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Vieuxtemps, Henry (1820-1881)

Henry Vieuxtemps

born: 17 February 1820
died: 6 June 1881
country: Belgium

Widely considered the finest violinist in Europe after the death of Paganini, the Belgian Henry Vieuxtemps was born in 1820 in Verviers, not far from Liège. He had his first lessons from his father, a weaver and amateur violin-maker, and then from a renowned teacher, Lecloux-Dejonc. He made his concert debut at the age of six and toured neighbouring cities with his teacher, attracting the attention of the noted violinist-composer Charles de Bériot in the process. Two years later he went to Brussels to study with de Bériot, who introduced Vieuxtemps to Parisian audiences in 1829 with great success. After de Bériot’s teaching ended in 1831, his sister-in-law (the singer, pianist and composer Pauline Garcia, herself a pupil of Liszt) also assisted in Vieuxtemps’s continuing musical education. After giving a series of concerts in Germany and Austria—winning praise from Robert Schumann, who heard him in Leipzig—Vieuxtemps made his debut in London in 1834, where he also heard and met Paganini.

Vieuxtemps was anxious to perfect his technique and broaden his musical tastes, but seems to have picked up a lot of his skill in composition piecemeal as he embarked on the busy, country-hopping career of a travelling virtuoso. In Vienna—where he was the first to revive Beethoven’s Violin Concerto—he took composition lessons from Simon Sechter (with whom Schubert had studied in the last months of his life), and in Paris from Antoine Reicha. The first of his seven violin concertos—later published as Concerto No 2—dates from this time. Vieuxtemps went on to visit Russia for the first time in 1837, and he toured America in 1843 and 1844. In the latter year he married the Vienna-born pianist Josephine Eder, and in 1846 settled for some years in St Petersburg as court violinist and soloist in the Imperial Theatres as well as teaching violin at the Conservatory. He left a lasting legacy there, for he had a definite influence on the development of the Russian school of violin playing. In 1854 the leading Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick ranked Vieuxtemps together with Joseph Joachim as the two foremost violinists in the world.

After a second American tour in 1857 with the great pianist-composer Sigismond Thalberg, and further periods based successively in Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris, Vieuxtemps returned to Brussels in 1871 as professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatoire, where his most celebrated pupil was Eugène Ysaÿe. His career as a virtuoso was cut short by a stroke that affected his bowing arm, but though he was acutely frustrated by his inability to perform to his former standard, Vieuxtemps managed to resume conducting and teaching until 1879, when he resigned from the Conservatoire and joined his daughter and son-in-law in Algeria. Here he completed his last two violin concertos before his death on 6 June 1881; his body was brought back to Belgium and he was buried with honours in his home town of Verviers.

Almost all Vieuxtemps’s works involve the violin, whether in orchestral or chamber music, though there are two cello concertos and a significant group of works for the viola, which he played equally well (in fact, though generally thought of as a virtuoso soloist, he was an enthusiastic performer of chamber music, in which he often took the viola role). He certainly deserves to be ranked among the most important composers for the violin in the mid-nineteenth century. Vieuxtemps never indulged in sheer virtuosity for its own sake; instead, in his concertos and chamber works he brought a more classical dimension to the violin repertoire in place of the technically brilliant variations and fantasies on popular operatic themes that were so popular with audiences.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010

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