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Quinton with sympathetic strings


Among the instruments from the collection of violin maker Auguste Tolbecque which were bought by the former "Instrumental Museum" in 1879, there was a "Violon d'amour". At least, that's how the first curator Victor Charles Mahillon describes it for the sake of convenience in the 1880 catalogue. At first glance it is indeed a violin with five melody strings and six sympathetic strings. Yet things are not that simple, and apparently Mahillon seems to have understood that. After all, the tuning he gives for this instrument is that of a quinton: GDAdg. To fully understand what is going on, we have to go back a century and a half earlier in time.

At the end of the 17th century, the "pardessus" was developed as the smallest member of the "da gamba" family to perform solo music within the reach of the violin. At the beginning of the 18th century this music became more and more popular, also in noble circles. The preservation of the viol form, the use of frets and the vertical playing position made it acceptable for gentlemen and especially ladies of the upper class who still considered the violin below their dignity. Around 1730 a variant of the "pardessus de viole" was created in France, with only five strings, where the three lowest were now tuned like a violin and the two highest maintained a fourth interval. The name "quinton", generally used for the violin-shaped variant, indicates the hybrid character of these instruments, which are fully interchangeable in terms of social context, playing method and repertoire. Both these "pardessus a cinq cordes" and the violin-shaped quinton were played vertically, contained five strings and were partially tuned in fifths.

In order to make the use of the left hand in this position more comfortable, given the number of strings and the usual techniques at that time, the fingerboard had to be wide enough, and the neck not too thick and not overly rounded. And this Salomon instrument happens to meet these requirements. In addition, as with instruments of the viol family, the shoulders run even into the wider, fretted, neck. All these elements indicate that this is indeed a quinton. The violin position on the shoulder is, to say the least, impractical for the left hand. So this is not a violin.

At least one common quinton from 1744 by Jean Baptiste Dehaye, known as "Salomon" (1713-1767), maker of this instrument, has been preserved (Stadtmuseum München). Quintons were not unusual in the 18th century, and several have come to us. In contrast, only a few quintons with sympathetic strings are left, including one by Mathurin François Remy from 1755 and one by Jean Colin from around 1750. Both are kept in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (inv. Numbers 2006,505 and 1990.98). Actually, the term "quinton d'amour" can be considered a suitable name for this variant, and distinguishes it from the real "violon d'amour".

A good example for comparison with such a "violon d'amour" is kept in the "Musée de la musique" in Paris. Created by a contemporary and fellow city dweller of Salomon by the name of Jean Nicolas Lambert (1731-1759), it is in a very good condition (inv. no. E.979.2.52). This instrument is a real violin: with four melody strings, a narrow rounded neck, round shoulders and a violin tailpiece. The only difference with a normal violin is the long peg box with 12 sympathetic strings, one for each half note.

Of course there are similarities between quinton d'amour and violon d'amour apart from the sympathetic strings. Salomon's quinton also contains typical elements of a violin, such as glued-in linings, corner blocks, f-holes, protruding edges and arched top and back. There are, however, 5 melody strings and 6 resonance strings. These are mounted at the bottom of the sound box on an ivory plate with seven pins and three holes. There is no tailpiece. The peg box, adorned with a normal violin scroll and with stylized beaten flower motifs, is open at the front and only closed at the rear for the first four tuning pegs. The pegs for the sympathetic strings are smaller and closer to each other.

Text: Wim Raymaekers


Myrna Herzog, "Is the Quinton a Viol? A Puzzle unraveled", in Early Music, 28 (2000), pp. 8-31.

Victor-Charles Mahillon, "Catalog descriptive and analytique of the Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire Royal of the Musique de Victor-Victor-Charles Mahillon", Catalogue descriptif et analytique du Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, pt. 1, Ghent, 2/1893, p. 466; dl. 3, Ghent, 1900, p. 26.

Thomas G. MacCracken, "Small French Viols", Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America, 50 (2017-2018), pp. 49-71.

Sylvette Milliot, Histoire de la lutherie parisienne du XVIIIe siècle à 1960: tome II: les luthiers du XVIIIe siècle. History of Parisian Violin Making from the XVIIIth Century to 1960: Vol. II: The Violin Makers of the XVIIIth Century, Spa, 1997, pp. 65-70, 152, 223, 225.

G. Thibault, Jean Jenkins and Josiane Bran-Ricci, Eighteenth Century Musical Instruments: France and Britain. Les instruments de musique au XVIIIe siècle: France et Grande Bretagne, London (Victoria and Albert Museum) 1973, p. 48.

Quinton with sympathetic strings, Jean-Baptiste Salomon, Paris, ca 1750
Quinton with sympathetic strings, Jean-Baptiste Salomon, Paris, ca 1750