Simanaitis Says

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WHEN LAST we encountered the cello of Jean-Louis Duport, indeed only yesterday, it had been manhandled by the overly enthusiastic as well as musically inept Napoleon Bonaparte. Today, the caper continues with more players and ultimately an unsolved mystery.

Duport Passes On. In 1819, Jean-Louis Duport passed on. And the dented cello passed on to his son, possibly named Jean-something-or-other, who in turn sold it in 1843 to French cellist and composer Auguste-Joseph Franchomme.

Auguste-Joseph Franchomme, 1808–1884, French cellist and composer.

Franchomme paid a then-record sum of 25,000 (some say 22,000) French francs, and I have no idea what this is in good honest Guineas. I would guess, a fair penny.

On Franchomme’s Riffs. According to Wikipedia, the Weekly Chronicle and Register, May 3, 1856, noted that Franchomme “carefully abstains from all abuse of the tremolo and of the exaggerated expression which are the distinguishing features in most modern violincello playing.”

Well, they would know, wouldn’t they?

Franchomme’s contributions to music earned him a Légion d’honneur. It was awarded, alas, only four days before his death in 1884.

Vuillaume Clones. Wikipedia also notes that “The instrument maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume used the Duport as a primary model for his cellos.” In fact, according to a most detailed article in Strings magazine, Vuillaume had been instrumental in the sale of the Duport to Franchomme.

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, 1798–1875, French luthier, businessman, inventor, and winner of many awards. His workshop made more than 3000 instruments; not all cellos. (Might he have been a Shriner?)

In the past century, the original Duport was owned and played by cellist Gerald Warburg who died in 1971. He reportedly requested the cello be sold only to Mstislav Rostropovich. Another world-class cellist, Rostropovich considered it his favorite instrument.

Mstislav Leopoldovich “Slava” Rostropovich, 1927–2007, Russian cellist and conductor, playing the Duport.

A Caper Clouded in Mystery. Like the best of the genre, the Napoleon Duport Caper’s mystery is left hanging. One source suggests the Japanese Music Association purchased the Duport after Rostropovich’s death for $20 million, making it the most expensive musical instrument in the world.

However, a Google search for the JMA comes up empty. There is a Nippon Music Foundation, but the Duport is not listed among its impressive collection of string instruments. And, according to Wikipedia, “… Mstislav Rostropovich’s heirs later commented that they remained the owners of the famous cello, according to a legal representative of the family. Its exact whereabouts remain unknown.”

Yo-Yo Ma, Bach’s Prelude, Cello Suite No. 1, Bwv 1007. He’s not playing the Duport, but likely his 1733 Montagnana, nicknamed “Petunia” after he offered a student opportunity to name the instrument.

I see the ghost of Jean-Louis Duport, fading slowing into the fog, dragging a battered Forma B cello behind him. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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