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Studying Performance Practice Through Sound Recordings: Violin

A guide by Historical Sound Recordings (HSR) on using sound recordings when researching performance practice since the early 20th century.

Overview

Early historical recordings of violinists reveal the distinctive performance practices of violinists performing throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both acoustic and electric recordings demonstrate the interpretive styles of violinists including Joseph Joachim, Pablo de Sarasate, Leopold Auer, Eugène Ysaÿe, Jacques Thibaud, Eddy Brown, Juan Manén, and Stefi Geyer, to name but a few of the figures who were renowned as performers. Many of these violinists, can be linked to important composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Mendelssohn, Brahms, Liszt, Schumann, Fauré, Wieniawski, and Tchaikowsky, through their tutelage and career. The distinctive interpretations of Romantic-era violinists point toward important aspects and questions of performance practice in terms of such Romantic-era composer's expressive expectations. 

In large part, the use of vibrato and portamento evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coinciding with the development of sound recording. Robert Philip, in Early Recordings and Musical Style, characterizes an evolving trend in violin playing, and its relation to string playing in general: "While the use of vibrato by string-players was gradually increasing over the first half of the twentieth century, the use of portamento, or audible sliding, was becoming less frequent and more subtle. In the early years of the century the portamento was used very frequently by violinists, often routinely at any change of position. On the cello, with its greater distances and more frequent changes of position, the portamento tended to be even more frequent and more prominent than on the violin. On both instruments by the 1930s it was coming to be viewed as an ornament requiring delicate treatment" (Philip 143). Along with the evolution of performance practice, it is significant to also note that circa 1900, violins were strung with gut, with the lower strings wound with metal. Steel E strings first became available in the 1890s, but did not come into general use until after World War I, in which the lower three strings still remained as gut. 

At the same time, Romantic-era violinists criticized evolving trends in the early twentieth century. Alberto Bachmann, in his An Encyclopedia of the Violin, remarks an increasing number of "mechanical musicians," as encouraged by new trends in violin pedagogy: "There has come into being a whole legion of specialists in violin technique, who are ready to turn out "Paganinis" in double quick time. All these destroyers of art in its purity should be shunned, for they are manufacturers of mechanical musicians, the most skilful among whom earn but little glory, and are the cause of disquiet to genuine artists. The pupils of such teachers may reach a certain point of development but in nearly every case they remain standing on the threshold of the temple of art, which they are musically unfit to enter. One should wage unrelenting war against these mere technicians of the violin. Paganini was the possessor of a phenomenal mechanism, but he was a great artist as well; Mendelssohn declared that the famous Genoese sang the simplest things of the violin with the most affecting sentiment" (Bachmann 164). 

Index

Joseph Joachim

Pablo de Sarasate

Leopold Auer

Eugène Ysaÿe

Jacques Thibaud

Suggestions for further reading

Joseph Joachim

Biographical Sketch: 

Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was an Austro-Hungarian violinist, composer, conductor, and teacher who became one of the most renowned musical interpreters in the second half of the 19th century, stemming in part from his direct contact with leading composers, including Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, and Mendelssohn. He was born on the Esterházy estates (for which Joseph Haydn composed in the 18th century) into a Jewish family. He studied with Polish violinist Stanislaw Serwaczynski, and later Joseph Böhm, who was a violinist of the classical French school. Later on, he studied composition with Felix Mendelssohn, who took him to make his debuts at the Leipzig Gewandhaus (1843) and in London (1844), where he performed Beethoven's Violin Concerto to great acclaim. He soon became deputy leader of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and a teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory; at this time he also furthered his study with Franz Liszt in Weimar. Other notable positions include principal violinist at the Hanover Court, his establishment of a school for instrumental music in the Königliche Akademie der Kunste, which later became the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and his founding of the Joachim Quartet. While by the 1860's Joachim rejected the music of Liszt, Wagner, and the New German School, Joachim promoted the music of Brahms throughout his lifetime, with whom he was a personal friend and colleague. Many works were written for him, including Schumann's Violin Concerto and Phantasie, Op. 131, and Brahms's Violin Concerto and Double Concerto. In addition, Joachim, along with Andreas Moser, wrote a comprehensive compendium on violin playing in 1905, "Violinschule." 

A Closer Look: 

Joseph Joachim's recordings include gradual tempo fluctuations over the course of a given phrase, as well as a nuanced approach to the rhythmic gestures within phrases. For example, in the opening of his recording of the the Hungarian Dance No. 1, Joachim over-dots the opening rhythms. In other sections of the Hungarian Dance No. 1, Joachim plays syncopated rhythmic figures with a forward moving pulse, often surging into the next measure. In his recording of the Hungarian Dance No. 2, one can hear similar interpretive gestures. One instance is in the beginning of the Vivo section, which Joachim starts with an accelerando (not marked in the score), arriving at the Vivo tempo in the beginning of the second phrase.

Yale HSR has all of Joachim's known recordings. 

Suggested recordings in the collection: 

Request CD W-793, from "The World's Leading Interpreters of Music," (Melodiya M10 45027 003): Johann Sebastian Bach: Adagio from Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, Bourée from Partita in B minor, BWV 1002.

Request CD W-889, "Great Violinists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," ASCO A-123: Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor and No. 2 in D minor, WoO 1.

Joseph Joachim: Romance in C major (Victor, 1920, 1/4 inch sound tape reel).

Pablo de Sarasate

Biographical Sketch:

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) was a Spanish violinist and composer. Having begun to play the violin at the age of five, he later received sponsorship to study in Madrid with M.R. Sáez, and Delphin Alard at the Paris Conservatory in 1856, aided by the patronage of Queen Isabella. He went on to tour in Europe, as well as North and South America, eventually attracting the admiration of many other famous composers who dedicated their works to him, including Bruch and Alexander Mackenzie. At the end of his life, he donated his two Stradivari violins, dated from 1713 and 1724, to the Paris Conservatoire and Madrid Conservatory, respectively.

A Closer Look:

Sarasate's playing can be characterized by his virtuosic flare, brisk tempi, and distinctive phrasing. In a recording of his own Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20, Sarasate creates a sense of improvisation through the liberal treatment of rhythmic gestures, maintaining a sense of overall pulse and flow. In a transcription of Chopin's Nocturne in E-Flat minor for violin and piano, Sarasate exhibits a gentle lilt in his phrasing with frequent portamento. Upon the return of the theme in the latter part of Chopin's Nocturne, he phrases with greater variation in rubato than in the beginning of the piece. In other recordings of his own compositions, such as Habañera from Spanish Dances, Op. 21 and Caprice Basque, Op. 24, Sarasate plays with a dance-like boldness, likely influenced by the traditional music of Spain from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Yale HSR has copies of all known recordings by Sarasate. 

 

Suggested recordings in the collection: 

Request CD W-889, "Great Violinists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," ASCO A-123. Includes Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude in E major (BWV 1006), Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat minor, Op. 9, Pablo de Sarasate: Introduction & Tarantella, Op. 43; Caprice Basque, Op. 24; Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20; Miramar (Zortzico), Op. 42; Habañera from Spanish Dances

Leopold Auer

Biographical Sketch:

Leopold Auer (1845-1930) was a Hungarian violinist and teacher. He began his studies at the age of eight at the Budapest Conservatory with Ridley Kohne, continuing with Jakob Dont at the Vienna Conservatory (1857-8), later studying with Joseph Joachim (1863-4). After his début at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, he became the orchestral leader at Düsselfdorf (1864-6) and Hamburg. On Anton Rubinstein's recommendation, Auer succeeded Henryk Wieniawski as violin professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1868, remaining there until 1917. He later moved to the United States, teaching in New York and at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Auer made a significant impact of the Russian violin school, performing as court violinist with the Imperial Ballet, inspiring Tchaikovsky and others to write solos for him. He also led the string quartet of the Russian Musical Society from 1868-1906. Many of Auer's students rose to world-wide fame, including violinists Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, Jascha Heifetz, and Eddy Brown, among others. He was also a prolific writer on music: his books include Violin Playing as I Teach it (New York, 1921/R), Violin Masterworks and their Interpretation (New York, 1925/R), and My Long Life in Music (New York, 1923). 

A Closer Look:

The playing style of Leopold Auer exhibits a range of musical characters, from fluid virtuosity to tender lyricism. In a recording of a violin-piano transcription of the Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor, WoO 1, by Johannes Brahms, Auer treats the opening figures as over-dotted, altering the rhythms at various points to support musical climaxes within phrases. In faster portions, he drives the pulse forward, creating large, sweeping gestures. In contrast, Auer's interpretation of P.I. Tchaikovsky's Mélodie from Souvenir d'un leu cher, Op. 42 exhibits a sweet, gentle tone, using portamento as an extension of his legato playing style. Notably, Auer shapes the returning melodies toward the end of the piece with significant tempo fluctuations, which are not marked in the score, creating a dramatic conclusion to the piece. 

Yale HSR has all of Auer's known recordings. 

Suggested recordings in the collection:

Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor, WoO 1 (request CD W-889, "Great Violinists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," ASCO A-123)

P.I. Tchaikovsky: Mélodie from Souvenir d'un leu cher, Op. 42 (request CD W-889, "Great Violinists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," ASCO A-123)

Eugène Ysaÿe

A Biographical Sketch:

Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was a Belgian violinist, conductor, and composer. His first music teacher was his father, a violinist, going on to study at the Liège Conservatory with Rodolphe Massart (1874), and eventually with Henryk Wieniawski in Brussels and Henry Vieuxtemps in Paris. Under the patronage of Anton Rubinstein, he made his first important tours to Scandinavia, Russia, and Hungary, later making his first appearances at the Concerts Colonne, which were triumphantly succesful. His career as a composer began to flourish, with his string quartet generating great enthusiasm, and his career as a conductor grew through his work with modern music of the time and the Société Symphonique des Concerts in Belgium. He later became conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, continuing to perform as violinist with pianist Raoul Pugno and as a chamber musician in the Ysaÿe Quartet. Ysaÿe influenced generations of musicians, long regarded as important in the development of the modern style of violin playing. 

A Closer Look:

The playing style of Ysaÿe is full of lift, lightness, and rubato, with a wide-ranging approach to tone color and vibrato. One salient example of Ysaÿe's playing is in his recording of Henri Vieuxtemps' Rondino from Salon Music, Op. 32. Ysaÿe frequently delays the third beat slightly to create a dance-like lilt. In addition, Ysaÿe will often play stepwise sixteenth-notes with rhythmic variation, treating certain groupings as notes inégales (alternating notes in a long-short pattern). Another distinctive example of Ysaÿe's playing is his interpretation of Johannes Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor, WoO 1. Here, Ysaÿe often bursts forward in tempo during sixteenth-note runs, with greater variation in tempo than many other violinists of the period. In addition to the frequent use of portamento, Ysaÿe also plays with varying types of vibrato, ranging from quick and narrow to slow and gentle left hand movements. 

Yale HSR has all of Ysaÿe's known recordings on violin and a section of sides of him as a conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. 

Suggested recordings in the collection:

Request CD W-889, "Great Violinists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," ASCO A-123: Includes Johannes Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor, WoO 1, Henri Vieuxtemps: Rondino from Salon Music, Op. 32, and Henryk Wieniawski: 2 Mazurkas, Op. 19 

Jacques Thibaud

Biographical Sketch:

Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953) was a French violinist known for his work as a soloist and chamber musician, notably in the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals piano trio, with pianist Alfred Cortot and cellist Pablo Casals. Thibaud was first taught violin by his father, later studying at the Paris Conservatoire with Martin Pierre Marsick. By 1899, Thibaud had established the basis of his reputation through his appearances for the Concerts Colonne, later touring widely in Europe. He played a violin by Carlo Bergonzi, and later acquired the 'Baillot' Straidvari. In 1943, along with pianist Marguerite Long, he founded the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud International Competition for violinists and pianists. In addition to the standard violin repertoire, Thibaud was particularly renowned for his interpretations of works from the French Romantic School. 

A Closer Look:

Jacques Thibaud's interpretations are characterized by an elegant style, crystalline tone and distinctive lyricism. In the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, Thibaud exhibits aspects of violin performance practice that can be traced back to earlier violinists such as Joseph Joachim and Leopold Auer. In the Andante movement, Thibaud performs with frequent portamentos for left hand shifts on intervals on a third or higher. In addition, for stepwise motion in the melody, Thibaud often uses same-finger slides, which create a distinct sense of legato. Thibaud also responds to written expressive indications such as crescendi, tenuto markings, accents, and hairpins as suggestions of subtle rubato. Many times, Thibaud treats pick-up gestures with either a rush forward or slight hold, creating an extra sense of rhetoric and drama in his interpretation. 

 

Suggested recordings in the collection include:

Alfred d'Ambrosio: Aveu, op. 38 no. 1 (1/4 inch sound tape reel, Fonotopia XPh 770)

Gabriel Fauré: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, Op. 13 with pianist Alfred Cortot (Victrola 8087-A)

César Franck: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano

Felix Mendelssohn: Andante from Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (Pathe 9526 A-B) 

"Jacques Thibaud: The complete solo recordings, 1929-1936" 

"Thibaud Violin Recital"