(Click on the photo to the left to see a different larger photo of van Biene.) Auguste van Biene was born on May 16, 1849 in Rotterdam. His given name was Ezechiel, which he later changed to Auguste.
He studied cello with Adrien Francois Servais at the Brussels Conservatory, and at the age of 15 began playing as a section cellist with the Rotterdam Opera House Orchestra.
In 1867, at the age of 18, he left for London to seek his fortune, possessing only his cello and £3. Life as a beginning musician was difficult, and he struggled for several months with poverty. He made his home in an attic room in Northumberland Court, surrounded by other young artists.
It became his custom to perform on street corners, seeking enough money to pay rent and purchase something to eat. One day, while "busking" at Hanover Square, he was heard by Sir Michael Costa, whose orchestra regularly performed at Covent Garden. Sir Michael hired him as a section cellist in November of 1867, and his fortunes began to improve. For about ten years van Biene made his living by playing in the cello sections of several orchestras, and by giving recitals, eventually becoming principal cellist in the Costa Orchestra.
As soon as he could afford it, van Biene purchased an Italian cello from cellist Alfredo Piatti. The cello was unlabeled, and van Biene thought it was a Guarneri. After his death it was identified as a Grancino, and was auctioned for a mere £85. In 1905 he donated a cello for the use of Boer War prisoners at St. Helena, and the remains of that cello are kept at Kneller Hall of the Royal Military Music School.
Van Biene began to branch out into conducting, and directing theater productions, eventually forming his own "van Biene Opera Company." By the 1880's he was chiefly involved in theatrical management, and ended by becoming an actor and playwright himself, under the stage name of Henri Tempo.
In 1892 he commissioned a three-act play "The Broken Melody" for which he himself composed the music, and a particular tune which was also called "The Broken Melody." The play, and especially the tune "The Broken Melody" became an instant success, and the song is still famous today. Audiences loved it, and van Biene performed it 6,000 times!
The second act of the play includes a short cello recital by a cellist. Van Biene, of course in the starring role, varied his selections every night, but on Saturdays always played his own arrangement of Kol Nidrei. Critics named him the "Magician of the Cello," since he played in a very emotional manner, and was able to completely captivate the audience.
Van Biene died on January 23, 1913 in Brighton in the Hippodrome, while performing a cello recital as part of Act 2 of another play called "The Master Musician." He finished his first piece, gave a little gasp, and then was gone. At first the audience did not realize he had died, since he remained seated. He was carried to his dressing room by the principal cellist of the orchestra.
He was buried in Golders Green Jewish Cemetary in London. Among the mourners at the funeral was famous cellist and editor W. H. Squire. The words on his grave read:
Van Biene's humility and good humor are illustrated by an amusing story he once told to a group of cello students, which was published in The Strad magazine in 1901:
"I was commanded to play before His Majesty King William III of Holland...I had heard that the King was very fond of tremendous difficulties, so of course I went in for difficulties. When I had finished, the King sent for me. He was sitting in a very big chair, for he was a very big, stout man, and he looked at me very kindly and said, 'van Biene, I have heard all the great cello players in the world.' Of course, I made a bow. 'I have heard Piatti, Popper, Grutzmacher, and Goltermann,' then I bowed still lower. 'But of all the great cello players,' by this time I was bowing nearly down to the floor itself, 'of all ther great cello players I have heard, you certainly perspire the most.'
Information for this short biography was gleaned from a much longer and better article by Brenda Neece in The Strad magazine of October 2001.
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