Who was Ernst and why is he important?

Heinrich Wilhelm ErnstHeinrich Wilhelm Ernst was born in Brno, probably on 8th June 1812, and died in Nice after a long and debilitating illness on 8th October 1865. From 1840-57 he was one of the most important and famous musicians in Europe. For Joseph Joachim, he was ‘the greatest violinist I ever heard; he towered above the others […] [He] became my ideal of a performer, even surpassing in many respects the ideal I had imagined for myself’. For Berlioz, he was ‘one of the artists whom I love the most, and with whose talents I am most sympathetique’. For Schumann, he was the only violinist able ‘to win over all parties whenever he pleases’; for Liszt, his playing was ‘admirable’; for Heine, he was ‘perhaps the greatest violinist of our time’.

Several reviewers with recent memories of Paganini preferred Ernst to the great Italian, and in 1884, reviewing over thirty years of concert-going, the Reverend H.R.Haweis wrote: ‘[If], looking back and up to the present hour, I am asked to name off hand, the greatest players – the very greatest I ever heard – I say at once ERNST, LISZT, RUBINSTEIN.’

Besides being one of the most expressive and technically gifted of all nineteenth-century violinists, there are several other reasons for thinking Ernst important. He successfully advised Schumann to take up music professionally, and saved the career of the young Joachim. He performed with Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Alkan and Clara Schumann, and gave four pioneering performances of Harold in Italy with Berlioz. He developed several new violin techniques – particularly in the area of left-had pizzicato and artificial harmonics. He was the first Jewish touring violin virtuoso of any importance; the form and pattern for countless others. He composed two of the nineteenth century’s best loved pieces – the burlesque variations on the Carnival of Venice, and the Elegy – and two other pieces of more lasting consequence: the Six Polyphonic Studies which lead directly into Ysaÿe’s Sonates pour violon seul; and the F# minor Concerto that was a profound influence on Liszt’s B minor piano sonata, and still in the repertoire of Enescu, Szigeti, Heifetz, Milstein, Menuhin and Stern in the first half of the twentieth century.

Finally, Ernst was the early nineteenth-century violinist who did most to make Beethoven’s late quartets widely known and appreciated. This was especially true in England where he led many performances at the Beethoven Quartet Society, the Musical Union and the Manchester Classical Chamber Concerts in the 1840’s and ‘50’s.

It is a measure of Ernst’s importance that, in the 1860’s, Hallé, Piatti, Joachim, Brahms and Wieniawski all played – often several times – at benefit concerts designed to raise money for their terminally ill colleague.

The Ernst Revival

In spite of the achievements listed above, Ernst and his music largely disappeared from view between 1914 and 1989. No book or academic article about him was published; perhaps four of his works remained in print; about eight – often very obscure – recordings were made of his works.  The only substantial piece of new research on his life and works was Jan Pecka’s MA thesis ‘Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’ from 1958, but this was difficult to use since it is written in Czech, has not been translated, and is confined to its institution (the J.E.Purkyne University, Brno).

In the 1990, there are signs of growing interest in Ernst amongst violinists – with landmark recordings by Sherban Lupu, Ingolf Turban, Gidon Kremer, Matthew Trusler, Leila Josefowicz and Vadim Repin – and Fan Elun submitted an excellent Ph.D thesis – ‘The Life and Works of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1814-1865) with Emphasis on his reception as Violinist and Composer’ – to the Cornell Music Department in 1993.

The first decade of the twenty-first century saw this revival gain pace. There were too many recordings to count easily; and two books were published which at last allowed academics and performers to appreciate Ernst’s place in nineteenth-century musical life: Jan Pecka’s Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst: Paganini z Brna (Brno: Archiv mesta Brna, 2007) [Hereafter ‘Pecka’] and M.W.Rowe’s Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst: Virtuoso Violinist (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008) [Hereafter HWE].

Publication of the latter led to a project to record all of Ernst’s music on 7 Toccata Classics CDs by the violinist Sherban Lupu and the pianist Ian Hobson. The four discs issued so far have achieved such widespread publicity and excellent reviews – the first was one of the Gramophone’s ‘Discs of the Month’ in April 2011 – that they now make the setting up of a website worthwhile. In addition, the intensive research involved in securing the music and writing the notes has led to the discovery not only of new facts, but a number of previously unknown short pieces, and the sheet music for several printed works once thought lost.