The Life of Giovanni Battista Viotti

Warwick Lister

Oxford, h/b £43

Viotti's fame and influence through his playing, his compositions and his teaching, has not been equalled by any violinist before or since. However, at present he suffers neglect. Although the composer's works are still played, and appear on ABRSM examination lists (and on YouTube), of his 29 concertos, only number 22 remains on the fringe of the concert violinist's repertory.

Born in 1755, in a small Italian village 35 miles from Turin, Viotti was the sixth of nineteen children. Lister's account is told against a Europe-wide background, during a time of great historical change. Eventually, Viotti lived in Paris during the turmoil of the French Revolution. He witnessed the adjustment from aristocratic and court patronage to the box-office centred institutions of the nineteenth century. Indeed, Viotti entered the service of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in 1784.

The violinist was an early user of Maelzel's metronome, he consulted with François Tourte on the development of the modern bow, and lived at the time when important structural changes were beginning to be made to the violin. Interestingly, his compositions between 1780 and 1800 reflect the tilting of the neck of the violin.

Travel was horrendous. His first two-year-long European tour, made with his teacher Pugnani, began with the journey from Turin to Geneva, across the Mont Cenis Pass in the Alps. Travellers were transported in purpose-built sedan chairs carried by sure-footed mountaineers.

Throughout Warwick Lister's meticulously researched book, telling glimpses of day-to-day musical life occur. Frederick the Great is quoted on new music: 'It has degenerated to mere noise, which bludgeons the ear instead of caressing it,' he wrote in 1777. To William Chinnery, husband of Margaret (Viotti formed a successful ménage à trois with the couple), the violionist writes a letter from the Paris conservatoire while simultaneously examining a student in an examination. Nothing changes! Fees are fascinating. In 1793 it was reported that Viotti's fee for twelve concerts was 550 guineas.

Violinists, to their shame, think of Viotti as a composer of student concertos. But he achieved much more. His story is a good one, and this book tells it well.

John Robert Brown

First published in Classical Music, 12 September 2009. Used by kind permission, reproduction forbidden.
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