Stefan Krattenmacher examines Richard Dubugnon’s small 19th-century instrument by Paul Claudot.
Paul Claudot (1805-1888) was born in the French violin making town of Mirecourt. He trained at the workshop of his father, Augustin Claudot (1776-1843), a well-established violin maker, and developed a style and technique similar to Augustin’s, though soon surpassing the father in the French Mirecourt making tradition. Today his instruments are widely used by orchestra players and soloists alike.The featured piccolo double bass dates from around 1840. On the lookout for a small-size, interesting instrument, Richard Dubugnon stumbled across this bass in the workshop of French restorer Laurence Kappler in Marseille. He fell in love with it instantly, despite its rather poor condition: the whole body was showing considerable woodworm damage and it was painted with thick, non-transparent dark red paint. Kappler had acquired it from a gypsy band, where it had been used as a circus instrument. After careful restoration, the bass is now back in playing order and its unusual viol-like sound, has been a great influence also on Dubugnon’s compositions.
The overall impression of this bass is that of harmony and balance, with its sloping shoulders, open middle bouts and nicely rounded lower bouts. Considering the choice of timber and the careful craftsmanship displayed in this instrument, one might conclude that it was commissioned by a wealthy bass player or patron much in favour of the maker. The arching of the two-piece, medium-grained hazel spruce table rises slowly and evenly and doesn’t have the typical flat platform at the high point of the arching usually seen in Mirecourt instruments. It is in fact more in the style of Stradivari’s late instruments. The arching lowers evenly towards the neck mortice, without any depression towards the edge, which shows that Claudot clearly understood the pressure relationship between the neck and the table arch.
There is hardly any fluting for the purfling, and the lowest point of the canaling is just at the inside edge. The purfling itself is rather big, made out of maple and ebony, and the centre white is wide with small black edges. The corner joint of these three stripes show grace and a master’s hand. The same hand can also be recognised in the well-proportioned f-holes, which have distinct character and style; while the outer edges of the shaft are at a right angle to the table surface, the inner edges are slightly angled towards the inside. The sides and back are made from deeply flamed maple. The two-piece back has no cracks, which is impressive given the instrument’s age and shows the use of extremely well-seasoned timber. The back is purfled as conscientiously as the top.
The purfling at the neck block area forms an unusually narrow curve; bending the maple and ebony strips so strongly required a lot of precision. Seen from the side, the elegant scroll sits on a slightly heavier looking pegbox. The undercutting is clean, evenly deep and curved into the volutes. The chamfers are of medium size. The sides of the pegbox run parallel towards the scroll. The upper end of the scroll is very elegant and the width of the central ear stays well-proportioned throughout. The back view shows the pegbox widening towards the upper part of the head, and the button at the end of the pegbox is in relation rather small.
The instrument was built as a four-stringer, despite the fact that, during the middle of the 19th century, double basses made in Mirecourt were predominately three-stringers. The original pegs are stamped ‘e. IRROY A MIRECOURT’. Typical for basses being made by Claudot himself and not by one of his assistants is the stamp on the soundboard inside the instrument. The same stamp is seen just below the back button.
Interestingly, the instrument’s back was fitted with a soundboard only, made of pine, and without braces. Because of its size, the bass is missing the low E string but has, in addition, the upper C string to ease playing solo repertoire. Not only the size, but also the sound of this Claudot is unique. With a sound somewhere between the cello and bass viol, this bass might not be as powerful and loud as its bigger brothers, but has a warmer sounding bottom string than a cello. The upper registers, which sound more cutting than on a full-size instrument but less bright than a cello, are reminiscent of the gutsy sound of the viol.
Originally published in Double Bassist 14, Autumn 2000
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