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Augustin Dumay: The tree and the forest

Jacqueline Vanasse

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Published: April 27, 2015 at 3:09 PM [UTC]

Playing the violin requires technical accuracy of a tenth of a millimeter. "The greatest marvel is just off the worst disaster," Yehudi Menuhin used to say.

While playing, the violinist should have a perfect trust in his technique, a security and peace of mind so he can focus on what is most important. Yet this quietude, this security shouldn’t prevent one from making music. "That's the permanent ambiguity of the violin, and that is what's so beautiful about it, what's interesting. This is one of the most difficult challenges," said the French violinist Augustin Dumay. I met Augustin Dumay when he was in New York to play and record the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Orpheus Orchestra.


The tenth of a millimeter on a violin implies hard work. This permanent obsession of being as close as possible to perfection is the common capital of all violinists. "All violinists one way or another are forced into it, aware of it. At the same time they maintain a certain defiance against it,” said Dumay. "The tree shouldn’t hide the forest. The tree is this form of technique and perfection, and the forest is the music. Always keep the awareness that it’s this forest that is the most important even if sometimes we get the tree in front of the eyes.”

When he sees that his students are too much "on the tree" – purely in the technique – he "moves" them a bit and tells them to look back, where the forest lies, where what is really interesting lies. "That said, we all have our tree, and we must work our tree. Because otherwise there is no question of being in the forest," said Dumay.

Musicians are often very focused on their work and lack a global view of their surroundings. So focused are their lives on music that their life experiences beyond it rarely enrich their musical insight. Musicians tend to live crazy lives and work constantly, always in relation to themselves and their particular interests. The pursuit of perfection is the subject of a musician's life. During his life a musician will likely return to a work incessantly each time finding new solutions and different angles. The possibilities are limitless.

Dumay, who has not recorded for seven years, does so non-stop these days. "At a time when everyone complains that the disc is dying, quite the contrary – in my life anyway – the disc is very much alive these days," said Dumay.

He declares he loves recording because it allows him to set ideas, to “fix” ideas. "It does not mean that these ideas are inscribed in marble and will no longer evolve, but in any case I think we should dare to say what we think and fix it for a moment.” For Dumay the fact that today the disc is less commercially present is irrelevant. What matters is their presence in the musical life for future archives. We must think of the future. "I think it's a number of testimonies that perhaps in centuries people will be happy to go back to. If only in order to understand the evolution of musical interpretation through the ages," he said.

When he is recording, Dumay tries to ensure that his expression of music is also a testimony of its evolution and a personal expression of his own life as a violinist.
The materialization of the music, the fact of fixing it, should by no means render a less lively interpretation or merely a standard interpretation. That’s the great risk of the disc: to lose the substance and ideas of the music as a result of excessive care for the form.

Indeed a musician should never try to do something original or different solely for the purpose of being original or different. On the contrary, this is the best way to produce something very banal. "At all cost, I think we must make this life, this evolution, our life, our evolution to come across effectively in the recording. I think we simply must dare to express what we think. We have a huge capital of records: how many violinists recorded the Brahms concertos, the Beethoven, the Mendelssohn? Hundreds. Recording should not be overwhelming, it has to be liberating.”

For musicians nowadays it’s a great challenge not to betray our own musical ideas. Too often people choose to do what is politically correct in order not to displease. If one really wants to go far one has to forget about success. "In the future great personalities of the musical world are going to resist the temptation just to please," said Dumay.

"We don’t do music for the lady in the third row or the gentleman in the first balcony, in any case. No more than an officiant celebrates a religious service for the people who are there! He does it for God, ” said Dumay who tries to convey this ethic to the young musicians.

"It's a little bit against the current of today’s values. We live in a period in which you have to please, one of unbridled marketing in which image is so important. Of course everyone is affected by this phenomenon. But for us musicians, I think we need to keep our eyes looking in the right direction, that is, rather there [he points upward] than in front of us at the audience. It is best to keep our eyes on - everyone can call it as they want - God, Mozart, Brahms." We have to get the people in the audience to understand this phenomenon and look in the same direction – upward.

In general, there is not enough accountability from musicians about the future of music. "I think we musicians must do everything to help the new generation. We have to find the extra hours to devote to the idea of continuity. Whenever I have the opportunity I try to dedicate myself to younger musicians,” said Dumay. "We must not let the marketing people put a mustache on Mona Lisa to ensure that we look at her. It's an essential thing; it’s our role to defend the music. If we are not careful, in the coming centuries classical music will be what Egyptology became, that is to say something exciting but practiced by very few persons.”

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