Savoir-faire: The Chanot family of luthiers
The rapid rise of scientific insight in the first half of the 19th century affected trades of nearly every kind, and violinmaking also underwent an experimental period in which the lines grew blurry between earnest research and a wild quest for knowledge. Many a historical master instrument fell victim to empiricism and was practically autopsied in an effort to discover luthiers' secrets. At the same time, pioneering spirits dreamt up new styles of violins which would strike even contemporary observers as being more of a futuristic design object than a credible musical instrument. It is true that some violins by Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati were irrevocably lost during this era, but it is equally true that some of the adventurous pieces inspired by this progress-oriented enthusiasm are still worthy of admiration today. For the most part these innovations can still be found in museums, collections and archives, where many of them quickly disappeared even during their makers' lifetimes. Despite the fact that there were so many trailblazers in violinmaking between 1800 and 1850, the public at large still favoured the familiar, Baroque-influenced aesthetic of the violin. Success came to those who understood how to blend the new and the old skilfully.
The person who was most competent in striking a masterful balance in this challenging field was no doubt the legendary Parisian master Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The luthiers of the Chanot family from Mirecourt, however, were also exemplary figures in their epoch of many contradictions. To date, the name François Chanot still doubtlessly receives the greatest recognition, since the aesthetic of his guitar-shaped violin model can be seen as the paradigmatic expression of the modern standard which sought to revolutionise the time-honoured traditions of violinmaking. His biography could serve as an illustration of the technological advances of the craft which took place during the epoch. A contemporary of Vuillaume, Chanot came to violinmaking by means of a winding and indirect path. His father, Joseph Chanot, was the first known violinmaker in the family. Joseph came from a poor background and did not make his living solely as a luthier; since he had 12 children to support, he also worked as a vintner and merchant. His son François apparently was not interested in taking over his father's business: instead, he pursued the opportunities provided by a military career with the navy, where he became a successful naval architect. Discharged in 1816 for political reasons, he took up violinmaking out of necessity, and he was still heavily influenced by his background in physics and engineering.
From the outset, François Chanot attempted to apply scientific principles that would improve the traditional approach of crafting violins. His first efforts took place in his father's workshop in Mirecourt. Based on the assumption that ideal vibrations depended on having as many intact wood fibres as possible, he designed a cornerless violin model with undecorated f-holes which were aligned along the edge of the instrument. His violin strongly resembled the shape of a guitar. In keeping with the spirit of the day, François Chanot submitted his prototypes to a panel of scientists for review and comparison with a Stradivari violin: they found the new instrument to be superior. Such semi-official praise did little to make Chanot's model become more widespread, however. Among other things, he also introduced a practical modernization: a scroll that faced backward so as to facilitate stringing the instrument. This, too, failed due to the persistent inertia which is so common in aesthetic convention.
His work predominantly received recognition amongst experts, and there can be no doubt about the historic relevance of his unique approach. His pieces are to be ranked alongside the famous experiments and research of Félix Savart, whose trapezoidal violin model had as little popular success as the Chanot violin. Like so many other innovations, the scientific methods of these two contemporaries bore indirect fruit: they had an edifying effect on the works of other masters, of whom Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume is the most notable. Chanot's attempt to make a name for himself with his new violins first began at the Parisian organ-making workshop of Simon Lété, where he encountered Vuillaume, his equally talented peer. As a journeyman under Chanot, who was some ten years older, the young Vuillaume found himself in an ambitious environment that was ripe with curiosity and broad and extensive technical expertise. It was this setting that gave him the critical inspiration for his own incomparable developments.
The relevance of the Chanot family of violinmakers does not end with the experiments conducted by their first key figure, François. The world of music also owes many other wonderful instruments to his brother Georges and his descendants. Georges Chanot was also known as Georges II and named after Georges Chanot “du Joly,” who was considered the pater familias. He first began his career working for his father, but soon he joined his brother in Paris, where he contributed to François' project at the Lété atelier. After time spent as an assistant to different Parisian masters, including Charles-François Gland, Georges II managed to fulfil his dream in 1823 when he founded his own workshop. His father, Joseph, crafted a few violins here as well during a longer stay before his death in 1830; later, Georges finished the instruments and, presumably to honour his deceased father, included not only his own label but also the brand mark “J. CHANOT.” The atelier was also the venue where a remarkable story of a romantic partnership-cum-working relationship played out, a situation that was unusual not only in the world of violinmaking. As a young master, Georges had a student named Florentine Démolliens, whom he apparently trained to be an outstanding luthier. They had many children together out of wedlock, and eventually she became his wife. She was also a major contributor to the success of the Georges Chanot workshop, although it is not fully known to what extent. In 1840, Florentine fell ill and moved to the country, accompanied by her maid Rose Chardon, who took care of her. Rose's sister Antoinette filled the vacant spot in the atelier – and soon replaced Georges' absent wife in other ways as well. Their son Marie-Joseph Chardon, who was born in 1843, did not learn until he was an adult that Georges Chanot, who had been his godfather, was actually his birth father. Georges married Antoinette in 1859, after Florentine had died.
The chaos of his personal life notwithstanding, Georges ranked amongst the best and most successful violinmakers of the French school in the 19th century, and his reputation as a master, restorer, knowledgeable expert and merchant still remains unblemished to this day. He gave up his business in 1868, turning it over to his son Marie-Joseph, who ran it jointly with wife Genevieve – the third dynamic woman in the history of the Chanot-Chardons. They established the French line of the family which continued to specialise in violinmaking for many generations.
Georges Chanot's sons from his first marriage also took after their father. In some cases they led equally turbulent private lives, but above all they followed in his footsteps as talented and successful violin makers and merchants. They led the other branch of the Chanot family to England, where Georges' eldest son Adolphe Chanot spent his apprenticeship. Later Adolphe's brother Georges III Chanot also settled down and became an instrument dealer after a period working as an assistant for Charles Maucotel. Georges III earned good money in London, in part selling his father's instruments, but at the same time he also ran through large sums of money because of his wayward lifestyle. In 1881 he became involved in an sensational court case about an alleged Bergonzi violin; Georges had given the instrument a false label and sold the piece at great cost. An appraisal by William Ebsworth Hill finally forced him to admit his deception, which he promptly defended as being common practice in the industry. It goes without saying that he was unable to persuade the court that this assertion was true.
Despite his questionable ethics, Georges III established a lasting reputation as one of the best violinmakers in 19th century London. Frequent guests to his atelier included famous violinists such as Joseph Joachim, August Wilhelmj and Henryk Wieniawski. He won numerous awards at British exhibitions, and in 1878, he was even the only “English” violinmaker in Paris to receive a medal. His sons went on to emulate their father's work as a craftsman, eventually becoming worthy masters themselves. Joseph Antony Chanot trained at the family atelier and managed it after the death of Georges III; George Adolphus Chanot, the oldest of the brothers, learned his trade there as well, but he also spent some time in the Paris atelier of the Chanot-Chardons and opened his own studio in 1879 in Manchester. Frederick William Chanot not only made a name for himself as a luthier but also as a famous music publisher. These men are superlative examples of the high standards at which the members of the Chanot family carried on the family tradition, even into our day. Founded by a labourer's son in Mirecourt, the dynasty of Chanot luthiers enjoyed generations of great esteem that remains nearly unparalleled, and they left a mark on European violinmaking that transcended borders.
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