A violinist was murdered in Paris on March 5 of 1794. The murderer was also a violinist. The two men were best friends. Six violin strings were stolen. These are the only facts that are entirely certain.
Other facts can be guessed. The crime scene was very likely 11 rue de la Chausée d’Antin, in Monmartre. This was a palatial old home that let out rooms to well-connected visitors, especially musicians. Chopin lived there comfortably in the 1830s. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stayed there, uncomfortably, on his visit to Paris in 1778. He and his mother shared one of the miserable attic rooms. The mother got sick and died. That miserable attic room—that is where I imagine the murder took place.
Odds are, the murder weapon was an ax and the victim died from a blow to the head. He crumpled to the floor and blood covered the floorboards. There was enough blood that the blood leaked onto the ceiling of the room below. Maybe it dripped.
The room was emptied right after the murder. The ax was taken and the body was removed—all that was needed was to carry or throw the body down the stairs. Blood and gore spread everywhere as the body was dragged outside. The murderer, bloody as a butcher, dumped the body into hand cart. Because the murder occurred at the time of the Jacobin terror, no one questioned the spectacle of a bloody body being rolled down the street.
Perhaps an additional body was picked up at La Place de la Revolution, the square where the guillotine did its own kind of ax murder. From there to Seine the cart would appear to be carrying just another beheaded body to be dumped in the river.
There was no need for the murderer to hide the crime. The murderer would never be brought to justice and he knew it. What he did was terrible, but it hardly added anything to the ambient terror of Paris in March of 1794. From the moment the dead violinist fell to floor, all the way to the river, witnesses hid.
Every piece of furniture was removed from the crime scene, perhaps by the murderer himself. There would not have been much. Perhaps only a chair, a bed, a table and a piss pot. The deceased’s violin and bow were taken. And of course, the six violin strings that caused such a fuss.
There is a simple reason that this murder has never been the subject of an article or a book. The murderer took over the identity of the murdered. Unless you know about the murder, the history is that of a great violinist who had a successful career and a long and happy life.
The murdered violinist was a francophone Belgian named Auguste Frédèric Durand. The murderer was a Polish violinist named Duranowski. In late 1794, we know that Duranowski gave public performances while pretending to be Durand. Duranowski was the better violinist and became much more famous than Durand might have been if he hadn’t been murdered. Duranowski remained skilled with his ax; he was sent to prison in Milan in the late 1790s for the attempted murder of a priest.
After 1800, Durand/Duranowski consistently called himself Auguste Frédèric Duranowski. This is the name that stuck. Most of the information we have about Durand/Duranowski comes from François-Joseph Fétis’ encyclopedia, Biographie universelle. According to Fétis, a branch of the Durand family had settled in Poland and Durand preferred the Polish version of his surname. Fétis neatly combined the two violinist’s careers. Fétis’ Biographie reports that Durand/Duranowski studied with Giovanni Baptista Viotti in Paris in the 1780s, started his career at the Brussels Opera in 1790, then, in 1795, he went on to tour Italy, Poland, Germany, and France. Durand/Duranowski died of natural causes in Strasbourg in 1834.
We can guess a bit more. Pre-1795 Duranowski was a member of the French School of Violin. The sanitized story of the French School was that it was founded in Paris by Viotti in 1782. The next generation of the French School was led by the violinists Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre Rode, and Pierre Baillot. When, in 1843, a Belgian, Lambert Massart, replaced Baillot at the Paris Conservatory the French School of Violin ended and was replace by the Franco-Belgian School of Violin. If you don’t know about Massart replacing Baillot, the story is just one long successful and happy story about teaching the violin.
The name, French School of Violin, implies that the main activity of the French School was teaching the violin. It was not. The violinists of the French School were mostly self-taught. The French School, up until 1795, was a cross between a guild and a crime family. They owned part of a legitimate business, the Favart Theater, but they dabbled in theft and intimidation, and specialized what we might think of as an artistic long con. Finally, inevitably, they turned to murder: the murder of Auguste Frédèric Durand.
The motive was simple: Durand was not a member of the French School. At the beginning of 1793, while still in Belgium, he had joined the Jacobin alternative to the French School, Société des Amis de la Liberté et de l’Égalité. He was rewarded for this association with many chances to play in the propaganda operas that the French invaders foisted upon the Belgian public in that year. When the French were pushed out of Belgium by the Dutch in late 1793, he was given a new job: violinist in the Favart Theater opera orchestra. Without consulting any of the violinists of the French School, the Jacobins made him concertmaster.
The French School assigned Duranowski to sit next to Durand in the opera pit. The two men became the best of friends. And then, on March 5, 1794, Duranowski killed Durand with an ax and dumped his body in the Seine.
Duranowski then cleaned himself up. He put on his concert clothes. He went to the Favart Theater for the opera performance. In the dark of the opera pit, he sat in the concertmaster’s chair. All the violinists sitting in that pit knew that Durand was dead. And every one of them called Duranowski by his new name: Auguste-Frédèric.