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Jacqueline Vanasse

The Great Legacy of Henri Vieuxtemps

September 23, 2013 at 3:51 PM

Henri Vieuxtemps was born in Belgium at the beginning of the 19th Century. Though his music is virtually absent from present day stages, he was a legend in his time. An acclaimed virtuoso violinist and composer, he was the epitome of the romantic artist. In addition, he was an admired teacher in his motherland and abroad. During his extensive stay in Russia he made great contributions to the development of music in the country. What can explain that such a great artist be forgotten? Is he too specific to his time? Does the style of his compositions belong to such a different epoch that his work can’t find its place in today’s repertoire? Vieuxtemps’ music is often accused of being old-fashioned, heavy, even tacky. On the contrary, the man was one of incomparable taste and understanding of music. One can only think of the magnificent instruments he chose. For example, his violin was the well-known Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù, which lately reached a peak of sale that shocked the entire world. Vieuxtemps, the violinist, composer and teacher definitely deserves better recognition - not only among violinists but also in music history.

VieuxtempsAs a PERFORMER, Vieuxtemps was praised for his flawless and expressive technique, a marked individuality and great artistry always at the service of the expression of feelings. “He used his complete mastery of the most accomplished and colorful devices in execution, not to produce an impression, but as the particular mode of expression required by music”, wrote Lev Ginsburg in his excellent biography of the musician. From a very early age, Vieuxtemps had an exceptional apprehension for style. For instance, he is credited for bringing back the Beethoven Violin Concerto. He could have chosen to play some showy composition when he made his debut at age 14 in Vienna. But even though he wanted to make his mark, he chose Beethoven, which shows great personality and maturity. His contemporaries hailed the beauty of his tone, the imaginativeness and colors of his interpretations, and the poetry and elegance of his phrasing. He is also known for having an utmost calm and controlled appearance on stage, a tremendous staccato and perfect intonation. Although he was strongly opposed to the use of dazzling techniques for the sole purpose of effect, Vieuxtemps was not against virtuosity in itself. For him, virtuosity was the sparks, the life instilled in the music. Because of his breathtaking virtuosity, his gift for improvisation, colors and imageries, and of the dramatic and passionate character of his music, he very much represented the Romantic era. At the same time, his knowledge of music history and his love for the music of Bach, Tartini, Mozart and Beethoven gave a particular control and classical distinction to his playing.

As a TEACHER, Vieuxtemps not only left a great legacy to the Franco-Belgian School, but he also was a pioneer of early Russian violin history. He spent years in Russia based in St-Petersburg, where he was a court musician to the Tzar. He paved the way for the great Russian violin tradition. After him, teachers that filled the position included Wieniawski and Auer, and we know who their students turned out to be. Today his compositions are still an excellent stepping-stone when teaching students to master violin skills as well as to nurture the development of their artistry. “Reality is that Vieuxtemps music helps to develop ones listening skills, as the audience can sense if the interpreter is performing with understanding of his musical concept or the work is being executed as a technical challenge, without much musical interest," notes Misha Keylin, who spoke to me about these works. Keylin splendidly recorded all seven of Vieuxtemps’ concertos for Naxos. His concertos can help the performer to develop one's violin facility, fine taste, and phrasing, which can’t really be achieved by playing Beethoven and Mozart at first.

Finally we can’t deny Vieuxtemps’ value as a COMPOSER. How could we when people like Berlioz and Schumann were big fans of his work? Leopold Auer himself, despite the fact that the Tchaikovsky Concerto was originally dedicated to him, is known to have said: “I would rather have a line of Vieuxtemps’ music than the whole Tchaikovsky Concerto.” As a composer Vieuxtemps was very particular and had an inimitable style. People generally tend to think his dramatic operetta style of music is out-of-date and basically just another version of Paganini. People should go back and reexamine his music. Indeed, early Vieuxtemps was very much inspired by Paganini but what violinist was not from that era? The Belgian composer differs from Paganini, most of whose compositions were to show off. Vieuxtemps’ music isn’t violin dominated and self-centered.

“His work is very symphonic. His music has the ability of a true bel canto but with support of everybody [in the orchestra] making it even more beautiful. The soloist has such beautiful lines written around him," says Keylin. A great technique is not sufficient for Vieuxtemps. “You will need a little bit more intellect and you will need to have more voice sharing with the orchestra. You will need to manage your way out! There are some really unplayable parts in these concertos and all of us are doing our best I think, including Heifetz!” smiled Keylin.

As a composer, Vieuxtemps may not be placed on the same level as Beethoven or Brahms. However his music, just like Beethoven’s and Brahms’, lives way beyond its technical obstacles. In both his performances and compositions, the musical ideas and emotional force come first and foremost. Vieuxtemps had a particular inclination for the fantasy genre therefore the singing line of the violin often takes on an air of improvisation. Whether idling in a beautiful recitativo or capriciously taking off, the violin has all the freedom to breathe. Keylin says he was fortunate that the conductors he recorded with for Naxos had some ballet background. “When you are dealing with ballet people, timing is everything. Sometime the dancer turns faster and sometime slower, so you need to be able to catch the “rubato." I think taking away the “rubato” in Vieuxtemps music it’s like taking away his life."

In addition to his magnificent qualities as a performer, composer and teacher, Vieuxtemps was fundamentally a good person. He was close to the people of his time. He was interested and curious of his surroundings. During the Belgian Revolution in 1830, he wrote an Overture for Orchestra and Choir that includes a hymn to freedom for his nation. Open-minded, while touring America, he integrated traditional American music in his compositions, to the delight of the overseas public. Vieuxtemps is worth being rediscovered. As Lev Ginsburg concluded his biography: “Vieuxtemps’ art – expressive, human, romantic and distinctive – belongs not only to history, but to the contemporary world as well."

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