Though not as common a name as those of the great masters of
the late 19th century, Henri Vieuxtemps was nonetheless an
influential composer and performer. His work as a performer and teacher greatly
influenced violin performance during the latter part of the century, and his
advocacy of the concertos of Beethoven and Mendelssohn helped to raise the
expectations of the violin above the technically brilliant showpieces that
riddled the instrument's repertoire.
The son of a weaver and amateur violinist, Vieuxtemps was
born in Verviers, Belgium on February 17, 1820. He received his first lessons
on the violin from his father at the age of four, and further studied with
Lecioux-Dejonc, a local musician. At the age of six, Vieuxtemps made his concert
debut playing a concerto by Pierre Rode. Vieuxtemps excelled quickly on his
instrument and was soon concertizing in nearby cities, including Liege and
Brussels. In Brussels, he drew the attention of Charles Auguste de Bériot with
whom he soon began studying.
In 1829, Bériot took Vieuxtemps to Paris, where the young
lad impressed audiences with another performance of a Rode concerto. His time
in the French capital, however, was brief. The unsettling time of the July
Revolution, Bériot's marriage to Maria Malibran and his extensive concert
schedule, forced Béroit to discontinue his private lessons with Vieuxtemps. Thus,
Vieuxtemps returned to Brussels, where he continued to develop his technique
and developed further as a musician with the help of Malibran's younger sister,
A tour of Germany in 1833, accompanied by his father, led to
introductions with Louis Spohr and Robert Schumann, who praised Vieuxtemps as
being comparable to the famous Niccolò Paganini. While in Vienna to perform Beethoven's
violin concerto, he decided to stay in the city to pursue his dream of also
becoming a composer by studying with the notable Simon Sechter. In 1834 at his
London debut, he met Paganini and the two had a mutual respect for each other.
The following year, he returned to Paris where he further studied composition
with Anton Reicha. During this time, he composed his first violin concerto
(which was later published as Concerto No. 2).
Vieuxtemps soon embarked on a concert tour of Russia in
1837, and another tour followed in 1840. He composed his second concerto for
the violin, which received critical acclaim. With Sigismond Thalberg, he
embarked on his first concert tour of the United States in 1843-44. Following
his return and marriage to the Viennese pianist Josephine Eder, Vieuxtemps
accepted a position at the court of Tsar Nicholas I. He remained in Russia
until 1851 and during that time was influential in establishing the "Russian
School" of violin playing at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He also
composed his most popular concerto, his Fourth in D minor, while in Russia.
In 1851, he returned to concertizing. He left Europe for his
second American tour in 1857 where he continued to garner praise from critics
and audiences. In 1871, he returned to his native Belgium by accepting a
teaching post at the Brussels Conservatory, where his most notable student was
the virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe. His tenure there, however, was brief.
Two years after accepting the position, Vieuxtemps suffered from a stroke that
left his right arm paralyzed. Though he regained enough function of his arm to
perform in private settings, another stroke 1879 ended his career as a
performer for good.
Vieuxtemps spent his last years in Mustapha Supérieur,
Algeria, where his daughter and her husband had settled. He continued to
compose, though his inability to perform and his distance from the musical
centers of Europe were a constant frustration for him. Vieuxtemps passed away
on June 6, 1881.
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