Henryk Wieniawski: Violin Prodigy and Gifted Composer September 03 2021
The name of Henryk Wieniawski has been synonymous with perfection in violin performance, along with the virtuosic fireworks and sublime melodies his music offers. Wieniawski deservedly occupies a unique position in the history of violin playing. He was a brilliant virtuoso whom contemporary critics and music lovers regarded as the re-incarnation of Niccolò Paganini.
THE WIENIAWSKI FAMILY
Henryk Wieniawski was born in Lublin on 10 July 1835 into a family
who combined an interest in social welfare with a passion for music. Henryk’s father, Tadeusz, held a Master’s degree in philosophy, medicine and surgery, and had an extensive medical practice. Henryk’s mother, Regina, was the daughter of Józef Wolff, a Warsaw doctor and patron of the arts. She had studied the piano in Paris and subsequently brought her musical interests into the home.
Henryk had an elder brother Julian, as well as younger twin brothers: Aleksander and Józef Wieniawski. Józef became one of Europe’s finest pianists as well as a composer, teacher and promotor of Polish music. Although a promising singer, Aleksander chose instead to follow a career in the civil service.
THE CHILD PRODIGY - WHO TAUGHT WIENIAWSKI?
When he was 5, Henryk was initiated into the secrets of the violin by Jan Hornziel. Henryk made amazing progress on the violin and gave his first solo public appearance at the age of 7. In the autumn of 1843, 8-year old Henryk, accompanied by his mother arrived in France with the intention of studying at Europe’s premier music school: the Paris Conservatoire. Unfortunately, the Conservatoire only accepted pupils aged 12 years and over, and even then only French nationals.
Strenuous efforts were made on Henryk’s behalf and he was granted an exception. On 28 November 1843 Wieniawski was enrolled by special decree as no. 468 on the pupils’ register at the Conservatoire and was officially listed in the class of Joseph Lambert Massart, but to begin with Henryk remained under the care of Massart’s assistant, J. Clavel, moving up into the professor’s masterclass a year later.
Shown on the left is Wieniawski with teacher Massart.
Several months later, Henryk decided at the very last minute to enter for the Conservatoire’s final, competitive examination along with his much older colleagues. Henryk was declared the outright winner and thereby the youngest graduate in the Conservatoire’s history. He was only 11 years old, in his 3rd year of study, and theoretically still ineligible to begin his Paris studies.
Meanwhile, Henryk set about making his name as a concert-violinist. The 11 year-old’s astonishingly mature playing, as well as his first attempts at composition, met with general acclaim. While still students, the Wieniawski brothers gave various joint concerts in Paris which met with the delight of audiences and critics alike.
THE YOUNG CONCERT VIOLINIST
In September 1850 the Wieniawski brothers set forth from Paris.
Hector Berlioz wrote of this departure: “We are losing one of the greatest violinists that the Paris Conservatoire has ever produced. Henryk Wieniawski is leaving for Russia. This young man, for too long regarded as a child wonder, possesses an unequaled, serious and complete talent. What is more, he composes beautiful pieces for his instrument […]. He is sure to enjoy deserved success in St. Petersburg”.
Shown on the right is Henryk Wieniawski as a young boy.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
An extremely arduous task now awaited Henryk and Józef; a mammoth, 2-year tour of the boundless territories of Russia and the Baltic lands. This was a tour given while the brothers were barely out of childhood: Henryk was just 15 and Józef was still only 13. Together they gave close to 200 concerts in huge cities as well as provincial towns, everywhere delighting the audiences and critics, although some reviews did express fears that Henryk’s precocious success might prove detrimental to his future career. The majority of the reviews spoke of Henryk’s great promise.
The Wieniawski brothers completed their second grand tour which comprised 122 concerts and confirmed the highest rank on the young artists in this part of Europe. It was at this stage that Henryk introduced several important violin works into his repertoire: Beethoven’s Concerto in D major; Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor; Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and Bach’s Sonata in A minor.
The brothers performed to similar acclaim in the hall of the Theatre Royal, the Artistic and Literary Circle, and also in Antwerp and other Belgian cities. From here they went on to give concerts in Hamburg, Bremen, and Hannover. The violinist Joseph Joachim was at that time the Germans’ favorite violinist in Hannover, and after one of Henryk’s concerts in this city, a reviewer wrote: “Wieniawski is no longer a rival worthy of Joachim; Joachim is now the only violinist whose name can stand comparison with Wieniawski”
In the spring of 1855, the two brothers made brief appearances in Paris, where Henryk had the opportunity to present and dedicate his most recent piece (and incidentally one of his most effective compositions) – the Scherzo-Tarantelle op. 16 – to Professor Massart, his old teacher.
MUSICAL CONFLICT AMONGST THE WIENIAWSKIS
The experiences of the recent concert tours had demonstrated that the brothers’ individual personalities were too strong for them to continue to give joint concerts.
Henryk was hogging the limelight while Józef was being kept in the shade. Various critics had already noticed it and predicted the brothers’ musical separation.
The decision to go their separate ways was taken in the summer of 1855 during a visit to their hometown of Lublin.
It was a separation brought about by common sense, not antagonism, and the brothers continued from time to time to play concerts together. The brothers gave farewell joint appearances in Lublin and Kiev.
WIENIAWSKI'S MUSICAL CONTRIBUTIONS
Henryk Wieniawski made an exceptional contribution to London’s chamber music and his playing was very popular and much admired. In February 1859 he was invited to the first desk of the newly inaugurated cycle of Monday Popular Concerts, to which he remained faithful whenever he was in London. He also played regularly in the matinées of The Musical Union.
Henryk Wieniawski - Signed autograph music quote from "Faust Fantasy"
A third musical organization fostering chamber music in London was the Beethoven Quartet Society in which Wieniawski played alongside the finest musicians of the day: Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, Joseph Joachim and Alfred Piatti.
Joachim - Ernst and Wieniawski - 3 of the greatest violinists of the 19th Century
Joachim recalled that “[Wieniawski] has always been and still is the craziest risk-taking virtuoso I’ve ever heard. Anyone who failed to witness the daring acrobatic leaps that he performed on the viola when we played as a quartet with Ernst and Piatti in the London Beethoven Quartet Society cannot begin to imagine the feats his left hand can perform”.
WAS WIENIAWSKI A ROMANTIC COMPOSER?
Wieniawski was one of the greatest violinists of the Romantic era. During a performance, he dazzled audiences with his expressive phrasing, stupendous technique, and rich tone. He succeeded in blending brilliant virtuosity with true Romantic inspiration. Wieniawski wrote music that celebrated the spirit of Poland, with his famous Polonaise in D major serving as a sterling example. Wieniawski´s talent as a composer came to the fore in his extraordinary Violin Concerto No. 2, regarded as one of the great works of the Romantic violin repertoire.
MARRIAGE TO ISABELLA HAMPTON
In London, back in April, Henryk’s friend Anton Rubinstein had
introduced him to the Hampton family and Henryk had met their daughter, Isabella. The two young people fell deeply in love. Isabella’s mother Elizabeth looked sympathetically upon the affair but Isabella’s father was opposed to the match and wanted his daughter to marry a man with a more solid financial background.
Shown on the right are Henryk Wieniawski and his wife.
Mr. Hampton was eventually persuaded by his wife and daughter to allow the marriage to take place but consented on the strict condition that Wieniawski takes out a life insurance policy for the considerable sum of 200,000 francs and settles down to married life.
On 8 August 1860, Wieniawski married Isabella Hampton at the Church of St. Andrew. Anton Rubinstein led the bride to the altar, Gioacchino Rossini was a witness and Henri Vieuxtemps played the violin during the ceremony.
A NEW BEGINNING
In the mid-19th century, the ruling sovereigns of Europe endeavored to secure the services of the very best instrumentalists as their court soloists.
One of the most prestigious posts was a soloist at the St. Petersburg court, a capital that played an extremely important role in the musical life of Europe. Previous holders of this post included the violinist Henri Vieuxtemps.
On 25 April 1860 General Saburov, the Director of the Imperial Theatres, approached Count Adlerberg, the court minister, with the proposal that Wieniawski be appointed court-soloist.
Just 4 days later Wieniawski received news of the Tsar’s agreement, and the very next day the Polish artist signed a three-year contract (which was subsequently to be renewed twice, making 9 years in all).
It was also during his years of employment at the St.Petersburg court that Wieniawski composed his most mature works - his 2nd Violin Concerto in D minor.
PROFESSORSHIP IN BRUSSELS
In the previous year during his trip to America, Wieniawski had
received an invitation from the Director of the Brussels Conservatoire, François Auguste Gevaert, to take over the job of Professor of the Violin Class from Henri Vieuxtemps who was afflicted by paralysis of the arms.
In the spring of 1874 Vieuxtemps’ health improved sufficiently for him to resume his duties and he was encouraged to do so by the Directors of the Conservatoire and by the ruling powers. However, Vieuxtemps declined the invitation and moved to Paris. It was only then that Wieniawski agreed to take over his friend’s professorship which had now expanded to include a chamber-music class. He assumed these duties on 28 December 1874.
The teaching methods that Wieniawski brought from St. Petersburg were highly valued in Brussels. These involved giving his students frequent opportunities for public performance and ensemble music-making. Wieniawski’s violin class contained mostly foreign students (who were possibly more talented than the Belgian pupils) and he gave this special attention.
This did not endear him to a section of the Belgian press. The laureates of this competitive examination included other of Wieniawski’s pupils. The famous Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe was one of Wieniawski’s private pupils in Brussels.
WIENIAWSKI'S DETERIORATING HEALTH
That autumn in London Wieniawski fell seriously ill and several newspapers even carried notices of his death.
The illness finally forced him to apply for a year off in order to rescue his health.
Despite his worsening state, Wieniawski continued to give more and more concerts. Wieniawski arrived in Berlin to give several concerts at the Kroll Theatre. The first of these, on 11 November, ended in tragedy. Wieniawski collapsed on stage whilst playing his own Concerto in D minor.
He ignored this ominous health warning and over the next few days made four more appearances before embarking on yet another concert tour.
In mid-December, he gave concerts in Vilnius, on 23 December in Minsk, and two days later he arrived in Moscow where at the turn of 1879 he fulfilled several more engagements. At a concert on 27 December Wieniawski gave the premiere of his Concerto in A minor (the only surviving traces of which are the program-note and various reviews).
During his Moscow concerts, Wieniawski experienced real agony. It appeared that his life was drawing to a close. When with a super-human effort he walked onto the platform and took the violin in his hand he forgot about his suffering and, as the critics stressed, played incomparably beautifully. The great violinist refused to give in to his debilitating illness and accepted further tours.
FINAL JOURNEY AND DEATH
In a string of other towns in southern Russia, Wieniawski spent his time alternately giving concerts and being confined to bed by his serious heart condition. His friends, in particular Nikolai Rubinstein, rallied around to help organize benefit concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg for the ailing musician, and thanks to their fund-raising Wieniawski was able to extricate himself from his financial difficulties.
Henryk Wieniawski - Autograph Letter Signed 1860
During the last few weeks of his life, Wieniawski was looked after at the palatial home of Nadezhda von Meck, a famous patroness of the arts and that of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Wieniawski’s wife Isabella traveled from Brussels to be with her husband, bringing their eldest son with her.
When Wieniawski’s health started to show signs of improvement suddenly there was a crisis. Henryk Wieniawski died at 8 p.m. on 31 March 1880, only a few months before his 45th birthday.
On 3 April the city of Moscow said its final farewell to the artist with a solemn mass, and Warsaw did the same four days later. On his final journey the artist was accompanied by a 40,000-strong crowd of admirers, Above his tomb, Wieniawski’s friends erected a simple monument chiseled by Andrzej Pruszyński, bearing the words: In memory of the dear departed Henryk Wieniawski, a violinist taken too soon from his art.
FAMILY AND PERSONAL LIFE
Wieniawski’s wife, Isabella, accompanied him on only some of his travels when she was able to leave their children with Henryk’s parents in Lublin. The burden of running a home and bringing up 7 children rested on Isabella’s shoulders.
The couple’s first son (also named Henryk) was born in 1861 but lived only a year and a half. Their second son, Juliusz Józef, was born in 1863 and lived into the 1920’s. A daughter, Izabela Helena, was born in 1865 and died in 1942. At the turn of 1871 twins – Regina and Ewelina – were born. Another daughter, Henryka Klaudyna, was born in 1878 and died in 1962 at the grand age of 84.
Finally, there was the youngest child, Irena Regina, who was born in 1879, several months before her father’s death, and died in 1932. Only 3 of the daughters – Izabela, Henryka, and Irena – went on to have their own families; their descendants are scattered all over the world: in Great Britain, the U.S.A., and Canada.
The youngest daughter, Irena, was the only one of the children to carry on the musical tradition of her father. Under the pseudonym of Poldowski, she composed works for solo piano, violin and piano, and above all, songs. The best-known of her songs were composed to lyrics by the French poet, Paul Verlaine.
WORKS AND LEGACY
Wieniawski published his first opus named "Grand Caprice Fantastique", after that his works have been published by nearly 80 publishing houses
of Europe and the USA and the following have been published most often: The Legend op.17, solo Violin Concerto in D-major op 22, Deux Mazourkas Caracteristiques op. 19, Kujawiak, Caprices for two violins op. 18, Deux mazourkas de salon op. 12.
Henryk Wieniawski’s music has been recorded by the greatest virtuosi of the violin.
The oldest, historical recordings include interpretations of Wieniawski by his pupils: Eugène Ysaÿe and Karol Gregorowicz, and also by Jan Kubelik, Bronisław Huberman, Váša Přihoda, Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman. The artists who have most frequently recorded Wieniawski’s works are Itzhak Perlman, Ruggiero Ricci, Leonid Kogan, Alfredo Campoli, and Nathan Milstein. Wieniawski’s music has also been recorded by Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Henryk Szeryng, Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell, Zino Francescatti, Ida Haendel, Isaac Stern, Anne Sophie Mutter, Midori, Gil Shaham, and Igor Oistrakh.
The most frequently recorded of Wieniawski’s pieces are the Violin Concertos: in F sharp minor op. 14 and D minor op. 22; the Polonaises: in D major op. 4 and A major op. 21; the Scherzo-Tarantelle op. 16; the Légende op. 17; the Caprices from the collection L’Ecole moderne op. 10 and the Caprices for Two Violins op. 18; the Souvenir de Moscow op. 6; and the Fantasia on Themes from Gounod’s Faust op. 20 and the Kujawiak.
(Written by Lionel Tan - Edited by Nestor Masckauchan)
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