A French Lyre-Guitar

Posted By on August 29, 2013

Sometimes violin-dealers find different instruments, and sometimes they find them irresistible. I bought this at a general auction where it was miscatalogued (a guitar in the mediaeval manner) and underestimated – but in very good condition.

French Lyre Guitar

In the past, luthiers, that is, instrument makers, used to be far less specialised than is the case today. By the late 19th century most violin-makers made only instruments of the violin family, but Stradivari made lutes, guitars and harps too. Because his violins have become so very valuable, they have survived in some numbers, but there aren’t many of the other things left.

Here’s an instrument by somebody better-known as a violin maker: Blaise Mast. It has its original manuscript label inside, Blaise Mast Jeun. Mast claimed to work in Paris, but it may have come from Mirecourt, and been sold in Paris – it’s not clear. The label is undated, but it was made around 1800. It’s a lyre-guitar, and (to quote the wonderful Anthony Baines) dates from a period when ladies’ fashions extended to small musical instruments.

French Lyre Guitar

This fashion thing . . . it’s an extension of the craze for classicism than ran through Europe rather earlier. “Classical” (the term neoclassical wasn’t invented until later) buildings sprang up all over the place during the 18th century. Classical motifs were common in paintings by 1750. Furniture (and musical instruments) were a little behind the times, but pianos and, as in this case, stringed instruments, followed the trend. It’s basically a conventional guitar, having the same number of strings and roughly the same string length. It is, however, thinly disguised as the kind of thing used by most Greek goddesses.

French Lyre Guitar

French Lyre Guitar

It’s not a serious musical instrument. It has a flat base, so that it can stand upright on a table.
The soundbox is a silly shape, in that it doesn’t work acoustically and in that it is most awkward to play. But no matter – it’s designed to look good, either by itself in an interior, or in the arms of a woman. The two wings are hollow, and continue the soundbox space, but are really just decorative. But look how decorative. The back is of contrasting strips of figured maple and darker mahogany, each strip being separated by a thin line of purfling. The same materials are used for the sides, each strip being carefully tapered towards the tip. Brass acorn finials adorn the ends. The two quatrefoil soundholes are absolutely characteristic of the period, being found also on a another lyre-guitar by Thielemann, in the Berlin Staatliches Institut collection.

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