Henri Vieuxtemps was a child prodigy and one of the most important composers of violin music in the latter nineteenth century. He was an innovator within the Romantic movement, though he was not always successful in that role. Vieuxtemps' melodies are generally attractive, and if they are a bit saccharine at times, they nevertheless have strong appeal. Almost all his music involves the violin, whether in orchestral, chamber, or solo genres. He may have left an equally lasting legacy in the realm of violin performance, having been central to the development of the Russian School and influential throughout Europe, as well.
Henri Vieuxtemps was musically precocious, taking his first violin lessons at the age of four from his father, an amateur violinist, who by trade was a weaver. He later studied with Lecloux-Dejonc and, incredibly, performed a violin concerto by Rode at age six! He went on concert tour at eight years of age, appearing in Liege, Brussels, and other nearby cities. He caught the notice of Charles de Bériot, who subsequently took him on as a student. In 1829, de Bériot introduced him to Parisian audiences, who were strongly enthusiastic at the youth's debut concert.
Bériot's marriage and concert obligations forced him to end his private lessons with Vieuxtemps in 1831. Young Henri then traveled to Brussels and worked with Pauline Garcia, Bériot's sister-in-law. While she did not instruct him, she was of great assistance in the performance of duets. Two years later Vieuxtemps went on a concert tour of Germany and Austria, accompanied by his father. He performed Beethoven's violin concerto in Vienna, and decided to settle there temporarily and take instruction in composition from Sechter. At his London debut in mid-1834, he met Paganini, and the two were mutually impressed. Vieuxtemps then went on to study composition in Paris with Antonin Reicha.
By 1836, Vieuxtemps he had composed his first violin concerto, published later as No. 2, in F sharp. Further concert tours ensued, including two to Russia, in 1837 and 1840, respectively. In between, he suffered from an illness that required a long period of recuperation. During his last tour of Russia, Vieuxtemps wrote his Second Violin Concerto, which received much acclaim, especially in Paris.
Vieuxtemps made his first of three concert tours of the United States in 1843-1844. In the latter year, he married Viennese pianist Josephine Eder. Having had much success in Russia, he accepted a post in St. Petersburg as Court violinist in 1846. During this period he composed his most popular violin concerto, No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31.
He left Russia in 1851 and resumed his career as a virtuoso performer. His second American tour occurred in 1857-1858, Vieuxtemps again achieving great success with critics and public alike. His Fifth Violin Concerto came in 1861. The composer and his wife and family moved to Paris five years later, owing to the unstable political situation in Frankfurt, where they had been living since 1855. His wife died suddenly in 1868, after which he resumed foreign concert tours for a time. He took a teaching post at the Brussels Conservatory in 1871, where his students included Eugène Ysaÿe, and two years later suffered a stroke resulting in paralysis of his right arm. This episode effectively ended his career as a soloist, though he eventually regained enough ability to perform chamber music in private concerts. He was also able to compose in his last decade. In 1879, he moved to Algeria where his daughter lived. His inability to play with proficiency in his final years was a source of great frustration for him.