Franchomme’s famous Stradivarius cello, how he acquired it, and what compositions were (and weren’t) played on it

Last month, I completed my introduction to the forthcoming Dover publication of selected works for cello and piano by Auguste Franchomme. There were some great stories that I just couldn’t fit within their word limit. Here are some, to give you an idea of what else you can read when the score comes out.  I’ll post another one very soon.

One of the 2 images heading this blog is the only known depiction of Franchomme performing-  a plate from an 1877 book written by one of his former cello students, Antoine Vidal,*  showing an older Franchomme performing with the Alard Quartet. Violinist Jean-Delphin Alard (1815-1888) was, like Franchomme, the son of an amateur musician father, and like Franchomme, taught at the Conservatoire. In 1847, Alard had begun a new chamber music society, the Société Alard and Franchomme—partly to phase out his previous group’s cellist, Pierre-Alexandre Chevillard, who unlike Alard wanted to perform Beethoven’s late quartets, and proceeded to do so in his next group. Alard’s new group with Franchomme performed sonatas, trios, quartets, and quintets of Mozart, Haydn, and (early-middle period) Beethoven; the last two Beethoven cello sonatas were never performed by Franchomme, as far as I’ve seen, although my search has not been exhaustive. The society lasted, with many guest artists around the core of Alard and Franchomme, until 1870, by which time it had developed into the most prestigious chamber music series in Paris (there were at least four others in 1864).  The other musicians in the engraving sitting to Franchomme’s left are violist Desire Trombetta and violinist Jules Garcin.

Alard happened to be the son-in-law of Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, the renowned Parisian luthier and instrument dealer who helped Franchomme acquire the 1711 Duport Stradivarius cello, which he is playing in the engraving. (Vuillaume also made a small cello for René Franchomme, Auguste’s son, who was already a fine cellist and budding composer when he died at age 18). The Duport Strad had been owned and played by both of the Duport brothers, and Anner Bylsma calls it the “greatest cello ever made.” Early on, it came close to serious damage in the Tuileries Palace, where Jean-Louis Duport was performing as solo cellist of the court of the Emperor. Napoleon seized the cello from Duport, put it between his legs (dangerously close to his sharp riding spurs!) and said, “How the devil do you play this thing, Duport?” Fortunately, Duport said “Sir” in such a dire tone that Napoleon stopped his jesting immediately and returned the cello to Duport.

The Duport Strad was handed down to Jean-Louis Duport’s son, who played the instrument as the principal cellist of Lyon for a few years before establishing himself in Paris as a piano builder. He at first had no interest in selling the cello. Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume had told Franchomme, “vous êtes le successeur de Duport; vous seul devriez posséder son instrument.” In 1842, the cello was finally put on the market for an unprecedented price: either 22,000 francs (according to Franchomme’s descendants) or 25,000 francs (according to other sources). Franchomme struggled to come up with this amount, but somehow bought it the following year, possibly with the help of his wife’s dowry.

Franchomme’s daughter Cécile sold it to Hill and Sons in London in 1892 for 40,000 francs. Rostropovich played on this incredible cello for many years, and in fact he used it to record both Chopin’s Op. 65 Sonata and his Introduction and Polonaise Brillante. Franchomme performed both pieces with Chopin, using the same cello. Despite rumors that it was sold in 2008 for 20 million dollars to Japan’s Nippon Foundation, it is apparently still in the hands of Rostropovich’s survivors.

*Plate LXXXVIII, “Musique de chambre en 1878,” Volume 3 of Antoine Vidal’s Les Instruments A Archet: Les feseurs, Les Joueurs D’Instrument, avec planche gravées a l’eau-forte par Frederic Hillemacher. Paris: Imprimerie de J. Claye, 1877-78. Reproduced with permission of Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, Harvard University.

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