A Celebrity Musician in Victorian London

Some ten years ago I started researching the life of Jean Prosper Guivier, a nineteenth century musician thought to be the man behind the violin shop J P Guivier & Co. on Mortimer Street, London. It took me three years to discover that he never had anything to do with the shop, which was started by his son, but by then I had acquired quite a bit of information about the father. He led such a colourful life that, as no one else had done so, I decided to start writing about his life.

There haven’t been many celebrity ophicleidists. During the 1830s Jean Prosper, or Prospère, took up this relatively new instrument and became one of its greatest exponents during its brief life. A bass instrument, he also became known for playing a ‘monstre,’ sub-bass version (pictured).

Writing the book has been a long and slow process, but I have been surprised how much it has engrossed me. After all, I’m writing about a stranger who no one’s heard of, who played an obsolete instrument (that no one has heard of). Furthermore, there are few records available following fires at three archives, plus war damage to another. So, why write about him?

Well, as I attempted to justify my position recently, if the only people remembered are the really important ones, (Napoleon, Shakespeare and me, for instance), then our understanding of history is going to be impoverished. There are many smaller characters, minor celebrities or just ordinary people, whose lives all contributed to our social history and who are not yet researched. So why not attempt to find their needle in the remaining haystack of archival data?

But my book - if it ever becomes a book - is not a biography. Imagine a person draws a line on a long piece of paper, the line representing their life. Now imagine that, a hundred and fifty years later, the ink has faded in all but a few places and you take a pen and try to draw that line again. You make sure that your line passes through every ink spot still visible. It won’t be the same line, but neither is it random. It’s informed by all the data that still exists, with the gaps bridged by ‘best guesswork.’ That’s more or less what I’ve done. It’s a life story, not a biography.

So, what did this Jean Prosper Guivier get up to, anyway? Suspend your disbelief: He was conceived in a French prisoner of war camp in Russia in 1813 and was born in Vilnius on 30th February the following year. He joined the French army at 2 years old, became a musician, went to war at 13 and deserted at 14. He went to the Paris Conservatoire at 18 and was expelled three months later, then joined up with the showman conductor Louis Jullien (a pioneer of the early Promenade Concert) and came to London in 1840. For the next twenty years, he became a celebrated musician, performing in the leading London orchestras, breaking through social barriers to perform in concerts attended by all levels of society, and performing in countless provincial tours and music festivals. He was known well enough for his pseudonym ‘Prospère’ to enter the world of metaphor, the moniker signifying undisputed expertise.

The book is reaching the stage where I will need the help of an editor to cut out all the dull stuff and flesh out the good bits. Then we’ll see if there’s a book worth printing - watch this space!

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