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Boussu inside out : a multifaceted organological study of the life, instruments and methods of the violin maker Benoit Joseph Boussu (1703-1773)

(2020)
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Abstract
The instruments of the violin maker Benoit Joseph Boussu are among the most remarkable examples ever made within the area that is now enclosed by the borders of Belgium. The Musical Instruments Museum (MIM) in Brussels preserves nine instruments by Boussu, including a unique violin and a cello in near-unchanged structural state. Furthermore, a substantial number of violins, violas and cellos is currently in use by musicians. Nevertheless, Boussu’s biography remained largely unknown for a long time, despite attempts by various musicologists to clarify his life path. The research presented here demonstrates that Boussu was born in Fourmies (northern France) in 1703 from a family of notaries, and that he himself also practiced this profession until 1748. He then made a remarkable career switch to become a musical instrument maker, and worked as such in Liège, Etterbeek, Brussels, possibly Leiden, and ultimately Amsterdam. In the last year of his life, he returned to his native region, where he died in September 1773. Through investigations into the notarial and municipal council archives from the region of Avesnes-sur-Helpe, it became possible to gain insight in the social and economic circumstances of Boussu’s life. He had a modest notarial practice in Avesnes and supplemented his income with a side job as procureur. In addition, during his entire professional life, also during his time as an instrument maker, he was involved in the common financial transactions of his time, such as providing money to third parties and renting out land. These activities provided additional sources of income. Some aspects of Boussu’s life, in particular his initiation into violin making, remain unclear despite the present research. The clarification of his remarkable course of life, however, allows us to place some prevailing preconceptions concerning violin makers (and other craftsmen), including those regarding the widely assumed career path through the ‘master-apprentice’ and guild systems, in a different light. In addition to the biographical part, the currently presented study focuses on the extant instruments by Boussu. A total of 51 instruments was identified, investigated and documented in a newly created database. Boussu’s evolution as a maker was followed by identifying and comparing constructional and stylistic characteristics of his instruments over time, using state-of-the-art methods such as digital endoscopy and CT scanning. This in-depth organological study has led to new insights into the instrument making practices of the former notary. He probably ran a small workshop in Brussels with a few employees, where instruments were being built in a modular way, which could ensure a steady output. The production process remained grounded on the one hand on a local tradition of working without a full mold and a neck that extends inside the sound box. Other features in the preserved instruments, such as the use of corner blocks and specially shaped garland inner lining strips, suggest, however, the application of individual methods in addition to the traditional local practices, which enabled serial production. Based on the observations made, the present author proposed a hypothesis regarding the construction methods followed by Boussu. In order to test this hypothesis in practice, and at the same time to refine it, several replica instruments were built, namely three violins and a cello, based on the CT scans of the well-preserved violin and cello of Boussu from the collection of the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels. During the construction – ‘workbench research’ - the efficiency of the process and the product specifications obtained were closely monitored to see whether the hypothetical construction sequence followed yielded the desired results and workflow. Further validation of the built replicas was achieved by analyzing their construction on the basis of CT scans, and also by comparing their physical and material properties with those of the original instruments. Finally, these replica instruments were handed over to professional Baroque musicians, who used them to perform and explore Brussels trio sonata repertoire from Boussu’s time. During the presented study, an interdisciplinary approach was pursued, with a strong experimental component. This innovative way of research, to be described as ‘experimental organology’, requires both theoretical and practical expertise from the researcher(s). As is hopefully demonstrated throughout this thesis, the practice-led activities functioned as an initiator, as well as a connecting nexus, for the performance of various types of complementary research. Starting with biographical research, but soon followed by excursions to radiological instrument research, social history of the eighteenth century, musicology and historically informed musical performance practice. The author hopes that the holistic strategy of this ‘case study’ can serve as an example and inspiration for studying the life and work of other instrument makers, preferably not only for the big names, but also for the ‘lesser gods’. In this way, the canon of instrument making history can be enriched with deeper and more balanced forms of knowledge. In addition, this study is the first finished research project associated with the Musical Instrument Making department of the School of Arts Ghent, which on completion has simultaneously produced tangible, visible, playable, audible as well as written results. It may be hoped that this outcome will play an inspiring and pioneering role within the department.
Keywords
Benoit Joseph Boussu, violin, cello, organology

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MLA
Verberkmoes, Geerten. Boussu inside out : A Multifaceted Organological Study of the Life, Instruments and Methods of the Violin Maker Benoit Joseph Boussu (1703-1773). Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, 2020.
APA
Verberkmoes, G. (2020). Boussu inside out : a multifaceted organological study of the life, instruments and methods of the violin maker Benoit Joseph Boussu (1703-1773). Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Chicago author-date
Verberkmoes, Geerten. 2020. “Boussu inside out : A Multifaceted Organological Study of the Life, Instruments and Methods of the Violin Maker Benoit Joseph Boussu (1703-1773).” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Chicago author-date (all authors)
Verberkmoes, Geerten. 2020. “Boussu inside out : A Multifaceted Organological Study of the Life, Instruments and Methods of the Violin Maker Benoit Joseph Boussu (1703-1773).” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte.
Vancouver
1.
Verberkmoes G. Boussu inside out : a multifaceted organological study of the life, instruments and methods of the violin maker Benoit Joseph Boussu (1703-1773). Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte; 2020.
IEEE
[1]
G. Verberkmoes, “Boussu inside out : a multifaceted organological study of the life, instruments and methods of the violin maker Benoit Joseph Boussu (1703-1773),” Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, 2020.
@phdthesis{8664900,
  abstract     = {The instruments of the violin maker Benoit Joseph Boussu are among the most remarkable examples ever made within the area that is now enclosed by the borders of Belgium. The Musical Instruments Museum (MIM) in Brussels preserves nine instruments by Boussu, including a unique violin and a cello in near-unchanged structural state. Furthermore, a substantial number of violins, violas and cellos is currently in use by musicians. Nevertheless, Boussu’s biography remained largely unknown for a long time, despite attempts by various musicologists to clarify his life path.

The research presented here demonstrates that Boussu was born in Fourmies (northern France) in 1703 from a family of notaries, and that he himself also practiced this profession until 1748. He then made a remarkable career switch to become a musical instrument maker, and worked as such in Liège, Etterbeek, Brussels, possibly Leiden, and ultimately Amsterdam. In the last year of his life, he returned to his native region, where he died in September 1773.

Through investigations into the notarial and municipal council archives from the region of Avesnes-sur-Helpe, it became possible to gain insight in the social and economic circumstances of Boussu’s life. He had a modest notarial practice in Avesnes and supplemented his income with a side job as procureur. In addition, during his entire professional life, also during his time as an instrument maker, he was involved in the common financial transactions of his time, such as providing money to third parties and renting out land. These activities provided additional sources of income. Some aspects of Boussu’s life, in particular his initiation into violin making, remain unclear despite the present research. The clarification of his remarkable course of life, however, allows us to place some prevailing preconceptions concerning violin makers (and other craftsmen), including those regarding the widely assumed career path through the ‘master-apprentice’ and guild systems, in a different light.

In addition to the biographical part, the currently presented study focuses on the extant instruments by Boussu. A total of 51 instruments was identified, investigated and documented in a newly created database. Boussu’s evolution as a maker was followed by identifying and comparing constructional and stylistic characteristics of his instruments over time, using state-of-the-art methods such as digital endoscopy and CT scanning. This in-depth organological study has led to new insights into the instrument making practices of the former notary. He probably ran a small workshop in Brussels with a few employees, where instruments were being built in a modular way, which could ensure a steady output. The production process remained grounded on the one hand on a local tradition of working without a full mold and a neck that extends inside the sound box. Other features in the preserved instruments, such as the use of corner blocks and specially shaped garland inner lining strips, suggest, however, the application of individual methods in addition to the traditional local practices, which enabled serial production. Based on the observations made, the present author proposed a hypothesis regarding the construction methods followed by Boussu.

In order to test this hypothesis in practice, and at the same time to refine it, several replica instruments were built, namely three violins and a cello, based on the CT scans of the well-preserved violin and cello of Boussu from the collection of the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels. During the construction – ‘workbench research’ - the efficiency of the process and the product specifications obtained were closely monitored to see whether the hypothetical construction sequence followed yielded the desired results and workflow. Further validation of the built replicas was achieved by analyzing their construction on the basis of CT scans, and also by comparing their physical and material properties with those of the original instruments. Finally, these replica instruments were handed over to professional Baroque musicians, who used them to perform and explore Brussels trio sonata repertoire from Boussu’s time.

During the presented study, an interdisciplinary approach was pursued, with a strong experimental component. This innovative way of research, to be described as ‘experimental organology’, requires both theoretical and practical expertise from the researcher(s). As is hopefully demonstrated throughout this thesis, the practice-led activities functioned as an initiator, as well as a connecting nexus, for the performance of various types of complementary research. Starting with biographical research, but soon followed by excursions to radiological instrument research, social history of the eighteenth century, musicology and historically informed musical performance practice. The author hopes that the holistic strategy of this ‘case study’ can serve as an example and inspiration for studying the life and work of other instrument makers, preferably not only for the big names, but also for the ‘lesser gods’. In this way, the canon of instrument making history can be enriched with deeper and more balanced forms of knowledge. In addition, this study is the first finished research project associated with the Musical Instrument Making department of the School of Arts Ghent, which on completion has simultaneously produced tangible, visible, playable, audible as well as written results. It may be hoped that this outcome will play an inspiring and pioneering role within the department.},
  author       = {Verberkmoes, Geerten},
  keywords     = {Benoit Joseph Boussu,violin,cello,organology},
  language     = {eng},
  pages        = {xxii, 512},
  publisher    = {Universiteit Gent. Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte},
  school       = {Ghent University},
  title        = {Boussu inside out : a multifaceted organological study of the life, instruments and methods of the violin maker Benoit Joseph Boussu (1703-1773)},
  year         = {2020},
}