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Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766–1831) – Biography

Rodolphe Kreutzer

Rodolphe Kreutzer was born at Versailles on 16th November, 1766. His father, Jean-Jacob, was a native of Breslau in Germany but in 1762 moved to France, where he taught music (including violin) and played clarinet in the Swiss Guards.

Kreutzer displayed musical precocity as a boy and began violin lessons with his father in 1771. He later studied with Anton Stamitz and appeared as a public performer at the age of twelve and as a member of the orchestra of the Chapelle du Roi when he was sixteen. He was already a composer at this early date, and by 1780 he performed at a concert of the Concert spirituel with his teacher Stamitz, fully two years in advance of the great founder of the French violin school, Giovanni Battista Viotti.

The Parisian advent of Viotti in 1782 was a revelation for young Kreutzer, who began writing his own great series of violin concertos at this time, publicly presenting his first concerto in 1784. Also at this time (late 1784 and early 1785), his life took a decided turn with the death of his father and mother, leaving the eighteen-year-old Rodolphe as head of a large family.

Kreutzer appeared in concerts throughout the 1780s and began to take on students to earn money, but his marriage to Adélaïde-Charlotte Foucard in 1788 relieved him of immediate financial worries. Adélaïde-Charlotte was the daughter of the valet de chambre of the Comte d’Artois, brother of the King and later King himself. Such a marriage involved a contract, one of the terms of which was that in advance of inheritance Kreutzer would receive 250,000 livres. Madame Kreutzer was both a charming society partner and a highly educated woman, and when Kreutzer and other musician colleagues formed their own publishing firm, Madame Kreutzer was chosen to look after some aspects of the business side of the operation (especially on its eventual dissolution).

During the crisis of the French Revolution, Kreutzer, along with other royal musicians, moved to Paris. Unfortunately, he may well have suffered great financial loss during the Revolution, though the Revolution was also notable for the beginning of a new musical facet to his career – the theatre.

In 1790, the year that he was named solo violin at the Théâtre Italien, Kreutzer’s first opera Jeanne d’Arc was given its premiere. Although he never abandoned the violin, much of Kreutzer’s future musical compositional efforts were directed to the theatre. The success of Jeanne d’Arc was followed by an even greater success in 1791, Paul et Virginie.

Eventually, Kreutzer would write 39 operas; several of the orchestral pieces from his stage works (especially the Overture and Tartar’s March from Lodoiska) were concert favourites for many years. Beginning in 1796 Kreutzer toured Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands.

While in Vienna in 1798 he met Beethoven. As a result of this friendship, Beethoven dedicated to him his Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 47 (though it is unlikely that Kreutzer was aware of the dedication at first), a work that has since been popularly known as the Kreutzer Sonata. It is perhaps ironic that Kreutzer’s fame, such as it is, mainly rests on Beethoven’s dedication and Tolstoy’s use of the sonata in his famous novella The Kreutzer Sonata. Apparently Kreutzer never actually played the sonata in public. As Baron de Tremont commented, “This dedication might almost be taken for an epigram, for Kreutzer played all his passages legato, and always kept his bow on the string; now, this piece [Beethoven’s sonata] is all in staccato and sautillé [off the string bowings] – and so Kreutzer never played it.”

Like his French violin school contemporaries Rode and Baillot, in the 1790s Kreutzer was one of the first violin professors at the newly organized Paris Conservatoire and, with Rode and Baillot, co-authored the Méthode de violon. Kreutzer’s most important musical contribution in any musical genre was the publication in 1796 of the 40 [later 42] Etudes or Caprices. These studies are by far the most influential such material in violin history and have never been out of print since their first publication. It is no exaggeration to say that nearly every violinist, of nearly any ability, has had occasion to study the études of Kreutzer, so that his influence on violin playing has been enormous.

From 1817 Kreutzer appeared infrequently as a public performer, though he eventually became the conductor of the Opéra, and was honoured throughout his lifetime by many prestigious appointments and awards, including that of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1824. He taught at the Conservatoire until 1825, but an accident in later years made the use of his arm difficult, restricting his teaching and playing career. He died in Geneva on 6th January, 1831.

See our catalogue of sheet music editions of works by Rodolphe Kreutzer.