On François Coppée’s Violin Maker of Cremona

I finally found François Coppée’s short play The Violin Maker of Cremona!

It is available in English on Archive.org

The play, part-Hunchback of Notre Dame and part Beauty and the Beast, is one of the earliest works of literature I read, having stumbled upon it in the Notre Dame of Kidapawan’s high school library when I was thirteen. It was in an old dusty, musty book, what I vaguely recall was an introduction of sorts to drama. In retrospect that book was one of many old books that were far too good to be in a high school library (I remember when they sold the really old ones, I bought a collection of Livy’s speeches in Latin for 2 pesos). I suspect it was donated in the distant past by the Marist brothers from America or Europe.

(On a side note, school libraries are increasingly becoming symptomatic of the decay of education in the Philippines: impressive collections once accumulated by intellectual academics now gather dust because even the teachers are too stupid and uncultured to explore them)

Back then I was already into writing, but my reading was far from decent, hardly going beyond the Harry Potter series. The Violin Maker of Cremona was probably the first play I ever read.

I remember the play enthralling me, and the novelty of its concept and plot impressed upon me subconsciously what good writing was.

I only understood how much impact the play had on my writing when I was in college, and by then I could no longer enter the Boys Library (I have not entered it since I graduated high school, almost a decade ago now). My early college years saw me start obsessing with keeping track of my records, and to have no copy of such a personally important piece of literature was frustrating.

I tried in vain to look for a copy of the play in the substantially bigger collections of the Ateneo de Davao and Silliman Libraries. The latter, in particular, is one of the biggest libraries in Asia, and that I didn’t find it there made me lose hope.  The internet, which always proved to be useful when in comes to these things, was also disappointingly unhelpful.

Not until yesterday! After eight years of searching (seven plus a year of giving up), I finally found it. Of course I will be printing a copy as soon as I can.

This is also the first time I’m discovering Archive.org, and I could not have stumbled upon it in a better way. I intend to explore it in the coming days.

Coppée is by now a very obscure French writer, which partly explains why this play is difficult to find. He is most remembered (by what little is he remembered) for being involved in the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal in France that involved the false conviction of a Jewish soldier. Coppée, a member the (notoriously over-nationalistic) Academie Francaise, was one of the public figures who were critical of Dreyfus. This Antisemitic public stand is one of the reasons why the man is now little known.

Which may be a bit unfair for him: if anything, The Violin Maker of Cremona demonstrates a writer who knew how inconsequential appearances are and how shallow and judgemental people can be. Either he was grossly misunderstood in the Dreyfus affair (I can find no records of his actual stance on the affair but his defending the establishment’s prudence),

Or the play just goes to show how, even when the writer has arrived at a profound insight, he is no wiser because of it if he does not live by it.

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