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 Muses of Music – Composers and the Works Inspired by Literary Greats

The legendary words of Marcus Aurelius most definitely apply to the arts. “What we do now echoes on to eternity.”

John Faed - Shakespeare and his contemporaries 1851

John Faed – Shakespeare and his contemporaries 1851

It’s only natural that the early composers served as inspiration for the musical creators that followed, but in this post I thought I would explore the rich cultural legacy that poets, playwrights and literary greats have inspired in composers, choreographers and purveyors of the arts. Of course, writers haven’t just provided mythical fodder for music, they have also been prolific in the imaginations of artists and painters through the ages in the world of art. However, today I’m going to stick to music.

I’ll be exploring opera, ballet and instrumental works. There are a range of writers who have provided creative juice to our musical geniuses, but Shakespeare due to his incredible literary legacy, features more than most.  There are ‘Bardolaters’ aplenty to investigate!

As opera is musical storytelling it is the perfect medium for literary adaptations, and I believe it’s on the stage of the vocal arena where Shakespeare’s plays have become a most popular muse to composers and librettists of the last two hundred or so years.

Dicksee - Romeo and Juliet on the balconyIn many ways, the music that came after the words has cemented the iconic status of certain plays in our hearts and minds, ensuring they remain at the forefront of popular culture, as the music transports us into these fictional worlds and helps us transpose them into our own lives.

Perhaps Shakespeare was hinting at musical imitation when he penned the immortal phrase: If music be the food of love, play on…

The Italian operatic composers Gioachino Rossini and Guiseppe Verdi both wrote operas based on Othello, and here is an aria each from each composer:

Rossini – Otello ‘Assisa a pie d’un salice’ sung by Cecilia Bartoli as Desdemona:

Verdi – Otello ‘Willow Song’ with diva Maria Callas as Desdemona:

A powerful aria sung by Piero Cappuccilli from Verdi’s opera Macbeth ‘Perfidi! … Pietà rispetto amore’:

Prokofiev’s immortal ballet Romeo and Juliet was first performed in Brno in the Czech Republic on 30th December 1938, but was then revised and shown again at the Kirov Ballet in January 1940. Since then it has become a firm favourite in both ballet and instrumental repertoire with choreographers such as Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth Macmillan, Rudolf Nureyev, Yuri Grigorovich and Peter Martins amongst others, who all had their own stylistic take on this most tragic and classic of love stories. Prokofiev also arranged his ballet music for solo piano.

Montagues and Capulets (also known as Dance of the Knights) Act I, Scene II:

Sticking with Romeo and Juliet I couldn’t leave out Tchaikovsky’s orchestral masterpiece, the ‘Fantasy Overture to Romeo and Juliet’. Here is Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra with a wonderfully evocative performance that always pulls on my heart strings:

Tchaikvosky also wrote instrumental music for The Tempest and Hamlet. But it is the music of little known Thomas Linley the Younger (1756 – 1758) who was childhood friends with Mozart and later became known as the ‘English Mozart’ that I feel best encapsulates the theme of ‘The Tempest’.

Chamber orchestra Pratum Integrum and vocal ensemble Intrada perform “Arise! ye spirits of the storm” directed by Ekaterina Antonenko:

In the nineteenth century Felix Mendelssohn, a child prodigy, virtuosic pianist and violinist, turned composer and conductor, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and wrote the overture at the age of 17 in 1826, followed by the incidental music for the play in 1842.

Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig do a great job of bringing this spritely comedy to life!

Romanticism:

“Romanticism is the art of presenting to people the literary works which …can afford them the greatest pleasure. Classicism presents them with works which gave the greatest possible pleasure to their great-grand parents.” ~ Stendhal

Hector_Berlioz by Gustave CourbetBorn into the world just before Napoleon was crowned Emperor , the French composer Hector Berlioz grew up with a love of literature, and was greatly inspired by the works of Virgil,  Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, Thomas Moore, Sir Walter Scott and French poet Theophile Gautier. His musical God was Beethoven, (which is hardly surprising as Beethoven was the catalyst for the Romantic era of music), with his non-conformist and rebellious nature that dared to breach the traditional classical rules about structure and content; his passion for the notions of freedom and brotherhood, and above all else for his art, no matter what was deemed popular and the ‘done thing’ at the time. With such a combination of dramatic and artistic love it’s no wonder Berlioz wrote many works inspired by the Bard and the Romantics!

Dispensing with a career in medicine he focused on his music, and as an incomparable romantic he wrote the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, after seeing Harriet Smithson star as Ophelia when a London Theatre Company was performing Hamlet in Paris. The cream of the Paris literati were also in the audience that night; Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset and the painter Delacroix.

JW Waterhouse - Shakespeare - Miranda-The TempestThis music was followed with an Overture to King Lear, and also to the Tempest, which, as legend would have it, on the night of the performance in Paris the worst storm for fifty years was unleashing its wrath over the city and hardly anyone ventured out. Franz Liszt did attend however, and was later to transcribe his Symphonie Fantastique for the piano. The two became great friends.

Here is an excerpt from his last work, the comic opera Béatrice & Bénédict, loosely based on Shakespeare’s comedy ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ the aria ‘Nuit paisible’:

Debussy had a thing about gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, Wagner’s operatic output is steeped in mythical legend, and composer and piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt wrote the ‘Dante Symphony’ and we can also thank him for creating a new art form: the symphonic poem. Here is his dramatic ‘Hamlet’ with Bernard Haitink and the LPO:

Generations of composers have written work from Shakespeare, I’d love to include their music but there’s only so much room! Worthy of mention are Henry Purcell, Shostakovich, Smetana, Sibelius, Poulenc, Debussy, Elgar, von Weber Ambroise Thomas, William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The English poet and writer John Milton who was himself a keen musician and composer, inspired composers such as Joseph Haydn, who’s oratorio ‘The Creation’ (with the libretto by Baron van Swieten), was based on his epic poem Paradise Lost, and an opera was written on it by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. More recently contemporary composer Eric Whitacre wrote an ‘Electronica Opera’ entitled Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings inspired by Milton’s text.

A section of Miguel de Cervantes’ timeless chivalric novel ‘Don Quixote’ has been a firm favourite in the dance community, having been adapted and featured over the years as a ballet. The music was written by Ludwig Minkus with the original choreography by Marius Petipa, and it was first performed in 1869.

An excerpt from The Bolshoi Ballet with Maria Alexandrova & Mihail Lobuhin:

More recent literary works and novels have also been turned into ballets, such as the classic Alice In Wonderland by C.S. Lewis, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, As I Lay Dying by William Fualkner, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Who would have thought that John Steinbeck’s iconic working class tale Of Mice and Men could be done? I wonder what George Orwell would have made of 1984 on the stage at Covent Garden in 2005, a much critically maligned production by the late maestro Lorin Maazel.

I think it is most fitting for me to end with Beethoven, the great titan of classical music composition, who served as inspiration himself for many musicians to follow, and who is still an icon of his art today. He wrote music to some of Goethe’s poems but my favourite of his Goethe inspired pieces will always be his eponymous overture for Count Egmont, with its themes of heroism, which was later adopted as the unofficial anthem of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmoniker on top form:

“Music begins where words end.” ~ Richard Wagner