Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst was one of the few musicians from the first half of the 19th century to have challenged the supremacy of Paganini as the leading violinist of the time. Violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim considered him the greatest violinist ever. As a composer, Ernst is a somewhat less important figure, though he did write several popular works for violin, including his Op. 10 Elegie.
Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst was born in Brno, Moravia, in 1814. He was a child prodigy of rare talent, giving his debut concert at age nine. At eleven, he was accepted in the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied violin with Joseph Böhm and composition with Ignaz Xaver von Seyfried.
Paganini's concert appearances in Vienna in 1828 had a powerful impact on the young Ernst, who decided he would emulate the great master. He made his official concert debut in Paris in 1831, but apparently decided he was not quite ready to launch his career. Ernst spent the next three years at study, but by the mid-1830s he was establishing his name as one of the foremost violinists in Europe.
Perhaps the most important of his concert appearances from the 1830s came in Marseilles in 1837, when he performed with great success with Paganini. Ernst was also turning out some worthwhile compositions at the time, including the Elegie, Op. 10 (1840) and the Fantasie brilliante, Op. 11 (1839).
In 1843, Ernst traveled to London for the first time where he created a sensation, some critics there declaring he had no peers among living violinists. He scored nearly the same kind of success on subsequent concert tours in Europe and Russia. Ernst's Concerto Pathetique (1850) became one of his better known works with the public.
In 1855 Ernst settled in London where he continued to perform regularly until the early-1860s, when illness forced him to withdraw from all concert activity. His last important work was the Six Polyphonic Studies, published in 1865, the year of his death.