Faure and the violin….

Posted on July 9th, 2010 by


Rough notes on Fauré and the violin. Pre concert talk given 27th June 2010  

Gabriel Fauré’s piano writing might be said to begin with Chopin’s triumphant visits to Paris; there he played chamber music with Pierre Baillot, concertos under Francois Habeneck, sonatas with Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, whilst Delacroix sketched; Paris was littered with pianists as Berlioz noted to Ernst:

 Berlioz..to Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst

Paris 7th April 1853

 My dear Ernst, […]we were almost hoping to see you in Paris for the end of the concert season, though it’s true that, as the concerts haven’t finished yet, you are free to come any time that you like, in the certainty that you will always find yourself in the midst of a crowd of small and middling virtuosos who clutter up the place with universal scraping and strumming. This year especially, the number of pianists have been exorbitant; a crowd of grasshoppers has descended on Paris. So much so that Zimmerman said that the other day, ‘it’s terrifying-everybody these days plays the piano, and everybody plays it well.’ Too well-to which I replied: “Indeed…we are the only two left who don’t play it.”[i]

 But is, in honesty, a line of violinists who stand today’s concert, it all begins with greatest of them all, Marie Antoinette’s musician de chamber, Giovanni Battista Viotti. It was Viotti who brought the broad Italian style of his Tartini, and his own teacher, Gaetano Pugnani to Paris, along with the maxim that they all shared-per ben suonare, bisogna ben cantare. And that singing violin is the foundation of all the music that we are going to explore today. Our concert takes Gabriel Fauré’s two sonatas, written four decades apart, and explores the sound world in which they were rooted, and the violinism and pianism which inspired them.

Giovanni Battista Viotti playing chamber music. Anonymous watercolour. UK ca/1815-1824-Private Collection.

 We will root the concert in two very distinctive voices, Charles de Bériot and the Brno born Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst:

 … The most remarkable violinists seem to come from the Low Countries. …The most distinguished of these national paternity is beyond question de Bériot, husband of the late Malibran, and many a time I cannot but entertain the thought that the soul of his departed wife sang in the sweet tones of his violin. It is only Ernst the Bohemian, so rich in poetry, who can draw sounds from his instrument so sweet while bleeding. [ii][Heine]

 But let’s play the genealogy game. Charles de Bériot was nineteen years old when he arrived in Paris, determined to meet Viotti, then at the end of his ill-starred tenure at the Opéra. He did not consider himself to be a finished artist at the time that he importuned Viotti for lessons. However, he was brushed off, with the warning that study might destroy his uniqueness of style and technique.  It as reported that Viotti said:

 “You have a fine style! Give yourself up to the business of perfecting it! Hear all men of talent; profit by everything, and imitate nothing.”

Charles de Beriot in old age

 So Bériot went to study with Pierre Francois la Sales Baillot. Baillot also taught J P Maurin, who would teach Lucien Capet, who premiered the 2nd Fauré  Sonata.

 In March 1922 Fauré wrote to his wife that:

 Mme Cortot writes that tomorrow evening in Brussels, her husband will play for Queen Elisabeth in her palace the sonata which I dedicated to her in 1917. This ill fated sonata is still only very rarely played! What a lot of time is needed for music to become known.[iii]

 Alfred Cortot was giving that premiere with Lucian Capet; he then taught Louis Krasner (Berg’s violinist), who taught me.

 Another of Viotti’s pupils was Napoleon’s personal violinist, Pierre Rode, for whom Beethoven wrote his last Piano/violin Sonata. Rode taught Josef Boehm, who worked with Beethoven on his late quartets, Boehm taught Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, as well as Joseph Joachim.

 But it was the Belgian scions of Viotti and his school which ironically would have the biggest impact on the ‘French’ violin sound. And of course, this begins with de Bériot. De Bériot was born to an impoverished, but noble family in Louvain, and when he was offered Pierre Baillot’s place at the Paris conservatoire, refused for patriotic reasons. He taught the great Henri Vieuxtemps, born in the wool town of Verviers, about whom Schumann wrote:

    When we listen to Henri, we can close our eyes with confidence. His playing is at once so sweet and bright, like a flower. From the first to the last sound that he draws from his instrument, Vieuxtemps holds you in a magic circle, traced round you, and you cannot find the beginning or the end. [iv]

 And it is the quality of sonic enchantment, of ‘bright sweetness’ which sums up this school and so much of what composers such as Fauré  sought. One of Vieuxtemps more mysterious pupils was the child prodigy Mary Harkness, who changed her name to Mara Senkrah. She was born in New York in 1864, but briefly conquered Europe after graduating from the Brussels and Paris Conservatoires. In 1896, one writer noted that:

 “After appearing at Weimar she was created a chamber virtuoso by the Grand Duke, and here, once more Eros got the better of Polyhymnia, and she married one Hoffman, a lawyer, in the eighties, and vanished, apparently for ever, from the concert platform. Further particulars of the circumstances of her life and artistic career, if any exist, are not forthcoming. [v]

Arma Senkrah with Liszt

 Whilst today she is most recognisable as having had her picture taken playing Beethoven with Liszt, she is also the dedicatee of the Fauré  Romance, which might be said to enshrine the Vieuxtemps-esque quality of ‘bright sweetness’ that Schumann so admired.

 Henri Vieuxtemps greatest pupil was the giant Walloon, Eugene Ysaÿe, who studied with him in both Brussels and Paris. He described him as:

 “The young violinist with the marvellous E string”

 Ysaÿe would become the inspiration for works by the great French composers-Franck, Debussy, Chausson, and Fauré  himself, who wrote his second Quintet for him. He also taught Queen Elisabeth of the Belgium’s, to whom Fauré  dedicated his 2nd Sonata, which we will play tonight. Ysaÿe was a huge character, personally, and physically, and prone to outbursts. In 1908, the Musical News noted:

 “With the excuse that a touch of scandal may offer welcome relief to tired readers it may be irreverently recorded her that in 1908 Ysaÿe was ordered to pay £320 to a Belgian railway Guard  for boxing his ears and thus causing deafness. However, he succeeded, on appeal, in getting the sum reduced to £60 on the grounds that the guard’s hearing was impaired before the assault was committed.[vi]

 Ysaÿe was also a great gourmand, much to Fauré’s irritation, who was somewhat ascetic in his tastes-this could lead to friction:

 ….to Marie Fauré

Café de l’Horloge, Brussels, 23rd march 1906

 I finally had this rehearsal with Ysaÿe, yesterday. But so many annoyances! Marching orders were that I would lunch at their house at half past twelve, and would rehearse afterwards. However the first thing Mme Ysaÿe does it to have the silly idea of inviting in other people. ON the other hand, Ysaÿe, who had got back from Antwerp at 2 o’clock in the morning, did not come down until one o’clock. Then we had a leisurely lunch, Flemish style, and time went on. I was cross, and naturally had to keep smiling. 

 During the writing of his first Sonata, Fauré worked extensively with Hubert Leonard-another Belgian. Leonard was a student of the last great violinist/conductor, Habeneck, who directed the first performance of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. Habeneck was, like de Bériot, a student of Viotti’s disciple, Pierre Baillot. Leonard himself is remembered today for little else than having invented ‘fingered octaves’ [demonstrate], and it is clear from the content of the 1st Sonata, that he was maybe a little over enthusiastic about his innovation.

François Antoine Habeneck - at the beginning of an illustrious career

 However, one of his students, another Belgian, inspired one of Fauré’s most famous violin works, his Berceuse Op 16. Like Ysaÿe, Ovide Musine was quite a character. In 1893, the Musical News reported that:

 “…his concert company was about to begin an evening entertainment at a Baptist church, and Mr Musin, arrayed in faultless evening dress, thought that he would view the audience without being seen. To accomplish his purpose he stepped behind a curtain which hung at the back of the platform. There was a splash, and the violinist found himself in three feet of water. He emerged a very wet and angry man. Mr Musin had accidentally stepped into the Baptismal font….[vii]

Ovide Musin

 But the most charming circulatory goes all the way back to de Bériot, and his tragic wife, Maria Malibran. Malibran’s sister was Pauline Viardot; her son was the violinist Paul Viardot, to whom Fauré’s first sonata was dedicated.


[i]  Selected letters of Berlioz, Ed.Hugh Macdonald, Faber and Faber, London, 1995, Pp. 298-9,

[ii] Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst: Virtuoso Violinist, M.W.Rowe, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2008, P.88

[iii] Ibid. P 197

[iv] Quoted in Campbell, The Great Violinists  P. 65

[v] Pp.193-4, Celebrated Violinists past and present, A. Ehrlich, The Strad, London, 1906.

 [vi] The Mirror of Music, Scholes, Musical Times, Volume 1 P. 351

[vii] Quoted in The Mirror of Music P. 348

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