Perhaps it is the singing quality of the violin that has endeared it to us so deeply. After all, that was our earliest connection to the world of musical expression. But then, there were also all the virtuosos—the violinists whom we know by one name: Corelli, Paganini, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, to name a few. These legendary instrumentalists were not only masters of their instruments, but also contributed some of the most beautiful music for strings the world has ever known. They were those who became heroes to those would become heroes for others.
It can be easy to forget how close many of these individuals were to each other through the overlapping lines of generations. It was a teenage Henri Vieuxtemps who met Robert Schumann and Niccolò Paganini. Later in his adulthood it was Vieuxtemps who would happen by on the street and hear a young Eugene Ysaÿe practicing. Having only studied with his father, life would change almost overnight for Ysaÿe as Vieuxtemps would arrange for him to study with Henry Wieniawski. (Ysaÿe’s students later included Josef Gingold, long-time teacher of Joshua Bell.)
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) and George Enescu (1881-1955) were born six years apart, and both received special permission to study at the Vienna Conservatory as children. Their careers ended up taking different paths. After initial success, including a New York City recital in Steinway hall in 1888, Kreisler suffered a blow when his bid for a position in the Vienna Philharmonic was denied. He shifted his focus away from the violin and toward medicine before returning to the stage. Meanwhile, the year Kreisler performed at Steinway Hall was the same year Enescu began his studies at the Conservatory. He concertized successfully and went on to further his education in Paris. He would find fame as a violinist, teacher, and conductor.
Like their virtuoso predecessors and teachers, each of these violinists contributed to the body of repertoire for strings (or beyond—including operas and symphonies). Ysaÿe’s lush Harmonies du Soir creates a twilight soundscape by dividing the parts between a larger ensemble of strings and a string quartet. Written in 1934 and privately performed for the Queen of Belgium the following year, it was rarely performed for many years. Kreisler’s brief encore pieces are his best known works, though he also wrote operettas and vocal works. His String Quartet in A was his only attempt at the genre, published in 1921. Mendelssohn’s glimmering octet might be the most famous, but Enescu made a gorgeous contribution though his octet’s intricate tapestry of sound. Written in 1900, it weaves in idioms from the folk music traditions of his native Romania with late romantic era sonorities.
Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot
Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.