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IT WAS 1812, destined to be the year about which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky would later compose an Overture. You know the one, with cannons and bells, celebrating Russia’s defense against Napoleon Bonaparte.
The scene was Napoleon’s Tuileries Palace in Paris. He had commanded a private concert featuring his favorite cellist Jean-Louis Duport, not to be confused with Jean-Louis’s older brother Jean-Pierre.
And isn’t it odd how often this lack of originality in Christian names showed up in France back then? See, for example, “The Leclair Caper.”
By the way, I got a rumble on this Napoleon Duport Caper, Parts 1 and 2, from Preston Trombly of SiriusXM’s “Symphony Hall” channel. Preston and his colleagues do a great deal more than simply announce who’s playing what.
The Cello Case Opens. At that 1812 Tuileries Palace concert, Jean-Louis Duport performed in a duet for piano and cello, apparently much to the delight of Emperor Napoleon. According to Tarisio.com, “As French historian Antoine Vidal later reported, ‘He listened with pleasure and, as soon as the piece was over, he approached Duport, complimented him, and, grasping the cello with his usual forcefulness, asked, ‘How the devil do you hold this, Monsieur Duport?’ ”
A Language Entr’Acte. I suspect Napoleon actually said something akin to Google Translate’s “Au nom du diable, comment tenez-vous cette chose?” By the way, though not unrelated, a London Review of Books reader complained in the May 10, 2018, Letters column that the magazine was being overly toff in not providing translations of the French. This remains an open question here at SimanaitisSays, d’accord?
Back to 1812, Emperor Napoleon, and cellist Dupont. Readers will note the significance of upper and lower case in these identifiers. Evidently Duport wasn’t about to say, in French, of course, the equivalent of “Keep your short-fingered Corsican mitts off my Strad!”
And, indeed, Duport’s instrument had been fabricated by famed Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. It is one of Stradivari’s Forma B cellos, designed in 1709 at the request of patrons wanting a smaller, more versatile instrument.
Emperoring being what it was, Napoleon straddled the cello, with boots, spurs, and all, and proceeded to scrape off a few riffs. Not to say scratching the Strad as well.
I like to think Jean-Louis Duport, being of hoi polloi, merely murmured “Merde!,” of course sotto voce, and went on with his life.
By contrast, Napoleon was exiled to Elba and, later, to the considerably more remote St. Helena. He may have committed transgressions other than denting Duport’s cello.
This concludes Part 1 of the Napoleon Duport Caper. Tomorrow in Part 2, Jean-Louis Duport passes on; the dented cello is passed on; and the drama evolves into an unsolved mystery. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018