Skip to page content

Composed: c. 1850
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, strings, and solo violin
First LA Phil performance: February 27, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Sylvain Noack

The name that comes most prominently to mind when discussing the post-Paganini generation of violinists is that of Belgian-born Henri Vieuxtemps, whose virtuosity and compositions (including seven violin concertos) were praised in his time by no less than Berlioz and Schumann.

Vieuxtemps attracted huge audiences in Europe and the United States, where he appeared as soloist with the major orchestras, playing chiefly his own works, and presenting duo concerts of sonatas by Beethoven (in particular) and other composers with Anton Rubinstein and with Sigismond Thalberg.

One of his signal accomplishments was re-introducing to the world the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which the 14-year old Vieuxtemps (he had made his public debut at age six) brought to Vienna in 1834, one of the rare occasions it had been heard since its unsuccessful premiere there in 1806. Vieuxtemps’ rapturously received performances there and in Berlin led to its becoming a centerpiece of the repertory, taken up by all subsequent violin virtuosos.  

Indicative of the spell Vieuxtemps could weave without resorting to the eccentricities or the “Satanic interventions” attributed in the popular mind to Paganini – who, it should be noted, greatly admired the playing of the teenaged Vieuxtemps as well – are the words of that brilliant, arch-critical tough guy and Wagner hater, Eduard Hanslick, written in 1854:

“Listening to [Vieuxtemps] is one of the greatest, most unqualified pleasures music has to offer. His playing is as technically infallible and masterful as it is musically noble, inspired, and compelling. I consider him the first among contemporary violinists. Some may counter with Joachim [Joseph, the friend of Brahms and later dedicatee-first performer of his Violin Concerto], who is now in his prime and said to be unsurpassed in the interpretation of the classics of the violin literature. But for one who has not heard Joachim, the existence of a greater player than Vieuxtemps is hard to imagine.

“He is also one of the best of the modern composers for his instrument. His concertos are imaginative, gracious, well-made, and contrived with great technical knowledge with respect to instrumentation. Excluding Spohr [Ludwig, 1784-1859] he may be considered the finest composer among contemporary violinists, and the finest violinist among contemporary composers.”

With Vieuxtemps there were reportedly no tricks, no theatrical flourishes, no attempt merely to dazzle. Fantastic technical challenges, to be sure, as today’s music demonstrates.

Of his own concertos, the Fourth, in D minor, was his favorite. It was written around 1850, while he was serving a five-year stint as solo violinist to Czar Nicholas I in St. Petersburg and Master Teacher at the city’s conservatory.

It is a grandly imposing work in four movements, the second of which (connected to the first by a long-held horn note), Adagio religioso, convincingly shows that Vieuxtemps could not only set the strings ablaze but could also invent melodies of beguiling, sensuous warmth.

— Herbert Glass