Sunday 26 January 2020

Wieniawski seen as the 'reincarnation of Paganini'

Celebrated: Henryk Wieniawski
Celebrated: Henryk Wieniawski

George Hamilton

The violin - front and centre in every orchestra - has attracted many a magical musician over the centuries. Paganini and Joachim, Sarasate, Heifetz, and Perlman, right through to Sarah Chang, Joshua Bell, and Anne-Sophie Mutter.

You could set about compiling your own list, and there would plenty of names you might add.

This week, I thought I'd turn the spotlight on one whose music is maybe not so well known as the rest.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Henryk Wieniawski was "one of the most celebrated violinists of the 19th century".

The website says "contemporary critics and music-lovers regarded him as the reincarnation of Nicolò Paganini".

Henryk was born in 1835 in what was then a part of the Russian empire, now Poland. His father was a medical man, his mother a professional pianist.

Henryk took to the violin, and had an obvious talent. There was no chance of an advanced musical education in the turmoil of Poland at the time, so his mother took him off to Paris to put him forward for the Conservatory, then considered Europe's leading music school.

There was a problem, though. Henryk was only eight. And he was Polish. The Conservatory was open only to French nationals, and even then, they had to be at least 12 years old.

They did agree to an audition, and were bowled over by what they heard. A special exemption was made. Wieniawkski's exceptional talent had got him in.

He rounded off his three-year course with the Gold Medal for violin.

The touring and performing that would have him considered Paganini's successor began when he was only 13.

His younger brother Józef - who'd opted for the piano and would earn himself top billing for his playing - became his accompanist.

They spent a lot of time giving concerts in Russia which led to an appointment for Henryk as court violinist to the Tsar, and ultimately a place on the teaching staff at the St Petersburg conservatory.

In the meantime, he'd fallen for Isabella Hampton, a niece of the Limerick-born composer and pianist George Osborne. He loved her "more deeply than the finest Stradivarius" he'd written to a friend. She clearly felt the same about him.

But there was a catch. While Isabella's mother was delighted to see her daughter happy, her father wasn't quite so sure.

Henryk Wieniawski might well have been a top musician with a significant fan base right across the continent, but musicians were notorious for being financially unreliable.

The story goes that Wieniawksi's Légende, a showpiece for violin it seems clear was inspired by Isabella, melted the old boy's heart, and he agreed to the match.

The reality is rather more mundane. A sizable insurance policy and Henryk's contract with the Tsar seem more likely to have swayed Mr Hampton.

Whatever it was, though, they married in 1860, and had seven children together. Régine, his youngest daughter, became a composer too, better known under her pseudonym Poldowski.

Wieniawski's hectic schedule, both at home and abroad, meant the course of domestic life never really ran that smoothly.

Tours across Europe and the United States, where he spent over a year-and-a-half, took quite a toll.

Eventually the family settled in Brussels, where Wieniawski became the conservatory's professor of violin.

But he was still an inveterate performer, and his health suffered.

He was on a concert tour of Russian when he became ill, and he died in Moscow in March 1880, at the age of only 44.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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