October 7, 2011 at 7:17 PM
Ah, the violin etudes of Franz Wohlfahrt. The English-speaking pre-adolescent dreads having to say the man's name too loudly -- but often shows surprising devotion in learning his studies.
Teachers have turned to these etudes for more than 100 years, and it's been nearly that long since anyone took a look at the editions we use -- mine, for example, was last edited in 1905.
Enter Rachel Barton Pine, who professed her love of etudes earlier this fall in an article she wrote for The Strad magazine. Rachel is in the process of re-editing and recording the Wohlfahrt etudes, and her first book and DVD on the subject, published by Carl Fischer, is due for release later this fall. (Editor's note: the link for the book and DVD, now available, is here: Wohlfahrt Foundation Studies for the Violin)
I spoke with her last month, after the summer release of her album of Spanish and Latin American music for unaccompanied violin, Capricho Latino, and just before the Sept. 16 arrival her daughter, Sylvia Michelle.
Laurie: Do you remember learning the Wohlfahrt etudes as a child?
Rachel: I thought they were great -- and actually, my teachers -- Roland and Almita Vamos -- were very savvy. They said to me, 'Don't let your studio-mates know how much you like etudes. They might not understand, and it might be harder to make friends with them!' (laughing) In other words, don't let them know you're so weird! But now, of course, it says right on the cover of the September issue of The Strad magazine, 'Rachel Barton Pine: Why I Love Etudes!'
Laurie: You're out with it.
Rachel: I guess I have enough friends that I'm not worried about admitting that any more!
Laurie: Somehow the Wohlfahrt etudes get the reputation for being boring studies.
Rachel: I think they're very far from that -- these little pieces have so much going on, once you seek it out. Things like Ševcík and Schradieck don't have any redeeming musical value, except for the interesting element of paying attention to your technique.
Laurie: I find that my students like the Wohlfahrt etudes. Whoever they are, whether they're extremely serious about the violin or not, they tend to do their assignment when it comes to the Wohlfahrt etudes.
Rachel: That's great to hear. I really think they are appealing.
Laurie: Do you know much about Mr. Franz Wohlfahrt? You mention in The Strad article that he lived from 1833 to 1884 in Leipzig, Germany, and was the son of a piano teacher.
Rachel: I have yet to go to the library -- because of the baby weighing me down, I haven't been able to run that errand! I eventually do want to get over to the library and find some old, German-language music dictionaries from the 1800s and see if he pops up in there. But all the usual sources -- the current English-language dictionaries like Grove, even Wikipedia -- there's virtually nothing about him. You can't even find his exact dates. He's a surprisingly, almost shockingly, obscure guy!
Laurie: Tell me about the new edition you are creating.
Rachel: This is a Carl Fischer compilation, and there will be two volumes. One volume is first position only, then the second volume moves through the positions. It draws from Wohlfahrt's Opuses 45, 54, and 74, covering most of the etudes, leaving a few odd ones left out.
Basically, these etudes were compiled at the beginning of the 20th century by a guy named K.H. Aiqouni. Carl Fischer themselves have no idea who the heck he is. They don't know whether he was one of their in-house editors, using a pen name, or whether that was his real name but nobody can find him any more. It's completely mysterious. Anyway, he took took the best of the etudes from those three opuses and put them in a very logical sequence, organized by skill level, by key, and so on. I think teachers have really appreciated the graded series of the etudes. However, his editing is a little outdated, in terms of some fingering choices, when to hold fingers down or not -- it just feels not-quite-current.
Laurie: How did you wind up being the person to bring it up-to-date?
Rachel: What happened was that Carl Fischer invited me to record the etudes. I'm such an etude geek that I was super-excited! Not quite as excited as for my concerto recordings, but pretty darn close. People might think that's a silly attitude to have, but really, they're like old friends, not only from having played them, but from having taught them when I had a studio in the mid-90s. They're very appealing little tunes. I thought, this is a great thing to leave for posterity.
As I started practicing them and using this edition, I realized that I needed to do a little something with the editing so that my playing would match what was on the page, or vice versa, as the case may be. I also decided that a DVD would be an even better way to go because then students could see the bow distribution, see the technical set-up, and so on. So we decided to do that.
I had to play each etude through perfectly, in a single shot, because we weren't going to be splicing the audio, whatsoever. So even though they're short and they're in the first position, I definitely had to be very in shape to get through every single one, perfectly.
Laurie: You had to practice Wohlfahrt etudes!
Rachel: Yes! (laughing) Who ever thought I'd be doing that again?
Laurie: What kinds of changes did you make in editing the music?
Rachel: Wohlfahrt's etudes are almost entirely blank, unlike Kayser, for example, who has very detailed dynamic schemes for each of his etudes. The question became, do I play them very straightforward, in a basic kind of way, or do I give them an interpretation?
A couple of things controlled my decision. First, Wohlfahrt lived in the 1800s, when individuality was so prized among artists. It was common practice for artists to take great compositions and change the dynamics or do their own thing -- they had no qualms about that. There was nothing like an urtext mentality; it was all about bringing the music to life. Perhaps Wohlfahrt might have even left the page a little bare in order to give his students the extra element of crafting their interpretations. Obviously, in exercises like Schradieck and Ševcík, you don't add dynamics. But these Wohlfahrt etudes are little pieces; they have harmonic and structural development. How can you, as a musician, ignore what's underlying these pieces?
Thinking back to my student days, studying these etudes with Roland Vamos, he would actually go over to the piano and show me the chords. I was supposed to come each week with at least one new etude fully memorized and interpreted. He wanted me to know things like: When does the key change, especially between major and minor? Where are the echos, or the same phrases repeating more than once? Where does the recapitulation begin? He made sure that I understood the architecture and the chordal structure of every one of these little etudes I was practicing, in addition to whatever I was supposed to be thinking about my left and right hands, technically, for the etude.
It makes a lot of sense. As I was working on the technique, I was also thinking about the character of the music: whether there were strong parts, light parts, extroverted parts, introverted parts. However the music was ebbing and flowing would directly translate into my articulation, my amount of vibrato, bow distribution and everything else. As I was studying technique, it was intrinsically tied in with musicality. That's the whole point of technique: to serve the music. I think that's the most real-world way to study these etudes.
I felt that not every teacher might be able to go over to the piano and play the chords like Roland Vamos did, and not every student might not be home-schooled like I was and have the time to do the amount of experimentation that it takes to try to craft their own interpretation for every single etude. So I decided to add dynamics to all these etudes. Certainly, they are suggestions only. My hope is that students will not just blindly follow the fortes and mezzo-fortes and pianos, but that they'll listen carefully and try to understand why the dynamic is changing -- if it's based on the harmony or if it's based on the architecture -- and really start to understand the way the music is put together and relate that to their technique.
So that was quite a big project, adding all of that to all of these etudes, but I think it's really going to bring them to life, and hopefully make them that much more enjoyable for anyone who studies them. They're not just boring, straightforward notes, but they're actual little pieces of music.
Laurie: They are also pretty read-able for the violin student.
Rachel: Roland Vamos had me -- and all the students -- use them as sight-reading practice, and I think that was very valuable. Each new etude would be something that we'd never heard before, unlike other repertoire, where we would have heard older kids in our studio play it already or heard recordings of it. Unless you have an older sibling studying the exact same instrument as you, when you get to Mazas No. 38, why would you have ever heard it before? The same can't be said about any piece of repertoire. So it was it was useful opportunity to practice learning music from the page, as opposed to having it in your ear already.
So whenever we got a new etude, he would tell us to set the metronome a couple of notches faster than was comfortable and force ourselves to keep going, no matter what. He wanted us to get a couple of play-throughs under our belt, making ourselves sight-read. Then of course, after that: slow it down and learn it carefully, making sure we had the exact right notes, rhythms, and all that good stuff.
The question I had to ask myself was: What about this recording I'm making? I don't want students to use it like a Suzuki recording and listen to all the etudes 100 times before they ever study any of them. That was not the point. In my forward to the book, which I hope people will read, I actually say that I think it's valuable to do this sight reading practice and that I would encourage people to listen to the DVD track of a particular etude only after they've practiced and learned it. It's not my intention for students to use this recording as a shortcut, or for learning by ear.
Laurie: What else is different about this edition than previously published editions?
Rachel: Wohlfahrt includes bowing variations for a number of his etudes, the ones with notes in groups of six notes and in groups of eight notes. I took all of his bowing variation suggestions from all of his etudes and collated them into one big compilation at the front of the book. Then I say that every etude with groups of notes in eight or six can be played with all of the bowings for each of those rhythmic combinations. Certainly kids would go crazy if they had to play every single variation for every single etude -- you'd never finish the book! But the point is that teachers can pick and choose. Every kid is different; some might need more work on certain bowing patterns than others and the teachers might want to use those for multiple etudes, and then other ones that they seem to get pretty quickly they might skip and not bother to do them with most of the etudes.
I didn't think there was any particular reason to have these few bowings for this etude and these bowings for this other etude. I thought having all the bowing options would be useful. I also added, within the slur and separate patterns that he gives, options for doing them legato, staccato and even off-theing, spiccato, if kids are ready and the teacher finds it useful.
Laurie: Sometimes students wonder why they have to do so many bowings before they can get to the next etude. What makes this a useful exercise for students?
Rachel: If every bowing you practiced was always with a new melody, then you would always be having to think about the new melody. Once you know how the etude goes, you no longer have to think about the notes, and you can really put 100 percent of your attention into each new bowing pattern. It allows you to concentrate on the bowing, more specifically.
Laurie: Why not just do that with scales? Why would it be important to do it in an etude?
Rachel: Well, now, doing it with scales is going to be even more boring! (both laugh)
Laurie: There's one reason!
Rachel: Actually there's a much more pedagogically logical reason, which is that in scales, you're either going up the notes or down the notes. Etudes, of course, have all kinds of different string crossings and fingering patterns. If you break it down, you might have three notes on the A string, two notes on the E string, two more on the A, a couple on the E -- you're doing all these different kinds of patterns, in terms of string crossings, and then you combine that with different finger patterns. It allows you a greater scope of how you're applying each bowing.
And teachers can decide, for each student, what they want to do. If there's 50 possible bowings for etudes with notes in groups of eight, they might do five bowings for each etude, every etude with different ones. Or they might stick on the same etude for a long time and go through most of the bowings and then decide which ones need extra attention and do only those ones with subsequent etudes. I thought by compiling and collating all these bowings, it would give people more options to personally design how they wanted to assign the different bowings to the different etudes to which they could apply.
Laurie: Do you have a favorite Wohlfahrt etude?
Rachel: Probably Opus 45, No. 4, which is No. 6 in the Foundation Studies. It was one of the first ones that I learned -- it's a particularly nice little melody:
I just have a real fondness for it. There are so many good ones: dramatic ones in minor keys, cheerful ones in major keys…playing them just makes me happy.
Love the interview -- thanks for sharing.
This brings back good memories. I began Op. 45 with my first teacher before the first year was over. These "little pieces" have some memorable tunes, indeed, and they are great for keeping the left hand in shape. I still go back to them now and then. Catchy rendering of No. 6 -- can't wait to see the whole DVD.
I'm showing my daughter this blog. Unfortunately she is not in that group who is devoted to Wohlfahrt Etudes. I kind of was, though. I listened to that little clip and it brought back that whole etude from start to finish, fingerings and all.
We, as violinists, are very fortunate to have people like Rachel Barton Pine around. It's so great that these foundational studies are finally getting a tune-up! So many of the pieces and etudes we study are so outdated, this is a fantastic start!
Laurie, many thanks for this interview, and Rachel, I thoroughly enjoyed this #6 on YouTube, in no small part because you seemed to enjoy it so. Thanks so much for your hard work in editing the music and recording it. I was so bowled over by your gorgeous tone that I really paid no attention to the bowing, the point of this etude :)
Hearing a simple piece played so well is a special treat. Looking forward to the release of the DVD and new edition, and meanwhile hope you are enjoying your new addition.
I'm very glad that Laurie has made friends with Rachel. She is one of my favorites--I like her projects, her playing--and her infectiously energetic interest.
Awesome. I like etudes as well. When a piece is made to help you with some aspects in playing, it doesn't mean that it has to be boring!
very cool, the video helped it come together, thank you so much! I was given these Etudes a couple months ago by my teacher and actually - I like them a lot too!!
The video is great! I played the same etude for my first public performance at age 9 (school talent show, as I remember). Even though I was working on other pieces with cute titles in my method books, I loved the melody of this etude and chose to play it for my classmates.
These études are what Dr. Pinel helped me to get back on track playing the violin. I love Rachel's versatility and how she likes to branch out into other genres.
I'm in! Where do I pre-order the CD? This is great stuff. I often make up a piano accompaniment to go along with a student's lesson. I can't wait to get the entire CD!
There are a couple of his etudes in one of my method books. I enjoy them so much that today I went out and bought an entire book of them. I keep thinking, "These are too pretty to be 'exercises'!"
I will be sure to let everyone know when the book comes out, and also to put a link up there in the article.
Editor's note: And here is the link for the book: Wohlfahrt Foundation Studies for the Violin.
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