Beginning at the end (Charles de Bériot)

De Bériot’s mausoleum in the cemetery of Laeken, Brussels, Belgium

Charles-Auguste de Bériot was born on 20 February 1802. In the 150th anniversary year of his death I have decided to take a look at this well known but under researched founder of the Belgian violin school. As the title of this post says, lets begin at the end.

On 9 April 1870, Charles de Bériot died rather suddenly of what was described at the time as encephalitis. He was 68 years old and had been suffering from various illnesses for over 15 years.

During the height of their careers de Bériot and his wife, the opera singer Maria Malibran, were European superstars. Their movements and concerts were published in the press throughout the continent. While his international reputation diminished over the years, de Bériot remained an important figure in the musical life of the Belgian capital, organising various concerts around the city as well as in the concert hall built next to his home.

The day of his funeral, a description of his funeral and the speech given by the director of the Brussels Conservatory, François-Joseph Fétis was published in the Indépendance Belge 13 April 1870.

The funeral of Charles de Bériot was celebrated today at eleven o’clock, amongst numerous participants.

From ten o’clock, the funeral home, on the rue Ducale, was inundated by a crowd of friends and admirers of the illustrious deceased. All the celebrities of the musical world were gathered there, with those of politics, administration and science.

The mortal remains of Charles de Bériot rested in a chapel, on the ground floor.

François-Joseph Fétis by Jean-Baptiste Madou

A farewell speech was given, before removing the body, by Mr. Fétis the elder, director of the Conservatoire de Bruxelles and member of the Académie royale of Belgium. – Here is the text of the speech:

“Belgium, the Académie and the Conservatoire royal de musique have lost, in the person of Mr. de Bériot, one of their most famous representatives. Virtuoso of the first order, chief and founder of the Belgian violin school, so famous in the two worlds, composer for his instrument, of music which has become classic; Mr. de Bériot, received for his honour, diverse titles of which one alone would have been sufficient to honour his memory for posterity. An elementary instruction in his art was the only one he received from a master[1]: a sense of beauty, incessant study and meditation, were the only reasons for his exceptional talent.

Hardly twenty years old, Mr. de Bériot saw his success begin abroad: Paris, London, Vienna, all of Germany, all of Italy, applauded with delight the precious qualities of this talent so pure, the ampleness and smoothness of sound, the imperturbable intonation, the suppleness and accentuation of the bow; finally, the charm of style, the sovereign force in the arts as in literature, whom no one more than he knew its secret. Not submitting to the influence of any school, he was the creator of his own[2], and, by this independence of feeling and manner, he united originality with his other qualities. This is what artists know as the school of Bériot, as we knew those of Corelli, Tartini and Viotti[3].

Giovanni Battista Viotti after Trossarelli

Bringing the same sentiment to the composition of his works[4], the same taste, the same charm as in his playing, de Bériot showed himself to be an eminent mélodiste, and at the same time an innovator; his concertos, his études, his airs variés, do not recall the works of violinists who preceded him: hearing them today, we immediately recognize the unique style of the author. The critics said that this music was less difficult than it seems: there could not be better praise. Brilliant, without searching for a tour de force, it is above all music and not an acrobatic exercise[5]; it procures the success of the artist who performs it and charms the audience instead of surprising them.

Lambert Massart’s copy of De Bériot’s 12 Études, B-Bc FC-11-MM-1039-(6)

As with the teaching of all great professors, that of Mr. de Bériot incited enthusiasm among his students. His first concern was to develop in them the sentiment of beauty of sound, as well as that of absolute intonation, by the examples he gave them; then he taught them, with an admirable patience, the techniques by which one can acquire these essential and too rare qualities. As for the way of the bow, no one could demonstrate as well as he its force and variety. The products of his school have, besides, proved his excellence as a professor, and the phalanx of his eminent disciples, dispersed in the principal cities of Europe and other countries, are still its brilliant manifestation.

Lambert Massart’s copy of De Bériot’s École transcendante, B-Bc FC-11-MM-1039-(8)

In what I have just said, I only spoke, sirs, of the artist; however, who’s interest is not captured if we consider that Mr. de Bériot, deprived of sight for the last fifteen years of his life, and victim of several serious chronic sicknesses, such as asthma and laryngitis, did not lose his old generosity towards the young and artists? That notwithstanding the cruel crises of these ills, his philosophical resignation did not abandon him, and that he rediscovered his sweet happiness as soon as he experienced some relief? What we can’t admire enough, was to see him, when his suffering was not too severe, retain all his pride for the art and all the seduction of his talent, until the introduction of a new evil, the paralysis of his left arm, took away from him forever this last and supreme consolation.

Charles de Bériot, photograph by Ghemar frères

And now, farewell! Farewell de Bériot! It is a friend of your youth who says it with pain[6], in the name of the Académie, who was honoured to have you counted amongst the number of its members, and of the school who you were the model for.”

When Mr. Fétis had finished speaking, the funeral procession began its march to go, by the rue de la Loi, to the church of Sainte Gudule…

The cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula, Brussels, Belgium

In his quality as an officer of the Ordre de Léopold, Charles de Bériot had the right to military honors. They were rendered to him. Musket fire saluted the body of the deceased as it left the funeral home. A detachment of grenadiers, proceeded by a military band playing funeral marches, served to escort the convoy.

The body was brough by hand to the church.

The pallbearers were Mr. Fétis the elder, member of the Académie royale; Mr. Henri Vieuxtemps, the most famous of the students of de Bériot; Bosselet, teacher at the Conservatory, and Mr. Crest, representative of the crown prosecutor, ex-secretary of the Conservatory.

The mourners were led by Mr. Charles de Bériot, son of the deceased, and by Mr. Colonel de Francquen, his brother-in-law.

Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot

The inhumation of the great artist took place, after the funeral service, at the cemetery of Laeken, where his first wife already rests, Maria Garcia Malibran.

© Text and translations, Richard Sutcliffe 2020

[1] De Bériot received music and violin lessons as a child from Jean-François Tiby in Leuven, his birthplace. He received advice from various violinists including Pierre Baillot and Giovanni Battista Viotti during his youth.

[2] De Bériot is widely credited as the founder of the Belgian violin school. Fétis would also call Lambert-Joseph Meerts, De Bériot’s colleague at the Brussels Conservatory, a founder of the Belgian violin school.

[3] Viotti was the founder of the French violin school of the early 19th century, from which the Belgian violin school stems.

[4] De Bériot composed well over 200 works, mainly for violin.

[5] This is undoubtedly Fétis alluding to the works of Paganini as being acrobatic.

[6] Fétis undoubtedly had met De Bériot while both were in Paris during the 1820s.

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