épinette des Vosges


In all probability the first drone zithers were made in Northern Germany in the early 16th century. In the following decades and centuries the instrument spread over a large part of the Germanic cultural area and some neighbouring regions. It was also brought to the Vosges, the French mountains along the Rhine, which forms the present border with Germany. In the Vosges the new instrument was called épinette after the other épinette, or spinet in English, an instrument of the harpsichord family that also belongs to the large family of the plucked zithers. Since the late 19th century the folk épinette has often been called épinette des Vosges, to distinguish it from its upper class namesake.

Like most often with épinette-like zithers elsewhere in northwest Europe, the épinette des Vosges is put on a table and the player is seated. Traditionally the strings are shortened with a stick in the left hand, and plucked with a plectrum in the right hand.  Like elsewhere the instrument was played for one’s own pleasure, or to accompany singing and dancing at family parties or gatherings of friends and neighbours at night or on Sunday afternoons. On Sundays the épinette could also accompany religious songs. As it was typically played at home, the épinette was the only folk instrument that was often played by girls and women.  

It has been put forward that the épinette was brought to the Vosges by Swedish or German soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648 ), but concrete evidence is lacking. The folk and the upper class épinettes having the same name doesn’t make the interpretation of early written sources easier. In any case, it is certain that the épinette had become commonplace in part of the Vosges by the end of the 18th century. The oldest known player and maker of the instrument, Claude Joseph Vincent (‘le père Vincent’, Val-d’Ajol, 1753-1830) called the épinette ‘l’instrument de nos montagnes’. Val-d’Ajol and its surroundings would remain the core area of the épinette des Vosges tradition. The question remains why exactly the instrument took root in the Vosges, and not at all in the neighbouring Alsace region or elsewhere in Lorraine. 

In the course of the 19th century the épinette grew into the musical emblem of the Vosges. This had everything to do with the development of spa tourism in the area. An excursion not to be missed by the spa guests of Plombières-les-Bains was a five-kilometer ride in a horse-drawn carriage or on an ox cart covered with foliage to the plateau des Charrières, high above the valley of the Combeauté, in the municipality of Val-d’Ajol. In the 1790s, the journeyman and clog maker Jean-Baptiste Vançon had built a feuillée up there, a country inn with a panoramic terrace under the foliage of the trees. There, the beau monde enjoyed the simple pleasures of country life: a good glass of milk, home baked rye bread, kirsch, cottage cheese and other local delicacies. But what made this feuillée so different, was the beautiful voice and the sparkling épinette playing of Dorothée, one of Jean-Baptiste’s eleven children. Dorothée Vançon (1805-1878) had quite a few distinguished visitors: from Louis XVI’s daughter Marie-Thérèse in 1828, to the emperor Napoleon III in 1856, 1858 and 1865, and the composer Hector Berlioz in 1856 and1857. Many visitors were so charmed by Dorothée’s épinette that they wanted to take one home as a souvenir. 

The success of the épinette des Vosges was such that some skilful farmers in the neighbourhood applied themselves to building épinettes in winter. One of the most productive makers was Amé (officially Amant Constant) Lambert (1843-1908). In the winter months he made up to 150 instruments ready for sale during the summer tourist season. In 1875 he bought the feuillée Dorothée, as he now called the spot, and he developed it into a tourist centre with rustic chalets, and later on a hotel. 

This épinette (inventory number 3313) is characteristic of Amé Lambert’s refined production in the years 1885-1895. His instruments are then about 60 cm long, have 17 frets for a diatonic tone scale (G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C), two unison melody strings (G), and three accompaniment strings which are tuned in a major triad (C-E-G). The strings are tuned with lateral wooden pegs. Typical of the design in this period are the elegant scroll and two soundholes in the shape of a heart and a four-leaf clover. The back has a triangular brand-mark with the words A. LAMBERT  / FEUILLÉE / DOROTHEE / VALDAJOL VOSGES. The soundboard has a painting of a colourful garland, signed A.B. These are the  initials of Albert Balandier (1872-1945), Amé Lambert’s artistic son-in-law. In 1895 Albert Balandier married Amé’s daughter Gabrielle, and he continued his father-in-law’s épinette workshop until the Great War. Everything seems to indicate that this épinette was made around 1895.

The instrument was donated to the museum between 1914 and 1928 by one ‘Mme. J. Haps’. This may well refer to Marie Haps (1879-1939), née Marie Frauenberg, who was married to Joseph Haps, a Belgian financier. Marie Haps founded a college of higher education for girls in Brussels in 1919, which stills exists and bears her name.

(text: Wim Bosmans)

épinette des Vosges
Dorothée Vançon (coll. Christophe Toussaint,
épinette des Vosges
épinette des Vosges
Feuillée Dorothée, 1883, Amé Lambert, his wife Amélie and his daughter Gabrielle
Feuillée Dorothée, before 1878 (coll. Christophe Toussaint,
A tourist image of the Vosges, postcard sent in 1959