Charles Auguste de Bériot (1802–1870) – Biography
In 1896 The Strad described Charles Auguste de Bériot as “the founder of the modern Franco-Belgian [violin] school as distinguished from the classical Paris school”, and went on to describe Bériot’s technique as “smooth and perfect in every way, while his tone, which was not great, was nevertheless beautiful, even noble, and his intonation absolutely faultless”. Bériot’s compositions were perfectly suited to his very considerable technique and displayed the early romantic ethos of feeling – though form was never neglected, and indeed in some ways revolutionised.
Bériot was born into a noble family in the Belgian city of Louvain on 20th February 1802. Orphaned at the age of nine, he studied with his guardian, the violinist Jean François Tiby. On the advice of André Robberechts, with whom he had some lessons, he moved in 1821 to Paris to study with Giovanni Battista Viotti, who advised him to profit by hearing other players but to imitate no one. After a brief period as a student of another great French School violinist, Pierre Baillot, Bériot began his extraordinary concert career, creating a sensation in London and Paris.
His life took a decidedly romantic turn when he met María Malibran (née Garcia), perhaps the most famous opera diva of the nineteenth century. A romantic liaison soon developed, at first well-hidden since she was still married. After years of legal wrangling, María’s marriage was annulled by the French courts in 1835, and in March 1836 Bériot and María officially became man and wife. Within months María’s health was severely compromised by an injury suffered during a riding accident. She continued to perform, but within days collapsed onstage at the Manchester Festival and died soon afterwards.
After a period of mourning, Bériot returned to the concert stage in 1838, and in 1843 accepted the post of violin professor at the Brussels Conservatory, where he remained until his forced retirement in 1852 due to failing eyesight; by 1858 he was blind.
Bériot’s most famous student was Henry Vieuxtemps, who succeeded him as violin professor at the Brussels Conservatory in 1870, the year of Bériot’s death (Vieuxtemps refused to occupy the post until his old professor had died). Baron de Trémont, a talented amateur who often played with Bériot, wrote in 1841: “I had heard all the great French and foreign violinists [including Paganini], beginning with Viotti, and I like Bériot the best.”
Similar to the life he led, Bériot’s music is highly engaging and romantic. He flourished at the height of the romantic era, and his music reflects this. His ten violin concertos and the Scène de Ballet are probably his best- known works. In the former he was quite inventive, writing concertos with only one movement, or connected movements (one “official” movement although each of the traditional three movements is visible in the structure), or using themes in more than one movement as a unifying device – fairly new procedures for the time.
Bériot also used many of the same techniques that Paganini was also using in his works: harmonics, extensive use of double stops, and ricochet bowing. In his concertos, however, Bériot is not interested in mere technique. All of his violin writing, no matter how much it relies on a formidable technique, is very much “within” the capabilities of the violin.
The ability to communicate was evident in all Bériot’s music. Like almost all of the great virtuosos of the period, he was a dedicated pedagogue and spent a great deal of time on his various studies or caprices designed to create mastery of the instrument. He wrote a Méthode de violon in 1857 and L’Ecole transcendante du violon, Op. 123, among many other similar works. The goal was not just technical mastery, though that was, of course, important. It was to create a well-rounded musician who was as good a communicator as technician.