The Tsar's court violinist who, with a dog on his shoulders, performed for the Sultan

He was a brilliant, talented child. Later on - the favourite of the rulers, who rewarded him with medals and exceptional honorarium. Unfortunately, these disappeared rather quickly because he was prone to gambling. He played almost everywhere. In Paris - Adam Mickiewicz and Fryderyk Chopin listened to him; in Vilnius - Stanisław Moniuszko. When, together with Anton Rubinstein, he went on a concert tour to the United States of America, he was admired by Helena Modrzejewska.

There were many legends about the life of the composer and violin virtuoso Henryk Wieniawski. One of them concerned the showpiece composition - Légende, Op. 17. Henryk Wieniawski wrote this work to convince his obstinate future father-in-law. The latter did not want to let him marry his daughter Izabela Hampton. Apparently, after hearing this piece, his heart melted and the Légende op. 17 is one of the violin pieces that virtuosos most willingly perform today. Kaja Danczowska often performs this piece as an encore.

There are many such fairy-tale stories related to Henryk Wieniawski. After all, he lived and worked in the era of Romanticism: the era of great outbursts of youth and crossing the boundaries set by previous generations.

Candy for Chopin

One of the most important Polish violin virtuosos was admitted to the Paris Conservatory at the age of eight, and that was an exception. Traditionally, the chance for an education at this university was given to boys when they were twelve. Meanwhile, Henryk Wieniawski graduated from this school with the best result at the age of eleven. He was then awarded a gold medal and a violin, which can still be seen in the Museum of Musical Instruments collection in Poznań. The violin comes from the 1846 famous Gand violin workshop and is still characterised by producing an extraordinary light sound.
A violin from 1846 with the inscription "Premier Prix Decerne", which 11-year-old Henryk Wieniawski received at the Paris Conservatory for winning the gold medal for the best violinist. Gala and concert of the winners of the 15th Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition, October 23, 2016, in the Auditorium of the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań. Photo PAP / Jakub Kaczmarczyk
The violin won by the later composer became an exhibit item quite recently - in 2016, on the occasion of the 15th International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition. A presentation of its sound accompanied the ceremony of handing over the instrument to the collection. There, Celina Kotz – the winner of the Audience Award in that competition – performed "Caprice" by Grażyna Bacewicz. We know that Henryk Wieniawski played this violin for several years during his education in Paris because documents prove that he was taking the instrument to violin makers for conservation.

  His talent was noticed much earlier, and his musical abilities were nurtured from the early stage by his mother Regina in Lublin – his hometown. Initially, she taught him herself. Her brother Edward Wolff was a pianist and Fryderyk Chopin’s friend.

Many artists visited the Wieniawski family home during the time of Henryk’s childhood. This fact enabled small Henryk and his brothers to develop their creative skills. Brother Józef was a pianist, Aleksander a singer, and Julian a journalist and prose writer. In the following years, Henryk Wieniawski was educated by Jan Hornziel - later soloist of the Grand Theatre in Warsaw, and later also by Stanisław Serwaczyński, soloist and concertmaster of the Budapest Opera House. Having heard many good things from teachers and friends about the incredible talent of their son, the Wieniawski family decided that the boy should continue his education in Paris.

Residing in the capital of France was the time of intensive study for Henryk Wieniawski. Initially, he was looked after by his step-brother Tomasz, a newly qualified doctor. Later, the musician's mother and his younger brother Józef came to Paris as well. Regina Wieniawska appeared unexpectedly at Henryk's competition performance, which made him very happy. She moved to live with her sons and established an art salon in Paris. Many important emigration artists used to visit it regularly. Here, both Adam Mickiewicz and Fryderyk Chopin listened to the playing of Henryk Wieniawski, although little Henio had met the great composer and pianist a little earlier. Apparently, during the first meeting, he took out a long candy which he held in his mouth and offered Chopin the other end of the sweet.

The seed of the St. Petersburg violin school

Since the country was divided between three foreign invaders (under partitions of Imperial Russia, Prussia and Austria) and Wieniawski was born in Lublin - in the Congress Kingdom of Poland, united by a personal union with the Russian Empire - he received a scholarship for his study in Paris from Tsar Nicholas I. Therefore, during the months following his graduation, he had to work it off with a series of concerts in St. Petersburg. However, he returned to Paris, where he began his studies in composition and graduated with Honors in 1850. It was also the time when he began his concert activity with his brother Józef, who was a pianist.

Public appearances largely determined his career path, because Wieniawski worked really hard. He presented himself in large concert halls but also in small provincial towns. He mastered the art of the staccato technique. He played with a "light bow", captivating the listening audience, absorbed in the melodiousness of his works and all the violin technique he mastered to perfection.

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In 1860 he became the First Violin at the tsarist court and the Russian Musical Society soloist. At the same time, he taught violin in the so-called music classes of the Society. There, during several years of his intensive pedagogical work, he created the nucleus of the St. Petersburg violin school. As the tsar's court violinist, he could not give concerts every day, but he always spent his busy holidays in public performances. At that time, he often appeared in fashionable resorts such as Baden-Baden or Wiesbaden.

Stanisław Moniuszko heard his performances in Vilnius, and when he went on a concert tour to the United States with Anton Rubinstein, he was admired by Helena Modrzejewska.

Wieniawski was almost everywhere; after concerts in Russia, he visited England, France, Germany and Scandinavia. In Turkey, he performed in front of the Sultan. There, he was supposed to perform 22 pieces, some of them with a giant Newfoundlander leaning on his shoulders. Indeed, he was a favourite artist of the rulers, who enjoyed presenting him with various decorations and orders.

Usually, he received considerable compensation for his performances, but his gambling inclinations quickly deprived him of his hard-earned money. He happily started a family, and his beloved wife Izabela Hampton gave him five children. Unfortunately, he orphaned them - in Moscow in 1880. He died of heart disease at the age of 45.

The last years of his life were somewhat challenging for him. Obesity and heart problems did not allow him to work as much as he wanted to. At the time, he performed seated concerts due to physical limitations and general health obstacles.
His virtuosity and unusual compositions remained alive in the memory of his descendants. In 1935, on the centenary of his birth, at the initiative of the violinist's nephew Adam Wieniawski, the First International Henryk Wieniawski Competition was established in Warsaw, dedicated to young violinists up to 30 years of age. The competition was organised by the Warsaw Music Society. Although it was to be held every five years from the beginning, the wartime occupation thwarted these plans. Another competition was organised only in 1952 but in Poznań, and since then, it has been held there every five years. The care of the competition was taken over by the Henryk Wieniawski Music Society.

Many outstanding violin virtuosos have been appreciated over the years of the competition. Among others, there were Grażyna Bacewicz, Wanda Wiłkomirska, Krzysztof Jakowicz, Kaja Danczowska and Bartłomiej Nizioł. This year - on October 7, in Poznań again - the 16th Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition has just begun. Let’s see who will be the winner and the adequate successor of the famous patron this time.

-Monika Kolet

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

-translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: Henryk Wieniawski. Photo: Public domain, Wikimedia
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