The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Vieuxtemps

“Vieuxtemps’ art – expressive, human, romantic and distinctive – belongs not only to history, but to the contemporary world as well”. ~ Prof. Lev Ginsburg

To my shame and consternation I have never played a piece of music by Vieuxtemps on my violin. I honestly wasn’t that familiar with his repertoire before reading up about him. I knew of him, but I had no idea just how beautiful and virtuosic his music really is.

Henri Vieuxtemps by Marie Alexandre Alophe

An outstanding virtuoso violinist of the romantic era, he mastered his performance craft and was completely in tune with what was and wasn’t possible on the violin; pushing soloists to their technical limits in his violin concertos.

He had almost certainly been influenced by the brilliance of the famous violinist Paganini. The two met in London in 1834 when Paganini was in the twilight of his career and Vieuxtemps had given his debut in the city. Both were said to be mutually impressed with each other’s talents, but differed in their musical philosophy.

Vieuxtemps eschewed excessive showmanship, and although his compositions were undoubtedly rhapsodic and extremely technically challenging, he never sacrificed unbridled virtuosity at the expense of the music. This philosophy was impressed upon his renowned Belgian pupil, Eugène Ysaÿe, who quoted his teacher: “Not runs for the sake of runs – sing, sing!”

If one could know a person through his creative output I would say that Vieuxtemps possessed a great love for the violin and wanted to explore what it was capable of within the parameters of aesthetic enjoyment.  It seems that the virtuosity in his music is the epitome of his flair and improvisational skills, but it is never misplaced or garish.

A man of taste, passion and emotional intelligence, his numerous qualities translated into his solo career and romantic concertos, an enduring legacy for the most poignant and expressive instrument of all…

Henri Vieuxtemps (17 February 1820 – 6 June 1881)

 Although Henri Vieuxtemps, (literally translated as Henry ‘old times’) was incredibly popular during his lifetime his work has slipped into comparative obscurity today.

The young Henri Vieuxtemps – Portrait of a Violinist by Barthelemy c. 1820s

His early development seems to follow a similar path to that of others I have written about in the violin virtuoso/composer series, in that he was a child prodigy from the age of four. Oh what it must be like to be gifted from the get-go! Henri was initially tutored by his father, a weaver by trade, but also an amateur violinist and luthier.

Vieuxtemps the virtuoso

Vieuxtemps made his first public debut playing a violin concerto by Pierre Rode aged six, and later came to the attention of illustrious violinist/composer Charles Auguste de Bériot  at one of a series of concerts in Brussels and Liege. De Bériot became his private tutor and took the young Henri to Paris in 1829, where he made his debut with another Rode violin violin concerto.

The July Revolution of 1830 in Paris and de Bériot’s marriage to Maria Malibran forced his return to Brussels where he continued to perform for a time with Pauline Garcia, de Bériot’s sister-in-law.

During a tour of Germany in 1833 Henri met and became friends with Louis Spohr and Robert Schumann. He also garnered the attention and admiration of Hector Berlioz during his touring of various European cities.

Now established on the European classical circuit Vieuxtemps also made three concert tours of the USA, firstly in 1843 – 44, in 1853 and again 1857 – 58.

Henri Vieuxtemps standing (with his Guarneri violin), alongside noted musicians and composers who performed in John Ella’s 1853 season of the Musical Union. Louis Spohr is seated with his score, with Berlioz next to him.

Perhaps it was the influence of traditional American folk music that inspired his composition of the ‘Yankee Doodle’ Souvenir d’Amérique.

A brilliant encore by Joshua bell:

Vieuxtemps in Vienna

Not content with performance alone he studied composition with Simon Sechter in Vienna, after having performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major as his debut in the composer’s home city. A mature work indeed for a tender teenager of fourteen, and a concerto he would champion throughout his career. He also became a pupil of Antonin Reicha in Paris.

Franco-Belgian School

Vieuxtemps was an influential performer, composer and teacher, especially in the history of the Franco-Belgian School of violin during the mid nineteenth century. The school dates back to the evolution of the modern violin bow such as those made by François Tourte, often referred to as the Stradivari of the bow.

Qualities favoured by the Franco-Belgian School (and most likely epitomised by Vieuxtemps) included elegance, a full tone with a sense of drawing a ‘long’ bow with no jerks, precise left hand techniques, and bowing using the whole forearm while keeping both the wrist and upper arm quiet, (as opposed to Joseph Joachim’s German school of wrist bowing and Leopold Auer’s Russian concept of using the whole arm.)

Vieuxtemps the composer

What stood out for me listening to and discovering his violin music and overall oeuvre was the singing, ‘bel canto’ quality of the violin, especially in the higher registers. This is a quality that Tartini also embodied. The works aren’t overly violin dominated but encompass the entire orchestra in partnership with the violin and are richer for it.

Whilst he may not be on par with Beethoven in terms of composition, (whom he admired and performed), alongside Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn, he certainly used his intimate knowledge as a player to bring out the emotion, rising above the obstacles of technical difficulty.

His violin music has a freedom to express emotion that is most endearing and attractive for a soloist; enabling a player to impart their own style and personality on the music.

Vieuxtemps’ violin concertos

Henri Vieuxtemps wrote seven violin concertos, the first being completed in 1836, but published as number 2 in F sharp minor, opus 19. Hrachya Avanesyan does the honurs:

Violin Concerto No.1 in E-major, Op. 10 (actually his 2nd), performed by Misha Keylin with Dennis Burkh and the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra:

Violin concerto No. 3 in A Major, Op. 25 composed in 1844, performed by Misha Keylin:

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31

The most famous of his violin concertos was number 4 in D minor, composed while he was in Saint Petersburg as the court violinist to Tzar Nicholas 1 of Russia in 1846. Unusually for a violin concerto it has four movements, which Vieuxtemps (rather astutely in his experience as a performer), advised that the challenging ‘off-beat’ third movement was optional for programming purposes.

The orchestra’s opening few bars of the concerto are gentle, lush and romantic, with a dramatic, if slightly melancholy melody that soon reaches a crescendo infused with a dark edge, hinting at unknown depths…

When the violin makes its expressive and singing entrance, free and interpretive, forward moving with increasing tempo and power in the higher notes, a certain forcefulness in the chords, virtuosity in the runs and harmonics – a drifting and energetic solo using the whole range of the instrument – you have a concerto worthy of immortality!

I love this fantastic performance by Hilary Hahn and the Berlin Philharmonic. Hilary has been playing this concerto since the age of ten, and rightly knows it inside and out! She brings a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to it:

To my mind it’s better and more complete with the 3rd movement included; said to be difficult even for professional violinists with its the tricky rhythm between soloist and orchestra, but at the same time lilting and lyrical with a rather playful quality, especially in Hahn’s gorgeous interpretation.

The final runs in the 4th movement indicate a March like theme with impressive motifs and changing melodies. It’s what Hilary Hahn refers to as a ‘finger twister’!

I am in awe of anyone who can play this concerto, especially the section in the finale that requires the fingers of left hand to move in alternating small and large increments whilst the right, bow arm and hand keep the pressure in the sweet spot so that 3 strings are simultaneously depressed; a violin multi-tasking mind bender!!

Another performance of this beautiful concerto I really like is by the late Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux:

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37 ‘Grétry’ written in 1861, played by Shlomo Mintz:

Violin Concerto No. 7 in A minor, ‘À Jenő Hubay’, Op. 49 c. 1870 (Op. 3 posthumous) with Misha Keylin:

Salon, concert and chamber works

I adore this rather operatic style composition for violin and orchestra, the Fantasia Appassionata in G minor, Op. 35 in this wonderful 1980 recording performed by Gidon Kremer and the London Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly:

Ballade et Polonaise Op. 38 with Heifetz:

Romance sans paroles Op. 7 Nos 2 & 3 with David Oistrakh:

Vieuxtemps ‘Reverie’ with Lola Bobesco:

David Nadien plays Vieuxtemps’s Regrets:

Duo Brilliante in A Major, Op 39 for violin, cello and orchestra with Aaron Rosand:

Elegie for Viola and Piano Op. 30 with Robert Diaz and Robert Koenig:

Capriccio in C minor for Solo viola ‘Hommage à Paganini’ played with heart and soul by Anna Serova on the Amati 1615 ‘La Stauffer’ Viola:

The ‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesù Violin – the most expensive violin in the world

Famed violin maker Guarneri del Gesù made the violin in 1741, three years before his death, and it was used extensively by Henri Vieuxtemps in his performances as a virtuoso violinist.

Later musicians who played the Vieuxtemps Guarneri included Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Joshua Bell.

The violin’s excellent condition and undisputed provenance led to a steady increase in price and the instrument was sold to an anonymous buyer in 2012 by J & A Beares in London in conjunction with Paolo Alberghini and master violin restorer, Julie Reed-Yeboah. The final record-breaking price was said to be somewhere in the region of $16 million, with the purchaser gifting lifetime use of the ‘Viuextemps’ to the ecstatic virtuoso violinist, Anne Akiko Meyers.

As Anne says, with other legendary violins owned and played by Paganini, Kreisler and Heiftez now resting largely unheard in museums, it is a precious gift to have the ‘Viuextemps’ being played on!

Anne gave this moving interview after receiving the violin – ‘Art and Soul’ of World’s Most Expensive Violin:

Anne Akiko Meyers History of  ex-Vieuxtemps Guarneri Del Gesu:

‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri Del Gesu Returns To The Concert Stage…

News coverage of the sale by npr.

Russian legacy

Henri Vieuxtemps achieved great success and popularity in Russia. He made two concert tours there in 1837 and 1840 as well as his later 5 year stint at the Imperial Court. Perhaps his lasting legacy from his most revered time in Saint Petersburg (1846 – 1851), was his founding of the Violin School of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and his early guidance of the ‘Russian School’.

The teachers that followed him in Saint Petersburg were violin luminaries Henryk Wieniawski and Leopold Auer, whose students inlcuded some of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, such as Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist, Georges Boulanger, and Oscar Shumsky.

Final Years

An excerpt from Robert Cummings’s Biography sums up Vieuxtemps’ final years:

“He took a teaching post at the Brussels Conservatory in 1871, where his students included Eugène Ysaÿe, and two years later suffered a stroke resulting in paralysis of his right arm. This episode effectively ended his career as a soloist, though he eventually regained enough ability to perform chamber music in private concerts. He was also able to compose in his last decade. In 1879, he moved to Algeria where his daughter lived. His inability to play with proficiency in his final years was a source of great frustration for him.”

I feel strongly that Henri Vieuxtemps deserves more recognition and to be heard regularly on stage and in recordings.

Memorial to Henri Vieuxtemps in Verviers

I hope you have enjoyed his music as much as I have during my venerative Vieuxtemps interlude!

One thought on “The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Vieuxtemps

  1. Pingback: The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Joachim | rhap.so.dy in words

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