Rodolfe Kreutzer (1766-1831)
His father, a wind player, came from Breslau in about 1760 to play in the newly formed Swiss Guards of the Duke of Choiseul; he also played and taught the violin locally in Versailles but was not in the orchestra of the royal chapel. Rodolphe was the eldest of five surviving children and received his early musical education from his father. From 1778 Anton Stamitz taught him the violin and composition; on 25 May 1780 Kreutzer performed a concerto by his teacher at the Concert Spirituel, Paris, and was received as a prodigy. In 1782–3 he heard Viotti’s solo violin performances and was influenced by his style of writing and playing (although he met Viotti, there is no evidence that he became his pupil). In May 1784 Kreutzer performed his own First Violin Concerto at the Concert Spirituel. After the death of his parents within three months (November 1784, January 1785) he came under the kindly influence of Marie Antoinette and the Count of Artois, who probably arranged his acceptance into the king’s music during 1785. He wrote chamber music and played more of his own violin concertos, and by 1789 was a leading virtuoso; in that year he moved from Versailles to Paris.
No primary evidence has been discovered for Fétis’s assertion that two operas by Kreutzer were privately produced under the queen’s patronage in the closing years of the ancien régime. But a series of operatic works was brought out by Kreutzer from 1790, chiefly at the Comédie-Italienne, later Opéra-Comique. The two pieces which established his stage reputation were Paul et Virginie and Lodoiska; the latter was preferred to Cherubini’s work of the same name, also first given in 1791.
The flood of energy that characterized the musical world of the Revolutionary period brought about the Institut National de Musique (1793), forerunner of the Conservatoire (1795); Kreutzer was attached to both, as professor of violin. He was to teach at the Conservatoire until 1826, and sat as a member of its council from 1825 to 1830. The famous 42 études ou caprices for violin (originally 40; the additional two may not be Kreutzer’s) appeared initially in 1796, published by the Conservatoire.
Kreutzer made a successful concert tour of Italy in 1796: by this time he had composed at least eight violin concertos. During a second tour he was attached to Bernadotte’s party on the latter’s appointment as French ambassador to Vienna in February 1798; his activities included the removal of Italian manuscripts to France on Napoleon’s orders. A Beethoven letter of 4 October 1804 reveals that the two men came into contact, and that Beethoven heard Kreutzer’s playing. The Violin Sonata op.47 (called the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata) dates however from 1802–3; the dedication to Kreutzer was made without the latter’s knowledge, and the sonata was published in 1805. It is not thought that the work was ever played publicly by its dedicatee. His career in Paris from 1798 on was marked by particularly successful concert appearances at the Théâtre Feydeau and the Opéra, some of which were made jointly with Rode. When Rode departed for Russia in 1801 Kreutzer replaced him as solo violin of the Opéra; he joined Napoleon’s chapel orchestra in 1802 and his private orchestra four years later.
The opera Astyanax (1801) was fairly successful; but it was Kreutzer’s first ballet score, Paul et Virginie (1806), using music from the earlier opera, which appealed sufficiently to the public to hold the stage for 15 years. Aristippe (1808), a comedy on the popular Anacreon theme, also proved a success, and was given until 1830. The ballet Les amours d’Antoine et Cléopatre (1808), with its spectacular finale, was Kreutzer’s third stage work to catch the public imagination. The biblical opera Abel (1810), though at first indifferently received, was revived (minus its second act) in 1823; Berlioz wrote an ecstatic letter of appreciation to the composer. From 1802 to 1811 Kreutzer was a partner in Le Magasin de Musique, a publishing and retail concern formed with Cherubini, Méhul, Rode, Isouard and Boieldieu.
While on holiday in 1810 he broke an arm in a carriage accident and his career as a soloist ended. Nevertheless he continued to play in ensembles and retained his official positions. After the Restoration in 1815 Kreutzer was named maître de la chapelle du roi; the next year he was created second conductor of the Opéra, then chief conductor in 1817. Habeneck replaced him in this post in 1824, the year in which Kreutzer became a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. From 1824 to 1826 he took overall direction of music at the Opéra. In the spring of 1826 Berlioz approached him unsuccessfully with a view to having La révolution grecque performed at the Opéra’s series of concerts spirituels. But by this time Kreutzer’s own style could find little public favour and his last opera Matilde was refused by the Opéra. His health declined from 1826, when he retired from most of his public positions.
2. Violin playing.
Spohr wrote of the Kreutzer brothers that ‘of all the Parisian violinists, they are the most cultivated’, and Beethoven declared of Rodolphe: ‘I prefer his modesty and natural behaviour to all the exterior without any interior, which is characteristic of most virtuosos’. Together with Baillot and Rode, Kreutzer formed the founding trinity of the French violin school, which was marked by brilliance of style, objectivity of approach and lack of emphasis on the expansive type of lyricism (Spohr himself said that French slow concerto movements were regarded as mere interludes between the fast outer movements). Kreutzer, who played a Stradivari, possessed a full tone and used a predominantly legato style of bowing. Fétis praised his instinctive sense of phrase and his just intonation. Williams (1973) also noted the emphasis on legato and complete absence of spiccato bowing in Kreutzer’s violin concertos, which also use neither extensive shifting of the left hand nor very high positions; moreover there is limited use of double stopping, even by comparison with Viotti’s concertos. Kreutzer’s numerous pupils included his brother (2) Jean Nicolas Auguste Kreutzer, Charles Lafont and Massart.
Kreutzer’s 42 études ou caprices (originally 40) for unaccompanied violin occupy an almost unique position in the literature of violin studies; Kreutzer met the challenge of the modern violin by aiming partly at fluency in contraction and extension of the left hand. As Szigeti (1969) pointed out, extensions and unisons were easier on the old short-necked violin; in the ‘practically unknown nineteen Etudes-Caprices … it is obvious that the great teacher was already conscious of the need for the “opening up” of the hand’. Owing to their fundamental musicality and approach, successive editors have brought the 42 études up to date either by adding new fingerings and bowings or by composing their own variants. Eisenberg in his edition (1920) claimed that Kreutzer anticipated this and taught more advanced versions of his caprices than those he published.
In his violin concertos Kreutzer adhered closely to contemporary forms. Williams asserted the influence of Stamitz in the earlier works, that of Viotti at its most powerful in the concertos of the 1790s, and increasing individuality in the final eight concertos. The solo violin parts become progressively more difficult throughout the canon, and the orchestration more sophisticated.
Much of Kreutzer’s chamber music dates from the 1790s and reflects the style of his teachers. Concentrating later on stage productions, he achieved a measure of originality without ever producing a work of lasting value. His harmonic language is not without variety, but too often his musical thinking does not progress beyond simple melody and accompaniment; and while the melodies themselves betray Romantic turns of phrase even in the 1790s, they are not often memorable. Lodoiska and Abel are his worthiest achievements; the former is vivid in drama and colour, and has warmth of melody. Astyanax contains some striking final pages depicting the Greeks leaving Troy, and in Abel the purely musical quality runs at a consistently higher level. Biblical subject matter was topical (cf Méhul’s Joseph, 1807, and Le Sueur’s La mort d’Adam, 1809); in Kreutzer’s opera the devils who forge the club of human destruction are the tempters of Cain, and as an apotheosis Abel is carried heavenwards. There are pages of large-scale conception, but the opening of the original Act 3, in which an exhausted Cain prays for sleep (‘Doux sommeil’), contains some of Kreutzer’s best music.