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 of the Most Powerful Performances I’ve ever Seen… 🎼🎧🎻

“Music says that which cannot be said, but which cannot remain silent.” ~ Victor Hugo

When a composer and a musician are both emotionally and musically in tune, the result can be an unforgettable recording that speaks to your soul. Such heart-felt performances usually manifest in glorious interpretations that create some of the most legendary, memorable, mind-blowing and totally magical moments in musical history.

sibelius-vc-allegro-moderato

A section of the Allegro moderato from my violin score

Such performances give you the sense that the musician really understood what the composer wanted the listeners and audience to feel and experience. As Beethoven, (played to perfection by Gary Oldman) so eruditely stated in the film Immortal Beloved:

“It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.”

I’ll probably post these pairings as and when I become struck by their brilliance. For my first example I feel compelled to share a performance by the late French violin virtuoso, Christian Ferras.

Photograph of Ferras taken on a tour of South Africa in 1965, dedicated to the organiser Hans Adler.

Photograph of Ferras taken on a tour of South Africa, dedicated to the organiser Hans Adler.

I recently learned of his existence (I know right, how can a violinist not have heard of Christian Ferras), and I’ve been completely captivated by his talent and romantic Gallic style. For me, he’s up there with Heifetz, Menuhin, Oistrakh and Perlman. This has been a musical discovery to relish and to cherish.

I was impressed with many of his performances, but the one that stood out the most was his vintage recording of the melancholy Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor. There are many wonderful recordings of this lyrical, challenging and thrilling work, but none have reduced me to rubble in quite the same way as Monsieur Ferras!

My emotional defences were penetrated and disarmed by the honest, visceral and virtuosic nature of this particular mid 1960’s performance, under the baton of the young Indian maestro Zubin Mehta.

I’ll save the superlatives for later, now it’s time to kick back, relax and enjoy their outstanding music making:

You may not agree with my musings after listening and viewing, (not everyone does, as per this review in Gramophone), but to me this sublime rendition is full of beauty, passion and pathos. In the Adagio di molto he has tears streaming down his face. Maybe he was suffering from a broken heart and the music ‘spoke’ to him. It oozed out of his eyes and his bow, his fingers and his soul via his Stradivarius.

There is a mournful purity to his sound that cannot be matched. Sibelius and Ferras is truly a match made in heaven.

A section of the beautiful 2nd movement from my score.

A section of the beautiful 2nd movement from my score.

Perhaps the ‘dark’ melody of the Sibelius violin concerto was what resonated with Ferras’s lugubrious temperament. The Allegro moderato (1st movement) and the allegro, ma non troppo (3rd movement) are exhilarating and electrifying.

You can see that he is deeply connected to the soul of Sibelius and to the music. Everything is there for me; flawless technique infused with fire and emotion that produces such wonderful colours, phrasing and nuances that take me to the stratosphere…

Context

I think it helps to understand why this is such a powerful, timeless performance when you know that Sibelius poured his love of the violin into this now popular and widely performed concerto in the classical violin repertoire.

“Dreamt I was twelve years old and a virtuoso.” ~ Jean Sibelius (diary entry from 1915 aged 50)

Jean Sibelius (8th December 1865 – 20th September 1957)

As a young man Sibelius had dreams of being a violin virtuoso and could play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but his course changed after he failed his audition for the Vienna Philharmonic due to stage nerves. Perhaps that’s why he wrote his only violin concerto, as an expression of that deeply held, but ultimately thwarted dream.

What may have felt like a disaster at the time may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His true gift however, was expressed through his writing of music. He may not have made such an impact on the world had he stuck to performance alone, but his compositions will never fade.

Portrait of Sibelius by Albert Edelfeldt c. 1904

Portrait of Sibelius by Albert Edelfeldt c. 1904

Violinist Dean Wang gives his take on the Sibelius Violin Concerto:

An icy image of nature is a good to have in mind when listening to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, completed in 1903 and revised in 1905. The reason for revision is that the 1904 premiere was largely unsuccessful since the concerto proved too difficult. The 1905 version is considerably less challenging and also perhaps less cluttered.

The concerto starts with soft strings supporting a tranquil and noble solo violin melody. As the music continues, the violin grows more impassioned and suddenly drops from the highest to the lowest registers of the instrument. The violin part grows more and more virtuosic as the orchestra is given an increasingly active role. After a dark second subject in the orchestra, a passionate motif played in parallel sixths in the extreme upper register of the violin, and then a “travelling” theme in the orchestra, the orchestra stops, the exposition (the first part of a traditional sonata form movement) ends, and the solo violin begins an extensive and extremely virtuosic cadenza.

In this sonata-form movement, the cadenza takes on the role of development (the middle section of the sonata form where the composer takes existing musical ideas and transforms them in inventive and interesting ways). The recapitulation (a varied repetition of the exposition) starts even before the cadenza ends, easing us back into the first melody. The movement closes in a brilliant coda with virtuosic violin octaves and inspired counterpoint fusing previously heard themes together.

After the cold intensity of the first movement, the concerto’s second movement provides some degree of relaxation after a melancholic introduction in the winds. We now hear a warm, singing melody in the violin’s lowest register accompanied by horns and bassoons. The largely lyrical movement provides contrasts excellently with the brilliance and relentlessness of the outer two.

The third movement follows the adagio with relentless dance rhythms; some critics note that these “long-short-short-long” rhythms are similar to those found in polonaises, a popular type of dance from Poland. The connection to dance is made even clearer by Sibelius having reportedly described the movement as a “danse macabre” — a dance of death. The dance is combined with intense virtuosic elements in the violin. The violin’s parallel octaves coupled with heavy orchestration bring the dance to a close.

From Wikipedia:

The initial version was noticeably more demanding on the advanced skills of the soloist. It was unknown to the world at large until 1991, when Sibelius’s heirs permitted one live performance and one recording, on the BIS record label; both were played by Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by Osmo Vänskä. The revised version still requires a high level of technical facility on the part of the soloist. The original is somewhat longer than the revised, including themes that did not survive the revision. Certain parts, like the very beginning, most of the third movement, and parts of the second, have not changed at all. The cadenza in the first movement is exactly the same for the violin part. Some of the most striking changes, particularly in the first movement, are in orchestration, with some rhythms played twice as slow.

Christian Ferras was known to have been plagued with lifelong depression, a condition that tragically drove him to commit suicide on  14th September 1982 (aged 49) at the height of his career.

He was one of the pre-eminent violin virtuoso’s of the late 20th century, but his untimely death seems to have curtailed his stardom in a way that never happened with his contemporaries. He just wasn’t around long enough.

Christian Ferras and Yehudi Menuhin were both taught by the Romanian genius George Enescu, and performed the Bach Double Violin Concerto together:

I’m doing my bit to raise awareness of his recordings; such a talent should never be forgotten.

I’d love to hear what you think. Does this performance get inside you like it did me? If not, are there others that grab you in a similar way as the one I have waxed lyrical about between Ferras and Sibelius?

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

Before reading up a bit for this post I was aware that Louis Spohr (named Ludwig, but he preferred the French equivalent Louis), was a virtuoso violinist and younger contemporary of Beethoven, widely known for inventing the violin chin rest in 1820. I’m very grateful to him for that; I really don’t enjoy playing my violin without one. It’s a fabulous creation. I can’t imagine how violinists managed during the baroque era!

Portrait of Louis Spohr composing in Kassel c. 1824

Portrait of Louis Spohr composing in Kassel c. 1824

He also had the foresight in 1812 to use letters on musical scores as an aid to rehearsal. So he was quite the innovator in many ways. When our conductor at Aylesbury would bark something like: “You made a real hash of the passage between D and E, so let’s go back to D again,” you’d be able to find the place in the music very quickly and easily. I had no idea that this bright idea was down to Louis Spohr.

My copy of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto complete with rehearsal letters, shown on all modern music scores.

My copy of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto complete with rehearsal letters, published on all modern music scores.

Louis Spohr: (5 April 1784 – 22 October 1859)

I was pleasantly surprised and impressed to say the least, when I started to discover his many other accomplishments. His musical compositions were largely unknown to me, despite his immense popularity in classical circles during his lifetime. His fame dwindled after his death and only a small portion of his work remains in modern repertoire.

It couldn’t have been easy crafting your notes in the shadow of Mozart and at the same time as the likes of Beethoven, Hummel and Schubert, but to his credit he followed his own path within the parameters of early romanticism.

He was widely known and respected in Europe during the early 19th century as a virtuoso violinist, conductor, teacher and composer.  He was probably the most famous violinist in Europe until Paganini arrived on the scene with his own fiery brand of pyrotechnics.

Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel.

Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel.

Like his friend Beethoven, he also believed in democratic freedoms and was known to possess a noble character. He was unusually tall for the time, being over six-foot. Unlike Beethoven, who was the epitome of the lonely, tortured artist, Spohr was a family man who enjoyed a happy social life and varied pursuits like swimming, ice-skating, hiking, gardening, as well as considerable skill as a painter.

Biedermeier period

Whilst Beethoven was creating music that was innovative, immortal and ‘new’ to the ears of early 19th century concert goers, Spohr appears to blend in with the tastes of the zeitgeist, certainly nothing that would upset the apple cart. But when tastes changes, as they invariably do over time, his more traditional music became eclipsed by Beethoven and Schubert.

The so called Biedermeier period (1812 – 1848), saw the rise of the middle class in Europe, paralleling urbanisation and industrialisation, when access to the arts expanded to attract a larger number of people. Biedermeier encompassed literature, music, the visual arts, interior design and architecture.

It seems that Louis Spohr was a product of his era, whereas Beethoven was a musician for all-time. Rather sadly he is sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten master’.

Liszt at the Piano by Biedermeier painter Josef Danhauser, c. 1840

Liszt at the Piano by Biedermeier painter Josef Danhauser, c. 1840

As I’ve discovered, his music was mostly written in the romantic genre and I was surprised at the many different instruments he wrote for aside from the violin. I believe his music should be more widely heard and performed than it is.  He may not be a Mozart or a Beethoven, but his achievements are worthy of admiration.

Career

Louis was born to musical parents; his mother being a talented singer and pianist whilst his father was an amateur flutist. The young Spohr however, despite starting out on the harp, took to the violin. His first tutor was a violinist named Dufour, who saw an opportunity for his pupil to further his musical learning at the Duke of Brunswick’s court.  He joined the ducal orchestra aged 15.

Three years later he was sent on a year-long study tour of St Petersburg and Moscow with his tutor, violinist Franz Anton Eck. He also wrote his early compositions during this time.

After Spohr returned to Brunswick the duke allowed him to make a concert tour of northern Germany. An influential music critic, Friedrich Rochlitz happened to be in the audience during his recital in Leipzig in December 1804, and wrote a glowing review of both his virtuosity and his opus 2 violin concerto in D minor. Hence Spohr was promptly catapulted into the pantheon of revered violinists of the early 19th century.

German stamp depicting Louis Spohr from 1959

German stamp depicting Louis Spohr from 1959

Spohr became orchestral director at the court of Gotha between 1805-1812 until he landed the job of leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna from 1813-15, where he met Beethoven.

His career progressed as he moved to Frankfurt where he took up the post of Opera Director between 1817-19, and thanks to the recommendation of fellow composer, Carl Maria von Weber, he was appointed Court Kapellmeister at Kassel from 1822 until his death on 22nd October 1859. Incidentally, Kassel was also the place where the Brothers Grimm wrote most of their fairy tales in the early 19th century.

During his career and at the height of his popularity Spohr travelled to England on five separate occasions, and was named in an aria from Act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Opera, The Mikado.

Compositions

Spohr was a prolific composer of many genres: violin concertos, symphonies, clarinet concertos, harp and chamber music, lieder, cantatas, oratorios and operas. I’ve selected a few pieces from each genre to give an overview of his style and talents. He composed a total of 290 works.

 Violin works

Although he wrote eighteen violin concertos, six violin sonatas and various duos for violin and harp he did not set out to write purely for the violin in the same way that Viotti, Kreutzer, Vieutemps or Wieniawski did.

Of particular note is his Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Op. 47 ‘In modo d’un scena cantate’ that just sings in the most mournful, lyrical melody when performed by the incomparable Jascha Heifetz:

 Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 2 by Christiane Edinger and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra:

‘Duo für 2 Violinen’ with David and Igor Oistrakh:

Violin Concerto No. 7 in E minor, Op. 38 (3rd movement) with Takako Nishizaki, Libor Pesek  and the Bratislava Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra:

Sonata in D Major for Violin and Harp, with Sophie Langdon and Hugh Webb:

Duo for Violin and Viola in E minor, Op. 13 with Antje Weithaas and Tabea Zimmermann:

Sonata for Violin and Harp in C minor, a delightful recital by Jean-Jaques Kantorow and Susanna Mildonian:

Concertante No. 1 in G Major, WoO 13 for Violin, Harp and Orchestra (Adagio) with Ursula Holliger, Hansheinz Schneeberger and English Chamber Orchestra:

Concertante No. 2 in E minor, WoO 14 for Violin, Harp and Orchestra, (3rd movement) performed by English Chamber Orchestra, Ursula Holliger and Christoph Poppen under the baton of Heinz Holliger:

Symphonic works

Like Beethoven, Louis Spohr has nine symphonies to his name, and a tenth unfinished!

His Symphony No. 4 in F Major, Op. 86 ‘Die Weihe der Töne’ (The Consecration of Sound), was based on the poems of the same name by Carl Pfeiffer.

Overview from Naxos:

The first movement opens with a slow introduction, illustrating the profound silence before the creation of sound. The Allegro that follows, in traditional sonata form, includes the gentle sound of the breeze and woodwind bird-song, before the storm that forms the central section of the movement, to die out in the distance in the final bars. The second movement demonstrates the function of music as lullaby, dance and serenade, the last with a solo cello. All three finally combine in a conductor’s nightmare of varying bar-lines and tempi.

The third movement shows the role of music as an inspiration to courage, here with a narrative element. Soldiers depart for battle, while in a central trio section those remaining behind express their anxiety, followed by the victorious return of the marching troops and the song of thanksgiving. The final movement buries the dead, to the sound of the chorale ‘Begrabt den Leib’, leading to ultimate consolation in tears.

Here is a recording by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Alfred Walter:

Symphony No. 6 in G Major, Op.116 ‘Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods’ composed in 1840, performance by Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Ton Koopman:

  1. Largo-Grave (Bach-Händel’sche Periode, 1720)
  2. Larghetto (Haydn-Mozart’sche Periode, 1780
  3. Scherzo (Beethoven’sche Periode, 1810)
  4. Allegro vivace (Allerneueste Periode, 1840)

Symphony No. 9 Op. 143 ‘The Seasons’ performed by Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Walter:

 Harp and clarinet works

Spohr wrote a significant number of works for, and including the harp, which is entirely understandable as his first wife, Dorette Scheidler, was a renowned harp virtuoso. They were married for 28 years until her death in 1834.

Dorette Spohr, née Scheidler (1787-1834)

Dorette Spohr, née Scheidler (1787-1834)

Fantasie for Harp in C Major, Op. 35 with Lena-Maria Buchberger:

Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 26 (3rd movement) with Paul Meyer and the OCL:

Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 57 with Julian Bliss:

Clarinet Concerto No. 4 WoO 20, ‘Rondo al espagnol’ with Paul Meyer and Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne:

Chamber music 

Among his output of chamber music are 36 string quartets, 7 string quintets, a string sextet and 5 piano trios. Probably the most performed in modern repertoire are the Nonet and the Octet, for your listening pleasure below.

Octet in E Major, Op.32 with the Vienna Octet:

Nonet for Wind Quintet and Strings in F Major, Op. 31 with the Consortium Classicum Conducted by Dieter Klöcker:

Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major, Op. 123 with the Hartley Trio :

Concerto for String Quartet & Orchestra Op. 131 (1st movement), composed in Kassel during the last three months of 1845, performed here by Leipziger Streichquartett, Leipziger Kammerorchester and Sebastian Weigle:

Six German Songs 

Spohr’s Six German Songs for Soprano, Piano and Clarinet, Op. 103 are a delightful indulgence of his romantic side! These lovely performances are by Helen Donath, Klaus Donath and Dieter Kloecker:

  1. Be still my heart
  2. In a lilac bush sat a little bird
  3. Longing: I look into my heart
  1. Cradle Song: All is quiet in sweet peace
  2. The Secret Song: There are secret pains
  3. Awakening : Why do you stand and ponder 

 Operas

Of the ten operas Sphor composed the two most popular are Jessonda and Faust.

Jessonda

Jessonda was written in 1822 to the libretto by Eduard Gehe, based on Lemiere’s novel, La veuve de Malabar. Under Spohr’s baton it was first performed on 28th July 1823 in Kassel, and tells the story of an Indian princess (Jessonda), who is condemned to burn on her husband’s funeral pyre; as was the custom for a widow of a recently departed Rajah. She is ultimately spared by a young Brahmin (Nadori) and eventually rescued by the Portuguese General she was in love with (Tristan d’Acunha). It was popular in 19th and 20th century repertoire until it was banned by the Nazis.

Overture to Jessonda:

Jessonda – Selected highlights with Gerd Albrecht leading the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus and Julia Varady and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the main roles:

The Tristan Chord

So, the big question is, did Wagner take inspiration from Spohr to create his famous chord?

I might ignite some controversy here!

The Tristan Chord in Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

The Tristan Chord in Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner from Wikipedia.

Much has been made of the Tristan Chord in the opening bars of Wagner’s beautiful, romantic opera, Tristan und Isolde; but composer and musician Dr. Dick Strawser, who was quite taken with aspects of Jessonda noticed the following:

Now, what I found in the vocal score of Spohr’s Jessonda – opening the main character’s entrance aria – was an almost identical passage: the same key, the same 6/8 meter and (as I recall) the same rhythms but, more importantly, virtually all the same pitches but one – the next-to-last note in Spohr is a C-natural, an “upper-neighbor” embellishment, where Wagner’s A-sharp is a chromatic passing tone.

Spohr composed his opera in 1823.

Yet no one calls it “The Jessonda Chord.” Nor does anyone accuse Wagner of plagiarism, either.

Was Jessonda so forgotten 25 years later that Wagner could steal this, even subconsciously, without anyone noticing? Hmmmm…

Wagner aficionado Stephen Fry:

A beautiful aria ‘Ich bin allein’ from Act Two of Faust:

Spohr the conductor  

Louis Spohr was one of the first musicians to use a baton when conducting. Imagine the orchestra’s surprise when their leader, instead of using his bow, put his violin down, took a wooden stick out of his pocket, got up and turned the music stand to face the orchestra where he proceeded to wave it about in time with the music.

Later in his musical career after he had scaled back his violin performance schedule, his reputation as an eminent conductor meant that he continued to receive many invitations to music festivals and various events, including the unveiling of Beethoven’s statue in Bonn in 1845.

He championed Wagner’s music and also played Beethoven’s late quartets, even though it seems he was as baffled by them as audiences were at the time. He also played with Beethoven during rehearsals of the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Major,  Op. 70 ‘The Ghost’ in 1808, commenting on how Beethoven, almost devoid of his earlier technical abilities, hammered away on the ivories and that his piano was out of tune, but he must have made allowances for Ludwig’s hearing loss.

A wonderful recording of ‘The Ghost’ with Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre and Pinchas Zukerman:

Violin School

Spohr made many valuable contributions to violin technique in the early 19th century and was a proponent of the Mannheim School. He taught around 200 pupils during his career. If I ever find myself in Kassel I’ll be sure to visit his museum there!

The Secret of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

If you’ve read some of my previous musical blogs you’ll know that I’m a bit of a Beethoven fan. Well, let’s not beat about the bush – it’s more like hero worship!

Beethoven featured quite a bit in my debut novel, The Virtuoso.  I listened to his fifth symphony many, many times whilst writing it. I also did some research, but with a musical icon of such genius there is always more to learn and I’m delighted to continue my education into his life and music.

beethoven-original-score-of-fifth

Recently the BBC produced an outstanding documentary: The Secret of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was narrated by Ian Hislop, journalist, political satirist and editor of Private Eye, in collaboration with eminent conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantiq.

Before I watched it I thought I already knew everything there was to know about this piece of music. The most famous opening four notes in musical history: da- da –da – dah. A motif of three triplet quavers in G followed by a dotted minim in E flat, followed by triplet quavers in F and an extended four beat note in D, repeated throughout the first movement and variations thereof in the other movements.

It premiered on 22nd December 1808 at the Theater an der Wien and much to Beethoven’s chagrin it wasn’t an immediate success. I know how he feels! But audiences in Vienna weren’t ready for his powerful, uncompromising brand of music.

Detail of the 1804-05 portrait of Beethoven by JW Maher, painted at the time Beethoven was writing his fifth symphony.

Detail of the 1804-05 portrait of Beethoven by JW Maher, painted at the time Beethoven was writing his fifth symphony.

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 was composed between 1804 and 1808 when Beethoven was in his late thirties at his lodgings in the Pasqualati House, which also features in The Virtuoso.

He had already written his heart rending Heiligenstadt Testament a couple of years earlier and was still composing despite his tragic descent into deafness. Experts believe he was already 60% deaf by the age of 31 and completely deaf by age 46 in 1816.

The common theme agreed by scholars was that of ‘fate knocking at the door’, of Beethoven expressing his inner turmoil at his deafness and faltering love affairs. Beethoven could not escape his physical destiny, but by sheer force of will he was determined to fulfill his artistic destiny. Ludwig lived in turbulent times and possessed a turbulent temperament!

beethoven-published-cover-to-fifth

I used this context for part 1 of my novel as my protagonist Isabelle Bryant, a world famous violin virtuoso has to deal with the loss of her fingers and ensuing devastation. One publisher kindly reviewed it as ‘a modern day Beethoven story’.

But Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s assertions that this symphony is about so much more really resonate with me. It makes perfect sense that one of the most revolutionary pieces of music of the 19th century (indeed of all-time), is at its heart about a revolution – the most shocking and radical of them all: the French Revolution.

The French Revolution had taken place between 1789 and 1799 when the young Beethoven had been aligned to the ideas of liberté, égalité and fraternité. Freedom and the enlightenment ideals were themes that he drew from more obviously in his epic ninth Symphony for example, but perhaps, due to circumstances, more covertly in his fifth.

“Behold all ye friends of freedom… behold the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected to France and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes and warms and illuminates Europe. I see the ardour for liberty catching and spreading; …the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience.” ~ Richard Price sermon c. 1789

I had not been aware that Beethoven had seriously considered moving to Paris, but as fate would have it he remained in Vienna.

At this point in his career Beethoven was not beholden to the imperial court as earlier composers like Mozart and Haydn had been. He did, however rely on the patronage and support of his wealthy, aristocratic benefactors; the upper class nobility from the privileged echelons of society that ‘the people’ had rallied against in the French Revolution for living in the lap of luxury whilst the poor suffered and starved.

This must have caused some inner conflict for Beethoven. He was dependent on an aristocratic system to produce his life’s work, yet he fervently believed in a meritocracy.

The repercussions of the French Revolution and the execution of the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette reverberated throughout Europe. The subsequent invasion by French Troops of Austria and Vienna, Beethoven’s home and place of work, must have been tough to reconcile.

Although I’m sure Beethoven was sickened like many writers, artists and scholars by the two year reign of Terror and blood bath that Robespierre unleashed, he was still loyal to the principles behind the revolution, if not the manner in which those principles came to fruition. Human nature being what it is, power crazed individuals got out of hand.

Under such delicate political circumstances Beethoven could not afford to be outspoken about revolutionary ideals while living under the noses of the House of Habsburg, who were at war with France. His position would have been tenuous.

Beethoven knew the only way to express his views and convictions was through his music.

And here it is in full, a wonderful new recording by John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantiq:

The effect is softer and more textured compared to a modern orchestra because they are playing on period instruments, and as John points out the sound is more pure and authentic. This is how Beethoven intended it to be heard.  These older instruments are being played to the very edge of their capabilities. You would expect nothing less from Ludwig though. It is also performed at a quicker tempo to many other performances at 108 beats per minute, as directed specifically by Beethoven (who loved his metronome).

When I listened to this recording knowing the fervour, idealism, the political upheaval and personal strife of Beethoven it made perfect sense. I listened with new ears and it just blew me away…

Influences

At the beginning of his musical career Beethoven had been tutored at the court palace chapel in Bonn by composer and court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe, who imparted his musical knowledge and love of Bach as well as his radical political views to the impressionable teenage Ludwig. Beethoven studied keyboard, viola and organ.

‘Nous jurons tour, le fer en main’

Beethoven was almost certainly influenced by the Italian born composer Luigi Cherubini, who was living in France and his patriotic Hymne du Pantheon.  The German musicologist Arnold Schmitz (who had influenced conductor John Eliot Gardiner), argued that the opening lyrics of this rousing hymn: Nous jurons tour, le fer en main (we all swear, sword in hand), De mourir pour la Republique (to die for the Republic), et pours les droits du genre humain (and for the rights of man) are the inspiration for the unforgettable opening bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

Drawing of the Pantheon in Paris

Drawing of the Pantheon in Paris

Article in Gramophone magazine by John Eliot Gardiner on this subject.

The belief that no human being had a divine right to rule over another human being was sweeping through Europe and the arts and literature were flourishing.

The desire for a better, more just society can also be heard in the second movement of Beethoven’s fifth with its expansive and gentle melody.  Its beauty and harmony perfectly fit this ethos of a united humanity – except Beethoven does not quite unite us musically by the end of this movement, subduing the chords before they can attain closure.

John Eliot Gardiner sums up the second movement as a kind of prayer by Beethoven for the elevation and evolution of mankind.

Beethoven’s fifth symphony is his way of saying: ‘I believe in the rights of man, I believe in the brotherhood of all men and I believe in political freedom.’

While studying at university in Bonn, Beethoven had been to see Friedrich Schiller’s play, The Robbers, which fuelled his rebellious attitude towards the upper class and economic inequality. Beethoven realised that art (in whatever form) could have a real impact on an audience and on the world.

The popularity of Beethoven’s music for over 200 years proves this universal power of the arts. Great swathes of humanity still live under repression and terrifying violence. It’s still relevant.

Another musical influence is from one of Beethoven’s earlier, more overtly political works, the lieder Der Freie Mann; a poem by Gottleib Konrad Pfeffel set to music in the key of C Major. If you listen carefully you can hear similarities between this music and the opening bars of the 4th movement of his fifth symphony (also in C Major), with its theme of freedom achieved.

Yet more evidence to his state of mind around that time and the revolutionary origins of the fifth symphony. There are also elements of the rising triadic idea from Der Freie Mann used in the second movement of the fifth.

One of Beethoven’s musical sketch books known as Landsberg 6 contains his preliminary ideas for many of his works between 1802 and 1804, including his fifth symphony. The outline of the opening of the first movement is in there, as well as basic ideas for the beginning of the third movement, the Scherzo. The musical motifs are notated as slower but similar to the opening movement, and as John Eliot says, ‘It really does feel like humanity is on the march.’

So without further ado, here is the brilliant documentary which covers more detail than I have time and space for. It’s well worth watching:

I’ll leave you with the words of Monsieur Rouget de Lisle’s Hymne Dithrambique: Chantons la liberte, – la liberte, couronnons sa statue, Comme un nouveau Titan, Le crime est foudroye…

Lisle’s hymne Dithrambique was used by Beethoven as inspiration for the theme of ‘liberty’ in the fourth and final movement of his fifth symphony; Beethoven’s musical culmination of a political and personal utopia.

I’m going to have to listen to it again, it kind of makes you feel invincible!

Beautiful Violin Gems 🎼🎻 of the 3 B’s: Bériot, Bull and Bazzini

“The true mission of the violin is to imitate the accents of the human voice, a noble mission that has earned for the violin the glory of being called the king of instruments.” ~ Charles-Auguste de Bériot

I thought it was time to share some lesser known, but brilliant violin works from the nineteenth century. It’s been a little while since my last ‘musical’ post and I’m getting withdrawal symptoms. Plus, I’ve been having technical problems, my old PC has gone to the scrap heap in the sky. The inevitable data retrieval is proving arduous, so in the spirit of a true musician, I’m having to improvise!

The Rehearsal by Edgar Degas

The Rehearsal by Edgar Degas

Romantic violin pieces flourished in the nineteenth century,  the heyday of romanticism. I’ll present these three violin aces and their music in the order of their birth.

Charles-Auguste de Bériot (20 February 1802 – 8 April 1870)

Although he was born in Leuven, Belgium, de Bériot spent the majority of his musical career in Paris. At the Conservatoire de Bériot was tutored by Jean-François Tiby, an acolyte of Viotti. He was also influenced by Baillot and Viotti directly, as well as Paganini (elements of the latter can be heard in the style and virtuosity of his music).

Charles-Auguste_de_Bériot_byCharles Baugniet circa 1838.

Charles-Auguste_de_Bériot_byCharles Baugniet circa 1838.

He played for royalty in France and the Netherlands as well as touring London and Europe. De Bériot was also proficient on the piano and toured much of China against the emperor’s wishes.

His first wife was the celebrated mezzo soprano opera singer, Maria Malibran, who bore him a son in 1833. Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot became a piano professor who counted Maurice Ravel, Ricardo Vines and Enrique Granados among his pupils. Sadly, Maria died at the tender age of 28 (after a riding accident), and de Bériot moved back to Brussels.

In Leuven he met Marie Huber in a cafe of all places. She was an orphan but had been adopted by by Prince von Dietrichstein, making her step sister to his piano legend son, Sigismund Thalberg. It seems to have been a small world in the musical circles of Europe…

Portrait of Charles-Auguste de Beriot by Emile Jean-Horace Vernet.

Portrait of Charles-Auguste de Beriot by Emile Jean-Horace Vernet.

De Bériot later became the chief violin instructor at the Brussels Conservatory where he established the Belgian-Franco School.

Among his followers were the virtuoso violinists Hubert Leonard, Henri Vieuxtemps and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst.

He was forced to retire from teaching and performing in 1852 due to failing eyesight and became completely blind by 1858. Unfortunately his ill health continued and he had to have his left arm amputated in 1866.

Compositions

De Bériot wrote pedagogical studies for students, such as the Violin Method Opus 102 and His First 30 Concert Studies Opus 123 for soloists wanting to perfect their technique and skills prior to performing major violin concertos. His output includes various romantic violin pieces that were sometimes used for encore performances in addition to ten violin concertos. His music has fallen into relative obscurity, so I think it’s time to dust it off and give it an outing!

The fabulous Scene de Ballet, Op. 100 with Itzhak Perlman and the Juillard Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster:

Violin Concerto No. 9, Op. 104 with Takako Nishizawi:

Third movement of Violin Concerto No. 9, Op. 104 (performer unknown):

Duo Concertante No. 1, Op. 57 for two violins with Maxine Kwok-Adams and Philip Nolte of the LSO:

A soulful interpretation of Violin Concerto No. 7 in G Major, Op. 76 with Laurent Albrecht :

“If Ole Bull had been born without arms, what a rank he would have taken among the poets – because it is in him, and if he couldn’t violin it out, he would talk it out, since of course it would have to come out.” ~ Mark Twain in a letter to William D. Howells, April 19, 1880

Ole Bornemann Bull (5 February 1810 – 17 August 1880)

This energetic and eccentric Norwegian prodigy didn’t follow the usual path to virtuosity, due to his extremely creative bent and a desire to do things his own way.

Ole_Bull_playing

Ole Bull playing his Gasparo da Salo violin

Norwegian violinist Ole Bull has received less attention than the other composer/virtuosi of the nineteenth century. Perhaps because a good portion of his performance activity took place in the United States, where less of a historical perspective on 19th century music-making has developed among performers. Bull was Norway’s first real celebrity, and as a virtuoso he was something of a rock star, playing on the emotions of audiences in a way Sarasate, for example, did not.

How many other violin virtuosi have played at the top of a pyramid in Egypt? Probably none! Bull certainly led an interesting life…

From the Violin-man.com:

During the season 1836—37 he played 274 concerts in England and Ireland; in 1839 he visited the great German violinist and composer Spohr in Kassel, in the hope of receiving useful advice from him. In 1840 he played Beethoven’s Krentzer So­nata in London, with Liszt at the piano. On July 23, 1849, he announced the formation of a Norwegian Theater in Bergen, which was opened on Jan. 2,1850. While he failed to impress serious musicians and critics in Europe, he achieved his dream of artistic success in America; he made 5 concert tours across the U.S., playing popular selections and his own compositions on American themes with such fetching titles as Niagara, Soli­tude of the Prairies, and To the Memory of Washington, inter­spersing them with his arrangements of Norwegian folk songs.

I found this short documentary about the man, his music and his idiosyncrasies (such as shaving off the top of the bridge to enable him to play chords on all four strings simultaneously) quite informative:

Luthier Gasparo da Salò

In 1842 Ole Bull bought a very richly decorated da Salò violin, originally made in 1570 for the treasure chamber of Archduke Ferdinand I of Tyrol. He used it on tour along with a magnificent Guarneri del Gesu and a large Nicolo Amati model, for nearly forty years of frenzied, fiery improvisation and recital.

Ole Bull's Gasparo da Salo violin.

Ole Bull’s Gasparo da Salo violin.

I adore the deeper, darker, unique sound of Ole Bull’s Violin, made by Jean-Baptiste Villaume:

Compositions

It’s thought Ole Bull wrote as many as seventy pieces in his lifetime, but only around ten of those endured and continue to be performed in modern repertoire.

This is totally seductive and beguiling! ‘Cantabile doloros e Rondo giocoso’ with Charlie Siem and the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios:

Violin Concerto in A major, “Grand Concerto’, Op. 4 (1834; revised 1864) with Annar Follesø with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, conducted by Ole Kristian Ruud:

This sweet tune is an example of his love for Norwegian folk songs, arranged for violin and orchestra by Johann Svendsen – Sæterjentens Søndag (The Herd-Girls’ Sunday):

Polacca Guerriera played with virtuosic flair by Marek Pavelec:

La Verbena de San Juan: Spanish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra with Annar Follesø:

Fantasy And Variations On A Theme By Bellini and other gems by Arve Tellefsen:

It seems that he was friends with Pianist and composer Franz Liszt, and Robert Schumann wrote that Bull was among “the greatest of all,” extolling that he was on par with Niccolò Paganini for the speed and clarity of his playing.

“His violin, which transforms all your soul, combines enthusiasm with perfect intonation … his mastery of the bow … produces a song that resembles the human voice, and he has the technique for the most difficult whims found in Paganini, executed without hampering true expression.” ~ Review by a Milanese Critic after hearing Bazzini perform on the violin in 1839

Antonio Bazzini (11 March 1818 – 10 February 1897)

Bazzini was born in Brescia, Italy into a long established Brescian family dating back as far as the 1400s.

Antonio_BazziniHis early introduction to literature, culture and music was provided by his grandfather, Antonio Buccelleni, who had written poems, sonnets and odes, some of which formed the basis of Bazzini’s early compositions.

His first violin instruction was under Kapellmeister Faustino Camisiani, and by the time of his death in 1830 young Antonio was a competent eleven year old violinist.

Bazzini’s fame as a violin virtuoso overshadowed his composing and teaching, he was regarded as one of the finest concert violinists of the 19th century.

From Naxos:

At seventeen Bazzini was himself a maestro di cappella for the church of San Filippo in Brescia. His early works were often religious in nature, and while at San Filippo he wrote Masses, Vespers, and six oratorios. His life materially changed on 20 March 1836, when he played first violin in a quintet by Luigi Savi. The work was dedicated to Paganini and the dedicatee was in the audience. Paganini advised the young man to tour as a virtuoso, and Bazzini took this advice to heart. Beginning in 1837 he toured Milan, Venice, Trieste, Vienna, and Budapest; from 1841–1845 he toured Germany, Denmark, and Poland.

For several years he lived in Leipzig, where he studied the German masters. While in Germany, Bazzini performed with Mendelssohn’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, reputedly giving one of the first private performances of Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto. In 1848 he undertook a tour of Spain and in 1852 he settled in Paris. In 1864, after a final concert tour in the Netherlands, he returned to Brescia and concentrated on composition; he also championed instrumental music in Italy through string quartet performances at the home of Gaetano Franchi and the creation of the Società dei Concerti. Among the soloists Bazzini brought to Italy were Hans von Bülow and Anton Rubinstein, in 1870 and 1874 respectively.

Along with Verdi, Bazzini had an important rôle in establishing standard concert pitch (440 Hz), which was first recognised in Italy by the Congresso dei Musicisti Italiani in 1881. In 1873 he was appointed professor of musical theory and composition at the Milan Conservatory and became director of the same institution in 1882. Among his pupils at the Milan Conservatory were Mascagni and Puccini.

Compositions

He returned to Brescia after touring, where he focused on composing. During this time he wrote an opera, Turanda, cantatas, sacred works, concert overtures and symphonic poems (Francesca da Rimini). His chamber music proved to be his most successful pieces as far as composing was concerned.

The insanely virtuosic show piece, Scherzo Fantastique, Op. 25 La ronde des Lutins performed superbly by Maxim Vengerov and Ingo Dannhorn:

James Ehnes is cool, calm and collected, yet manages to set his 1715 ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius on fire…

As popular show pieces tend to be arranged for other instruments, I thought I’d treat you to one for the cello and piano by Duo Toivio; cellist Seeli Toivio and pianist Kalle Toivio :

An incredible transcription for classical guitar of ‘La Ronde des Lutins’ by. Alexey Zimakov:

Violin Concerto No. 4 in A minor, Op. 38 with Aldo Ferraresi, Orchestra ‘A. Scarlatti’ di Napoli della Rai conducted by Franco Gallini:

‘Calabrese’, Waltz in E minor, Op. 34, a splendid vintage recording with Yehudi Menuhin and Adolph Baller:

Fantasia on themes from Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ Op. 50 with Claudio Voghera and Francesco Manara:

I’ll bid you farewell now, (the hungry hordes are waiting for their tea), echoing Shakespeare’s immortal verse: If music be the food of love…play on!

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

“A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony.” ~ Arthur Conan-Doyle (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

I’m excited to share the sublime music of Pablo de Sarasate with you. He’s one of my favourite composers of 19th century romantic violin music. His tunes are so evocative of his Spanish homeland, but more than that, they are infused with virtuosic flair, memorable folk tune melodies and romantic lyricism.

Sarasate quote-a-genius-for-37-years

Every time I hear his music my heart flutters…especially when played with a colourful tone and expressiveness.

His music always transports me to another time and reality; a place filled with Mediterranean warmth, caballeros, siestas inside white washed houses topped with cinnamon coloured terracotta tiles, dramatic mountain scenery, cicada filled olive groves, dusty plains and shimmering beaches sprawling under pinky red streaked skies;  illuminating a vast land with the effulgence of a romantic Spanish sunset.  Ah, I think I got a little carried away there…

You never get the feeling that he sacrificed a good tune for the sake of showing off, he managed to seamlessly integrate technique, flair and melody.

Sarasate with his Stradivarius

He may not have written a violin concerto, but his repertoire of fifty seven brilliant compositions for violin and piano and or orchestra more than make up for it.

Pablo de Sarasate: 10 March 1844 – 20 September 1908

Born with a spectacular name entirely befitting his talents, Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navazcués, grew up in the city of Pamplona in Spain’s northern province of Navarre.

He must have imbibed the fiery atmosphere of the San Fermin Festival and the “Running of the Bulls” every summer, and somehow transmuted all that thrill, tradition and dangerous daring of nature into his music.

Bull-run monument in Pamplona

Bull-run monument in Pamplona

Famed for his own romantic and virtuosic performances, one can only marvel at his brilliance. His music is mostly for advanced violinists because that was his skill level on the instrument. No shirking for Pablo; or indeed us wannabe virtuosos for that matter!

Sarasate’s genius on the fingerboard influenced many well-known composers. The French romantic composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, wrote and dedicated his third Violin Concerto and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor for him.

Jascha Heiftez blows me away with this performance:

Other compositions written in his honour include Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto. Sarasate’s style of performing had a direct impact on how other composers of the era formed their violin solo passages.

The early days

Spain’s cherished and foremost violinist/composer began lessons at the age of five, being taught initially by his father who was a bandmaster. He gave his first concert at the age of eight, which secured him patronage to study in Madrid under Manuel Rodríguez Saez, where he became popular with Queen Isabella II of Spain.

At the age of twelve he was sent for tutelage under Jean-Delphin Alard at the Paris Conservatoire, but the journey from Pamplona to Paris proved to be a tragic one. Soon after their train had crossed the border into France, Sarasate’s mother died of a heart attack and Pablo himself was found to be suffering from Cholera. Fortunately he recovered and was able to continue his studies. In 1861 he won first prize in the prestigious Premier Prix in Paris.

Pablo-de-Sarasate-sepia-photo1

Thus began his touring soloist’s career. He was one of the early recording artists also, with a performance in 1904 that prompted a reviewer to write he had “the fleetest fingers and bow arm in the history of recorded sound”.

Not only was he popular in London and Europe, but he also toured America, South Africa and Asia.

Operatic inspiration

In his early career Sarasate performed mostly opera fantasies, including his evocative and beautiful Carmen Fantasy based on Georges Bizet’s seductive and passionate opera, Carmen.

1875 poster for Bizet's opera Carmen

1875 poster for Bizet’s opera Carmen

It’s technically very challenging and demanding (as you would expect from a violinist of his caliber), containing elements and adaptations from the Aragonaise, Habanera, an interlude, Seguidilla, and the Gypsy Dance.

Inspired by Sarasate’s work, film composer Franz Waxman wrote a similar piece, his Carmen Fantasie in 1946, which I also adore.

It would be remiss of me not include some stratospheric performances of his Opus 25!

Gil Shaham shows us how it’s done:

I also love Itzhak Perlman:

And of course, it would be rude not to feature this stunning performance by Maxim Vengerov of Waxman’s Sarasate inspired version of Carmen:

Other Operatic Fantasies

 The Magic Flute Fantasy with Gil Shaham:

Faust Fantasy, Op. 13- Pablo de Sarasate Gil Shaham:

Fantasy on Mozart’s Don Giovanni (performer unknown):

Concert Fantasy on Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Op. 5:

Gypsy Airs (Zigeunerweisen), Opus 20

Zigeunerweisen is Sarasate’s most popular composition, and was written for violin and orchestra in 1878 and premiered the same year in Leipzig. It features the themes of the Roma people, and in part also the csárdás, which was ‘borrowed’ from a theme previously used in Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13, composed in 1847.

A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar by Alfred Dehodencq

A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar by Alfred Dehodencq

Sarasate recorded his best loved work in 1904, but since then it has been recorded by many violinists, being a popular stalwart of the virtuoso’s repertoire.

My crumpled violin score of Zigeunerweisen (rescued from the clutches of my youngest)

My crumpled violin score of Zigeunerweisen (rescued from the clutches of my youngest)

Technical data courtesy of Wikipedia.

Zigeunerweisen is in one movement but can be divided into four sections, the first three in the key of C minor and the last in A minor, based on the tempi:

Moderato – An imposing, virtuosic introduction with slow majestic energy by the orchestra, then a little softer by the violin itself.

Lento – The violin plays in lugubrious lento 4/4. This section has an improvisational quality; the melody, which essentially consists of pairs of 4-bar phrases, is punctuated with difficult runs and other technically demanding figures, including flying spiccato and ricochet bowings.

Un poco più lento – The muted soloist plays a melancholic melody with the so-called reverse-applied dotted note (1/16 + dotted 1/8 rhythm), akin to the “Mannheim sigh” of the classical era; in 2/4 time.

Allegro molto vivace – At this point, the piece becomes extremely rapid. The challenging solo part consists mainly of long spiccato runs, along with double stops, artificial harmonics and left-hand pizzicato; in 2/4 time.

This is undoubtedly my favourite from Sarasate’s romantic oeuvre, and I love this exquisite performance by Belgian violin ace Arthur Grumiaux:

The inimitable Itzhak Perlman:

The shortened vintage version recorded by Sarasate in 1904:

I can’t forget Jascha Heifetz either!!

The Duo Toivio recorded a beautiful transcription for cello and piano:

This arrangement for double bass and guitar with Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck is lovely:

And perhaps even more impressive is the amazing duo of two violins and piano. Hyun-su Shin and Clara Jumi Kang display perfect timing and intonation in their stylistic duet:

Sarasate lived the latter part of his life in Paris, in a home that had been decorated by none other than the American Post-Impressionist artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who also painted a wonderful portrait of him at the same time.

Pablo de Sarasate - Arrangement in black by James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Pablo de Sarasate – Arrangement in black by James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Now quite wealthy he purchased a holiday home, a villa in Biarritz, but would return to Pamplona for the festival every year.

It seems to me from his paintings and photographs that he dressed impeccably, and was ever the perfect gentleman. Sarasate and his music belonged to a romantic era. I’m sure he must have had no shortage of female admirers, but, for whatever reason, he remained a bachelor. No woman could have taken the place of his beloved violin…

His renown as a performer has been immortalised in print, with mentions in plots by novelists Arthur Conan-Doyle, Anthony Burgess and Edith Wharton.

The Sarasate Stradivarius

Pablo played on a 1724 Golden Period Stradivarius, which was bequeathed to the Musee de la Musique at the Paris Conservatoire after his death in 1908, and is now aptly named after their star student, the Sarasate Stradivarius.

His second violin was also a Stradivarius, the 1713 Boissier, which is now owned by Real Conservatorio Superior de Música, Madrid, where he studied as a boy.

Boissier Stradivarius in Madrid

Boissier Stradivarius in Madrid

Here’s a selection of his beautiful, Spanish themed compositions.

Airs Espagnols – great feisty interpretation, but the performers are unknown as they are not mentioned:

Habanera by Itzhak Perlman:

Malagueña Op. 21, No. 1 (Spanish Dances) by Yehudi Menuhin:

Introduction and Tarantelle, Heifetz:

Spanish Dances Op. 22, No. 1 Romanza Andaluza, Leonid Kogan:

Caprice Basque, Op. 24, Itzhak Perlman:

¡Viva Sevilla! Op. 38 (performer unknown):

‘Navarra’ for 2 Violins. Husband and wife team Gil Shaham & Adele Anthony:

Zapateado performed by Henryk Szeryng:

Zortzico Op. 39 with David Oistrakh:

El Canto del Ruiseñor, (song of the nightingale) Ruggiero Ricci:

Nocturnes:

Les Adieux, Op. 9 Tianwa Yang:

George Bernard Shaw once said that though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music. But of Sarasate’s talents, both as performer and composer, he said that he “left criticism gasping miles behind him.”

Hasta la próxima vez amigos. ¡Felices Pascuas!

Barmy About Beethoven on his 245th Birthday…

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven, a titan of classical music, and to my mind the most pioneering composer and pianist of the romantic era, turned 245 today. At least, the 17th December 1770 was the day of his baptism in Bonn, and most likely his date of birth.

Painting of Beethoven in the Vienna Woods by N.C. Wyeth

Painting of Beethoven in the Vienna Woods by N.C. Wyeth

The deaf maestro wrote so many unforgettable, transcendental and downright epic tunes and melodies that his position in the lexicon of humanity’s geniuses is eternally guaranteed.

No-one remembers the pompous aristocracy (except for his kind patrons) that thought themselves above a low born musician, because centuries after they popped their noble clogs Beethoven’s music is still making an emotional connection with millions of people around the world.

It’s still relevant. It’s still innovative. It’s still heart-wrenchingly moving and profound…  That’s what was so brilliant about Beethoven.

Beethoven at the piano

His personal life was complex, passionate, and a catalogue of almost insurmountable challenges. They nearly broke him, but his music moved them into the realm of the divine, into victory with a capital V. His music was his life and his eventful life provided plenty of material for musical inspiration!

Beethoven at the piano 2

He suffered greatly for his art. Who else could have endured such despair and yet still have produced such earth-shattering music? Only dear Ludwig. Suffering really does transpose into the most achingly beautiful and timeless music.

“I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business: Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing.”  ~ John Berryman

I didn’t intend for this to be a lengthy post, (anyone who knows me will be aware that I can get quite carried away when I’m passionate about something). Rather, it’s a short celebration to mark the life and contributions of a person I deeply revere.

Beethoven at the piano 3

These BBC docudramas are superb; they really bring his life to life!

My tribute to Beethoven from chapter 21 of my novel, The Virtuoso:

The Virtuoso - copyrighted material from Chapter 21

The Virtuoso – copyrighted material from Chapter 21

Chapter 21 - 2

Also mentioned in the book is his violin concerto in D Major. Here is my all-time favourite performance that I grew up listening to, of Itzhak Perlman with Carlo Maria Guilini conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra from  their 1981 recording:

I also love this transcription for the clarinet performed by the amazing Michael Collins:

It’s great on the piano as well… Daniel Barenboim and the English Chamber Orchestra:

My two favourite recordings of his Romance No.  2 in F Major, Op. 50:

If you hang out on Twitter do join in the birthday celebrations, just use the hashtag #LvBChat.

See you there!

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 18th Century: Tartini (Part 2)

“Beyond doubt, Tartini strove for the truest possible expression in violin playing, he wished to give his epoch the best possible example of style, in the broadest sense of the word.” ~ Leopold Auer.

In this second installment on Tartini I’ll be covering his formative years, Slavonic and folk music influences, career highlights, as well as his musical ethos, developments on bowing, Treatise on Ornaments and his teaching legacy.  Plenty to write home about and to listen to!

Tartini’s philosophy

Giuseppe Tartini portraitTartini’s principles in performing and teaching, like his principles in composing, were based on an experience of the humanism of art, its need for context and on his desire to be as close as possible to nature without artificiality.

According to Tartini good musical taste should be displayed in both composing music and performing it, as a product of human nature and should therefore be guided by one’s “sommo giudicio” (highest judgement).

I feel that the undisputed heavy weight champion of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven, who was also faithful to his life experiences in terms of musical expression shared this musical ideology with Tartini.

Tartini attached great importance to the ‘singing quality’ of the violin. In his ‘Regole per ben suonare il Violino’ (Rules for Playing the Violin Well), he differentiates two ways of playing: cantabile (singing style) and sonabile (resonant). According to Tartini the singing manner of playing cantabile required slurring (same bow for multiple notes) and coherence, as distinct from sonabile.

Tartini’s motto: “Strength without convulsiveness; flexibility without laxity.”

‘Theory of Affects’

In his aesthetic views Tartini belonged to a group of 18th century composers who were the trend setters of his day, namely, Francois Couperin, Johann Mattheson, Francesco Geminiani, CPE Bach, Leopold Mozart and Luigi Boccherini. Their collective views were incorporated into a doctrine known as the ‘theory of affects’, which can be traced back to ancient times.

Their ideology can be summed up by Geminiani, who believed that music was good if it expressed “movements of the soul” and bad if it “expressed nothing”.

My score of the G minor violin sonata 'Didone Abbandonata'

My score of the G minor violin sonata ‘Didone Abbandonata’

Tartini certainly was a master of music with a descriptive force that could arouse emotional states in the listener. Truthfulness of expression was everything. According to his contemporaries, Tartini often drew inspiration from the poems of Petrarch and the romantic writings of Metastasio.

The Cipher

Tartini modestly put his verses into cipher, so that his feelings were expressed in the music alone. He wrote his mottoes in a cipher that he invented which remained a mystery to investigators for two hundred years, adding to the mystical aura that surrounded his life and work. Just over thirty years ago the Greek violinist and musicologist Minos Dounias (who cataloged his violin concertos according to tonality), cleverly decoded Tartini’s cipher.

Folk music and Slavonic influences

Tartini had a keen interest in Italian and Slavonic folk songs and dances, hence much of his music reflected their simple, lively tunes and enchanting rhythms.

Lorenzetti_Italian folk dance

There is a story that tells of how the impressionable composer once heard some Venetian Gondoliers singing a song with words by the 16th century Italian poet, Torquato Tasso. Tartini put down the song and allegedly used it in a movement of a solo violin sonata and wrote the Tasso text under the notes.

Violinist and scholar Peter Sheppard Skærved performing the so called ‘Aria del Tasso’:

Tartini dedicated considerable attention to folk songs in his Treatise on Music, written in 1750:

“Each nation has its own songs, many of which arose from old tradition, though many are created afresh in harmony with the prevailing spirit. As  a rule they are extremely simple; one might even remark that the simpler and more natural they are, the better they are assimilated.”

In his youth Tartini listened to and absorbed the songs of Croats and Slovenes. The final movement of his violin concerto D. 115 is a fine example of his affection for Slavonic folk tunes.

Violin Concerto in A Minor, D.115 ‘A Lunardo Venier’ Presto with Nicola Beneditti and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a sweet rendition:

Formative Years

Born the fourth of six children to Florentine merchant, Giovanni Antonio Tartini and a girl from a family in Pirano dating back to the 15th century, Caterina Zangrando; little Giuseppe grew up with his siblings in Pirano, a small, pretty town on the Adriatic coast now part of Slovenia.

Tartini_statue

Statue of Tartini in the square of his home town Pirano

He was influenced by both Italian and Slavonic culture of the baroque period. One of his early musical influences may well have been attending the famous ‘Dei Virtuosi’ Academy in Pirano with his father. Giovanni actually intended for Giuseppe to become a priest and prepared him for an ecclesiastical career.  However, after his initial education Tartini rebelled against his father and moved to Padua in 1708 (which at that time was part of the Republic of Venice) and a year later he enrolled to study law in Padua’s ancient university, (said to have been founded in 1222).

It seems that Tartini quickly began to out-perform his first music teacher, Julio di Terni, and developed mastery of the violin largely through his own efforts and the study of other prominent violinists of his time. He studied Corelli and listened attentively to the likes of Veracini, and divided his time between law and music studies as well as a penchant for fencing.

Love and marriage

According to some sources Tartini developed a passion for the cardinal’s niece, Elisabetta Premazone, and married her secretly in 1710. This did not go down well with her influential family and Tartini fled to Assisi, having also incurred the wrath of his own family, who cut off all financial support.  He spent two years studying assiduously in a monastery and worked on perfecting his musical skills, and where he created his early compositions (and most likely his famous Devil’s Trill Sonata).

There are also claims that whilst in seclusion in Assisi Tartini took musical instruction from Bohuslav Cernohorsky (1684 – 1743 nicknamed Padre Boemo), a noted Czech composer, theorist and head of the 18th century Czech school of composition, who had also tutored Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Prague and Padua

Tartini returned to Padua in 1721 as a mature artist and versatile musician. He  spent most of his life there, but also performed and taught in Venice, as well as undertaking visits to Milan, Bologna, Livorno, Palermo and Naples. By this time he was well known throughout Europe and was invited to perform in Prague by an influential member of the Hapsburg dynasty and a big supporter of the arts, Count Kinsky.

The Kinsky family's coat of arms in Prague

The Kinsky family’s coat of arms in Prague

After the coronation of Emperor Charles VI they worked as chamber musicians in Count Kinsky’s chapel until 1726.  Tartini also played in Prague’s musical academies.

The success of his countrymen Scarlatti and Geminiani in foreign courts may have hastened his decision to go to Prague, but because of his early exposure to Slavonic folk tunes the trip most likely excited him and represented an opportunity to further study Slavic music.

He travelled with his friend and first cellist at Padua, Antonio Vandini. The role of cello accompaniment was quite important in the absence of a harpsichord or keyboard instrument. Tartini and Vandini were close friends for over fifty years, and Tartini wrote several cello concertos for him.

Here’s my favourite of them, in D major, performed by Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich:

After he returned to Padua in 1726 he rarely left, and besides his performances in Venice his last major concert tour was a trip to Rome in 1740 after an invitation from the cardinal to play in the presence of Pope Clement XII.

Performer and teacher

Tartini founded the Paduan Violin School a year or so after his return from Prague, which he directed for more than forty years. Violinists from all over the world came to learn from Tartini and perfect their craft, and he earned the nickname “maestro delle nazione” (teacher of nations). Antonio Capri, who was his biographer states that over seventy of his pupils became violinists of note in the history of violin playing.

“One cannot speak of music at Padua without mentioning the famous Giuseppe tartini, who has long been the first violin of Europe. His modesty, moral standards and considerateness evoke as much respect as his talent; in Italy he is referred to as ‘il Maestro delle Nazioni’ both in regard to the violin and to his compositions… No one has impressed me more with his inspiration and the fire of his compositions than Tartini. ~ Jérôme Lalande

Tartini’s methods were also passed on by his students, namely Pietro Nardini, of whom Leopold Mozart said, “I have heard the famous Nardini… It is impossible to hear anything of greater beauty, purity, evenness of tone and melodiousness. And with all of this he has nothing heavy in his playing.” Other students worthy of mention were Maddalena Lombardini, Domenico Ferrari, Pierre Lahoussaye, Filippo Manfredi and Domenico Dall’Oglio.

From reading about his legacy I have assumed that he was equally as good at teaching as he was at performing and composing! His respected writings qualified him as the eminent music scholar of 18th century Italian violin music; so you could say he had many strings to his bow!

Development of bowing techniques

“The bow should be held firmly between the thumb and forefinger and lightly by the other three fingers, in order to produce a strong, sustained tone. To increase the tone, press harder on the bow with the fingers and also press down the strings more firmly with the fingers of the other hand.” ~ Giuseppe Tartini

The authors of Methods of the Paris Conservatoire (Paris 1802), Baillot, Rode and Kreutzer wrote that under Tartini’s bow the violin becomes a “harmonious, sweet instrument, full of grace.”

He attached great importance to the “correct distribution of the bow.” A story from a contemporary relates that sometimes Tartini used two bows while teaching: one of them had its stick divided into four parts, and the other into three.

Tartini also fluted the wood of the bow. It’s also easy to forget that during Tartini’s musical era the bow was held not at the heel as it is today, but gripped at a certain distance from it. Tartini discovered that in order to enrich the tone it was necessary to lengthen the bow which increased its flexibility and enabled a broader range of expression in bowing technique. He developed a broader palette of bow strokes than Corelli (who used mostly detache and legato), by also using both staccato and bouncing strokes.

It’s quite a skill to amplify the sound without compromising the quality of the note, so bowing technique is crucial in applying the dynamics of a piece. Crescendo’s aren’t my Forte!!!

Minos Dounias observed that Tartini’s slurring of strokes coincides with that of musical phrases.

L’Arte del Arco (The Art of Bowing)

To assist his teaching methods Tartini wrote The Art of Bowing which consists of fifty variations on a Gavotte from Corelli’s Violin Sonata in F Major, (Opus 6, No. 10). Despite its title the variations also challenge left hand activity and require perfect coordination of movement from both hands!

It highlights his exhaustive knowledge of the many modes of expression of the violin and serves as a kind of compendium of violin technique in the 18th century. The work isn’t just a manual in technical ability but combines a certain artistry that frees it from the usual monotony of studies and exercises.

The Art of Bowing was adopted by many prominent 18th and 19th century violinists (such as Joseph Szigeti and Fritz Kreisler) who made arrangements for their own performance.

A gorgeous performance by Oscar Shumsky of Kreisler’s shortened arrangement of Tartini’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli:

Treatise on Ornaments

Tartini was against ornamentation/embellishment as a purely decorative device unconnected with the inner nature of the music itself. The choice of ornaments and the way they were played had to be underpinned by an understanding of the music  and performed to reflect the feeling, idea or, as was the basis for his philosophy, the affect that it expressed.

Tartini’s writings pertaining to technical and aesthetic performance started out as instruction manuals for his pupils that he refined over the years. His Treatise on Ornaments was thought to have been written between 1735 and 1750 when he was highly active both as a performer and teacher.

It contains his ideas on different kinds of grace notes, trills, tremolos and mordents and various ways of using them.  Regarding mastering the trill at different speeds he wrote:

“The same shake will not serve with equal propriety for a slow movement as for a quick one.”

He suggests starting the trill slowly and gradually making it faster.

Tartini’s art was progressive, meaningful, and full of humanity. It’s no surprise then that through generations of violinists many of his principles in methods of teaching are used to this day, and his best compositions still thrive in modern repertoire.

I’ll leave you to listen to a small selection from his massive output of violin concertos, sonatas, trios etc. Happy listening!

Violin Sonata in G minor Op. 1 No. 10 ‘Didone Abbandonata’ David Oistrakh and Frida Bauer:

My favourite violin concerto in D minor ‘Ombra diletta…’ D. 44 Performed by Wolfgang Schneiderhan and the Festival Strings Lucerne conducted by Rudolf Baumgartner:

Violin Concerto D. 22 Concerto Bucolico for violin, strings & b.c. by L’Arte dell’Arco:

Violin Concerto in A Major, D. 96, Accademia Bizantina, on period instruments:

Violin Concerto in G Major, D.  82 Pierre Amoyal, Claudio Scimone & I Solisti Veneti:

Trio Sonata in F Major for 2 Violins and Harpsichord, David and Igor Oistrakh with Hans Pischner:

Sonata ‘Staggion bella’ for Violin & basso continuo in B flat major, Op.Posth (Brainnard Bb.3):

Violin Sonata No. 12 Op. 2 in G Major, vintage recording of Joseph Szigeti:

Trio Sonata in D major, B. D2 (Op.3 No.6) La Magnifica Comunità :

Violin Concerto in E minor, D. 55 by the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble & Nils-Erik Sparf:

Violin Concerto in G minor, D. 85 by the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble & Nils-Erik Sparf:

Tartini Violin Concertos D70, 42, 109, 123, 54, 45, 115, 13, 125, 110:

Tartini Solo Violin Music performed sympathetically and soulfully by Andrew Manze:

“Tartini has always been to me a source of achievements with the violin.” ~ Joseph Szigeti

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 18th Century: Tartini (Part 1)

“Giuseppe Tartini is one of the leading figures of the Italian School of violin playing in the 18th century, a school whose art is as meaningful today as it has ever been. Tartini’s music is expressive, sincere, warm and melodious, and it is in these qualities that lies its appeal.” ~ David Oistrakh

The more I learnt about Tartini, the more I became engrossed in his life and musical achievements.  As with Vivaldi, there’s just too much to share to do him justice in one post. There’s a lot more to this iconic Italian master than his exceptional ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata; however that incredible work is the main focus for part 1.

Monument to Tartini at St. Anthony's Basilica Padua

Monument to Tartin at St. Anthony’s Basilica Padua

If the violin is the so called ‘Devil’s Instrument’, then Guiseppe Tartini (8th April 1692 – 26 February 1770) is most definitely his composer of choice!

I think Paganini would have given him a run for his money on the fingerboard, but so far in my investigations into the great virtuoso violinists who were also composers, I feel that Tartini, more than the others, embodied the most evenly balanced skills in both composing and virtuoso performance.

Vivaldi, Viotti and Corelli I think leaned more towards composition, whilst Paganini, although highly talented in both, played with such virtuosity that his reputation as the ‘Devil’s Violinist’ will forever remain the stuff of legend.

Tartini however, would prove to be Lucifer’s student extraordinaire, as his most popular Violin Sonata, aptly named ‘The Devil’s Trill’, proves to this day to be one of the most wickedly sublime sonatas ever written for the instrument.

Legacy

Tartini left the world a vast heritage of music. As a result of his study, hard work, and imagination his quill penned no fewer than 350 works, most of which were written for the violin. Like Corelli and unlike Vivaldi, Tartini composed almost exclusively instrumental music, criticising composers of both vocal and instrumental music.

“These kinds of music are so different that he who is successful in one of them cannot be so in the other; each must remain within the confines of his own talent.”  To push his point home he also said, “I have received offers to work for theatres in Venice, but I have never agreed to this, for I know well that the vocal chords are by no means identical with the violin fingerboard. Vivaldi, who wanted to work in both genres, was always booed in the one, whilst in the other he was completely successful.”

Tartini’s influence reached beyond his contemporaries: Vivaldi, Laurenti and Boccherini across nations to what historians have discovered as traces of his style in the works of the young W.A. Mozart. Leopold Mozart recognised his genius by referring to Tartini as “one of the most splendid violinists of our time,” in citations that appeared regularly in the pages of his School for the Violin (1756).

Tartini himself it seems was a creative and sensitive soul with an inquiring mind, who was committed to mastering the technical aspects of the violin as well as finding the peak of his artistic taste and individuality.

He was greatly was influenced by a fellow virtuoso violinist from Florence, Francesco Maria Veracini (1690 – 1768), who had performed in London, Dresden, Poland and what is now the Czech Republic for Count Kinsky. It is thought the two met in 1716 in Venice at the festivities in honour of the Crown Prince of Saxony. Tartini was attracted to the romantic colouring of Veracini’s sonatas and was impressed by his manner of playing, which was bold and vivid, with a smooth-flowing tone and an easy mastery of bow and finger techniques, including the trill.

Tartini assimilated the skill and style of his eminent compatriot over the years that followed as he busied himself in seclusion in Ancona.

Not all of Tartini’s work has been published, but most of his original manuscripts can be found in the music archives of the chapel of St. Anthony in Padua.

Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua

Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua

How I wish I’d known that when I visited Padua in my early twenties! There are probably more autographs that have yet to be discovered, as was the case with Vivaldi. His first collection of violin concertos were published in Amsterdam in 1729, followed by his sonatas four years later.

In addition to his violin works, Tartini left a few compositions for viola da gamba, cello and flute.

The Devil’s Trill Sonata

Written in the key of G minor, the sonata is an example of one of the best 18th century violin classics. It begins with a beautiful, melancholy and expressive melody, the ‘Largo Affettuso’. I wonder if this is meant to represent Satan’s sadness at being kicked out of heaven?

My score!

My score!

It is both poetic and soulful, with a mournful lyricism that immediately creates an emotional pathos. It lulls you into a poignant state before the song like tune moves into the ‘Allegro’ where the tempo and temperament change dramatically.

The Andante provides a lyrical interlude before the Allegro assai assaults the senses! Vigorous, determined and virtuosic, it’s positively demoniacal to play; Tartini was most certainly gripped by a violent and turbulent passion…

The Allegro assai, where Tartini uses a continuous background of double-stopping trills. Looks like a lifetime of practice for me!

The Allegro assai, where Tartini uses a continuous background of double-stopping trills. Looks like a lifetime of practice for me!

“Such marvellous compositions of Tartini’s as his sonata in E minor and G minor (The Devil’s Trill) or his Concerto in D minor have been with me since my youth, throughout my life as a musician; these and other works by Tartini are now played by my pupils, but his music never loses its freshness for me, its colour and its emotional impact. I consider his Devil’s Trill sonata to be of such importance that I not infrequently conclude my solo concert (recital) programmes by performing it.” ~ David Oistrakh

His words perfectly complement his amazing performance of The Devil’s Trill in a feat of such jaw dropping virtuosity that I haven’t found a performance to top this one!

The Devil’s Dream

French astronomer and writer, Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande, tells the story of how the Devil’s Trill Sonata came about as told to him by Tartini himself:

“One night in 1713 he (Tartini) dreamed that he had made a contract with the devil, who happened to be in his service.  Whatever Tartini wanted was granted to him, and all his wishes were anticipated by his new servant, who gave him his violin to see if he could play anything harmonious. But what was Tartini’s surprise when he heard a sonata so original and lovely and performed with such perfection and meaning that he could never have imagined anything like it! He experienced such amazement, admiration and delight that he was breathless; this strong emotion woke him up and he immediately seized his violin in the hope that he would be able to remember at least part of what he had heard, but in vain. The piece that Tartini composed then is indeed the best of all that he has ever done, and he calls The Devil’s Sonata. But the former one that amazed him was so much higher that he would have broken his violin and given up music forever if only he could have.”

The musical idea of the sonata had probably matured in Tartini’s mind long before the dream further ‘elucidated’ his ideas. He’d already worked hard on the trill, conceiving it not only as a technical device but as a means of musical expression.

Painting of the devil's trill

Although the dream story has an air of the mystical about it the cause of the dream was undoubtedly Tartini’s creative drive at work. He later devoted much attention to the trill in his Treatise on Ornaments.

Debate over the date of composition 

The Tartini scholars, Paul Brainard, Andreas Moser and Antonio Capri assert that the artistic content of the sonata, its depth, harmony, originality and technique are more in line with his mature final period, and suggest it wasn’t written before 1730/1740.

However, Johann Quantz heard Tartini perform in Prague in 1723 and made a point of Tartini’s skill in playing double trills. These comments prompted Italian violinist Michelango Abbado, (father of conductor Claudio), to surmise that the sonata had already been written by 1723.

Sadly, the original autograph of the Devil’s Trill sonata no longer exists, and as Tartini was prone not to date his works it may not have shed light on the debate in any case. It’s also logical to assume that if it was composed in Tartini’s youth that over time he would have practiced and perfected the sonata, as well as teaching it to his students. It’s also understandable that Tartini himself didn’t want to shout from the rooftops that he was dreaming of the Devil whilst a violin soloist and director of music at the Chapel of St. Anthony!

Here are some other wonderful performances and interpretations of the brilliant Opus 1 No. 4 composition.

Henryk Szeryng:

Joshua Bell’s interpretation with the harpsichord:

An arrangement for violin and orchestra by Marc-Oliver Dupin, performed by Orchestre d’Auvergne and Jean-Jacques Kantorow:

A lovely performance on authentic instruments from the Palladian Ensemble for violin, viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, archlute & baroque guitar:

A 16 year old Yehudi Menuhin in a fabulous vintage recording:

The inimitable Itzhak Perlman:

Nathan Milstein from 1959:

Publication

Jean Baptiste Cartier first published The Devil’s Trill sonata in his method (L’art du Violon ou Collection Choisie dans les sonatas des Ecoles Italienne, Francaise et Allemande), that came out in Paris in 1798 followed up by a second edition in 1801.

The sonata then had a dormant period of 54 years and reappeared in 1855 with a piano accompaniment by Henri Vieuxtemps and Robert Volkmann. That edition also revived interest in Tartini’s works in general not just The Devil’s Trill.

At the turn of the 19/20th century a large number of arrangements of the sonata were produced by Joseph Joachim, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Auer and Georgi Doulov which further spread appreciation and performance of this brilliant sonata.

I’d love to hear from you with your favourite versions of The Devil’s Trill as well! Until part 2…

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 17th Century: Vivaldi (Part 2)

Having covered the more factual parts of Vivaldi’s life and music in part 1, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the maestro’s music…

Antonio Vivaldi portrait

‘L’estro Armonico’ (Harmonic Inspiration) Opus 3

This is a set of twelve concertos for one, two and four violins composed by Vivaldi in 1711.

“Perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century.” ~ Michael Talbot

It’s impossible to highlight so few works out of such an incredible oeuvre but here, in no particular order is a selection of some of my favourites from this opus for your listening pleasure!

Violin Concerto in G major, Op. 3 No.  6, (RV 310) performed by Elizabeth Wallfisch and Tafelmusik:

The amazing harpsichord version transcribed by Bach (BWV 978) played by Chiara Massini:

Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 3 No. 6, RV 356 by Elizabeth Wallfisch:

Concerto for two violins, strings & B.C in A minor, RV522 Op. 3 No. 8 by Tafelmusik:

Concerto for four violins in B minor, Op. 3 No. 10, RV 580 by Il Giardino Armonico:

The astonishing performance of Bach’s transcription for 4 keyboards (BWV 1065), Argerich, Kissin, Pletnev, Levine and a host of top notch violinists! I challenge you to listen to this and not feel happy afterwards!

Concerto for 2 Violins, Cello, Strings and B.C. in D minor Op. 3 No. 11, RV 565 by Tafelmusik:

Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention) Opus 8

Written between 1723 and 1725 and published in 1725, Vivaldi’s Opus 8 consists of twelve violin concertos which he labelled ‘Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione’, of which the first four concertos were his famous The Four Seasons.

The Four Seasons: Opus 8 Nos. 1-4

Had it not been for the Turin collection The Four Seasons may have never been resurrected from their archive, dusted down and brought back into public awareness. Although ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’ were not among the Turin find the excitement about the discovery meant they were granted a new lease of life.

Vivaldi - manuscript Inverno

Score for L’Inverno (Winter)

The first four Opus 8 concertos are now the most widely recorded pieces in classical music history repertoire. Since the very first recording made by Alfredo Campoli in 1939 there have been over a thousand different recorded versions.

Vivaldi - I-Musici-Felix-Ayo-Vivaldi-The-Four-Seasons

With records, CDs and digital downloads to sell and with so many versions of such a popular work it’s crucial for artists to emulate a critical business practice: differentiation.  There’s an array of classical and period baroque instruments, chamber groups, orchestras and ensemble styles, giving licence to the soloist and musicians to embellish, alter the tempo and put their personal touch to it,  in order to distinguish them from other recordings and performances.

Vivaldi - Alan Lovbeday AOSMITF 4 Seasons

The seminal 1969 recording by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields featuring violinist Alan Loveday under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner, reputedly catapulted the piece from its recondite realm to that of mainstream consumption.

The third movement from ‘Winter’ of that album:

Nigel Kennedy’s 1989 recording of The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra sold over two million copies, becoming one of the best-selling classical works ever.

Vivaldi - Nigel Kennedy 4 seasons

Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recorded The Four Seasons as well as a music video for the first movement of ‘Winter’ that was featured regularly on The Weather Channel in the mid-1990s.

Today, it seems unthinkable that Vivaldi could have been forgotten and overlooked by history.

Personally, I love to play The Four Seasons and find ‘Winter’ by far the hardest to master, being written in the key of F minor.  I love the hashtag (sharp notes) but four flats haunt me…

I recently learnt that Vivaldi actually wrote sonnets to accompany the Four Seasons, which the music relates to perfectly. It’s an early example of programme music, a genius of descriptive musical storytelling that conjures up vivid scenes in your mind…

Vivaldi - Perlman IPO 4 Seasons

Between 1718 and 1720 Vivaldi left Venice and travelled to the countryside of Mantua; where it is believed he absorbed the setting and inspiration for his most ‘nature oriented’ work!

La Primavera (Spring) RV 269

In the first movement the birds are represented by the most sublime trills, and the gentle melody that evokes the murmur of the brook, followed by the semi quavers which indicate a quick storm, followed by the birds again as the air clears…

Itzhak Perlman and IPO strings delight:

L’Estate (Summer)  RV 315

The first movement in particular gives me a sense of a sweltering, bleak and languid environment. I can feel how hard it must be for Vivaldi to breathe, his asthma aggravated by the humidity. It’s written in G minor, which is considered to be the ‘darkest’ key. Overall the feel of the second movement is listless. It fills me with torpor…until the third movement he unleashes the storm to end all storms!

Julia Fischer and the strings of The Academy of St. Martin-in-the Field perfectly capture the deeply suffocating spirit of this concerto:

L’Autunno (Autumn) RV 293

The third movement seems to poke fun at the hunters; I think Vivaldi was definitely a member of the anti-hunting lobby!

The dotted quavers  signify the plodding hooves of cruel men on their clumsy horses. As the tempo increases you can hear the prey running for its life. The chords begin to raise a semitone with each phrase, increasing the pressure on the animal as the hunters and dogs close in. Gun shots ring out, the animal finally gives up its struggle and you imagine you can hear the dogs laughing… The final insult occurs after the main theme returns at the end of the finale signifying the hunters going about their deathly business.

I love Giuliano Carmignola and I Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca’s interpretation:

L’Inverno (Winter) RV 297

The opening movement sounds very metallic and visceral, (thanks to the use of the bow very close to the bridge). You can definitely hear teeth chattering!

This performance by Il Giardino Armonico sends chills down my spine!

Arrangements of The Four Seasons

Vivaldi actually re-scored his ‘Spring’ allegro for use in the opening overture and chorus of his opera Dorilla in Tempe, thus setting the trend for future transcriptions, covers, remixes, adaptations and mashups.

The fact that so many improvisations have been possible is testament to Vivaldi’s skill as a composer.

In 1765 French organist and composer Michel Corrette arranged ‘Spring’ as a choral motet for choir and orchestra: Laudate Dominum de Coelis, subtitled “Motet à Grand Chœur arrangé dans le Concerto de Printemps de Vivaldi”. The words of Psalm 116 are set to the music with vocal soloists performing the solo violin parts.

Vivaldi’s inventiveness paved the way for Beethoven to write the ‘Pastoral’ symphony in 1808 also featuring drunken peasants and a storm.

In 1969 the Swingle Singers did an a cappella cover from their album the Joy of Singing.

In Argentina Ástor Piazzolla published Estaciones Porteñas, ‘The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’ in performances by various artists since 1970.

Jacques Loussier and his jazz trio covered the ‘Four Seasons’ in this wonderful performance:

Vanessa Mae was the first violinist to use an electric violin on her crossover version of the Presto from ‘Summer’ and following in her footsteps there have been various arrangements for harp, electric guitar, choral and rock remixes.

I particularly like this choral version of ‘Winter’ by the Accentus Chamber Choir:

Arrangement for Flute of ‘Winter’ by Jean-Pierre Rampal & Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra:

A gorgeous second movement from ‘Winter’ for the oboe with Albrecht Mayer and New Seasons Ensemble:

In 2012 composer Max Richter created a postmodern and minimalist re-composition released as ‘Recomposed – Vivaldi The Four Seasons’. Working with solo violinist Daniel Hope, Richter discarded around seventy five percent of the original source material. A live recording with the composer at Le Poisson Rouge in New York:

There’s even a flamenco/tango arrangement of Spring by Gustavo Montesano and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra!

Opus 8 Nos. 5 – 12

Here are three of the remaining eight works that follow The Four Seasons in the Opus 8.

Violin Concerto ‘La Tempesta di Mare’ in E-Flat major, Op. 8 No. 5 RV 253 by Giuliano Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra:

Violin Concerto in C Major, ‘Il piacere’ Op. 8 No. 6, RV180 – Andrew Manze and the Academy of Ancient Music:

Concerto No. 7 in D minor, ‘Per Pisendel’, Op. 8 No. 7 RV 242 by Giardino Armonico:

Other Violin Favourites

I love the way Anne Akiko Meyers plays all three parts in his Triple Violin Concerto in F Major RV 551:

Il Rosignuolo – Concerto for violin, organ, strings & B.C. in A major, RV 335a by MusicaAdRhenum:

Violin Concerto in E Major, RV 271 ‘L`amoroso’ played as a tender love song by I Musici:

Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.  11 No.  2 ‘Il Favorito’ (RV 277) first movement by Giuliano Carmignola & I Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca:

´La Stravaganza` 12 Violin concertos Opus 4, by Rachel Podger and Arte Dei Suonatori:

Violin Concerto in A Major, ‘The Cuckoo’ (RV 335) with Giuliano Carmignola:

Violin Concerto in D Major, ‘Il Grosso Mogul’ (RV 208) by Il Giardino Armonico:

Sonata for 2 violins & B.C. in D minor, Op. 1 No. 12 (RV 63) ‘La Follia’ by Il Giardino Armonico:

Transcriptions and Arrangements

Violin Concerto in D, Op. 3 No. 9 (RV.230) – arr. for trumpet, violin, cello and harpsichord with Alison Balsam:

Bach Sicilienne from Concerto in D minor, BWV596 after Vivaldi RV 565, Alexandre Tharaud:

The largo of the Lute Concerto in D Major, RV 93 performed on classical guitar by John Williams always transports me to a place beyond words:

Trio Sonata Op. 1 No. 12 ‘La Follia’ by the Barrios Guitar Quartet:

Concertos for other instruments

This one really pulls my heart strings! Adagio from the Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major RV 398 by Rostropovich:

Heinz Holliger on form in the second movement of the Oboe Concerto in C major, RV 452:

Piccolo Concerto in C major, RV 443 – Il Giardino Armonico:

Flute Concerto in G minor, ‘La Notte’ RV439 with Fabio Biondi & Europa Galante:

Examples of sacred music

I don’t think there’s any doubt about Vivaldi’s faith when you listen to his sacred works. Here is a selection of some of my favourites, but there are many I have yet to discover!

Gloria in Excelsis in C Major, (RV 588):

Motet Nulla in mundo pax sincera (RV630):

“Et in terra pax hominibus” with Emma Kirkby, Michael Chance & Tessa Bonner:

Dixit Dominus was rediscovered in 2005 by Australian scholar Janice Stockigt. (RV807):

Nisi Dominus (RV608) by the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood:

Modern Catalog of Works

Although both CE (Complete Edition) and Fanna numbers (F.) have been used in the past, the modern catalog of numbers attributed to Vivaldi’s multitudinous works was created in the 1970’s by Danish musicologist Peter Ryom and take the prefix RV – “Ryom-Verzeichnis” or “Répertoire des oeuvres d’Antonio Vivaldi”. They do not necessarily follow in consecutive order with adjacent works.

The end in Vienna

Although Vivaldi lived a comfortable life in Venice, (he made around 50,000 ducats in his lifetime) changing musical tastes meant his music was no longer in demand so he sold off a chunk of manuscripts to finance his last trip to Vienna.

He planned to serve as a composer at the imperial court of Emperor Charles IV and perhaps stage operas. Unfortunately his patron died soon after his arrival in the city, leaving Vivaldi without an income and he died penniless. Not a fitting end to such a magnificent career. His funeral took place in St. Stephen’s and he was laid to rest next to Karlskirche.

I have come to the conclusion that Vivaldi lived his life with as much exuberance as his music arouses in the listener. The sheer volume of his output is unmatched to this day; a feat of such unbridled passion for music as will probably never be seen again…