The French Violin School

In 1782, a young Italian violinist debuted at the Concert spirituel in Paris. His name was Giovanni Battista Viotti and he had recently toured Europe with his teacher Gaetano Pugnani. His concerts were a revelation, and have influenced violin playing and composing to the present day. Viotti was one of the first great violinists to use the newly designed Tourte bow, and this naturally had implications for the music he composed and the sound he was able to produce. The Tourte family of bow makers (especially François Xavier [le jeune]) is credited with the final design of the violin bow, in particular the concave stick that allowed more expressive bowing by making it easier to control dynamics and execute a wider variety of bow strokes, especially “off the string” bowings. The development of a new bowing was “accompanied (and promoted) by a different ethos about the basic stroke . . . and by an expansion of the range of special bowings. There was a movement away from a naturally articulated stroke towards a more legato style.”  Viotti made his stunning debut with a concerto of his own composition, and for a year and a half was the talk of the Parisian, and even European, musical world. The school he founded, whose pillars were Pierre Rode, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and Pierre Baillot (all professors at the Paris Conservatoire), would follow the example of their great Italian mentor in matters of style and musical taste, and influence the violin concerto even into the late romantic age. Baillot, building on the pedagogical work he and his colleagues had accomplished at the conservatoire in the 1790s, would later write one of the greatest treatises on violin playing: The Art of the Violin.  In his memoirs, Carl Flesch remembered that the Paris Conservatoire used French School concertos as test pieces as late as the 1890s. And in Berlin in the winter of 1903-4, Flesch selected Viotti’s nineteenth concerto as part of a series of concerts detailing the history of the violin.  Rode was one of the few composers whose works Nicolò Paganini consented to play, and later in the century Henryk Wieniawski composed a cadenza to Rode’s Seventh Concerto.

The French School influenced the Viennese School. Wolfgang AmadeusMozart added orchestra parts to Viotti’s Sixteenth Violin Concerto, and French School violin writing influenced Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was personally acquainted with both Kreutzer and Rode, and Baillot was one of a handful of violinists who played Beethoven’s violin concerto publicly before its revival by Joseph Joachim. The Franco-Belgian School of Charles-Auguste de Beriot and later Henry Vieuxtemps is an offshoot of the French School—indeed even the Russian School is related to the French School, as both Rode and Baillot spent years in Russia, Rode from 1804 to 1808 and Baillot from 1805 to 1808.

Despite the historical importance of the French Violin School of Viotti, Rode, Kreutzer, Baillot, and their colleagues, the twentieth century has not been kind to them. Scores of most Viotti and Rode concertos are difficult to acquire, and those of Kreutzer and Baillot even more so. Kreutzer, in fact, is the best-known name among the French School composers, and that is due to the fact that Beethoven’s most famous violin sonata bears his name. Kreutzer’s name is also featured in the title of a famous novella by Leo Tolstoy. The same pattern is true in the realm of recordings. Viotti, Rode, Kreutzer, and Baillot collectively composed about seventy violin concertos; only the twenty-nine concertos of Viotti have received much attentionand most of that has focused on hisConcerto no. 22 in A Minor, by far the most famous work of the French Violin School. (Interestingly, one of the few recordings of Kreutzer in the mid-twentieth century is Joe Venuti’s 1940s jazz arrangement of Kreutzer’s Twenty-seventh Caprice [Tempo TR 530, 78 rpm].) Despite the lean catalog, the situation is improving, at least for Viotti. An excellent series of Viotti recordings has recently become available, allowing the listener to hear all the Viotti concertos and sonatas for the first time. Here is an opportunity for an enterprising violinist to assume the task of recording the other forgotten works of the French Violin School.

Bruce R. Schueneman

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