Viotti, Giovanni Battista
(b Fontanetto da Po, 12 May 1755; d London, 3 March 1824). Italian violinist and composer. He was the most influential violinist between Tartini and Paganini and the last great representative of the Italian tradition stemming from Corelli. He is considered the founder of the ‘modern’ (19th-century) French school of violin playing, and his compositions, among the finest examples of Classical violin music, exerted a strong influence on 19th-century violin style.
Viotti was probably of humble origins (according to Fétis his father was a blacksmith), and his talent was manifest early. In 1766 he was taken to Turin under the protection of Prince Alfonso dal Pozzo della Cisterna, in whose home he lived and was educated. He first studied with Antonio Celoniat, but when Pugnani returned from London in 1770, Viotti became his pupil. Widely travelled and highly regarded as a performer and composer, Pugnani had been a pupil of G.B. Somis and was, through him, the heir of Corelli. He was the only teacher Viotti acknowledged in later life.
Viotti entered the orchestra of the royal chapel at Turin on 27 December 1775. For five years he occupied the last desk of the first violins, drawing one of the lowest salaries in the orchestra. Early in 1780 he and Pugnani set out on a concert tour, first to Switzerland, then to Dresden and to Berlin, where Viotti’s first publication, the concerto in A now known as no.3, was issued in 1781. Concerts in Warsaw preceded an extended visit to St Petersburg, and late in 1781 they returned to Berlin. Until this time Viotti had been presented as the ‘pupil of the celebrated Pugnani’, but he parted with Pugnani in Berlin and proceeded alone to Paris.
After at least one private appearance Viotti made his début at the Concert Spirituel on 17 March 1782. His success was instantaneous, and it established him at once in the front rank of all violinists. For a year and a half he played frequently, continuing to receive the highest praise of critics and public. After 8 September 1783 he retired abruptly from public concerts, and in January 1784 he entered the service of Marie Antoinette at Versailles. For a time he was also leader of Prince Rohan-Guéménée’s orchestra, and he may have held a similar position for the Prince of Soubise. In 1788, having secured the patronage of the Count of Provence, he established a new opera house called the Théâtre de Monsieur (after July 1791, Théâtre Feydeau). He proved a vigorous and ambitious administrator. His excellent company introduced a number of important works, both Italian and French, including the operas of his friend and associate Cherubini. He constructed a new theatre and established in April 1792 (possibly also in 1791) a series of Holy Week concerts. By mid-1792 the Revolution had made Viotti’s situation untenable, and in July he fled to London. He had completed the most successful and influential period of his life; probably half of his published works, including 19 violin concertos, had appeared during the decade in Paris.
In London Viotti turned again to performance and made a thoroughly successful début at Salomon’s Hanover Square Concert on 7 February 1793. For two seasons he was the featured violinist for Salomon’s series, and in 1795 he became musical director of the new Opera Concerts, himself performing no fewer than six times. He played at Haydn’s benefit concerts in 1794 and 1795, and he was a frequent performer in the homes of the wealthy, including the Prince of Wales. In the 1794–5 season he served as acting manager of Italian opera at the King’s Theatre and succeeded William Cramer as leader and director of the orchestra at the King’s Theatre in 1797. [not available online]
In February 1798 the British government, suspecting Viotti of Jacobin activity, ordered him to leave the country. There is no evidence that the order was justified, and Viotti protested his innocence in a statement to The Times and in an autobiographical sketch written a few months later (see Giazotto, pp.229–31). For a year and a half he lived with English friends in Schenfeldt, near Hamburg, where he published a set of duos op.5, conceived ‘some in pain, some in hope’, according to the dedication. He left Germany in July 1799, and by 1801 (probably earlier) he had returned to London. He then retired almost entirely from music and devoted his energies to a wine business which he had entered before his exile. He continued to play and compose for his friends, and his works continued to be published in London and Paris, but he made no effort to re-establish his musical career. In 1802, 1814 and finally in 1818 he visited old friends in Paris and played for them in private. Baillot reported their wonder that his playing had lost none of its power. His name appeared as a founder of the London Philharmonic Society, but he performed in the programmes only occasionally, and then in chamber music.
The failure of his business in 1818 left Viotti deeply in debt to his English friends. His former patron, the Count of Provence, was now Louis XVIII, and on 1 November 1819, having applied for the position, Viotti was appointed director of the Paris Opéra. But the assassination of the Duke of Berry at the Opéra less than four months later aroused the antipathy of the public and the royal patrons. Viotti struggled with the difficulties for more than a year and in November 1821 he resigned. Although he continued as nominal director of the Italian Theatre for another year, he was still in debt. The will prepared at this time is testimony to his humiliation, and a letter to Rode reflects the bitter regrets of neglected talent. In 1823 he returned to London to be with his closest friends, Mr and Mrs William Chinnery. He died in their home in Portman Square.
Viotti was an attractive and forceful person, and some small measure of his extraordinary influence may be credited to the strength of his personality. He formed lasting friendships with people of talent and social position; his students and younger contemporaries idolized him. Most of the anecdotes surviving in 19th-century accounts stress his idealism, his sensitivity and his artistic integrity; yet these qualities were unable to prevent a number of scandalous rumours about him from circulating in his lifetime. In a period of social instability and of shifting values in music, his ambition and uncompromising ideals made it impossible for him to be satisfied with a career as a composer-virtuoso; when he abandoned the fields in which his great talents lay, however, he consistently met misfortune that ultimately brought his life to an unhappy end.
2. Performance style.
Viotti performed before the public for less than ten years, yet the impression he left was so strong that he dominated an entire generation of violinists. In 1810 Les tablettes de Polymnie declared that his influence had resulted in a new unity of execution in Parisian orchestras. Although contemporary accounts usually mentioned his technical brilliance, they more often emphasized beauty of sound, power and expression. The Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (3 July 1811) described the principles of Viotti’s ‘school’: ‘A large, strong, full tone is the first; the combination of this with a powerful, penetrating, singing legato is the second; as the third, variety, charm, shadow and light must be brought into play through the greatest diversity of bowing’. The London Morning Chronicle (10 March 1794) reported: ‘Viotti, it is true … astonishes the hearer; but he does something infinitely better – he awakens emotion, gives a soul to sound, and leads the passions captive’. During his second season in Paris L’almanach musical accorded him a place above all his contemporaries and wrote of ‘that boldness of the fingers and the bow which gives a very pronounced character and soul to his tone’.
The tradition that Viotti had inherited from Pugnani emphasized tone; but his playing evidently had a breadth and power that his contemporaries regarded as new, and it became the ideal of younger performers. Alday, Cartier and Rode were among his pupils, and both Kreutzer and Baillot were regarded as disciples; but Viotti’s activity as a teacher was limited, and it is difficult to separate its influence from the pervasive influence of his example. Although his own violin method remained a fragment, the principles of his manner of performance are thought to be embodied in the Méthode de violon of Baillot, Rode and Kreutzer (1803) and in Baillot’s more detailed L’art du violon: nouvelle méthode (1834).
Viotti’s interest as a composer centred on his own instrument. Despite his involvement with opera, he wrote no theatrical works. His arias that found their way into the operas of other composers are arrangements from his concertos; his original arias are simple, unpublished songs written for his friends. All of his piano concertos are arranged from violin concertos, despite publishers’ attempts to claim originality in two cases. Of nearly 30 piano sonatas, only seven are not demonstrably arrangements. In chamber music he preferred old-fashioned combinations (violin and bass, or two violins and bass) which assured the dominance of the violin. Of the more modern genres, his favourite was the violin duo. His string quartets, except perhaps the last three, take little notice of the balance in texture achieved by Haydn.
Only the 29 violin concertos fully reflect Viotti’s musical imagination, his power as a performer and his development as a composer. These are his most important works, both musically and historically. The repertory that Viotti worked with as a student is still unknown, but his teacher Pugnani was a widely travelled modern virtuoso and Turin was a respected, up-to-date musical centre. Viotti’s first concerto (no.3 in A) clearly reveals that his starting point for the genre was the cosmopolitan galant style developled in the 1770s in Paris by composers of various nationalities. After his arrival in Paris symphonic and operatic influences rapidly broadened the scope and deepened the drama of his concertos. The last six Paris concertos (nos.14–19), all but one in minor keys, complete the development from the galant style and approach Romanticism. Only the orchestration, particularly the French-Italian practice of assigning accompaniment to two violins and bass, remains conservative.
Viotti’s last ten concertos, written in London, are products of his full maturity. They surpass the late Paris concertos not in drama and boldness, but in craftsmanship: fuller orchestration, more varied accompaniment and richer texture, possibly influenced by contact with Haydn, particularly his late symphonies. The figuration and passage-work still reflect Viotti’s fine technique, but the brilliance is tempered by pervasive lyricism. Somewhat more varied in form than their predecessors, the late concertos occasionally show forward-looking features, by linking movements (no.26), quoting material from the first movement in the last (no.21) and foreshadowing an allegro theme in the slow introduction (no.27, and previously in no.16).
Viotti most directly influenced his French contemporaries in the 1780s and early 1790s. His late Paris concertos served as models for Rode, Kreutzer and others of less talent throughout their careers. The London concertos, delayed several years in publication, were already regarded as ‘classical’ when they appeared on the Continent from 1803, and had less effect. Although Mozart knew at least some of Viotti’s works (he added parts for trumpet and timpani to Concerto no.16), assumptions of influence are doubtful. Viotti’s influence on Beethoven, however, has been convincingly demonstrated (see Schwarz, 1958). Among German violinists, Spohr was the most significant to use the Paris concertos as his starting-point, as can be seen by comparing his first concerto with Viotti’s no.13.
In spite of elements of early Romanticism, Viotti’s concertos are generally marked by restraint, and they balance display with expression and formal clarity. They fell quickly from favour with 19th-century performers, who required more flamboyant virtuosity; however, as études for advanced students they continued to influence the German school as well as the Franco-Belgian. The admiration of some of the finest 19th-century violinists culminated in Joachim’s revival of no.22 in A minor, for which Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann (June 1878), expressed unstinted admiration.
G.B. Viotti: Mémoire au Roi, concernant l’exploitation de l’Opéra (Paris, 1789)
A.M. Eymar: Anecdotes sur Viotti (Milan, 1801)
P.M. Baillot: Notice sur J.B. Viotti (Paris, 1825)
M. Kelly: Reminiscences (London, 1826, 2/1826/R1968 with introduction by A.H. King); ed. R. Fiske (London, 1975)