By Rachel Beckles Willson
An oud travelled to Europe as a consequence of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Musician and writer Guillaume André Villoteau (1759-1839) had joined the 159 men Napoleon took along with him as a “Commission of the Sciences and Arts”, and while in Egypt he collected instruments to bring back home to France. These included an oud.
Where might this oud be now?
It may seem an unrealistic quest. But some of Villoteau’s other Egyptian instruments do survive. They came into the hands of Adolphe Sax (inventor of the saxophone), who sold many instruments at auction in 1877 (allegedly on the occasion of his third bankruptcy). The auction catalogue reveals that some of the instruments had belonged to Villoteau – but the oud was not on the list.
The oud could have survived in another instrument maker’s collection, or in an antique collection. It became fashionable for men of means to amass rare and beautiful objects, and larger collections often found their way into public museums. Many of the instruments formerly belonging to Villoteau, later sold off by Sax, now belong to the Belgian state. Victor-Charles Mahillon (1841-1921) bought them, as first curator of the musical instrument collection at the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory. Founded in 1879, this developed into a separate Museum of Musical Instruments that can be visited today.
Did Villoteau pass his oud on to someone other than Sax? Or might Sax have sold it privately? It is possible that the Paris luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798–1875) had an interest, because he collected and examined instruments as a part of his work. We do not know where his collection is.
For now the only trace of the oud we have lies in Villoteau’s pictures and description, published in the monumental Description de l’Égypte that was co-authored by Napoleon’s “Commission of the Sciences and Arts”. It is a detailed account but Villoteau was a little perplexed by the oud. Although he acknowledged the importance it had to Egyptians, he found it so different from his other instruments that he questioned its ‘Oriental’ origin, noting that there were Arab and Persian traditions of thought connecting it to Plato, and even King Solomon.