|AUGUSTE CLODPOLLE: A French Master
by Louis (Ludomir) Grakelcik
It is the sad truth that, though we have come to call our chosen pursuit by its French name, "la luthierie," yet we have all but ignored the contributions of that great nation to the art and science of instrument construction. Indeed, apart from the unassailable reputation of the Parisian violin- and bow-makers, there is but a single luthier, the estimable Bouchet, whose name springs readily to the lips of the American maker. So it is with pleasure that I see now a resurgence of interest, thanks largely to his recently published autobiography, in the work of the late banjo theorist Auguste Clodpolle.
The emergence at this point of scholarly work on Clodpolle is certain to create a stir in luthierie, and not only because of the revolutionary nature of his theories. Never a timid nor a temperate man, Clodpolle was a product of a profoundly nationalistic era in French history. His dignity and studied demeanor (some would say, "pomposity" and "pedantry") earned him as many detractors as followers (his many rivals profited unfairly by this very fact). Thus it is that, though I applaud Mr. Kaynor's excellent translation, I feel that I must temper Clodpolle's views, somewhat, with fact: present, if you will, an apology, lest the entire work be dismissed as so much rubbish.
Clodpolle began his musical career as, of all things, a prodigy on the cello. So he affirms and so much is readily verifiable. It was in Baltimore, while on a concert tour of the Eastern United States in 1887 that he first heard the instrument that was to become his lifelong obsession: the banjo. This event marks the turning point in his career. he purchased a banjo the very next day, and by the time he returned to Paris, was proficient enough to begin concertizing. Within eight months he was the leading virtuoso on the continent, and had played before the cream of society in every major European capital. It must have been at this time that Clodpolle fell prey to the "tinkerer's bug," that odd ailment which is at once the bane and the abiding love of the banjist.
Auguste Clodpolle fell to "tinkering" with abandon. There was no aspect of the banjo's construction or setup that escaped his attention; and whatsoever came under his attention was subject to experimentation. Before long, he had opened an atelier on the Rue d'Hyvaly, where he built many experimental banjos and banjo-like instruments. He also began to publish his findings, and sometimes mere speculation in the guise of findings, in any journal that would publish them. The public listened; the public adored; the public flocked to Clodpolle's flagstaff as lemmings to the sea. And as public acclaim grew, so grew Clodpolle's vision. His writings soon took on the character of diatribes.
He came to view the banjo as an extension of French nationalism. And how could so noble an instrument be anything BUT French? Clodpolle claimed, in 1894, that he had traced the banjo's origin to the Ysere Valley. The basis of this assertion, apparently, was an ambiguous pre-Roman figurine, or rather fragment which he saw at the Mairie des Rosiers (where he had gone to take the cure after a period of rather high living), and which, as Clodpolle wrote, "could be nothing but a personage playing the banjo."
This theory, absurd as it seems, became Clodpolle's pet. He elaborated upon it until he could reconcile it to indisputable historical fact. The banjo, said Clodpolle, native to Alpine France, had been carried to North Africa by deserters from Hannibal's army, and had travelled thence to West Africa and eventually the New World.
That Clodpolle could propound so unlikely a theory has cast some suspicion upon his motives: did he believe it or did he not? In the former case, he would seem a fool; in the latter, a charlatan. Not to defame the man, I feel that it is a case of the will to believe being stronger than the power to reason. At any rate, such was the intellectual climate in France that this theory found ready adherents, and considerable controversy developed over fine details. It was at this point that the solid community of banjo enthusiasts behind Clodpolle began to splinter away. Numerous schisms developed as former disciples took issue with one or another of the master's teachings. Now, whenever Clodpolle published an article, abusive refutations would immediately appear. Clodpolle must have been profoundly hurt by the attacks of these ingrates, yet he continued to experiment and to write. To be sure, he showed no forebearance towards his detractors: his was a contentious nature.
Clodpolle's attempts to "frankify" the banjo did not stop at a liberal revision of history. He always sought to create a tangible Frenchness in the instrument. In his search for a "more truly French french polish," he developed a formula using fine cognac as the solvent. The finish achievedc by this means was, by all reports, magnificent. It is truly unfortunate that, although we have many of Clodpolle's instruments, no example of this finish now exists. Clodpolle was also known to use Cognac in his alcohol lamps and glue pots. Detractors have unkindly suggested that this was an attempt to make his well-known drinking habit tax-deductible. I should state in his defense that such uncompromising standards caused his shop overhead to be very high indeed, and in any event, he could not possibly have saved any money in this way.
Clodpolle was a connoisseur of fine wines, reknowned for his capacity. He viewed mere water as "an inferior substance, lacking in esprit, unsuitable for drinking. It is not a beverage at all!" This view led him to begin soaking his banjo heads in wine, a process which he said improved the tone, Indeed, by choice of vintage, he claimed to excersise great control over tonal characteristics:
"Almost any white wine of quality will suffice for the banjo, although one must always consider the desired effect. The dry and light vintage, such as a good Chablis, produces a bright ringing tone which is perfectly delicious. The fuller-bodied and sweeter wine, such as a fine Chateau d'Yquem, by virtue of its weight, will give a tone which is soft and intimate, saved from cloying by the crystalline deposits of sugars left on the surface, which lend a brilliance."
Clodpolle recommended Champagne "for a sparkling tone," and cautioned that red wines must be scrupulously avoided.
"I myself prefer a good dry Bordeaux, though rather than use an inferior year, a fine white Bourgogne is much to be preferred."
Ironically, considering the master's refined tastes, his most popular and succesful innovation in this regard involved soaking the head not in fine wine, but in beer; a process he recommended for "la musique proletaire." This is no doubt due to the preponderance at the time of popular songs for banjo, and the waning of the delicate classical parlor music which had theretofore been all the rage. As much frustration as Clodpolle must have felt at the success of his "Tu-borg-phone," how much greater was his consternation to see this development snatched up by imitators, most notably a large American company, all of whom far exceeded Clodpolle himself in financial gain. His suit in 1919 against the offending company was unsuccessful, because Clodpolle was unable to establish any similarity between his instruments and theirs. The suit nearly ruined him, and it marks the beginning of the final chapter in his life. His faith in the public broken, Clodpolle gradually withdrew from public life. Gone were the articles and pronouncements; Clodpolle now jealously guarded his discoveries. He continued to work, and took on several apprentices, who recall him as a broken man, declining in health, bitter and resentful of the world.
By the time he died, penniless and forgotten, in 1932, the banjo's vogue on the continent had also passed away. Perhaps it is not too late to rekindle the flame he so zealously tended.
[Ludomir Grakelcik lives today as a expert luthier and restorer at his studio, Downtown Luthierie, in Northampton, Massachusetts, under the assumed name of Owen Davidson]
FOOTNOTES TO "AUGUSTE CLODPOLLE: A FRENCH MASTER"
1. Auguste Clodpolle: Autobiography, by Auguste Clodpolle, translated and with notes by D. A. Kaynor. Squamugget University Press, 1989. 978 pp. Originally published as "Considerations Sur la Vie D'un Maitre de Peau de Veau," Editoriale Ventchaud, Paris, 1928
2. Ibid. p.32
3. New York Herald, 27 October, 1887, p.21. "Mr. Claude-Paul [sic.] of Paris to Offer Recital This Evening," by Amalthea Soone.
4. Clodpolle/Kaynor, op.cit., p.40
5. A. Clodpolle, Methode Scientifique et Concise pour le Banjeau, Editoriale Palmes et Lauriers, Paris 1890, intro., p.ix
6. A. Clodpolle, "Indications Irrefutables de L'Origine Francaise de Banjeau," Enqueteuse Nationale, 24 June, 1894, p.17
7. A. Clodpolle, "Le Pelerinage Trans-Mediterranee du Banjeau Primordial: Un Voyage Oublie," Le Minuit, 6 April, 1897, p.30
8. A. Clodpolle, "Formule Propre pour le Vernis a Gomme Lac." La Dryade: Hebdomadaire de L'Ebeniste Francais," 18 January, 1895, p.12
9. A. Clodpolle, "Nouvelle Methode pour la Mouillage des Peaux de Banjeau," pamphlet, self-published, 1901, 28 pp., ref. p.2
10. Ibid, p.9
11. Ibid, p.15
12. Ibid, p.24
13. Superior Court of Boston, Docket #2397, anno 1921.