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Henri Vieuxtemps

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Henri Vieuxtemps


Henri François Joseph Vieuxtemps (17 February 1820, Verviers, Belgium – 6 June 1881, Mustapha, Algiers) was a Belgian composer and violinist.

Vieuxtemps received his first violin instruction from his father and a local teacher and gave his first public performance at the age of six. Soon he was giving concerts in various surrounding cities, including Liège and Brussels where he met the violinist Charles Auguste de Bériot, with whom he began studies.

In 1829, Bériot took him to Paris where he made a successful concert debut. Back in Brussels, Vieuxtemps continued developing his violin technique on his own, his musicianship deepened by playing with the deeply musical mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot. A tour of Germany in 1833 brought friendship with Louis Spohr and with Robert Schumann, who compared the boy to Niccolò Paganini. During the following decade he visited various European cities, impressing with his virtuosity not only audiences but also famous musicians such as Hector Berlioz and Paganini himself, whom he encountered at his London debut in 1834.

Vieuxtemps had aspirations of becoming a composer as well and, having already taken lessons with the respected Simon Sechter in Vienna, spent the winter of 1835–1836 studying composition with Anton Reicha in Paris. His first violin concerto, later published as Concerto No. 2, dates from this time. His Violin Concerto No. 1 was acclaimed when he played it in Saint Petersburg on his second visit in 1840 and in Paris the next year. Based in Paris, Vieuxtemps continued to compose with great success and perform throughout Europe. With the pianist Sigismond Thalberg, he performed in the United States. He was particularly admired in Russia where he resided permanently between 1846 and 1851 as a court musician of Tsar Nicholas I and soloist in the Imperial Theatre. He founded the violin school of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and guided the formation of a "Russian school" of violinists.

In 1871, he returned to his native country to accept a professorship at the Brussels Conservatory. A paralytic stroke disabled his right arm two years later, ending his career as a violinist for good, and he moved to Paris again.

Vieuxtemps occupies an important place in the history of the violin as a prominent exponent of the Franco-Belgian violin school during the mid-19th century. He is also known for playing what is now known as the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù, a violin of superior workmanship.

The bulk of Vieuxtemps' compositions were for his own instrument, including seven concertos and a variety of short salon pieces, though towards the end of his life, when he had to give up the violin, he often turned to other instruments, writing two cello concertos, a viola sonata and three string quartets among other things. It is because of his seven violin concertos, however, that Vieuxtemps is generally known to audiences and musicians around the world. Through his own concertos he added a more classical dimension to the violin repertoire which had tended towards technically brilliant but often shallow variations and fantasies on popular operatic themes.

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