Born in Verviers (then in the Netherlands), Belgium, February 17, 1820;
died in Mustapha, Algeria, June 6, 1881
Henri Vieuxtemps is a name seldom encountered any more, but this Belgian-born musician was one of the leading lights of the nineteenth-century violin world, nearly on a par with Paganini, who praised him to the skies. Vieuxtemps was known as “le roi du violon.” Technical precision, purity of tone and the ability to sustain a flowing, melodic line were the trademarks of his style.
Vieuxtemps was renowned in his time even more as a violinist than as a composer. Hector Berlioz, one of the first important music critics, noted that “were Vieuxtemps not such a great virtuoso, he would be acclaimed as a great composer ... his works, with their beauty and their expert disposition of events, are those of a master whose melodic style is unfailingly noble and dignified.” The renowned Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick described Vieuxtemps concertos as “imaginative, gracious, well-made and contrived with great technical knowledge, particularly with respect to instrumentation ... [Excluding Spohr], he may be considered the finest composer among contemporary violinists and the finest violinist among contemporary composers.” Even the acidulous Wagner, who seldom had anything favorable to say about anyone but himself, called Vieuxtemps “in every respect [an] extraordinary artist ... a great talent and a great success.” As a measure of Vieuxtemps’ proficiency, at the age of fourteen he learned Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, to this day one of the most difficult to “bring off,” in just two weeks and performed it in Vienna.
A renowned teacher
Vieuxtemps was also one of the leading pedagogues of the century, shaping and extending the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing as well as having a hand in the Russian school that produced such luminaries as Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz. At the conservatory in Brussels, where he taught during the early 1870s, one of his students was another Belgian-born violinist who went on to become a virtuoso performer, a composer of almost exclusively violin music and a renowned pedagogue of the Franco-Belgian tradition, Eugène Ysaÿe.
Like Paganini, nearly everything Vieuxtemps wrote was for violin, either with piano accompaniment or with orchestra, including seven concertos of which No. 5 is by far the best known, although No. 4 was reportedly the composer’s own favorite. One of his most sensational pieces was Souvenir d’Amerique sur “Yankee Doodle,” which had the crowds roaring in America. But even violinists who know Vieuxtemps’ music well would be surprised to learn that he also wrote two cello concertos, a viola sonata and three string quartets.
An inveterate traveler
Vieuxtemps traveled extensively, beginning from the age of ten – “a life of ceaseless, not to say obsessive and exhausting, wandering,” as author David Mason Greene put it. He went as far west as the United States and as far east as Russia. In St. Petersburg, where he resided from 1846 to 1851, he served as violinist to Czar Nicolas I and taught at the conservatory there. He undertook three concert tours of America, the second of which he made with the great piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg and the third partly as accompanist to the renowned soprano Christine Nilsson. Vieuxtemps spent his final days in Mustapha, a suburb of Algiers.