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August Wilhelmj and “Air on the G String”

August Emil Daniel Ferdinand Wilhelmj (September 21, 1845–January 22, 1908) was a German violinist and teacher. Born in Usingen, Duchy of Nassau, Germany, Wilhelmj was a child prodigy and developed into an able violinist at an early age. His father, who was a doctor of laws and for some time Attorney-General of Prussia, owned considerable property in vineyards at Hattenheim. Wilhelmj’s mother, née Charlotte Petry, was an excellent pianist, a pupil of André, Offenbach and Chopin. Wilhelmj’s earliest instruction in violin-playing was given him in 1849, by Konrad Fischer, who was then the Duke of Nassau’s Kapellmeister, at Wiesbaden.

Henriette Sontag heard him in 1852, when he was seven, and said “You will be the German Paganini.” He gave his first concert at the age of eight in Wiesbaden. On January 8, 1854, Wilhemj made a public appearance at a charity concert given at Lumbourg-on-the-Lahn, when he created a great impression. Prince Emil von Wittgenstein sent Wilhelmj to Franz Liszt in 1861, and when Liszt heard him playing Spohr’s 8th concerto and Ernst’s Airs hongroises he sent him to Ferdinand David with a letter containing the words “Let me present you the future Paganini!” Wilhelmj studied with David at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1861 to 1863, where he played Ernst’s Concerto pathétique at a Conservatorium Concert, and Joachim’s Hungarian concerto at a Gewandhaus concert with conspicuous and admitted success. He also had Moritz Hauptmann and Ernst Friedrich Eduard Richter to teach him harmony and composition. Then in 1864 he went to Frankfurt for further study with Joachim Raff.

In 1865 he began his concert career with the wandering life of a virtuoso, and eventually made a number of world tours. He first went to Switzerland; then in 1866 to Holland, and in the summer-through Jeimy Lind’s influence – came to London, making his debut at one of Alfred Mellon’s Promenade Concerts at Covent Garden, and receiving a rapturous ovation. He was equally successful in his first appearance at a Monday Popular Concert, and likewise in his debut at the Crystal Palace. Wilhelmj was married)to the Baroness Liphardt, a niece of Ferdinand David, on May 29, 1866. In 1867 he was in France and Italy. In Paris – through Joachim’s introduction – he was first heard at Pasdeloup’s concert, given at the Cirque Napoleon. Then, in the autumn, he went to Florence, where he made his debut at the Società del Quartetto. At the fourth concert of the Society Wilhelmj was elected Protettore della Società.

January 27, 1868 saw the violinist’s first appearance in St. Petersburg, Russia, whither, with Hector Berlioz, he had been invited by the Grand Duchess Helena Paulovna. The year 1869 was spent in revisitingFrance, Switzerland and Belgium; the following year in touring through England, Scotland and Ireland, with Santley. From the British Isles Wilhelmj went in 1871 for a tour that extended through Holland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. During these travels he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Stockholm: made a knight of the order of Gustavus Vasa, and decorated with the grand medal of Arts and Sciences also at Stockholm. His first appearance before a Berlin audience was in 1872, at a Singakademie concert, and in 1873, he made his first appearance in Vienna.

In 1875 August Wilhelmj was in England again. He played at the Philharmonic Society’s concert in memory of Sterndale Bennett, and occupied himself during the year in propagating the cult of Wagner in England. In 1876 Wilhelmj was concertmaster for orchestra at Bayreuth, when the first performance of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen took place. Coming to England again in 1877, he induced Wagner to journey to London and conduct the famous festival at the Albert Hall. Wilhelmj led the violins, and organised two extra concerts on a less lavish scale on. After this, Wilhelmj suffered a serious illness. In 1878 he started on a tour round the world, which lasted until 1882, when he passed through London on his way to Germany, home to his villa at Mosbach-Biberich on the Rhine, after which he practically retired from public life for some time.

During his stay at Biberich, August Wilhelmj founded a violin school in conjunction with R. Niemann, in the neighbouring Wiesbaden. In 1885 he was travelling again, and it was in this year that, at the invitation of the Sultan of Turkey, he had the unique experience of playing before the ladies of the Seraglio. Blasewitz, near Dresden, became Wilhelmj’c home from 1886 to 1893, in which year he installed himself in London. In 1894 he was appointed professor of music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. From then on he was the principal teacher for violin at the Guildhall School. He also taught privately. Among his pupils were the American violinist Nahan Franko, the multi-talented Canadian musician Donald Heins, and the Australian conductor Aylmer Buesst.

His son Adolf (b. March 31, 1872) was appointed violin professor at the Belfast Conservatoire in 1895. In his later years Wilhelmj took an active interest in the technique of violin-making, and was a fervent patron and champion of more than one continental maker of the present day. Also, he was forever encouraging amateur violin-makers to devote themselves to the art. Although he never performed at London concerts during the latter years of his life, Wilhelmj’s massive, dignified figure, with its flowing grey hair, crowned with a wide-brimmed soft felt hat, was familiar to concert-goers as a member of the audience. He died after a short illness at his residence, 54 Priory Road, West Hampstead in London

The qualities that combined to make August Wilhelmj, who was the last great violinist in the German style and one of the greatest violinists of his day, may be summed up in the force of his personality, the great certainty of his technique, his majestic rich tone, cultured rendering, and splendid poise. He stood for dignity and breadth. He believed that people wanted intellectual renderings, and he aimed at an exact balance of intellect and imagination, conveying a suggestion of reserve force that was essentially majestic. Wilhelmj composed several pieces for the violin, was very successful in arranging various notable themes for the violin, and also wrote a Modern Violin School with James Brown, which was published by Novello & Co., in six parts. His most famous work is his late nineteenth century arrangement of the second movement Air from J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068, which became known as the “Air on the G String.”

In my collection, the only work by Wilhelmj is the following:

Air on the G string, arr. from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in DM, BWV 1068.

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