Music Giovanni Battista Viotti
by
Warwick Lister
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0245

Introduction

Giovanni Battista Viotti (b. 1755–d. 1824), the son of a blacksmith, was born in the village of Fontanetto Po, not far from Turin, where he completed his studies and began his career as a violinist. He died in London after a brilliant but checkered career as the most celebrated violinist of his time, as an opera theater and concert series director in Paris and London, and as a failed wine merchant. He was fêted by the crowned heads of Europe, including Frederick the Great, Catherine II of Russia, Marie Antoinette, and the Prince of Wales (later George IV of England). Forced to escape the French Revolution because of his royalist associations, he was later exiled from England for alleged revolutionary activities. Viotti’s life is instructive as an exemplum of musicians caught up in the social and economic upheavals of the French Revolution and its aftermath―the change from aristocratic and court patronage to the increasingly commercial, box office–centered institutions of the 19th century. For thirty years Viotti enjoyed an intimate friendship with an English family, the Chinnerys, that lasted until his death, and which in some ways became the mainspring of his existence. An extensive collection of their correspondence throws an extraordinarily vivid light on his life and career. Though he died in debt, having outlived his fame, Viotti, through his playing, his compositions, and his teaching, was arguably the most influential violinist who ever lived. His published oeuvre—consisting chiefly of violin concertos; sonatas for violin and keyboard; and string duets, trios, and quartets (and many arrangements thereof)—enjoyed enormous esteem and popularity in his time. Viotti’s musical style, thoroughly Italianate in its lyricism, reflects the evolution of the Classical style, from galant to pre-Romantic, but in an entirely original and unpredictable way. Scholarly study of Viotti and his works was practically nonexistent until the late 19th century, and remained scarce until well into the 20th century. Since the 1950s, however, and especially since the 1990s, scholarly studies—books and articles—have been published in ever-increasing numbers.

Reference Works

Three 19th-century dictionary articles on Viotti—Gerber 1812–1814, Miel 1827, and Fétis 1878—reflect the gradually increasing state of knowledge about Viotti as the century wore on. Gerber 1812–1814 and another early reference work, DeGregori 1824, a regional cultural history, show that information about Viotti was not widely disseminated in his lifetime. Schwarz 1966, White 1973, White 1985, White 2001, and Sala 2007, on the other hand, are products of 20th- and 21st-century scholarship. None of the worklists in these dictionary articles are entirely error-free or complete, but that in White 1985 is the most complete.

  • DeGregori, Gaspare. “Viotti.” In Istoria della vercellese letteratura ed arti. Vol. 4. By Gaspare DeGregori, 408–413. Turin: Chirio e Mina, 1824.

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    An affectionate narrative, by a Vercellese compatriot, of Viotti’s early years in Fontanetto and Turin, based on the testimony of a personal acquaintance of Viotti’s, and on information DeGregori claims to have received directly from the Prince della Cisterna, Viotti’s patron, which there is no reason to doubt. Well informed on Viotti’s life through the grand tour of 1780–1782, but the treatment of the rest of Viotti’s life is sketchy.

  • Fétis, François-Joseph. “Viotti.” In Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique. 2d ed. Vol. 8. By François-Joseph Fétis, 360–364. Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1878.

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    Fétis claims to have his information on Viotti’s early years directly from the Prince della Cisterna, but he follows DeGregori 1824, in places almost word for word. Contains a few errors of fact, but in general it is an accurate and sympathetic account, and the first source for some information, such as Viotti’s putative collaboration with François Tourte, though, as almost always, Fétis fails to provide his source.

  • Gerber, Ernst Ludwig. Neues Historisch-Biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler. 4 vols. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1812–1814.

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    Provides a brief, sketchy account of Viotti’s life up to the time of his return to London from exile around 1800 (see Vol. 3, cols. 455–457). Gives the incorrect date of 1790 for his arrival in London in 1792 from Paris. List of works includes only twenty-five violin concertos. Instructive as to the state of knowledge on the Continent about Viotti near the close of the Napoleonic Wars.

  • Miel, Edme-François-Antoine-Marie. “Viotti.” In Biographie universelle ancienne et moderne. Vol. 49. Edited by J. -F. Michaud, 184–195. Paris, 1827.

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    Miel was personally acquainted with Viotti and his circle in Paris. Despite tending to the hagiographic and containing a few unconfirmed anecdotes, this article is an essential source, much of which has been confirmed by recent research. Approximately one-quarter of the article was excised for the second edition (1843–1865). Reprint: Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1966–1970.

  • Sala, Massimiliano. “Viotti, Giovanni Battista.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Vol. 17. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 25–33. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2007.

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    The most up-to-date encyclopedia article on Viotti’s life and works, both the article and the bibliography benefitting from the most recent research and scholarly investigation of the life and works. Available online by subscription.

  • Schwarz, Boris. “Viotti, Giovanni Battista.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Vol. 13. Edited by Friedrich Blume, 1792–1799. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1966.

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    An authoritative account of Viotti’s life and music, though much detail has since been revealed. The worklist has been superseded by White 2001. Contains unique insights into Viotti’s music. Rich and wide-ranging bibliography, though only to the 1960s. See also the affinities between Viotti and Mendelssohn and Schumann pointed out by Schwarz in the same volume of MGG, cols. 1743–1744.

  • White, Chappell. “Toward a More Accurate Chronology of Viotti’s Violin Concertos.” Fontes Artis Musicae 20 (1973): 111–124.

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    A model of thorough, careful, yet imaginative scholarship in which White sifts the historical, biographical, documentary, and musical evidence to arrive at the probable date of composition of each of Viotti’s twenty-nine violin concertos in turn. Along the way, much information about the concertos, not to be found elsewhere, is provided.

  • White, Chappell. Giovanni Battista Viotti: A Thematic Catalogue of His Works. New York: Pendragon, 1985.

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    Lists all the known manuscript sources and editions printed in Viotti’s lifetime, organized according to genre, and assigning a “W” number to each work, including arrangements. Includes identification of first editions when known, plate numbers, first announcements and reviews, and incipits. Appendices include a concordance of opus numbers, lists of publishers and works, autograph manuscripts, and Viotti’s metronome tempo markings.

  • White, Chappell. “Viotti, Giovanni Battista.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    Though much new material has since come to light regarding Viotti’s life, this concise, sensitive, and accurate article (unchanged from the 1980 and 2001 editions of New Grove) is still the best brief introduction in English to Viotti’s life, career, and works. The worklist requires a few corrections and additions, and the bibliography needs updating.

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