Vieuxtemps: Performance Style
© Martin Wulfhorst 2021
1. Vieuxtemps and the Franco-Belgian Violin School (to be expanded)
Vieuxtemps represented the playing style of the third generation of Franco-Belgian violin composers at its best (with Kreutzer, Baillot, and Rode representing the first generation and Vieuxtemps’s teacher de Bériot the second): he united supreme technical prowess with a ravishing sound and a cantabile style inspired both by the Italian 18th-century violin school represented by Viotti and by the Italian idiom of belcanto singing.
2. The Performer Serving the Composer
What set Vieuxtemps’s performances apart from most other musicians of his generation was a novel, revolutionary understanding of the respective roles of performer and composer: whereas the virtuoso culture of his day clearly placed the player above the composer, Vieuxtemps saw his foremost task as serving the composer and faithfully rendering his intentions, and to some degree subordinated his artistic individuality to the “spirit” of the composition.
Even at his debut with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at age fourteen his contemporaries recognized this mindset:
(1) “You fully penetrated the spirit of this composition, a masterpiece of one of our great masters. ... all this shows that you, still young and close to childhood, are already a great artist who appreciates what he plays, knows how to give each genre its proper expression, and does not limit himself to dazzling the listeners with difficulties.”
(2) “Even after working on it for a lifetime he could not have grasped it [the Concerto] with more correct understanding and could not have performed it with more purity, perfection, spirit, and expression.”
(3) “It is truly in this performance that the boy demonstrated his comprehension and his performance style shaped to each character—in short his musical genius.
These sentiments were echoed in later reviews. In 1848 Berthold Damcke wrote in a report from St. Petersburg:
Sources (the full text with translation for nos. 1--3 is found here):
(1) Letter by Eduard Baron Lannoy, the conductor of the performance, to Vieuxtemps, March 17, 1834 (quoted after Jean-Théodore Radoux, Vieuxtemps: sa vie, ses oeuvres, Liège: A. Bénard, 1891, p. 28)
(2) Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 36/25 (June 18, 1834), col. 418
(3) Allgemeiner musikalischer Anzeiger 6/13 (March 27, 1834), p. 52
(4) Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 48/* (Jan. 12, 1848), col. 23
Vieuxtemps’s aesthetics of performance are part of a long development that linked the earliest calls for composition-centered performance to modern-day “historically informed” performance practice.
As early as 1802 eighteen-year-old Spohr criticized his teacher Franz Eck for his inability "to penetrate into the spirit of other musicians' compositions" (diary 1802 in Spohr 1968/I:20; cf. Wulfhorst 1998-9). Two years later Rochlitz praised Spohr himself for
“...his insight into the characters of the most diverse compositions and his ability to perform each in its own spirit--this is what renders him a true artist. We never had to admire this last quality in any violinist as much as in Mr. Spohr, especially in his quartet performances. He appears almost completely different when he performs, for instance, Beethoven (his favorite whom he treats excellently) or Mozart (his ideal) or Rode (whose grand quality he knows very well to adopt, without bordering, like him, on sounding sharp and harsh, while falling short of him only slightly, especially in the volume of his tone), or when he performs Viotti and gallant composers: he is different, as they are different.” (AMZ, Dec. 26, 1804, cols. 202-3; Spohr was apparently one of the first musicians pointing to the changes in instrument building as a consideration for the performer [Wulfhorst 1998-99])..
The novel aesthetic of performance was closely tied to the quartet genre. Six years after the AMZ review another author wrote in the same journal:
“In addition [to playing correctly and in time], the quartet player must appropriately penetrate into the character of the composition and come to an agreement about it with his partners. After they have reached unanimity about this character, everyone must only strive to fit into the whole, while renouncing his individuality” (AMZ May 5, 1810, col. 521).
It is no coincidence that the violinists who were at the helm of this development were also avid quartet players and played important roles in the reception of the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven and in the development of the modern violin and chamber-music repertoire: this is true for Spohr, Baillot, Vieuxtemps, as well as Joachim. Significantly, contemporary critics and fellow-musicians singled them out, noticing and praising their revolutionary understanding of the performer’s role.
Their demands for composition-centered performance ultimately led to 20th-century notions of Werktreue or “authentic” or “historically informed” performance yet should not be equated with them. True, a growing respect for the notated score was an essential ingredient of the new aesthetics, but artists such as Vieuxtemps saw their task as grasping and conveying the “spirit” of the composition but not necessarily its letter. This is why he did not refrain from changing some of Beethoven’s articulations or dynamics, taking license that modern performers may consider inacceptable: applying the “Paganini stroke” (2 notes slurred, 1 separate) to passages in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto seemed not only justified and appropriate but even necessary to Vieuxtemps because the exciting stroke lent itself to enhancing the “spirit” of the composition (see his edition of the Violin Concerto, Leipzig: Schuberth, 1869 PN 3986a).
Vieuxtemps’s Cadenzas were also intended to convey the “spirit” of the composition: instead of displaying his virtuosity in empty pyrotechnics, as many contemporary virtuosos did in their concertos, Vieuxtemps took his inspiration from both the Concerto itself and even from the Cadenza Beethoven had composed for the piano transcription of his Violin Concerto op. 61.
Henry Vieuxtemps • Cadenzas to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
© Martin Wulfhorst 2021