When the spiritual content of a musical work is immutable, the way of interpreting and executing it has a continuous evolution over time. In order to comprehend this idea, one might compare the first recordings made by famous artists with performances on more recent recordings. It is even more interesting to listen to the same work as recorded by a violinist early in his career and in a subsequent version performed by him at a later age. Usually one perceives quite a different execution of the text, not only from a musical standpoint, but with respect to musical detail: the audible shifts that characterized violin performances for years and many of the expressive slides, used indiscriminately and immoderately in earlier times, have disappeared.
In the last thirty years, the public’s auditory perception has been greatly refined as a direct result of the appearance of long-playing records (and, later, tapes and cassettes) and the enormous dissemination of classical music by an extensive recording industry. Dubious intonation and unpleasant sounds are no longer acceptable.
In order to achieve a more precise and objective execution, technical knowledge must be continuously renewed by developing the capacity of the four fingers of the left hand and adapting the bow technique to meet the sonic requirements of ever-larger concert halls.
Fifty years ago, Carl Flesch began to chart new and unexplored pathways in his fundamental work, The Art of Violin Playing. The extraordinary result of his lifelong research is contained in an equally important volume, The Art of Fingering for the Violinist, which appeared posthumously. Despite the widespread dissemination of the works of Flesch and other authors who are careful not to succumb to the convenient praises of an interpretation overburdened with years of tradition, few violinists take an interest in the need for a constant evolution of instrumental technique. I have discovered during my long experience in instructing students of different levels, that they prefer an erroneous, accepted solution to one that is suited to the correct musical performance of a passage requiring instrumental perfection. These notes are directed particularly to these maturing students.
The position of the body and of the arms and the angle of the left hand to the fingerboard are very important. When I ask a student to lean on both feet, to relax completely, and then to lift his left arm naturally, he will usually finish the upward motion with his body shifted toward the left and the left hand at mouth level or slightly higher. This should, therefore, be the left-arm position throughout the performance, instead of the forced and, unfortunately, common position toward the center of the body with the elbow close to the stomach.
Distinct benefits may be gained from shifting with correct posture, namely, the ability to rotate the arm with ease toward the right and so keep the hand from touching the body of the instrument and thereby actuate a single, smooth movement. Problems of clarity and intonation are eased once we eliminate the need for further adjustments to get us past the fourth or fifth position.
The angle of the left hand to the fingerboard is extremely important, for, in my opinion, it should be the same on any string and in any position. In order to understand what I mean by a constant angle, try to play the excerpts in Exx. 1, 2, and 3 with the fingerings given. The upper fingerings are the ones I recommend.
The position of the thumb cannot be determined precisely since the shape of the hand varies from person to person. Let us start with the principle that the instrument is held by the pressure of the chin and not by the hand. The thumb, therefore, should be placed in such a way that the fingers are ready to play without having to make a long crossing before meeting the string. When the thumb is held back, slightly behind the first finger, it permits a constant angle with the fingerboard, both in the lower positions and when overcoming the obstacle posed by the instrument itself in reaching for higher position. The base of the index finger thus lightly touches the neck of the violin without pressure, greatly facilitating shifts, and preventing stiffness during the execution of long, rapid works like a perpetuum mobile. Keeping the fingertips close to the strings also helps to prevent the annoying noises made when the fingers hit the strings percussively from above, sounds that become intolerable on recordings or broadcasts.
The use of new fingerings is undoubtedly the most distinctive feature in the development of left-hand technique. Incredible as it may seem, the even positions are still rejected in favor of longer shifts, which make the intonation less certain, despite the fact that it is obviously easier to shift to a neighboring position than to a more distant one. In Ex. 4 the upper fingering is certainly preferable to the lower, traditional one, which is recommended in almost all editions. Fingerings that respect phrasing, prevent erroneous accents, and foster sonic equality are even more important, as in Exx. 5-9.
Greater use of stretches and fingered octaves (which are the direct result of the stretches) is advisable in order to minimize audible shifts and unnecessary slides in Ex. 10. It is evident in Ex. 11 that the use of fingered octaves keeps a descending shift from being followed immediately by an ascending one, thus facilitating correct musical phrasing and preventing an incorrect accent on the first G' ' ' ' that is virtually unavoidable with the conventional 1-4, 1-4 fingering. Two shifts are similarly avoided in Exx. 12 and 13.
In Ex. 14 a combination of fingered octaves and octaves performed with an unchanging 1-3 fingering throughout the chromatic ascent avoids making two descending shifts.
Every violinist knows the difficulty of playing the passage in Ex. 15 with perfect intonation and without accents caused by wide left-arm movements.
The shifts are shorter and the hand does not even change its angle with 3-1, 4-2 fingering in the fourth measure.
I feel that it is virtually impossible to discard fingered octaves in Ex. 16. In order to avoid a long sequence of slides using traditional fingerings, one ordinarily resorts to portando bowing, which destroys the serenity of this light counterpoint to the theme in the oboe. This problem is solved by employing fingered octaves, shifting on semitones, and making bow changes between whole-tones.
There are certain cases in which a stretch exceeds the reach of the fourth finger on a normal-sized hand. In order to avoid shifting that could make the intonation dubious, one should be well aware of the base position from which the stretch is most easily made. In Ex. 17, the tenth D♯-F♯ is virtually impossible to execute without moving the hand slightly when the base position of the preceding E-C♯ is the third, but is aided quite surprisingly when the E-C♯ is played in fourth position. The value of this unconventional fingering lies also in the natural ability of the second and third fingers to make the link to the next F♯-D♯ double-stop.
The use of stretches can make the execution of quick movements clearer than would be possible with continuous string-crossings. It also has the important musical advantage of allowing one to play groups of slurred notes, as in Ex. 18, on the same string and with the same sound quality. Exx. 19 and 20 are two more instances showing the value of stretches in place of a shift.
Often a combination of stretches followed by a shift improves the speed and clarity of the execution, as in Ex. 21, where the first C is played with a stretch of the second finger and then the hand moves to second position. In Ex. 22, the second measure is played in second position, the F by means of a backward stretch, after which the hand returns to first position.
In Ex. 23 a shift from first to second position at the beginning of the second measure and a stretch to the D' ' ' prevent a slide that would not only interrupt the character of the variation but also cause a false accent on the third 32nd note of the second measure.
The choice of the proper string and, consequently, of the correct fingering are crucial to the performance of a work that requires great color and variety of accent, like a Beethoven sonata. Ex. 24 demonstrates a musically logical fingering typical of Flesch’'s and Szigeti’s interesting fingerings. In the third to the last measure the sforzando applies only to the first F♯. Therefore I suggest using the G-string on the first note and then passing to second position on the D-string, thus acquiring an essential tonal difference.
In Ex. 25 we have two sforzandi in the second measure and a decrescendo in the third. I propose that the stronger G-string should be used to play the sforzandi, and the gentler D-string for the following measure without the sforzandi, and for the decrescendo.
While the practice of scales and arpeggios always provides excellent exercise for finger agility, shifts, and intonation, it should be noted that traditional fingerings are not always applicable to the execution of a work in which scales and arpeggios must be played very rapidly. In these cases it is better to space the shifts farther apart, as in Exx. 26 and 27.
The little scale so highly feared in the Scherzo of Prokofiev’s Concerto Op. 19, in which the minimum metronome marking is ♩ = 160, is virtually unexecutable with conventional fingering. Three solutions are suggested in Ex. 28. Joseph Szigeti suggests starting in seventh position so there is but one shift between the G' ' ' ' and the A' ' ' '. However, the great difficulty of placing the first finger on the A' ' ' makes this fingering risky. David Oistrakh begins in third position and uses the finger sequence 123, 1234, 1234, playing the scale entirely on the E-string. The upper fingering is almost identical to Oistrakh’s, but it offers a tiny bit more time at the beginning, which, perhaps, is useful after the jump of position between D' ' ' ' and A' ' '. After much consideration, I have finally decided to adopt this last solution.
It is sometimes useful to reduce the number of shifts where great evenness is required. With my fingering, there are only two shifts in Ex. 29 instead of the three prescribed by conventional fingerings.
The shift where the rhythmic configuration permits slightly more time is a fundamental rule to be applied to particularly difficult passages, as in Ex. 30. In Ex. 31, according to the old fingering, between the chords on either side of the asterisk, the first finger, which is used for the A' ' ' of the C-E-A chord, must move extremely fast in order to reach the G♯” of the following G♯-E-D chord. There is a bit more time in the upper fingering.
A double-stop of an augmented fourth always presents an intonation problem, especially for violinists with thicker than average fingers. It is perfectly useless to spend hours of practice trying to force the second finger under the third in Exx. 32 and 33. The C♯ will always be flat. The problem is solved magically by first preparing the second finger, and then placing the third over it. We encounter the same problem in Exx. 34 and 35.
The correct movement of the voices in polyphonic pieces is extremely important. (I won’t even mention Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin since that discussion would lead us astray.) One of the most problematic musical and technical passages in our literature occurs at the beginning of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata. Flesch suggests an interesting fingering that has inspired me to find another way to play the opening measures, shown in Ex. 36, so that the voices will remain independent and thereby give the phrase new instrumental color after the forte of the opening chord. (This phrase, incidentally, is similar to the opening of the Seventh Symphony, also written in A major.) As risky as the 2-4 fingering on the E'-E' ' octave initially seems, the violinist acquainted with fingered octaves will undoubtedly prefer it because the shift is shortened, and the second and fourth fingers are not involved in playing the preceding G♯-B double-stop.
In 1903 Friedrich Steinhausen maintained in his important treatise, Physiology of the Bow Arm, that bowing power and action reside in the arm and forearm, while the wrist and the fingers follow the movement of the arm. Today I notice that many young people still give great priority to wrist and finger movement, especially when playing détaché and spiccato. They keep the rest of the arm almost inactive, resulting in a continual change in the point of contact between the bow hair and the string, which creates an irregularity in tonal output. When we acknowledge the fact that in order for the string to vibrate regularly the bow must be at right angles to it, it follows that up and down-bow movements remain the same whether all the bow is used or only a small part of it, as in the case of fast détaché or spiccato. In some special instances a slightly oblique bowing will produce a singular tonal effect, but those cases are the exception, not the rule.
Much has been written and taught on the method of holding the bow. The following is a theoretical view: If the thumb and the middle finger form a ring to hold the stick, the other fingers must move slightly apart in order to control more of the surface of the stick. In this way it is easier to use the weight of the whole arm from the shoulder to produce an even tone at the frog as well as at the tip. The shoulder must not be raised, since the wrist and the fingers would then be forced to exert pressure on the bow stick, thereby stiffening the muscles and precluding any possibility of producing brilliant bowings. While it is not my purpose to establish a rule, I see the upper arm held parallel to the bow stick as the proper right-arm posture. The arm and forearm are, therefore, slightly higher when playing on the G-string and lower on the E. This adjustment is easily made when standing in front of a mirror with the bow at the midpoint on the strings.
Insufficient understanding of right-arm movement is apparent in the notion that a fortissimo can be achieved by mere bow pressure on the strings. While this is partly true, it should be remembered that the bow speed may be used to produce a tone that is clear and not scratchy. The accelerative and decelerative speed of the bow are also very important when playing a final note pianissimo in the extreme upper register. These notes are often imperceptible in their final phases because the bow speed is not completely regular. To remedy that fault, I recognize that the bow is heaviest at the frog, and that its weight diminishes progressively toward the tip. Therefore I begin the note at the frog with a very slow, flowing movement, since the string vibrates by the weight of the bow, and I speed up as I approach the tip to compensate for the progressive weight loss. This problem is further resolved by slightly rotating the stick toward the bridge so as to allow all of the hair to touch the string.
By distribution of the bow I also mean the amount of bow to be used on a sequence of notes of unequal duration, as for example in the Siciliana rhythm , where we find the equivalent of three sixteenth notes during the first note, followed by one sixteenth, and it, in turn, is followed by the equivalent of two sixteenths. If we play the second of these notes with the same amount of bow used for the first, we create an accent that totally spoils the musical flow. It is precisely for this reason that the violinist must divide the bow length according to the duration of the note, thus varying the placement of the bow on the string. The execution of this rhythm in the following manner is preferable to , and is quite common today.
While I have rarely encountered problems working with fairly gifted students on the down-bow motion, I have very often detected what I consider an entirely erroneous up-bow movement. Many young violinists raise the wrist and turn the fingers toward the right almost halfway between the tip and the frog. As a result, half the bow is pushed and the rest is pulled toward the frog. The motion of the bow is certainly not consistent, since after half the bow is used the bow hair forms an acute angle instead of a right angle with the string, which does not allow the string to vibrate evenly.
The solution to the problem is easier than it would seem. The arm, from the shoulder to the knuckles, must form a smooth curve, with the upper arm, the forearm, and the hand all on the same plane. In this way all bowings, from a sequence of long notes to a fast spiccato, from a four-note chord to a staccato, are played with a horizontal arm motion, allowing the string to “breathe.”
Moreover, the change from upto down-bow at the frog must be played with a motion of the entire arm, while the wrist and fingers are never rigid, but follow the movement of the arm without actively participating in the change of bow.
Do not forget the premise that the bow touches the string while the violin remains immobile is basic to correct bowing technique. If one moves the violin so that the strings meet the bow, as many players do, one must constantly adjust the movement of the bow during and after the string-crossings (like Paganini’s Second Capriccio). An unfortunate unevenness in rhythm and sonority will result.
Although great importance is attached to bowing in violin technique, the legato, which is extremely valuable in the execution of lengthy phrases, has received little attention. (Kreutzer’s Etude No. 1 is among the few exceptions.) Recently there has been an increasing tendency to play portando a phrase that requires great interpretive serenity. Students are sometimes taught to ease the bow pressure between tied notes. I do not agree with this for two reasons. First, when the composer gives no sign that a portando is required, the performer is bound to respect his intention. Second, and perhaps more significant, a portando bowing could confer equal tension to every note, in contradiction to the laws of diatonic and chromatic harmony. It would not be suitable to perform the measures following the cadenza in the first movement of the Beethoven concerto in the manner indicated by the markings in Ex. 37. I would insist instead on the correct distribution of bow speed for natural phrasing, with light tension on the first two measures and relaxation on the third and fourth. Moreover, I do not think it possible to divide the bowings more than the passage in Ex. 38 suggests.
What I call bow distribution is sometimes quite problematic, as in Ex. 39, because of the alternation of slurs and brief, separated notes. It is, therefore, best to play the fifth eighth note of each measure with the same bow direction as was used for the first four.
We often encounter long sequences of separated notes suddenly followed by groups of tied notes, particularly in fast movements of Baroque music. The separate notes are played with the upper part of the bow. Much more bow is needed for the sets of three tied notes in Ex. 40 than for a single note. (Theoretically, the amount of bow needed for the three tied notes is three times as much.) In order to prevent a stong accent on the last of the separate notes and yet reach the part of the bow where the three tied notes can best be played, we should descend progressively, during the first measure of the example, from the upper to the middle part of the bow, and use more than just the note preceding the tie for this displacement. I suggest practicing this bowing, which I consider very important, during daily scale work, starting at the point with groups of repeated notes, descending toward the frog, sustaining the same sonority and rhythmic regularity, and then returning to the point. Ex. 41, an example of original Bach phrasing, is particularly interesting. Knowledge of the point of departure of each bowing is extremely important in order to play the combination of separate notes, the short tie, and the long ties. Practice this only after you have established correct bowing distribution, otherwise you will be wasting your time.
Often an otherwise musically gifted student forgets to observe the starting and ending points of a theme or an incidental theme. Incorrect phrasing can result from improper bowing, especially when the rhythmic pulse is an important part of the musical context. By using the upper bowing in Ex. 42 one can avoid an accent on the B♭ quarter note of the second bar. Such an accent would impede the flow of the phrase. Similar situations occur in Exx. 43 and 44. When we encounter a sequence of accents or sforzandi inscribed by the composer, bowings that permit even execution of dynamic signs are preferable, as in Ex. 45.
Many violinists have difficulty with passages like the one given in Ex. 46, where it seems appropriate to devote more bow to the two slurred notes than to the separate ones. This technique almost always results in double-stops instead of broken octaves. Greater articulation is achieved when more force is applied to the up-bow on the first note of each triplet and the two tied notes are played with a simple reflex motion.
In Ex. 47 the active movement is concentrated on the shorter down-bow at the tip, rather than on the longer note, which is played with a reflex bowing.
The staccato is a type of bowing derived from the need to play the martelé at a fast tempo. The staccato has since become an almost exclusively virtuoso type of bowing, especially admired by colleagues and students who have difficulty playing it. In a concert hall, the so-called flying staccato is rarely perceptible, particularly in its initial phases. There are, however, moments in violin literature when this bowing must be considered in order to do justice to the composer’s intention. Many violinists naturally possess a brilliant staccato that is attainable almost always at an immutable metronomic speed. In Exx. 48, 49, and 50, however, the staccato must be played in the precise tempo of the musical context and with very consistent sonority.
In Ex. 48, the metronomic speed is approximately ♩ = 126. It is slightly faster in Ex. 49, but ♩ = 96 in Ex. 50. Great mastery and absolute control of the staccato’s speed are therefore indispensable. Practicing this bowing can be facilitated by knowing that even in these cases the string must vibrate evenly (that is, with a right angle between the bow hair and the string). The movement is similar to that of the détaché, but instead of playing the sequence of notes alternately up and down, one proceeds in the same bowing direction, retaining the impulse in the arm and forearm, while the wrist and fingers follow without actively participating. Vertical movements between notes are not advisable; instead, the separation is made by simply arresting the flow of the bow.
I hope that these remarks and musicalillustrations will be of value to those young people for whom playing the violin represents not merely a job but continual research. I am firmly convinced that in a few years many of my ideas and suggestions will be superseded, and I hope to be among those who have found new solutions.
I would like to close with a thought by Ferruccio Busoni:
When a work is finished, we have accomplished such progress that the work is already surpassed, endowing its authorship withthe capacity for continual development. This fosters the beginning of a new work and the process goes on forever (as can be seen in Michelangelo, Goethe, Verdi) without ever having said all.