Violinist and composer Giovanni Battista Viotti was born in Fontanetto da Po, Piedmont, on 12 May 1755. He studied with Gaetano Pugnani, the principal exponent of the school of violin playing begun by Corelli. He spent a period in Paris where he was appointed Marie Antoinette’s accompanist at Versailles in January 1784. His association with the French court caused the hostility of Jacobins. He abandoned Paris for London in July 1792.
His début at Johann Peter Salomon’s Hanover Square concert on 7 February 1793 was a huge success. Living at no. 34 Wells Street, he met Haydn and managed the Italian opera at the King’s Theatre. He appointed Wilhelm Cramer as leader of the orchestra in 1797. He was London’s foremost violinist, but his luck changed. Suspected of Jacobin activities, he was ordered to leave Britain in 1798. He stayed in Schenfeldt, near Hamburg, the guest of William and Margaret Chinnery, wealthy (William was chief clerk at the British Treasury) and musical friends.
From the early 1790s, they lived in a ‘ménage a trois’. Viotti returned to Britain at some time before 1801. Before exile he had been involved with the wine trade and this became his primary focus on his return, although he continued to compose and perform. He became Margaret’s sole companion after 1812 when her husband fled England after having been sacked from the Treasury for embezzling an extraordinary amount of money.
Viotti was a founder member of the London Philharmonic Society in 1813. Nicolas Mori, the first violin professor at the Royal Academy of Music, was his pupil about this time. When his wine business folded in 1818, he went to Paris where he was appointed director of the Paris Opéra on 1 November 1819. In continuous financial difficulty, he returned to London in 1823, staying at the Chinnery home at no. 17 Montague Street and then at no. 5 Upper Berkeley Street, Portman Square, where he died in March 1824. He left a 1712 violin by Antonio Stradivari which he had used until his death.