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 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…

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 18th Century: Viotti

“…the violin — that most human of all instruments…” ~ Louisa May Alcott

Giovanni Battista Viotti: (12 May 1755 – 3 March 1824)

I have to admit, I didn’t know that much about Viotti before I began writing this post.

Giovanni_Battista_Viotti_afterTrofsarelliHe was 27 years older than his more famous and infamous compatriot, Paganini; but in my view he deserves just as many plaudits. Viotti was a key influence in the lives of many violinists and composers, such as Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre Rode, Pierre Baillot, Louis Spohr and Paganini indirectly, (via his pupil August Duranowski).

Beethoven himself drew inspiration from Viotti’s violin concertos.

Many modern violin greats can trace their pedadogical legacy back to Viotti. He is the founding father of the style of violin tuition from the early days of the Paris Conservatoire.

It’s probably fair to say that his skill as a violinist outshone his skill as a composer.

However, I had no idea he wrote such a substantial body of work: 29 violin concertos, 2 symphonie concertantes, many violin duos, violin and cello sonatas, string quartets and trios, a cello concerto, around 17 piano concertos (arrangements of his violin concertos), as well as 2 flute concertos, (also based on his violin concertos), plus other chamber works.

Uto Ughi and Guido Rimonda perform the duetto per due violini (music commences at 44 seconds):

Viotti’s musical education was under the patronage of Alfonso dal Pozzo della Cisterna in Turin and later by violinist Gaetano Pugnani. He served at the Savoia Court in Turin for eight years before touring as a soloist, initially with Pugnani throughout Germany, Poland and Russia, before he found favour in Paris; making his debut as a violinist in 1782 where he became the court musician to Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

He remained in France as a teacher and opera impresario, founding a new opera house in Paris under the patronage of the king’s brother (Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, comte de Provence), in 1788. He worked closely with his friend and opera composer, Luigi Cherubini whom, incidentally, Beethoven regarded as the greatest contemporary composer.

Despite his affiliation with the French monarchs Viotti was philosophically aligned with the Enlightenment movement and the teachings of Jean-Jaqcues Rousseau. After the French Revolution took a turn for the worse Viotti’s opera house was renamed Théâtre Feydeau in order to distance himself from the unpopular French Royalty.

Viotti kept his head and moved to London in 1792 where he became popular both as a violinist and musical director of opera concerts. He met Joseph Haydn in London in 1794, whose musical influence can be heard in Viotti’s later concertos.

Viotti - Violin Concerto no. 22 sheet music cover

Tension between Britain and France led to him being expelled from Britain because of the Alien Bill in 1798, under the false charge of being a Jacobin; only to return two years later from Germany to live in secret with his English friends and supporters, William and Margaret Chinnery.

Around 1801 Viotti set up a wine merchant business, stating, “I find that the English prefer wine to music.” Unlike Paganini, who adored the limelight, Viotti was happier performing at smaller, more intimate gatherings. During this time he continued to compose and put on private concerts.

His friend (and younger brother to the Prince of Wales), the Duke of Cambridge, made it possible for Viotti to become a naturalised British Citizen in 1811, and Viotti became a key figure in the creation of the Philharmonic Society in London in 1813. At this stage of his career he played mostly as a chamber musician and orchestra leader.

When his wine business failed he returned to Paris to become the director of the Italian Opera between 1819 and 1822.  He returned to London in 1823 with Mrs Chinnery and died a year later.

Here is my favourite of his violin concertos, No. 19 in G minor, written in the 1790’s which has a contemporary sounding lyrical drama and a gorgeous melody, performed by Rainer Kussmaul:

The first movement of the same concerto arranged for piano:

Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 22 in A minor was composed in 1803, and was revived by the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim in the 1870’s, elevating it to the most popular of his violin concerti. Brahms was also an admirer of this work, using artistic license from it in his own violin concerto. Here is one of the greatest violin virtuoso’s of the 20th Century, Itzhak Perlman, playing the third movement:

Origins of the French National Anthem

In 1781 during his time at Versailles, Viotti composed his Theme & Variations in C Major, which was copied in 1792 by Rouget de Lisle and dubbed ‘Song of War’. The ‘song’ was later adopted by volunteers from Marseille, and thus the “Marseillaise” was established, first becoming France’s national anthem in 1795. It seems rather unfair that de Lisle took all the glory!

Franz Liszt also wrote a piano transcription of the Marseillaise:

Viotti’s Violin

Viotti’s violin was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1709, and was given to him by Catherine the Great.

Viotti’s Strad also features in the opening chapter of my novel, The Virtuoso. My protagonist, the concert violinist Isabelle Bryant, is giving a Masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music, where the violin is now on display. Here’s the excerpt from Chapter 1:

Her violin represented another limb to her, it was that precious. It felt so natural, like an extension of her body. She gently rubbed her neck which was feeling a little sore. The rough, red patch of skin on her neck just below her jaw was often mistaken for a love bite, when in fact it was she affectionately referred to as a violinist’s hickey. Many hours of gruelling practice had left their marks.

Her mind drifted to her earlier private viewing of the Academy’s museum, where she had been shown round by the curator in person. She had spent a blissful afternoon paying particular awe and reverence to their recent acquisition of Italian virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti’s 1709 Stradivarius, renamed as the Viotti ex-Bruce to honour its British donor, which the Academy extolled as one of the most important and well preserved Stradivarius violins in the world.

She had studied the the sheen of the dark, pinky brown maple; picturing the old master craftsman huddled in his workshop in northern Italy; surrounded by the distinctive wooden shapes that would become so valuable over three hundred years later. Sadly there were so few of them remaining.

Her own violin, a modern Nagyvary, was crafted by the eminent Hungarian professor Joseph Nagyvary, who had spent his life studying the craftsmanship of Cremonese violin makers; namely Stradivarius and Guarnerius.

Nagyvary violins were made as closely to those of the ancient genius as possible, and there had been many debates about whether or not they sounded as good as those of the master. Isabelle adored it sonorous tonal qualities and projection power. If a Nagyvary violin had been good enough for Yehudi Menuhin to play for fifteen years, then it was good enough for her.

I found a great vintage recording of Raff’s Cavatina by violinist Pauline Hall, playing on Viotti’s Stad in 1912:

In the late 1600s the finest instruments originated from three rural families whose workshops were side by side in the Italian village of Cremona. First were the Amatis, and outside their shop hung a sign ‘The best violins in all Italy.’ Not to be outdone, their next-door neighbours, the family Guarnerius, hung a bolder sign proclaiming ‘The Best Violins In All The World’ At the end of the street was the workshop of Anton Stradivarius, and on its front door was a simple notice which read ‘The best violins on the block.’ ~ Freda Bright

The Art of Violin

“When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you’re telling a story.” ~ Joshua Bell

To me, the beauty, mystique and resonance of the violin is both beguiling and irrefutable. The instrument’s tone, agility and versatility is unsurpassed in classical music repertoire. Of course, I adore all stringed instruments, with the cello coming a close second.

gottlieb-painting-violin_bigLooking at the design of the violin I love the way the wide curves of the upper and lower bouts contrast with the inverted C-bouts (the waist), to give it that sensual shape, and the elegant f-holes, along with the combination of the long and graceful fingerboard leading to the peg box and the scroll, which can be quite elaborate on older violins. Then you have the sheen and shine of their wood exteriors, usually spruce and maple. It is a thing of beauty!

Ancient liras, violettas and violas were created by the school of Brescia in the late 14th century, and in 1574 the Bertolotti Gasparo da Salò family made what is considered the finest carved and decorated Renaissance violin in the world, which was once owned by Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria. Its current home is the Vestlandske Kustindustrimuseum in Bergen, Norway.

From Wikipedia:

Early History:

The Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911) of the 9th century, was the first to cite the bowed Byzantine lira as a typical instrument of the Byzantines and equivalent to the rabāb used in the Islamic Empires of that time. The Byzantine lira spread through Europe westward and in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments (Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009). In the meantime rabāb was introduced to the Western Europe possibly through the Iberian Peninsula and both bowed instruments spread widely throughout Europe giving birth to various European bowed instruments.

Over the centuries that followed, Europe continued to have two distinct types of bowed instruments: one, relatively square-shaped, held in the arms, known with the Italian term lira da braccio (meaning viol for the arm) family; the other, with sloping shoulders and held between the knees, known with the Italian term lira da gamba (or viola da gamba, meaning viol for the leg) group. During the Renaissance the gambas were important and elegant instruments; they eventually lost ground to the louder (and originally viewed as less aristocratic) lira da braccio family of the modern violin.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, several changes occurred, including:

  • the fingerboard was made a little longer to be able to play even the highest notes, in the 19th century.
  • the fingerboard was tilted a little more, to produce even more volume as larger and larger orchestras became popular.
  • nearly all old instruments were modified, including lengthening of the neck by one centimeter, in response to the raising of pitch that occurred in the 19th century.
  • the bass bar of nearly all old instruments was made heavier to allow a greater string tension.
  • the classical luthiers nailed and glued the instrument necks to the upper block of the body before gluing on the soundboard, while later luthiers mortise the neck to the body after completely assembling the body.
  • the chinrest was invented in the early 19th century by Louis Spohr.

Amati eldest dated violinWe can thank the French Renaissance for what we know today as the ‘modern’ violin. In Cremona, Andrea Amati created the first batch of violins in 1564 at the behest of King Charles IX, who wanted to create a new musical sound for the kingdom of France.  Amati was credited with adding the fourth string to the existing three-stringed ancient violin type instrument. His instruments were beautifully adorned with art work. There is a wonderful display of Amati instruments at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Andrea passed his violin making skills down to his two sons, Antonio and Girolamo, who in turn inspired the latter’s fourth son, (Andrea’s grandson), Nicolo Amati. Among Nicolo’s aspiring students were Andrea Guarnerius and Antonio Stadivari.  Alongside the slightly newer violins of Jacob Stainer of Austria, these instruments are the most sought after and valuable in the world.

Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (the Leader of the London based Philharmonia orchestra), does a great job of explaining the basics about the violin and his role in the orchestra:

One of my heroes on the violin, Itzhak Perlman, has made some very helpful short videos to assist us amateur violinists with our technique!

For violin lovers here is a fabulous documentary titled: The Art of Violin:

Part 1:

Part 2:

After discussing the ‘ordinary’ Strad (if there is such a thing), played by the late David Oistrakh, and the amazing sound that he achieved with it; Itzhak Perlman concludes that, ‘the sound comes from the individual, not the instrument.’

Renaissance artist and sculptor Gaudenzino Ferrari painted the earliest known depiction of the violin. And now to the visual art of violin! I have included a small gallery of some of my favourite paintings and images of the violin in still life and in a living setting:

“You are the music while the music lasts.” ~ T.S. Eliot