The importance of being Ernst

Martin Cullingford
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

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.

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