Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (January, 1814 – October 8, 1865) was a Moravian-Jewish violinist, violist and composer. Ernst was widely seen as the outstanding violinist of his time and Paganini's greatest successor.

In most articles concerning Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst it´s said that he was born on the 6 of may 1814. Pěčka has in his work from 1958 reached the conclusion that this date impossibly could be correct. After investigation in archives in Brno, Pěčka showed that Moritz, a younger brother of Heinrich, was born on the 28 of November 1814. This means that Heinrich impossibly could have been born in May the same year. A Newspaper announced after a concert in Mars 1824 that Heinrich was 10 years old. The birth certificate doesn´t seem to exist, and Pěčka drew the conclusion that Heinrich instead was born in January 1814.

Ernst was born in Brünn, Moravia. At the age of nine, he began to study the violin. Ernst was a child prodigy, educated at the Vienna Conservatory of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, studying the violin under Joseph Böhm, starting in 1825, and Joseph Mayseder, and composition under Ignaz von Seyfried.

In 1828, Paganini visited Vienna. Ernst heard him and became deeply impressed by his violin playing. It´s said that Ernst then played for Paganini who predicted him a brilliant career. Paganini gave 14 concerts in Vienna, and Ernst attended many of these in order to observe the master. In april 1829, Ernst left Vienna for Munich for an employment in the royal orchestra, but Paganini advised him to aim for something higher. After that, Ernst played concerts in the same cities as Paganini. These concerts were much appreciated, but still he was standing totally in the shadow of his master. It´s said that this depressed him to the degree that he locked himself into his room for five days. Later in Frankfurt in the spring of 1830, Ernst met Paganini again. There, Ernst gave a concert where he played Paganini's "Nel cor pìù non mi sento" with an accuracy that stunned both the audience and Paganini himself. This work, as most of Paganini's compositions, was unpublished at that time, which meant that Ernst much had learnt it by ear while attending Paganini's concerts. Some days after when Ernst visited Paganini who was sitting composing with his guitar, the latter immediately rose up, hurried to his bed and threw the manuscript under the bed sheet and said that he not only had to protect his composition from Ernst's ears but also from his eyes.

The following years, Ernst made several tours through France. When he heard that Paganini were about to play concerts in Marseille in January 1837, he immediately went there to hear his master again. Ernst was determent to learn as many secrets as possible from Paganini and solve the confusing aspects of his complex technique. Ernst made quite the effort in reaching his goal. With help from some relatives of his secretary, he managed to rent a room next to Paganini. There he hid day and night in order to listen to when Paganini rehearsed and write down what he heard. That must have been a difficult task, because it´s known that Paganini did not practice much during his tours, and when he did, he used a sordine. Ernst managed as well to secretly attend all of Paganini's rehearsals in Marseille in order to get closer to his goal. Ernst too played concerts in Marseille and managed to get these and the concerts Paganini played to become some sort of competition between the two. He managed to organize two concerts before Paganini had arrived and these concerts were well appreciated by the audience. Then when Paganini were about to play his first concert, the demands on him were colossal of the reason that he had the demands on him of being incomparable and that Ernst's playing had been very good. Paganini couldn´t meet the demands of the audience who thought that Ernst's playing had spoken more to the heart. Paganini then organized another concert and challenged the audience with playing his "Moïses", variations on the G string, and that this performance would move them to tears. After that concert, the opinions were divided. It was said that Paganini had mastered the difficulties better, whereas Ernst had played with more sentiment. This composition had Ernst learned through the wall while he was renting room next to Paganini.

Not impossibly out of his respect for Paganini, Ernst later composed his own set of variations on the theme "Carnaval de Venise", which he often played at the end of his concert. He also used "scordatura" in the same manner as Paganini did in his variations. This piece was most popular among Ernst's audience everywhere where he played, and it became his signum. All his professional life, he was on tour around Europe playing concerts and also composed many violin pieces and formed his own style.

After 1844 he lived chiefly in England. He joined the Beethoven Quartet Society in London, where he chiefly played Beethoven String quartets with Joseph Joachim, Henryk Wieniawski and Alfredo Piatti.

In 1862, his health broke down owing to long-continued neuralgia of a most severe kind that made him unable to play. The last seven years of his life were spent in retirement, chiefly at Nice, where he spent time composing, e. g. the "Polyphonic Studies." Ernst died in Nice.

Though Ernst was a highly esteemed artist in his days, he is today half-forgotten.

Ernst was widely seen as the superior violinist of his time and Paganini's greatest successor. Not only did he develop the polyphonic playing, but he also discovered new idiomatic ways to compose polyphonically conceived violin music to a degree that is unprecedented to this day.

Among his friends were Hector Berlioz and Felix Mendelssohn.


*Elun Fan, The life and works of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1814-1865) with emphasis on his reception as violinist and composer, Cornell University 1993
*Amely Heller, “H. W. Ernst – As Seen By His Contemporaries”, Linthicum Heights, Maryland 1986
*Tobias Wilczkowski: Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst – A great violinist in the shadow of Paganini. Uppsala universitet: Department of Musicology, Essay for 60p., 2005

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