His Violin (Viotti today)

Posted on October 22nd, 2011 by

His Violin

Link to Viotti-Suonata

For most of the time, the violin hangs, alone, gently glowing in the corner of the gallery on the Marylebone Road.  The light is set just high enough that the visitor can register its exquisite colouration, low enough that the tramonto that is this instrument’s ‘ground’ is not at risk of fading.  Some visitors are awed by its beauty, whereas others might be struck by the sense of being in the presence of witness to history.  This violin has sung in counterpoint to tumultuous events, lived through ‘interesting times’.  More than a few are saddened by its apparent silence today, whilst a number are astounded that for all its 300 years, its lustre seems not to have dimmed.  But there will be some who consider the changes that it has undergone since it left the bench of Antonio Stradivari, and how these reflect both music’s changes, and ebb and flow of the history which it has, in some small way, ‘accompanied’.

Viotti as musical director, his ‘bow of cotton’ firmly grasped in his ‘arm of Hercules’. The bow in this picture is not a modern ‘Tourte-model’ but a long earlier type. Perhaps Viotti preferred to not use the Tourtes, with their ‘fini precieux’ for the more risky business of directing. Berlioz recalled Habeneck’s willingness to break his bow in frustration, so perhaps conductors reserved their finer instruments for concertantes.

Some will hear its voice, and a few will have the chance to sing with that voice.  They will find themselves part of a vast colloquy of souls, a web of ideas and influences, distilled, mysteriously into this, the most natural of tones, which is the very portrait of the man who made this instrument his own, and who was at once the ‘bellows and the fan’ of a musical revolution, Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824). Viotti was a reflective, refracting, focussing force, whose talent was to enhance people’s experience of the world.  Never was a man less suited for incipient Romanticism, never was anyone less attracted to a cult of the personality.

Every violinist traces their ancestry, somewhat wistfully, to Giovanni Battista Viotti.  The author of the mammoth 1876 survey,  Les Instruments à Archet, Les Feseurs, Les Joueurs d’Instruments, Leur Histoire sur le Continent Européen, Suivi d’un Catalogue Général de la Musique de Chambre, the amateur Louis-Antoine Vidal (1820-1891) referred to him as Père Créateur (Father-Creator).  His dear friend, the composer, Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) described one of his visits to Paris; surrounded by his disciples, he seemed, “like a father among his children.”

Viotti’s impact on Parisian audiences began with the twelve consecutive concerts following his tremendous début at the Concert Spirituel in 1782. It is however, only during his tenure at the Théâtre Monsieur/Feydau, that he can really be said to have guided players. We can only speculate that the reason that his disciples in that orchestra were not inclined to report on this period was lest, post-1791, they reveal that they were themselves tarred with success in the ancien régime.  There is no question that it was with Viotti’s meteoric rise in 1782, that the new ‘French school’ was established, that, “His music and his playing were a revelation; la vieille école va faire place à la nouvelle.

However, few of Viotti’s followers had the opportunity to study with him, owing to his refusal to teach adults. Our pedagogical inheritance is only what Dr Johnson (1709-1784) would call ‘real authentick history’, if we can prove a lineage from the children that he taught at various points in his career. Of all Viotti’s pupils, the first violin professor of the Royal Academy of Music, Nicholas Mori (1797-1839), who studied with him extensively during his time in England, might have the greatest claim to be his true student. The Academy’s violinistic tradition is a legacy of Viotti’s work, notwithstanding the fact that the foundation of the institution by Lord Burghersh (1784-1859) effectively hijacked Viotti’s own project.

Viotti’s example of the ideal artist blazed a trail for many others to follow.  His principle was simple:

“A man should die at his post; for good sense always taught me that if honest men quit their posts, the wicked gain an immense triumph.”