Henri Marteau (1874−1934)


Henri Marteau was born on 31 March 1874 in Reims and died on 4 October 1934 in Lichtenberg in Oberfranken, Germany. He was one of the foremost violinists and violin teachers of his age, as well as a composer. He toured Sweden as a young man and returned many times, and made it his mission to promote Swedish music abroad. He was a suspect political figure during the First World War in Germany and France owing to his connections with both countries, and after the war was granted Swedish citizenship. He became a full member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1920.

Henri Marteau 1894. (Statens Musikverk)


Childhood and early career

Henri Marteau was born in Reims in 1874. His father, Charles Marteau, was a French industrialist and amateur violinist, while his mother, Clara Schwendy, was a talented pianist from a musical family in Dresden. Henri Marteau grew up in a materially and culturally rich, bilingual home with a passion for contemporary German music. At the age of five he was given a violin, and two years later started studying for the famed Paris-based Belgian violinist and pedagogue Hubert Léonard. Léonard was Marteau’s most influential teacher and continued giving him lessons until his death in 1890. Amongst the pieces the young Marteau learnt to play were Johann Sebastian Bach’s works for solo violin, which became a cornerstone of his repertoire.

Henri Marteau attracted much attention as a violin prodigy of surprising artistic maturity. Already as a ten-year-old he had his debut as a soloist in Reims playing one of Léonard’s violin concertos, as a thirteen-year-old he performed Max Bruch’s G minor concerto in Vienna, and as a fifteen-year-old he was giving concerts in London. French composers such as Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet dedicated early works to him. In 1891 he premiered Johannes Brahms’s violin concerto in France and Switzerland, having been able to discuss the work with the composer himself just a few years previously. In the following year he concluded his studies at the Paris Conservatory to pursue a hit touring career in the USA, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

In 1900 Henri Marteau married a young German woman from a wealthy family called Agnes von Ernst and was appointed professor of violin at the Geneva Conservatory of Music, where he gathered around him a circle of young musicians, including the German composer Max Reger. Marteau had an intense collaboration with Reger, and took it upon himself to launch his music. On the death of Joseph Joachim in 1907, Marteau was chosen to take over his prestigious position as principal teacher of violin technique at the Royal College of Music in Berlin. After his divorce from Agnes, he married Blanche Hirsekorn, one of his students, in 1910, and three years later they moved to the newly built Haus Marteau in Lichtenberg, Oberfranken − a stately mansion that became their permanent home and that still stands as a music centre dedicated to his memory.

Marteau had retained his French citizenship, but culturally he gravitated towards the Teutonic. Judging by his correspondence, his contact with French musicians had largely died around the turn of the century. French works, including some by Debussy, remained in his repertoire but really only peripherally.

The Swedish connection

In the autumn of 1894, the 20-year-old Henri Marteau travelled to Scandinavia: first to Copenhagen, and then to Bergen to pay a visit to Edvard Grieg. That October he performed the Swedish premiere of Brahms’s violin concerto in Stockholm. The critics wrote of a ‘soulful, masterly execution that could not but enthral’, and the public response was rapturous. He gave eleven concerts in Sweden during this visit, sparking off what became widely known as ‘Marteau fever’. He returned with an extensive tour of Sweden and Norway from January 1895 through the spring, giving concerts in many different cities and towns. He continued the tour in the following autumn. One of his early acquaintances in Sweden was the composer and scholar Karl Valentin, and the first Swedish work that appeared in his repertoire was an Adagio that Valentin had dedicated to him. It was at this time that Marteau performed his first act in promotion of Swedish music abroad, writing an article on Scandinavian music for an American publication called The Song Journal. During his first visit to Sweden he also made the important acquaintance of Tor Aulin and Wilhelm Stenhammar.

Many works were dedicated to Henri Marteau. These included, from Scandinavia, Carl Nielsen’s second violin sonata and two violin concertos: Christian Sinding’s second and Tor Aulin’s third. He played both these concertos in Berlin in 1901, after which they featured frequently in his performances around the world.

By the turn of the century, Marteau had given close to a hundred concerts in Sweden, and as many again up until the First World War. This was one facet of his Swedish enterprise. The other was his performances of Swedish music abroad, which often involved the collaboration of Tor Aulin. The two of them gave a Swedish orchestral concert in Geneva in 1903, and in 1909−1910 they performed a series of such concerts with different orchestras in six German cities. A permanent fixture in these concertos was Aulin’s third violin concerto, and each one also included at least one orchestral work by Franz Berwald. Ensuring the international renown of this composer was another of Marteau’s missions along with Aulin and Stenhammar. In 1909, Marteau and Aulin started the Berwald Foundation, the primary objective of which was to consummate the publication of Berwald’s works. Marteau himself made a generous contribution to the foundation.

With his German connections, Marteau played an important role in the two Swedish music festivals arranged in Germany, the one in Dortmund in 1912, the other in Stuttgart in 1913. He was also involved as a soloist and arranger at the Swedish concerts in Berlin and Vienna organised prior to the outbreak of war.

Henri Marteau had violin students from all over the world, including from Sweden: Sten Broman, Otto Kyndel, Göran Olsson-Föllinger, Ebba Nissen and Axel Runnquist to name but a few. He was also made a foreign member of the Kungl. Musikaliska akademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Music) in 1900, becoming a full member in 1920.

Personal catastrophe

As a French citizen, Henri Marteau was a reservist in the French army. Combining this with holding a high public office in Germany had not been without its problems, problems that the declaration of war merely exacerbated. He and his wife were accused – groundlessly – in February 1916 of planned espionage. They were arrested and imprisoned, and it would be a year before they were reunited and able to see their children again in their Lichtenberg home.

To some extent, Marteau was able to use his time in prison to play and compose; his third string quartet and parts of his violin concerto originate from this time. The closing years of the war he spent, as a French citizen in Germany, under a kind of house arrest, which put a full-stop to his official German career.

Swedish citizen

As a touring soloist, Henri Marteau had made the acquaintance of many royal personages around Europe, and Sweden was no exception; Prince Eugen had become a good friend of the Marteaus, and Henri had long been on friendly terms with King Gustaf V. In the autumn of 1919, Swedish friends of his arranged for him to leave Germany for Sweden, and in the following year he received, by royal decree, a Swedish diplomatic passport, which enabled him to resume his world tours. It was official acknowledgement of all he had done in the interests of Swedish music.

In the early 1920s, Henri Marteau continued his equally intensive tours of Europe, this time partly in the company of Wilhelm Stenhammar. He now made an attempt to be fully Swedish and to settle in his new homeland with his family. His one and only opera, Meister Schwalbe, he dedicated in 1922 to King Gustaf V. Marteau had once been the artistic director of Göteborgs orkesterförening (Gothenburg Orchestral Society) and in 1923 was considered as the principal conductor for the reformed Malmö symfoniorkester (Malmö symphony orchestra), to which unemployed German musicians would be easy to recruit; however, the plans were scuppered by a conflict with the Musikerförbundet (Swedish Musicians’ Union) over the salaries he had intended to build his venture upon. In 1920 he also tried to form a public Swedish music society on a German and Swiss model, but this too came to nought.

Although Marteau remained a Swedish citizen for the rest of his life, he reverted to his schedule of international tours and teaching. The enthusiasm that he had first encountered in Sweden had matured into more general respect, sullied, however, with some critical views on alleged flaws in his technique. Henri Marteau died in his home in Lichtenberg half a year after his 60th birthday.


Marteau composed from his early youth and for the rest of his life, accomplishing a catalogue of some 50 works in a range of genres, including the opera, the symphony, the solo concerto, the string quartet, the organ piece, the choral piece and the solo song. His earliest compositions are the solo cadenzas to Brahms’s violin concerto from 1888 and six songs from 1890. The sure compositional technique he adopted is evident in his fugato sections and freestanding fugues, while his knowledge of orchestration comes across in his two solo concertos for violin and cello.

Stylistically, his music is multifaceted; there are elements of German late romanticism, such as in the songs with string quartet from 1905, as well as pronounced streaks of neoclassicism as found in the serenade for woodwinds from 1916. Episodes of klangmusik, in which the stylistic means are unresolved ninth chords and whole tone scales, are not uncommon.  Contemporary German and Swedish critics talked of Marteau’s ‘impressionism’ and would sometimes fault his form for being overly rhapsodic, in spite of the contrapuntal adroitness he could demonstrate in the details.

The three string quartets evince all the above features. The third of them he wrote in 1916 during his imprisonment and has as its slow movement a pathetic ‘Hymne à la douleur’, using a poem by Lamartine as a motto. The clarinet quintet from 1909, which has been taken up by several modern-day ensembles, reveals deep insight into the instrument and as a whole is more a divertissement than it is romantic.

And what of the connection with Sweden in his music? On the purely musical level it is not that strong, but many works, not least those from the early 1920s, were dedicated to his Swedish friends. A music drama that has some association with Sweden is the ‘lyrical scene’ La Voix de Jeanne d’Arc for soprano, choir and orchestra, premiered in Gothenburg in 1896. Another is Marteau’s only opera, Meister Schwalbe, dedicated to King Gustaf V and with a libretto translated into Swedish in the German piano reduction. A short, light-hearted tale, it is set in a student milieu and concerns a couple of young lovers who in true classical style give an elderly suitor his deserving comeuppance. The music is, in many respects, conventionally comic but there are also some convincing lyrical passages. Here the composer’s way of blending traditional and late romantic harmonic techniques – with whole-tone elements − comes into its own.

Anders Edling © 2016
trans. Neil Betteridge


Bangerter, Klaus: Henri Marteau als Komponist im Spiegel der Kritik: eine Studie zum Begriff ‘Einheit’ in der Musikkritik um 1900, Tutzing: Schneider, 1991
Cotte, Roger: Compositeurs français émigrés en Suède, Paris: Université de Paris, 1962.
Katalog der Henri-Marteau-Ausstellung der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek in München, Tutzing; Schneider, 1984.
Leiska, Katharine: Schwedische Musikfeste in Deutschland und wilhelminische Nordenrezeption: Dortmund 1912, Stuttgart 1913, master thesis in musicology, Uppsala universitet, 2004.
Léonard, Hubert & Weiss, Günther (eds): Der Lehrer und Wegbereiter von Henri Marteau, Hubert Léonard. Tutzing: Schneider, 1987.
Marteau, Blanche: Henri Marteau : Siegeszug einer Geige, Tutzing: Schneider, 1971.
Marteau, Blanche, et al. (eds): Festschrift zur Übergabe des Hauses Marteau an die Öffentlichkeit am 22. Oktober 1982, Tutzing: Schneider, 1982.
Weiss, Günther: Der grosse Geiger Henri Marteau (1874−1934): Ein Künstlerschicksal in Europa, Tutzing: Schneider, 2002.
Wirz, Ulrich: Henri Marteau: Leben und Vermächtnis, Bayreuth, 2009.
Åhlén, Carl-Gunnar: ‘Henri Marteau: svenska elever & kolleger’, commentary booklet, Caprice CAP 21620, 1999.
Åhlén, Carl-Gunnar: Livsresa med violinen: en kartläggning av Henri Marteaus insatser för musiken i Sverige: med konsertförteckning och valda Aulin- och Stenhammarbrev ur Marteausamlingen i München, Stockholm: self-published, 1995.

Summary list of works

An opera (Meister Schwalbe), orchestral works (symphony, 2 solo concertos, etc.), semi-dramatic works for voices and orchestra, chamber music (3 string quartets, clarinet quintet, 2 string quintets, 2 string trios, etc.), songs (over 30), choral works (approx. 20).

Collected works

Meister Schwalbe (Richard Batka) op. 26, printed 1922.


Symphony in E major op. 30, ms., 1922.
Vier Tanzstücke op. 45, ms., 1921 and 1934.

Solo instruments and orchestra
Cello Concerto B-flat major op. 7, printed 1907.
Violin Concerto C major op. 18, printed 1921?
Suite for Violin and orchestra A major op. 15, printed 1912.

Soli, choir and orchestra
La Voix de Jeanne d’Arc, ms., 1896.

Soli and orchestra
L’apparition de l’ombre de Samuel à Saul (Alphonse de Lamartine) op. 21, ms. 1917.

Chamber music
String Quartet no. 1 in D-flat major op. 5, printed 1894.
String Quintet in B-flat major, ms., 1899.
String Quintet in A major, ms., 1899.
Chaconne for viola and piano op. 8, printed 1905.
String Quartet no. 2 in D-dur op. 9, printed 1905.
String Trio, op. 12:1 ms., 1907.
String Trio, op. 12:2 printed, 1907.
Clarinet quintet op. 13, printed 1909.
String Quartet no. 3 in C major op. 17, ms., 1916, printed 1921.
Serenade for 10 woodwing instruments op. 20, ms., 1916, printed 1922.
Terzett for flute, violin and viola op. 32, printed 1924.
Sonata fantastica for solo violin op. 35, printed 1927.
Divertimento for flute and violin, op. 42:1, printed 1930.
Partita for flute and viola op. 42:1, printed 1930.
24 Preludes for solo violin op. 44, ms., ca 1930.

Solo songs
Six Songs (French text) op. 1, ms., 1890, printed n.d.
Three Songs (Heinrich Heine) op. 6, ms. 1895.
Eight Songs with string quartet op. 10, printed 1905.
Eight Songs op. 28, printed 1923.
Fünf Schilflieder med obligat viola, op. 31, printed 1923.

Messe solennelle C major, ms., 1892.
Songs for men’s choir op. 16, printed 1922.
Spiritual Songs for children’s or women’s choir op. 22.
Three songs for mixed choir op. 33.
Vater unser for mixed choir op. 38, ms., 1926.

Works by Henri Marteau

This is not a complete list of works. The following works are those that have been inventoried so far.

Number of works: 18