Henryk Wieniawski

(10 July 1835 - 31 March 1880)

Henryk Wieniawski was a virtuoso Polish violinist and composer. He was widely viewed by many as the successor to Nicolò Paganini, and several of his pieces for violin have remained in the instrument’s repertoire until the present day.

The son of conservatory-trained pianist Regina Wieniawski, Henryk was fortunate to receive a high quality music education from a very early age. Thanks to his mother’s efforts, there was never a shortage of high-profile musicians coming through the house to play chamber works and teach her children, on whom she also bestowed her special affinity for the music of Chopin. Wieniawski began taking violin lessons with Jan Hornziel, who immediately recognized his genius, and soon after with Stanisław Serwaczyński, who had also taught the great Joseph Joachim.

Having already given his first public performances by the age of seven, Wieniawski’s mother decided that the best way to continue her son’s education and rid him of the political strife in Poland was to study at the Paris Conservatoire. The eight year old prodigy arrived in Paris in 1843 only to find that he didn’t fit the criteria to even be considered for admittance to the Conservatoire, being neither French nor over the age of twelve. However, after hearing his playing, the administrators made a historical exception and admitted him anyway.

Wieniawski studied mostly under the accomplished violin pedagogue and performer Joseph Lambert Massart, who provided his young and motivated pupil with extra lessons. After three years of study with Massart, Wieniawski was declared the winner of the graduation competition, and had essentially completed his studies by the age of eleven, although he would return to study composition for a time.

In 1848, the 13-year-old virtuoso embarked on the first of many tours around Europe, accompanied for many concerts by his younger brother, Józef, on piano. The Wieniawskis played several shows in St. Petersburg, which earned them the praise of Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps, who declared “there is no doubt that this child is a genius, for at his age it would otherwise be impossible for him to play with such passionate feeling, and moreover with such understanding and such a well-conceived plan.” Following a few years of respite at home and in Paris, Henryck and Józef again embarked on an even more grueling concert series, playing around 200 concerts in Russia over the course of three years. Most of these concerts were enthusiastically received, although there were some critics who saw the children as mere virtuosi devoid of true music substance.

It was around this time that Wieniawski also began to delve more seriously into composition. Starting with two more years of studying harmony and composition with H. Collet at the Paris Conservatoire, he quickly began to build his opus count, finishing and publishing fourteen works by 1853. Of these, many have become partially or wholly lost. The pieces that survived show a surprisingly mature compositional voice, marred only by a flair for drama and virtuosity. However, it was exactly these supposed shortcomings that endeared Wienaiwski to European audiences. His early works, such as the Polonaise in D major (1852) and Concerto No. 1 in F# minor (1853), were particularly enthusiastically received in Germany. Like his contemporary, Chopin, these pieces show a high degree of Polish nationalism, in addition to being consummately Romantic in nature.

Wienaiwski’s fame was steadily growing due to successful performances throughout the Baltic States, Scandinavia and Western Europe. In 1859 he finally appeared in the British Isles, giving concerts in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Dublin and Belfast, amongst other places. In London he famously performed on viola with the Beethoven Quartet Society, in which Joseph Joachim was one of the violinists. It was also around this time that he met Isabella Hampton in London, who he would dedicate his Légende to in 1860 and marry later the same year. Together they returned back to Russia at the request of his friend, the great Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, who was seeking to improve the musical and cultural opportunities in St. Petersburg.

[Wieniawski is] without doubt the greatest violinist of his time.

In the relatively brief span of time he lived St. Petersburg, Wienaiwski managed to fundamentally change the Russian violin tradition, and many generations of subsequent violinists adopted his unique style of playing, including a stiff and uncomfortable-looking bow arm. After a combined total of around twenty years in Russia, Wienaiwski finally left in 1872 to begin a two-year tour of North America, playing over 200 concerts in one year with Anton Rubinstein. After these strenuous conditions he must have been glad to be offered the position recently vacated by his friend Vieuxtemps as professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatory. Although he continued to compose and perform, these activities became more and more limited as his health began to fail due to a heart condition. On 11 November 1878, while performing his own Second Concerto in D minor (1862), Wienaiwski collapsed and had to be carried off the stage. A similar incident happened a month later while performing Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9. Wienaiwski’s refusal to give up public performances or tours may have been a contributing factor to his early demise.

Although he only lived until his mid-40s, Wienaiwski had a huge influence on the Romantic violin tradition. In addition to his unique bowing style, his vibrato was unprecedentedly expressive and he was known to take extreme risks while playing. Even though these weren’t always successful, they lent a level of excitement to his performances that could rarely be seen. His compositions, which initially were notable mostly for their youthful vigour and technical difficulty, quickly matured to fully display a wider palette of sounds, and in later works such as Violin Concerto No. 2, Wieniawski was also writing much more complicated parts for the orchestra with separate themes that would demonstrate their own development, instead of composing just for the soloist. His étude collections L’école moderne and Etudes-caprices are some of the most difficult in history, while still demanding a high level of musicality. In the words of his friend Anton Rubinstein, Wieniawski was quite simply “without doubt the greatest violinist of his time.”

Header image courtesy of Kultureline.kr
Other images courtesy of Agencja Filharmonia, Wieniawski Musical Society and Polonia Music

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