The Rise of the Virtuoso
The next two concerts from London Firebird Orchestra feature some of the most virtuosic concertos from the repertoire. But where did the concept of the ‘virtuoso’ come from? Nicholas Keyworth explores…
The origin of this word from ‘virtue’ implies excellence and skill. Back in 16th century Italy the term was applied to any person distinguished in any intellectual or artistic field. So, any highly accomplished musician would be considered a virtuoso.
However, by the 19th century the meaning of the term changed so that it became associated with performers equipped with almost magical powers whose technical accomplishments were so pronounced as to dazzle and captivate their public.
Composers too were compelled to write increasingly difficult music to show off these talents in incredible feats of skill which only the most highly accomplished musicians could tackle.
Many of these virtuosi such as the violinist Paganini built up an almost pop star level of fame and were frequently mobbed by their fans.
One of the most famous 19th century virtuosi, the pianist Franz Liszt considered that “virtuosity is not an outgrowth, but an indispensable element of music” – much to the disapproval of composer Richard Wagner who opposed such triviality and exhibitionist talents of the performer.
It took Felix Mendelssohn six years to write his Violin Concerto in E minor, for his friend the German virtuoso violinist, composer and concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Ferdinand David.
Mendelssohn relied heavily for technical and compositional advice from Ferdinand David’s (pictured left) in the creation of the work which was finally premiered in 1845.
This dazzling work will be performed by our modern day virtuoso, violinist Benjamin Baker with the Firebird on 12 February in Oxford with From London to Vienna.
The following month in London cellist Steffan Morris performs Haydn’s beautiful Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major with the Firebird. Written nearly 100 years before the Mendelssohn, this work was also written for a longtime friend of the composer – Joseph Franz Weigl, principal cellist of the orchestra of the court of Prince Nicolaus‘s Esterházy. In fact, Haydn was godfather to the cellist’s son!