bourlier, circa 1880

From the simplest violin of the Jerome Thibouville-Lamy shop (the aptly named Medio Fino model, "Medium Fine") to great copies of Cremonese masters, wonderful violins and violin makers have flowed from Mirecourt, France to the entire world.

I have not even touched on the beautiful bow making that flowed out of Mirecourt. That subject will be covered in another blog very soon. A teaser- Vuillaume bows = Mirecourt trained "archetiers".

Several great books have been written about the lutherie of Mirecourt. Most of them are in French, but a non-French reader can find a wealth of information in them as well. Jacques Didier wrote Manufactures & Maitres-Luhtiers, Mirecourt 1919-1969, and the four volume set by L & V Le Canu Les Luthiers Francais provides a wealth of information. Many of the books on Vuillaume start with descriptions of Mirecourt and the apprenticeship system there.

Like the unofficial French symbol of the singing rooster, the Mirecourt violins proudly sing. Play one. You will be surprised.
Jerome Thibouville Lamy 1721

Jerome Thibouville Lamy 1721
Jerome Thibouville Lamy 1721


  1. Excellent article. Would love to hear from a violin maker's perspective the differences in construction and varnishing techniques and their resulting sound.

  2. Nice article, Andy. Thank you! I just happened to be in Vesoul, about an hour or so away from Mirecourt, when I read it. I'm here helping my wife (a French History prof) w/some of her research and hadn't realized we were so close to Mirecourt until it came up in a conversation today at the Departmental Archives. I have my own small instrument repair/restoration/retail shop in WA, so my ears perked right up when I heard the town mentioned. We've decided to take a day "off" and are heading up there tomorrow and this gave me some good food for thought.
    Thanks again! Nick D'Antoni