Skip to page content

There are two categories for musicians who both write music and perform it: composers who are virtuosos and virtuosos who compose. It is the latter group to which Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) belongs. The Polish-born musician was one of the reigning violinists of his day, worshipped by the public for his creative and recreative artistry, admired and respected by his colleagues. In the manner of many another virtuoso performer, Wieniawski was a child prodigy, testing his stage wings early. Advancing rapidly in his violin studies, young Henryk was taken to Paris when only eight, graduating from the Conservatory with the first prize at the grand old age of 11. He gave his first concert in St. Petersburg in 1848 at 13, then returned to Paris for study in composition. Afterward, with his pianist brother Joseph, he toured Europe; and with Anton Rubinstein, the U.S., where, interestingly, he traveled as far as California.

After a brief tenure as professor at the Brussels Conservatory, he resumed the difficult life of a traveling concert artist, the trials of which are thought to have hastened his early death at 44. An episode that occurred two years before his passing supports this view. During a performance in Berlin (it is said, of tonight’s Concerto), Wieniawski suffered a spasm that paralyzed him with pain. After several moments of shocked silence, violinist Joseph Joachim, who was in the audience, bolted onto the stage and, assured that the stricken man was in no immediate danger, took up the silenced fiddle and filled the tense atmosphere with the comforting message of Bach’s Chaconne. Two years later, mortally ill and stranded in Moscow, Wieniawski was aided in his last days by Tchaikovsky’s benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck. When he died, he left as a legacy a very high performing standard (he was reputed to have combined a superb technique with vibrant temperament and great tonal beauty) and several attractive showpiece compositions for his instrument.

The finest of these is the D-minor Concerto, a work which, with its full range of virtuosity and lyricism, continues to be an essential in any violinist’s repertoire. A veiled orchestral melody sets the Concerto’s tone of pulsating Romanticism; the soloist continues it when he enters on this same theme that fully exploits the violin’s sweetness of tone. The first movement goes to the second, a soulful Romance, without pause, the link being a brief clarinet solo. About this movement, the renowned violinist Leopold Auer said, “It is a song to be sung in away to make us forget the instrument.” The gypsyish finale is prepared for by a short but fiery violin cadenza which prefigures the section’s vital dash and verve. In the course of the movement, a return of the first movement’s second theme brings an element of formal unity to a work that relies for its primary effect on the combination of bravura and melodiousness.

- Note by Orrin Howard