Viotti and the ideal violin

Posted on January 22nd, 2010 by

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


Viotti and the ideal violin

The Irish poet and folk-song lyricist, Thomas Moore (179?-1852),  remembered Viotti’s apparent forbearance at an evening at Fairmead Lodge, Loughton, the country house rented by the poet and soldier William Sotheby (1757-1833).  Sotheby was, along with William Spencer a regular at the Gillwell House soirées, not far west of his house in Epping Forest.  His children, it is reported, were treated as members of the family by the Chinnerys. Sotheby “…Begged Viotti…to bring his violin- the latter promised he would &, on his arrival, Botherby the barbarian, exclaimed ‘I am glad you are come- you’ve brought your fiddle, I hope- now, girls- where are your partners? Stand up- here’s Mr.  Viotti- what dance will you have?’- Viotti, to the immortal credit of his good-nature, played country-dances for them the whole night.”

LISTEN: Pierre Baillot (one of Viotti’s great trio of disciples)-Ancient Air

Thomas Moore was perhaps unaware that Sotheby was not so insensitive to Viotti’s achievements as the evening’s dancing might have suggested.  Perhaps he was fond of setting himself up as a man of greater ‘sensibility’; whether his song, Love thee dearest, which was later based on the second movement of Viotti’s 5th Violin Concertois evidence of this, is a moot point.  But Moore was a capable musician, whose Irish Melodies, which appeared from 1808-1834, came to confirm him as Ireland’s leading ‘bard’.  He was sure that the Revolution had profoundly changed the disposition and behaviour of Britain’s upper classes, bringing an “Increased reserve of manner, and or course, a proportionate restraint on all within the circle which have been fatal to conviviality and humour…”  Moore links Viotti to the circle of intellects around the Lord Byron (1788-1824), a lifelong admiere of Napoleon, who dedicated The Corsair to Moore, remarking that his “lyrics shine in hot-pressed twelves.” As chance would have it, Byron died in the same year as Viotti, another idealistic émigré.  Viotti himself would probably not have had that much of a problem being seen as merely a violinist for dancing; he happily called himself ‘le racleur’ (The scraper).

            In his completion of ‘Johnson’s Lives of the British Poets’ , the essayist, William Hazlitt reported that in 1802 Sotheby had published “the tragedy of Orestes, on the model of the ancient Greek drama, accompanied by a mask entitled Huon de Bordeaux , founded on the poem of Oberon, and interspersed with many elegant songs, adapted to the music of Viotti.”

           In that year,  Sotheby was in closest contact with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who addressed the following lines to him, lines which sum up the ideals which Viotti’s circle held, and which, one might imagine, might have been discussed, in the lull of a ‘hop’ at Fairmead Lodge.  “Nature has her proper interest: & he will know what it is, who believes and feels, that every Thing has a Life of it’s [sic] own, & that we are all one Life.  A poet’s Heart & Intellect should be combined, intimately  combinaed & unified, with the great appearances in Nature-& not merely held in solution & loose mixture with them, in the shape of formal Similes…”