“No Place Like Rome"

The Strad, December 2005 Vol. 116 No. 1388 page 58

Laurinel Owen visits dealer and madder Claude Lebet, and finds herself in one of the grandest palaces in Italy.

Never before had I been to a violin shop located in an Italian palazzo. Arriving in Rome from New York on the morning that Pope Benedict was being invested I almost immediately ran into a problem – no taxis. In fact, it seemed that the city had virtually shut down and most streets were cordoned off to traffic. Fortunately, I had planned ahead and knew how to find Palazzo Ricci. Armed with the instruction ‘Everyone knows; ask anybody,’ I had policemen pointing up one street and shopkeepers down another. Finally, after dragging my suitcase across half the city, I arrived at Piazza de’ Ricci. Exhausted, but elated, I rant the bell. Silence. “OK, let’s not panic yet, ‘ I thought. I hauled my luggage across the cobblestones to the corner café, where waiters in long white aprons and black bow ties were setting up tables for lunch. A quick enquiry was met with a reassuring ‘Si, Claudio’: hands were thrown in the air; a mobile phone was whipped out and the 14-foot-high wooden doors of the palace creaked open.

Entering the Atelier Lebet is like arriving in the 18th century. The instrument display case contains a decorated Amati; paintings adorn the walls a spiral staircase leads to the mezzanine above; voluminous velvet curtains are draped across the three-metre-high windows and everywhere there are violins, cellos, books and tools.

‘I’m a fanatic of Visconti movies!’ Claude Lebet exclaims. ‘Violence and Passion, my favorite, was filmed right here. Burt Lancaster is a violin collector. Helmut Berger arrives with Anna Magnani. There are fabulous parties and they all become lovers. When this studio became available I had to have it.’

Everywhere I’d traveled in Europe I had heard the name Claude Lebet – dealer in coveted 18th-century instruments, expert, violin maker extraordinaire, restorer, curator, author, luthier to ‘the stars’. I had to meet him.

Lebet first set up a little shop in Rome in 1993, but it was only earlier this year that he left his former base in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. For years Philips had used the Swiss city’s Salle de musique, acclaimed for its superior acoustics, for all its classical recordings and Lebet would attend every recording session, often having to step in to adjust an ailing instrument. As a result his client list reads like a Who’s Who of classical music: the Beaux Arts Trio, I Musici, Quarteto Italiano, Henryk Szering, Arthur Grumiaux, Gidon Kremer, Mischa Maisky. ‘Over the years I’ve seen and worked on all the great instruments. I particularly remember a session when Kremer and Martha Argerich were recording the Schumann violin sonatas – she so overpowered him that I had to work very hard to make his fiddle sound.

‘When Philips shut down their operations at La Chaux-de-Fonds it became easier for musicians to come here. Now I feel that I continue in the tradition of David Tecchler, a foreign maker who works in Rome.’

As a child Lebet studied the cello. His Italian mother was a musician but his father, a Protestant minister, expected young Claude to follow in his footsteps, so the boy also learnt Greek, Latin and theology. However, he ‘fell in love’ the first time he walked into a violin shop. By the time Lebet was 13 he had made his first amateur cello, ‘which, of course, was terrible’, he says. A few years later he went to Cremona. ‘The school was small,’ he recalls. ‘Most of us were only 18 or 19 years old, but we already had a little experience. In the evenings we worked in the Morassi or Conia shop, where we got practical experience, but my dream was always to go back to my home town.’

Lebet built his first professional instrument when he was 20. ‘Francesco Strano, the first cellist of I Musici, saw my cello and asked if he could try it in the concert hall,’ he explains. ‘I was very nervous because he played it against his Tononi and a Guadagnini while the other orchestra members listened. He wanted to buy it and then, because the other musicians were also teachers, they started recommending my work to their students.’

Two hundred and fifty instruments later Lebet copies instruments and designs his own models. ‘We have so many collectors in Switzerland and all the great artists play there, so I had the opportunity to see many fine instruments,’ he says. ‘My first copy was of a Guadagnini made in Piacenza, The violin was right on the bench next to me. Later, when I copied Francesco Strano’s Tononi, I only had the cello at lunchtime before having to give it back for rehearsals. I was forced to get to know the instrument quickly to absorb all the details. I make exact copies when someone wants to sell the original or needs a second instrument. Fortunately, I was lucky to buy a large stock of Swiss pine and Yugoslavian maple, from Werro in Bern, which is between 60 and 100 years old. I choose the wood, varnish, and all the rest with a perfect match in mind.’

Since discovering the 1703 “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivari violin in 1991 Lebet has made many copies of that instrument. ‘It was lying in a Zurich bank for 70 years,’ he recalls. ‘At the time I was in the military, as required. We were in the Alps playing cards one day and I was with a German-Swiss conductor and a lawyer who were talking about starting an orchestra. The attorney told me that he knew of a violin belonging to the baron who employed him. I was very skeptical because he said it was a Strad, but we made an appointment to go look. When the violin came out I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only was it a Strad, but it was still in the original case with locks made with Stradivari’s own hand. There was even the original receipt, as the instrument had been in the same family since it had been made. I sold the violin to the Deutsche Bank and they loaned it to Isabelle Faust.

‘The “Sleeping Beauty” is typical of this period – elegant and powerful – but my favorite violin is the “Milanollo” Strad of 1727, on which I wrote a monograph. Paganini and Viotti both played this instrument. Pierre Amoyal bought it after the 1717 “Kochansky” Strad was stolen from him in Italy. When he asked me to sell it, I had the opportunity to study it in detail. It’s the last violin Strad made without the help of his son. By then he knew a lot about making; fine instrument shows a hand that is free and mature.’

Although Lebet enjoys copying instruments he would rather create his own models. ‘I prefer to use my fantasy and inspiration,’ he confesses. ‘I favor Gofriller for cello, because of the tone and elegance. The head is large and so is the body, which is reflected in the tone. The last instrument I made was a combined Venetian model I mixed Pietro Guarneri and Montagnana elements of model and varnish and labeled it ‘Pensando a Venicia”’ – thinking of Venice.

Over the years Lebet has found that young players usually want powerful instruments while older clients often prefer the opposite – quality and ease of playing. ‘I can control this most easily in cellos,’ he explains. ‘Altogether I made about 20 instruments for Dimitry Markevitch. After he sold his 1709 “Delphino” Strad to finance a music academy in Montreux he played only new cellos. He believed that small cellos have the most powerful sound – a great example is Guadagnini, who made his cellos 73cm long, two centimeters shorter than Stradivari. Markevitch convinced me to make short, but wide cellos. And from this experience I learnt to work with musicians more than other violin makers, who often sell to dealers and never get feedback on their instruments.’

Studying and making copies has encouraged Lebet to take up the pen. ‘The only way to really learn about instruments is to open them up and take a look. I was surprised to read mistakes in book about Guarneri, for example, repeated over and over again. I am also interested in history and have been disappointed in the lack of information.’ His initial effort was writing the third edition (1985) of the Dictionaire universale de luthiers. ‘The first two editions were by René Vannes. For the third edition I added new material, but because of the copyright I was unable to change of add to the original text.’

Since then he has written several beautiful and lavishly illustrated books on a variety of violin topics. There are two monographs on specific instruments: one on a 1710 Grancino cello, played by Mainardi and Amadeo Baldovino, which includes a CD of Baldovino playing the fourth and fifth Bach cello suites; and the other on the 1780 “Davidov” G.B. Guadagnini, accompanied by a CD of Julius Berger performing the first three Bach Suites.

He has written the catalogues for the exhibitions he has curated, including a reproduction and translation of the correspondence between Vuillaume and Achille Paganini concerning the purchase of a Stradivari quartet; the violins and documents of Eugène Ysaÿe; The Art of the Violin: Classical Italian Violin Making and the School of Rome; and a Stradivari exhibition organized in coordination with Francesca Peterlongo and Carlo Chiesa. In a slightly different vein, he wrote a volume on the history of musical instruments from the Neuchâtel region of Switzerland.

One of Lebet’s most impressive books, La pochette du maître à danser – The Dance Master’s Kit – catalogues in photos, paintings and manuscripts his vast collection of pochettes. There are 68 instruments in all, accompanied by bows, cases, documents and paintings, and he is currently planning an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ‘I found my first one in a market in Paris when I was 18,’ he remembers, ‘and it became an obsession. The pochette is the last pure instrument of the Baroque. Louis XIV loved to dance. The best position in the court was to be the dance master to the king. The master stood only a metre or two away from the pupil so the instrument’s sound was not important – only its looks. These are instruments from the period that have not been altered.’

Working next to Lebet is the French luthier Mathias Menanteau. While I watched, he was restoring a cello by Claude Pierray. The top was off and he was preparing a plaster cast for a full belly patch, to be followed by a doubling of the ribs. ‘Here we don’t just focus on violin making,’ Menanteau explains. ‘Claude is so interested in art and history that he relates it all to the violin. He tells stories of wars, kings and commerce. Knowing history teaches us more about the instruments.’

The Czech maker Dalibor Bzirský flies to Rome from Prague once a month to work with Lebet. ‘I am not only a repairer and a maker,’ he says, ‘but I also talk to customers about restorations or the commissioning of a new instrument. These are mostly copies and freehand imitations of the old masters. In the twelve years I have been here I have learnt how to look at a violin as an artistic opus in which you can read the momentary status of the author’s mind. We want to see how the instrument is made and what its mistakes are. Then we try to create a result that is similar in atmosphere to the original. The beauty of an instrument is not just the technical perfection. A violin should be a portrait of the maker.’

Jacques Poullot, who travels regularly from France, handles the rehairing and repairing of the bows. ‘When we started here the musicians’ bows were in terrible shape,’ Poullot exclaims. ‘Rome did not have a professional bow maker – we were like missionaries bringing in the culture of bow making.’

He may have had an illustrious career so far, but Lebet has plenty of ideas for the future. ‘Above all I love to make quartets – I have made five so far. Some think that four instruments should have four colours – not me. I am seeking a homogeneous sound. I have an order from a Swiss group, which will be all Guadagnini models. And I am preparing several more books, the first of which will be a two-volume set on the Roman School – an inspiration from the exhibition I curated at the Castel Sant’ Angelo.’

As I’m preparing to leave, I ask how I can keep my memories of Lebet’s shop fresh in my mind. ‘You can always rent the movie Saint Germain ou la négociation,’ he laughs. ‘It is about how Charles IX ordered 24 decorated violins and I am Amati.”