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Giovanni Battista Viotti and his Violin Concerto No. 23

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Giovanni Battista Viotti (May 12, 1755–March 3, 1824) was an Italian violinist and composer whose virtuosity was famed and whose compositions featured a prominent violin and an appealing lyrical tunefulness. Viotti was born at Fontanetto Po in the Kingdom of Sardinia, today in the province of Vercelli, Piedmont, Italy. Due to his musical talent, he was taken into the household of principe Alfonso dal Pozzo della Cisterna in Turin, where he received a musical education that prepared him to be a pupil of Gaetano Pugnani. He served at the Savoia court in Turin, 1773–80, then toured as a soloist, at first with Pugnani, before going to Paris alone, where he made his début at the Concert Spirituel in 1782. He was an instant sensation and served for a time at Versailles before founding a new opera house, the Théâtre de Monsieur in 1788, under the patronage of the Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, comte de Provence, the king’s brother.

There Viotti mounted operas of his friend Luigi Cherubini among others. Also, he was the teacher of Pierre Rode and Pierre Baillot and an important influence on Rodolphe Kreutzer, all of whom became notable teachers themselves. In addition, he taught August Duranowski, who was an influence on Niccolò Paganini. As a result, Viotti is considered the founding father of the 19th century French violin school. When the French Revolution took a radical turn, though his opera house was renamed the Théâtre Feydeau, former royal connections became a dangerous liability, so he moved in 1792 to London, making his début at Johann Peter Salomon’s Hanover Square Concert in 1793. In London he went from success to success, as a featured violinist for Salomon’s concert series, 1793–1794; as musical director of the new Opera Concerts in 1795; as a star in the benefit concerts for Haydn, 1794 and 1795; as acting manager of Italian opera at the King’s Theatre, 1794–1795; and as leader and director of the orchestra, 1797. He was invited to perform in the houses of the London elite, including the Prince of Wales.

Then, with Britain at war with Revolutionary France, Viotti was ordered to leave the country, under suspicion of Jacobin sympathies. Period papers hint at an intrigue in the favor of Viotti’s rival, Wilhelm Cramer, who had led the Opera House orchestra before Viotti took over. Viotti left England with a packet ship on March 8, 1798. He lived on the estate of a rich English merchant, John Smith, in Schenefeld (Pinneberg) near Hamburg, Germany, from ca. March 1798 to ca. July 1799. Between March and May 1798 he gave private lessons to the thirteen-year-old virtuoso Friedrich Wilhelm Pixis. After that, he seems to have lived incognito on the estate of his English friends, William and Margaret Chinnery, at Gillwell House, where he then lived officially after 1801, although according other sources he was still in Schenefeld in April, 1800. He gave up giving concerts to run a business, but used to play in private concerts.

In July of 1811 Viotti became a naturalized British citizen, after his friend, the Duke of Cambridge, a younger brother of the Prince of Wales, had interceded on Viotti’s behalf. In 1813 he was one of the founders of the Philharmonic Society of London. Viotti didn’t perform as a soloist any more, but as orchestra leader and chamber musician. After his business failed, he returned to Paris to work as director of the Académie Royale de Musique, from 1819 to 1821. He returned to London in November of 1823 and died on March 3, 1824. Viotti’s most notable compositions are his twenty-nine violin concertos. One in particular, No. 22 in A minor (1792), is still very frequently performed. Most of his string quartets may be considered Quatuors Brillants. His Tre Quartetti Concertanti, G.112, 113 and 114, are true concertante works offering extensive solos for each instrument and not just the first violin. Viotti often wrote chamber music for more traditional combinations such as two violins and cello. The Op.18 and 19 are perhaps the best known of these. He also wrote sonatas, songs, and other works.

Works by Viotti included in my collection are as follows:

Sinfonia Concertante No. 1 in FM for Two Violins and Orchestra.

Sinfonia Concertante No. 2 in BbM for Two Violins and Orchestra.

Violin Concerto No. 23 in GM.

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