A European walk through Bordeaux 6
Rode’s “Caprices ”
21, Rue du Loup.
The house that today bears the number 21 in Rue du Loup is the birthplace of the virtuoso violinist Jacques Pierre Joseph Rode (1774-1830), born on 16 February 1774. A child prodigy and son of a perfume and glove merchant established in the same street, legend has it that he was quickly noticed by all those who heard him as they passed through Rue du Loup. Presented by his professor, André-Joseph Fauvel, to the music committee of the Société du musée [museum society], he who would go on to become the great violinist of the revolutionary era made his public debut at the age of eleven, on 14 July 1785. Already at that young age, and according to the musicologist Fetis, his performance took the breath away of all the music lovers and artists in Bordeaux. Some time later, he performed at a concert of sacred music at the Grand Théâtre. In 1787, aged thirteen, he left for Paris, where he became the star pupil of Giovanni Battista Viotti (1753-1824), the founder of the modern French violin school. In 1790, at sixteen, he made his debut as a soloist in Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 13. A few weeks later, Rode was producing Viotti’s concertos 17 and 18. He was already famous when Viotti left France at the approach of the Reign of Terror.
At twenty, Rode was an internationally celebrated virtuoso. He travelled through the Netherlands and Germany and went to London and Madrid, where he befriended Boccherini. But Consulate France was calling for him. From 1795, he was appointed professor of the first violin class at the newly created Conservatoire de Paris, without actually taking up his new post because he was touring. In 1798, he was also appointed first violin for the orchestra of the Paris Opera. Then, in 1802, Bonaparte appointed him first violin, or master of concerts, of the First Consul in Paris.
His fame spread throughout Europe, where he was recognised as “one of the very best violinists on account of his perfect tone, his extraordinary agility and his interpretation of excellent taste” (Ernst Ludwig Gerber). And so the virtuoso of the Revolution became the emperors’ violinist, and set off for a triumphant tour of Germany and Central Europe. When he arrived in Saint Petersburg, he became first violin to Tsar Alexander I. In Vienna, in 1812, he met Beethoven. From 1814 to 1821, he took up residence in Berlin, where he married Caroline Sophie Wilhelmine Verona, the daughter of a painter in the court of the King of Prussia, where he spent a lot of time with the Mendelssohn family, guiding Felix and Fanny in their early days, to whom he dedicated “a small musical souvenir.”
On returning to France in 1819, he was soon back in his hometown of Bordeaux, where he could be found in February 1823, in 1826 and 1828, notably at the Emerigon concerts. But the memory of his early success nagged at him. In 1828, he decided to submit himself to the quirks of fate and to attempt a great comeback in Paris. Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig writes: “He was applauded out of respect for his reputation, but only from a sense of duty, not admiration. He felt the difference between the current situation and that of his past, and realised for the first time that he was no longer as good as he had once been.” The failure was such that some argue it precipitated his death, which occurred after a stroke that left him partially paralysed in the château of David Johnston in Lot-et-Garonne, on 25 November 1830.
During his lifetime, Rode composed variations, 13 concertos, all written between 1724 and 1828, and already with romantic overtones. In particular the 7th, which Paganini agreed to play: almost ten quartets composed in his “brilliant” style, dominated by the first violin and several duets for two violins. He notably left behind, like Paganini, the famous 24 Caprices for solo violin in all the 24 major and minor keys, which first appeared in 1815 and are still an essential step in the learning process for all would-be violinists. Rode owned several Stradivari, including the famous Duke of Cambridge from 1715. It is this violin, now known as the ex-Pierre Rode Stradivarius, that the American violinist Oscar Shumsky (1917-2000) insisted on buying to be able to perform and record the 24 Caprices on the composer’s violin in 1985. Since his death, it is made available by the young Japanese prodigy Ryu Goto.
Throughout his career, he had a friend and rival in the person of another famous French violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831); they would engage in violin duels in two works for two violins, to the point where “it was the done thing, in fashionable circles, to openly take sides with one or the other of these two virtuosos.” With Kreutzer and Pierre Baillot (1771-1842), he wrote a violin method that is still an essential learning tool in all today’s conservatories.
While Kreutzer has remained famous for the immortal sonata for violin dedicated to him by Beethoven – although, according to Berlioz, he never actually played it – Pierre Rode is know for being to thank for the creation of Beethoven’s last sonata, No. 10, Opus 96 in G major, which was written for him. Towards the middle of December 1812, with the announcement of Rode’s arrival in Vienna, on his return from Saint Petersburg, Beethoven hurried to finish the last movement of the sonata of which he had already composed the first three movements, at the same time as working on his 7th and 8th symphonies. This sonata was played for the first time on 29 December, at a private evening performance at the home of Prince Lobkowitz given by Rode and Archduke Rudolph in person at the piano. It was then played at a second concert at Palais Lobkowitz on 7 January 1813. Beethoven endeavoured to compose the finale to conform to Rode’s … …