Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst was a virtuoso violinist composer to rank with the very greatest, argues Jeremy Nicholas
The Baroque specialists have had it all their own way for too long. Ever since the 1930s when they first discovered Vivaldi, any composer who could dream up another variation on diddle-diddle-diddle has been the subject of exhaustive scholarly analysis and accorded any number of recordings. Forgotten names have been resurrected and put back on the pedestals which they occupied during their lifetime; moth-eaten manuscripts abandoned in obscure monastic libraries have been restored, edited and given new life. It’s been good for music, music lovers and musicologists.
The corresponding names of the 19th century have not been welcomed back into the fold quite so readily. The myriad once-popular and highly-regarded composers have still to be exhumed in quite the same way as their 18th century peers. Partly it is because there is no equivalent ‘Period Instrument’ movement of such universality, and partly because the musical language changed so rapidly and radically in the 19th century, developed and diverged into so many diffuse branches. There is no common peg on which to hang a hat.
Statues or busts of Raff, Anton Rubinstein, Rheinberger and Reinecke were raised in concert halls all over Europe (even in Great Britain), though none, as far as I know, to Hans Rott who died young and insane, and whose Symphony in E anticipates the methods of Mahler. Even a genius like Alkan, a pianist-composer whose music is every bit as original and individual as Chopin and Liszt, is still viewed with suspicion despite being championed by some of the finest pianists of the past 50 years. Most big names avoid him with alacrity.
To this long list one must add the name of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. As a virtuoso violinist his compositions are devoted entirely to his instrument. There are no symphonies, operas, songs or choral works without which few composers are granted a seat above the salt. Ernst made an extraordinary impact in his day as an artist and composer. Though a handful of his works lingered on into the early 20th century, he has been forgotten by all but a few intrepid violinists and is quite unknown to the general music-loving public.
When I first heard his Concerto Pathétique in F sharp minor over 40 years ago, I only knew Ernst’s name as a follower of Paganini – literally, for he not only followed Paganini in the towns in which he had just appeared, but booked adjacent rooms in lodgings so that he could overhear his idol practice his (unpublished) works and learn them by ear. The one-movement Concerto is extravagantly difficult – one reason why it is so rarely played – but has some glorious themes, and an important, well-written part for the orchestra. Just the kind of work that makes you want to find out more about its composer, and track down more of his works. Just the kind of work that made me wonder why, at that time, so few reference books bothered with him and violinists played or recorded his music. For anyone who likes Paganini, Ernst is his extension and successor.
How does someone so highly regarded during their lifetime slip into oblivion while others, arguably less gifted and important, maintain some sort of profile in the concert hall, reference books and on record? The issue is a complex one, but in Ernst’s case made more so by the circumstances of his life and his singular personality. These are discussed in the quite masterly introduction Mark Rowe contributes to his definitive biography of Ernst (Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst: Virtuoso Violinist; Ashgate: 2008). He begins by quoting Joseph Joachim - now there is a name that has survived, albeit by association – who says Ernst was ‘the greatest violinist I ever heard; he towered above the others... Who has not heard Ernst in his good days...does not know how communicative the cantilena of a violin could be.’ Here is Berlioz: ‘[Ernst] was one of the artists whom I love the most, and with whose talent I am most sympathetique.’ Schumann, Liszt and Heine add their praise before the Rev HR Haweis in his delightful My Musical Life (Longmans, Green & Co: 1902) writing in 1884 looks back over 30 years concert-going: ‘[If] I am asked to name off hand the greatest players – the very greatest I ever heard - I say at once Ernst, Rubinstein and Liszt.’
Rowe goes on to adumbrate the several areas in which Ernst might be considered important enough for a full-scale biography rather than languish as a footnote in music dictionaries or fodder for academic theses. ‘He successfully advised Schumann to take up music professionally, and saved the career of the young Joachim...He developed several new violin techniques – particularly in the areas of left-hand pizzicato and artificial harmonics. He was the first Jewish touring violin virtuoso of any importance; the form and pattern for countless others. He composed two of the 19th-century’s best loved pieces – the burlesque on the Carnival of Venice, and the Elegy – and two other pieces of more lasting consequence: a set of [Six Polyphonic] studies which leads directly into Ysaÿe’s Sonates pour violon seul; and a concerto [see above] that was a profound influence on Liszt’s B minor sonata.’ In conclusion, Rowe reminds us that Ernst was the violinist who did more than any other to make Beethoven’s late quartets widely known and appreciated.
These are big claims for a composer whose ‘unnecessarily neglected’ works were once characterised by Jascha Heifetz as ‘not great music, indeed, not Brahms, but good and sincere music’ (Heifetz, incidentally, went on to say that he would be in favour more of playing music such as this than music ‘which is supposed to be something, and isn’t’). Rowe argues persuasively of Ernst’s influence on Liszt. Liszt conducted his friend in the Concerto Pathétique in Weimar in 1849 and, as he wrote to a friend, ‘an extremely piquant and brilliant caprice on Hungarian Melodies, the latter dedicated to me.’ Liszt in turn dedicated his Ninth Hungarian Rhapsody (‘Carnival in Pesth’) to Ernst. The first important work Liszt wrote after that concert was his Grosses Konzertsolo, his first attempt at a one-movement sonata structure and generally acknowledged as the forerunner of the great B minor Sonata. The Concerto Pathétique and the Grosses Konzertsolo have many features in common (Rowe pp.162, 163), not least the fact that the two-piano arrangement of the Grosses Konzertsolo was entitled Concerto Pathétique. Liszt’s Sonata, completed in 1853, has, like Ernst’s Concerto, several important themes; both can be seen as either multi-movement works compressed into one or, as Rowe observes, ‘as a single sonata-form movement consisting of exposition, development, recapitulation and coda... Liszt may well have found that Ernst’s concerto offered just the stimulus he needed. If so, then Ernst made a considerable contribution to the Music of the Future, and thus a considerable contribution to the history of music in the late 19th century.’
The reasons why Ernst has been so overlooked are many – and intriguing. When he died, so little was known about his life and career that one obituarist, a close friend of the violinist, was obliged to admit ‘we are without any biographical data’. Though we know he died in Nice in 1865, even the date of his birth is disputed (it was certainly not 1814 as most sources state, but more likely 1812).
There were no documents, court appearances, public rows, children, pupils, orchestras, institutions or any other sources from which biographical details might have been gleaned. Events, happenstance and bad luck after his death conspired to destroy many contemporary references to him: the documents from the early years of the Vienna Conservatoire have been lost; the Nazi holocaust killed his surviving family; his birthplace (Brünn, now Brno) in Moravia was destroyed during the Second World War (after which the street in Nice named after him was renamed); and the archives of his English publisher, Chappell, went up in flames in 1964. Added to this, from the late 1830s almost all Ernst’s professional life was spent on the move. This nomadic existence coupled with the anti-Semitism of early 19th-century Europe when Jews were subject to many legal restrictions and punitive taxation encouraged a culture of elusiveness, avoidance of formal documentation and never giving any more personal information than was requested.
He seems to have been a genial, generous man (he would think nothing of taking 60 people to a restaurant, and was well-known for his charitable deeds) with a whimsical sense of humour. He was, however, no intellectual, read little, and spent his leisure hours playing whist or chess. He did not want to become involved with patrons, other musicians, sign up to any nationalistic agenda or, in short, be anything other than a touring violinist and composer. ‘If Ernst had stayed in one place,’ writes Rowe, ‘he would have had to join something, develop something, change something – all things he was distinctly disinclined to do.’
Ernst had been a regular visitor to London since 1844 and it is true that in 1855 he settled there for a time. Here it was that the legendary sessions at the Beethoven Society were held with Ernst leading a string quartet with Joachim (second violin), Wieniawski (viola) and Piatti (cello). What one would have given to hear the four greatest living string players in Beethoven! Joachim recalled: ‘Never have I heard a more expressive tone than the one he produced in the Adagios of Opp 59 and 74. More than once did I and my associates want to embrace him or kiss his hand during rehearsal... In short, Paganini may have been a greater virtuoso, but he could not have played with more warmth, poetry and esprit than Ernst.’ This would seem to concur with Berlioz’s assessment that Ernst was ‘a great musician as well as a great violinist’ (Ernst played the viola in several ground-breaking performances of Harold in Italie under the composer’s direction).
Most of his music is extremely difficult to play. One exception is what is perhaps his most famous piece. Though rarely played in concert today, his Elegy, according to Anna, Comtesse de Brémont in The World of Music – The Great Virtuosi ( WW Gibbings: 1892) ‘will ever form the best monument to Ernst. It is known in every part of the world; it is played by the finished artist and the stumbling tyro, and, like the music of Mozart, even the clumsiest rendering fails to rob it altogether of its beauties. Vast audiences sit breathless while it takes form under the master-bow of an artist...’
Without pupils to champion his cause after his death, because of its technical challenges and with the changes in musical tastes, Ernst’s music, with the exception of the ever-popular Elegy, was largely forgotten in a matter of decades. In these respects he resembles Alkan. Rowe thinks, apropos, that Ernst Studies are now in about the same condition as Alkan Studies in 1960. ‘During their lifetimes, Alkan remained virtually invisible by living a life that was largely private; Ernst pulled off the more difficult trick of remaining invisible by living a life that was almost wholly public.’
It must also be a matter of regret that so few of the great names in the early years of recording chose not to record any Ernst. That might have helped keep his name alive. Nothing from Kreisler, Jan Kubelik, Elman, Milstein, Seidel, Thibaud, Zimbalist – not even from Heifetz, though he was sailing through the Concerto Pathétique as a 12 year old, and played it to great acclaim in his early American concerts (1918 onwards) as he did Ernst’s Otello Fantasy.
More recently, the likes of Vadim Repin, Ruggiero Ricci, Maxim Vengerov, Ilya Grubert and Aaron Rosand (both superb in the Concerto), Ingolf Turban, Gidon Kremer, and Ilya Gringolts (an unmissable account of all six of the terrifying Polyphonic Studies) have made distinguished recordings of Ernst’s music. Two YouTube clips are worth watching: the 19-year old Midori playing Variations on ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ (the last of the Polyphonic Studies) and Hilary Hahn in the devilishly ingenious transcription of Schubert’s Erlkönig. His finest and most committed advocate, though, is the Romanian violinist Sherban Lupu. An early (1990) CD, ‘Violon Diabolique’ with pianist Peter Pettinger mixes Wieniawski with Ernst and includes the latter’s Adagio sentimentale, Op13, Polonaise, Op17, Hungarian Airs, Op 22 (also superbly recorded by Ossy Renardy in 1941, the earliest disc of Ernst’s music I have come across) and Rondo Papageno, Op 20. This last, a dazzling scherzo with a theme that influenced the opening of Bazzini’s celebrated Le Ronde des Lupins (dedicated to Ernst), is repeated on Volume 1 of Ernst’s complete music for violin and piano (Toccata TOCC0118 – read the Gramophone review – and listen to the excerpt above). The second volume has just been released, while a new edition of these works is also to be published by Toccata Press, edited by Lupu.
So, there has never been a better time to become acquainted with Ernst. Yet despite such advocacy I guess it will be some time before this great violinist-composer will be spoken of in the same breath as Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Sarasate or even Joachim, let alone Paganini himself. Is his music any more or less well-crafted, moving, trivial, thrilling, profound or witty than that of Albinoni, Corelli, Geminiani, Locatelli, Tartini, Vivaldi or any of the other acknowledged masters of the Italian Baroque? A moot point, but I for one say that Ernst, if not equal in importance, deserves at the very least due recognition.
With thanks to Toccata Classics for permission to use the excerpt from Vol 1 of Ernst's Complete Music for Violin and Piano