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Henri Vieuxtemps, A Prodigy Who Grew Up

vieuxtemps.jpgHenri Vieuxtemps was a giant among violinists of the nineteenth century. He was great as a virtuoso, as a composer and as a teacher. Moreover, he was notable as an example of a prodigy who made good in after years, for his abilities grew in a steady crescendo, from his debut as a child violinist at the age of five until paralysis robbed him of his powers when he reached the age of 53.
 
Vieuxtemps (the name translated from the French means Oldtime) was born in 1820 at Verviers, Belgium, of musical parents. His instruction by a local musician commenced as soon as he was able to hold a violin, and so rapid was his progress that he played Rode’s Fifth Concerto in public at the age of six, with orchestral accompaniment. It is a striking fact in the history of music that eminent musicians usually trace the awakening of their genius to the association and instruction of some great artist. Vieuxtemps was no exception, for we find him attracting the favorable notice of De Bériot the great violinist, whom he met when on a tour with his father. He was only seven years of age at the time, and De Bériot was so struck with the lad’s talent that he adopted him as a pupil, and at the age of eight took him to Paris and arranged for a public appearance.
 
Few violinists have ever had such a varied career before reaching their majority as Vieuxtemps. Before he was twenty he had achieved a European reputation as a violin virtuoso, made many great concert tours, made the acquaintance of Spohr, Molique, Mayseder, Paganini, Servais, Richard Wagner, and Czerny, and composed several notable violin compositions. From the age of eleven to thirteen we find him in Brussels perfecting himself as a violinist without a teacher. A lengthy tour in Germany followed, the first of a series in which he visited Austria, England, Russia, Belgium, and other countries. His success was very great, he being hailed everywhere as a violinist of the first rank. He composed his concerto in E and the Fantaisie Caprice in his eighteenth year, both of which he performed with tremendous success.
 
In 1845, Vieuxtemps was married to Miss Josephine Elder, an eminent pianiste of Vienna. His domestic life was singularly happy, and he was heartbroken when his wife died in 1868.
 
Tour in the United States
Vieuxtemps was very fond of travel, and few violinists made more frequent and lengthy concert tours than he. He repeatedly visited almost every European country, and made three visits to the United States in 1844, 1857 and 1870, respectively. In 1857 he was accompanied on his American tour by the great pianist, Thalberg, and on the tour in 1870 by Christine Nilsson, the great singer. On one of his American tours a critic described his appearance as follows: “He is a small puny-built man, with gold rings in his ears, and a face of genteel ugliness, but touchingly lugubrious in its expression. With the violin at his shoulder he has the air of a husband undergoing the nocturnal penance of walking the room with ‘the child,’ and performing it, too, with unaffected pity.”
 
Vieuxtemps had many notable honors and many decorations conferred upon him during his busy life. At one time he held the post of solo violinist to the Emperor of Russia and Professor of Violin in the Conservatory of St. Petersburg. For two years he held the position of Professor of the Violin at the Brussels Conservatoire and director of the Popular Concerts. In 1873 his career as a concert player was cut short by a stroke of paralysis, which disabled his left side. He recovered somewhat from this affliction and resumed his teaching, but his inability to play with his old-time fire and skill made his temper very uneven, and there were frequent outbursts of rage in the class-room, during which he prodded his pupils with an iron- shod stick, which made instruction under him anything but a pure delight. The last years of his life were spent in Algiers, and his death, in 1881, is said to have been caused by his being struck in the head by a drunken Arab, who threw a large stone into his carriage while he was riding in the streets of Mustapha, lez Alger.
 
A Perfect Technique
Vieuxtemps was a virtuoso violinist of the first rank. His tone was very large and of splendid beauty. All critics agreed that his intonation was perfect and that he had a wonderful command of the bow, making it possible for him to express the most subtle nuances. His staccato, both with up and down bow, was perfection itself, and a staccato passage with him was like a perfect string of pearls. Vieuxtemps, during his lifetime, was, with De Bériot, considered to be at the head of the modern French school of violin playing. As is common with players of that school, his delivery was marked with great dramatic fire, and he was fond of striking contrasts and accents.
 
Vieuxtemps and Ysaye
Vieuxtempts (sic) seems to have been of a bright, lively, sociable disposition, and he was generous in acknowledging the genius of others. He was a great friend of the violinist Wieniawski, and once, when attending a concert given by the latter, . shouted, “Bravo, Wieniawski,” at the conclusion of a great tour de force of the Polish violinist. The audience recognized Vieuxtemps, and gave both violinists an ovation. Vieuxtemps heard Ysaye play in 1876, and recognizing his genius, generously used his influence with the Belgian Government to such good purpose that Ysaye was granted a Government stipend in order to pursue his studies in Paris.
 
As a composer Vieuxtemps was somewhat unequal, some of his compositions being of the highest merit, while others are bombastic, theatrical, and of comparatively little value. Still, the fact that some of his best works still hold a place in the repertoire of most of the great violinists of the present day, from forty to seventy- five years after they were composed, shows that he had a real talent as a composer. Of his compositions the best known are his six concertos, the Ballade and Polonaise, the Fantaisie Caprice Reverie in E Flat, Fantasie Appassionata, Sérénité, Rondino, and others. He also wrote a sonata and three candenzas (sic) for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. The Yankee Doodle Variations were written for his American audiences.

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