wieniawski isabella

When it comes to wearing their hearts on their sleeve and baring their emotions, composers are streets ahead of other ‘professions’. But it doesn’t always follow that there is a happy ending when it comes to romance.

What happens when a composer carries a torch for his sweetheart? Well, if she loves him back, they could elope, couldn’t they? That’s what Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck did, and some great music came out of that romance.

And if the object of affection doesn’t return the compliment, at least not in “that” way, it’s a non-starter. Beethoven and Brahms are good cases in point. But some great music always comes out of it. Or you could obsess about her to the point of distraction as Berlioz did. Again, anguish for him, great music for us.

But here’s a scenario that I’ve not come across before: what if the girl’s parents are dead against the match, so you decide to compose a piece of music so stirring, so power-packed with sentiment that they do a complete U-turn? That’s the story of Henryk Wieniawski’s Légende.

Polish violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) was born in Lublin.He shares his birth-date with me, and comes from a family with a medical background, but the similarity ends right there.

His father was Jewish, and had the names Wolf Helman or Tobias Pietruszka, but decided to convert to Catholicism, probably to better assimilate into society. As his family came from the Lublin neighbourhood of Wieniawa, he adopted the name Tadeus Wieniawski. He had a Master’s Degree in philosophy, medicine and surgery, and had a thriving medical practice. Henryk’s mother was Regina Wolff, daughter of a Jewish physician. She had studied the piano to a high level in Paris, and so the household was filled with music.

Yet Wieniawski chose the violin as his instrument at a very young age. At five, he had lessons with Jan Hornziel, pupil of Louis Spohr, and later, with Stanislaw Serwaczynski, who also taught another great violinist-composer Joseph Joachim. He made his public début aged seven, and at eight was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire under special exemption, as their minimum age for admission was twelve. He would also be the youngest graduate in the Conservatoire’s history, taking the top prize in the final competitive exam over his older colleagues.

He went on to become a concert violinist, with hectic tours of Europe through which he nevertheless still found the time to compose prodigious amounts of music for his instrument.

In 1858, Wieniawski was invited to tour London, where he was received with great acclaim by the public and his contemporaries. He was a member of the Beethoven Quartet Society, where he played viola with the likes of Joseph Joachim, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst and Alfred Piatti.

His pianist friend Anton Rubinstein introduced Wieniawski to the Hamptons and their daughter Isabella, and the two fell deeply in love. Within a year he was writing to a friend in Brussels of his intention to “marry a young English woman whom I Love more deeply than the finest Stradivarius or Guarneri”.

One would think that a violin virtuoso who was the toast of all Europe, with ringing endorsements of his genius from the likes of Vieuxtemps and Liszt, ought to be considered “a good catch”. But Isabella’s father would not hear of it. He wished his daughter to marry a man with “a more solid financial background”.

Here the story bifurcates into two versions. Take your pick. First version: Distraught at the idea of losing Isabella, Wieniawski feverishly wrote Légende, a concert piece for violin and orchestra (G minor, opus 17). He invited the parents to a private concert, at which he played the violin part himself. The parents were so impressed with the composition and the outpouring of emotion in it, and the passion and sincerity of Wieniawski’s playing that they withdrew all objections and readily gave the union their blessing. This is the more popular version and appears on the programme notes of Légende time and again. It is certainly much more romantic than the alternative version.

The second version is far more prosaic: Mr. Hampton was eventually persuaded by his wife and daughter to agree to the match, but he consent was conditional upon Wieniawski’s taking out a life-assurance policy for a huge sum of 200,000 francs and ‘settle down to married life.’ Perhaps Mr. Hampton had a premonition of doom: although it was not apparent at the time, Wieniawski suffered from a serious heart condition.

Perhaps there is a grain of truth in both versions. What is certain however is that they were wed in 1860.

Their married life was far from ‘settled’, however. Soon after their marriage, Wieniawski took up a teaching position in St. Petersburg from 1860-72, a concert tour of the US with Rubinstein from 1872-4, and replaced Vieuxtemps as Professor at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles in 1875. Isabella bore him seven children, which meant she was unable to accompany Wieniawski on his travels, except when it was convenient to leave the children with her in-laws at Lublin.

The hectic schedule took its toll. Wieniawski collapsed in Berlin in mid-performance during one concert tour. In 1879 he began a tour of Russia, but couldn’t complete it. He found himself in a Moscow paupers’ hospital, cheated of all his money by his tour organisers, with no means to survive. Musician friends and well-wishers, notably Nadezhda von Meck, who was also the patroness of Tchaikovsky, rallied and organised charity concerts to help him and his family. Isabella travelled from Brussels to be at Wieniawski’s bedside. He died in 1880, months before his forty-fifth birthday.

Légende is a miniature masterpiece, under eight minutes in duration, and its middle section in double-, triple- and quadruple stopping of strings is guaranteed to melt your heart. You might still not want to part with your daughter, but then again who knows? Maybe a private concert….

Here’s Leonid Kogan (1952)

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 February 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)