In Defense of Violin Music

December 2, 2013, 2:25 PM · Times have changed for violinists. For generations, typical violin recital programs were like variety shows. Most often, the formula was to start with a baroque or classical sonata, followed by a large-scale romantic work (sometimes even a concerto with piano accompaniment), and to finish with a collection of shorter works -- true "violin" pieces. Alongside concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, violinists played virtuoso works by Paganini, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, and Lalo. George Bernard Shaw (writing under the pseudonym of Corno Di Bassetto) once wrote of the difference between great composers of music for the violin and composers of great violin music. It was this 'great violin music" that was, for so many years, the dessert at the end of the violin recital meal and a welcome and regular feature of orchestral programs.

Things are different today. Despite their continued popularity with players and audiences alike, many of the great 19th century virtuoso concertos, former cornerstones of the repertoire, have been banished to obscurity or near-obscurity, receiving only the occasional performance, usually by young performers, for whom such transgressions are considered forgivable by the press and the "cultural elite". Recital programs, particularly in the biggest musical centers, have become quite serious affairs, practically guaranteed to consist of large, "important" sonatas, with the occasional world-premiere or avant-garde work thrown in the mix (I don't pine for the days of hearing concertos with piano accompaniment -- that is a tradition that rightfully belongs in history's scrap heap, in my opinion).

The violin literature is, of course, blessed with a tremendous number of works by history's greatest and most profound composers. But it is also blessed with a bountiful quantity of the finest "lighter fare." So what has happened to the Wieniawski, the Sarasate, the Paganini, the Kreisler? We hear this music in our conservatories, but all too rarely on the concert circuit, despite the fact that this is the music to which many concertgoers respond most warmly and enthusiastically. It is also worth pointing out that this kind of music often most clearly reveals the personality of the performer. It is my opinion that when one plays Beethoven or Brahms, it should sound like Beethoven or Brahms ("Beethoven Concerto, as interpreted by violinist X'). However, with this great virtuoso music the performer can, and perhaps should, impose somewhat more of himself or herself on the performance ("violinist X plays Wieniawski's Polonaise in D'). Food for thought, considering that a common (if bizarre and of questionable veracity) lament of music critics today is that performers have lost their individuality.

In 2008 I performed Sarasate's Ziguenerweisen, a piece familiar and beloved to music lovers everywhere, with the New York Philharmonic. It was the New York Philharmonic's first performance of the piece since 1968. How many pieces of music had the New York Philharmonic played in those 40 years? And how many times in those 40 years had Ziguenerweisen been heard across the street at The Juilliard School?

Last year, at the request of the conductor Charles Dutoit, I played Lalo's Symphony Espagnole, one of my favorite pieces, with the San Francisco Symphony, where it had not been played in a generation. Consider the review it received in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"The 'Symphonie espagnole,' Edouard Lalo's broad but tissue-thin 1874 concerto for violin and orchestra, is one of those pieces that gets pulled out of mothballs periodically just to see whether it's acquired any new substance or appeal in the interim... endless streams of light-footed banalities that would not be out of place (or even noticeable) in a candle-lit cafe. The poverty of Lalo's harmonic palette -- he seems to have only a few basic tonalities at his disposal, and clings to them relentlessly..."

There is a double-standard in the music world when Liszt's E-flat piano concerto is played regularly but Wieniawski's D-minor violin concerto is not; where Bellini and Donizetti are heard year after year at the Metropolitan Opera but Sarasate's Ziguenerweisen is not heard next door at the New York Philharmonic for 40 years.

Why has this happened? Violinists themselves are surely at least partially to blame. This music is hard, and in an age when heavily edited recordings are accepted as "live" and technical wunderkinds are sprouting up left and right, the very real danger that a technical infelicity on a bad night might end up living on forever on YouTube probably plays a part in convincing many established virtuosi that a technically dangerous showpiece isn't worth the risk. But I also feel that a musical snobbism has crept into world of music journalism. Music that has been beloved by players and audiences for generations is now being denied its place in the repertoire because it does not fit the within the narrative of "important" music.

It is time for a true revival of this wonderful genre of violin music -- time for violinists to return to the days of living dangerously, and time for critics and concert presenters to accept that music doesn't have to be by Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms to be worthwhile and enjoyable.


December 2, 2013 at 09:52 PM · Bravo!!

December 2, 2013 at 09:57 PM · amen!

December 2, 2013 at 10:10 PM · amen!

it's sad to realise that some pieces get to be "fashionable" and the other don't.

this must change.

December 2, 2013 at 10:48 PM · Bravo! and thank you James for this powerful article. We violinists love this music. And so does the public. Every great violinist that I can think of has studied and performed it. Even the most deep and serious artists like Josef Szigeti. I'm thinking of Julia Fischer, one of today's most serious musicians who started out mastering all the Paganini caprices in her teens. Anne Sophie Mutter also plays her share of Sarasate. And the first time I heard that wonderful artist, James Ehnes it was with Dutoit and the Pittsburgh Symphony playing Vieuxtemps 5. Keep it up, James. We're with you!!

December 2, 2013 at 10:57 PM · Hear, hear. Glad you have the cajones, James, to print this. Let's bring back the Lalo concerto in f and Vieuxtemps 4 as well. :)

December 2, 2013 at 11:01 PM · I love this.

December 2, 2013 at 11:09 PM · I just like playing tunes, though my idea of a tune stretches to far more dischordant than most

December 2, 2013 at 11:47 PM · Your comment on musical snobbism is dead on. I appreciate people like you. It truly baffles me when I see negative feedback about current popular violinists. Violinists who have studied at world class institutions such as Julliard. Violinists who have been highly praised by several legends. Taking my frustration with these 'critics' a notch further, I cannot for the life of me understand those same critics who dismiss these legends, calling them 'average' or 'mediocre'. I often find steam billowing from my ears when I see all those 'thumbs down' on videos of these virtuosos.

Meanwhile, some recently accalimed violinists who are the brunt of such criticism, in fact play cherished pieces such as Ziguenerweisen, receiving even MORE criticism for having it in their repertoire. "So and so should stick with the pieces that have made them popular, and leave the real music to the pros."


December 3, 2013 at 01:46 AM · James,

I don't think the phenomena of diminishing repertoire is limited to other instruments as well. It seems like lately I've played 3 Paganini Variations for piano (Rachmaninoff), maybe two Saint-Saens concertos for cello and 2 or 3 Tchaikovsky concertos for violin..

I have a feeling that the powers-that-be have become especially risk-averse in recent years, and want guaranteed blockbusters.


December 3, 2013 at 05:13 AM · So very well stated! Unfortunately, until we can effectively persuade the impassioned few not to foam at the mouth when the names Ralph (as in Vaughan-Williams) or Richard (as in Strauss) are mispronounced, we may be in for a bumpy ride on the anti-snobbery campaign. :-) Count me as one of the poor souls who regularly foams at the mouth while dreaming of the days my favorite violinists will again program a rip-roaring second half, heavy on the desserts. (In my world, more is more … glutting on Sarasate is not a bad way to perish …)

December 3, 2013 at 01:02 PM · Well, I for one am glad that you chose solo Bach for the Toronto encores to the Britten, and not some dazzling fluff.


December 3, 2013 at 04:38 PM · There are many possible reasons why showpieces and many showy concerti have been relegated to the campus recital hall:

1. The programming pattern itself has become somewhat ossified into the pattern of overture-concerto-symphony.

How does one program shorter virtuoso pieces? Let's say you want the soloist to play Tzigane. That's only about 12 minutes, right? So you need something else in order to make people feel they've gotten their money's worth. You can program Poéme also. But do you do one after the other? Or do you split the intermission to do it? The conductor probably wants to return after the intermission totally focused on the usual warhorse symphony. If you split the first half, you have a too-short and broken up first half and a too-long second half.

2. Soloists themselves are risk-averse. It's easy to imagine that soloists would rather play the tried-and-true well than risk blowing their reputation (and invitation back) on difficult music that only the violin section will appreciate (and probably criticize anyway...).

3. Time constraints. Orchestras are averse to stretching programs as this will lead to overtime. Gone are the 3-4 hour all-nighters from the late 19th century and early 20th century. And besides, who wants to miss Stewart and Colbert?

Also, older audiences want to go home to sleep.

4. The decreasing need to witness virtuosity. Audiences demand perfection (which has naturally led to risk-aversion), but as audiences age, they don't need the sheer displays of virtuosity as younger audiences do. And besides, virtuosity has become commodified: no longer does it have the value it used to because it's omnipresent. Instead of a limited number of skilled soloists, the world is awash in virtuosity. People were astounded that Paganini could do what he did, but such feats are now standard fare for 15-year-olds. And virtuosic perfection is available for free, anytime on the internet.

It explains other show business phenomena, such as the fact that performers like Lady Gaga are popular almost entirely by youth yet ridiculed by mature adults.

Finally, I'll add that over the years I've seen very, very few violinists perform encores. Of the ones that do, most play some solo Bach, which I personally consider anticlimactic. Augustin Hadelich performed Paganini this past summer at my festival, but that's exceedingly rare. On the other hand, pianists almost always do encores.

December 3, 2013 at 11:43 PM · Very interesting to have your perspective on this, James. I have often wondered whether the overall increase in technical skill is partially responsible, so that (incredible as it may seem) some of the virtuosic standards are almost considered to be student pieces. But hearing an accomplished 12-year old and hearing a fully mature artist are two entirely different experiences. And You Tube is a great learning tool but no substitute in any way for a live performance. Also, repertoire preferences tend to be cyclical. It is time for these pieces to come back to concerts, together with the attendant thrills and risks!

December 4, 2013 at 08:24 PM · I heartily agree. Also, I didn't realize what a fossil I have become! I grew up listening to this music being performed with major orchestras. I just thought that was how it would always be, I suppose.

I have an idea. Mr. Ehnes, you seem to be fairly well connected in the music world. Roman Kim created a buzz here on this website with his You Tube film of his masterful composition of variations on La Traviata.

Why don't you play mentor/manager/agent, and arrange to have Mr. Kim play this exciting piece here in America with a major symphony? (With a full orchestra arrangement, of course).

Or, "Live, on PBS!" It would be smashing good fun, and a great way to kick off your idea.

December 5, 2013 at 12:09 PM · Hear, hear!

I also think that the current-day "haute technique" taste has been way too dismissive of performance approaches of the late 1800's to mid-1900s. I've heard people gripe about "florid" or "schmaltzy" performances which I would class as both sensitive and virtuosic. It seems to me to be a kind of musical revisionism.

You can call it whatever you want, but the thrilling violin performances in the not-too-distant past are fact, schmaltz or not. Playing Sarasate in a purely clinical way does not do justice to the original intent of the composer, just as playing Bach in an eccentric style misses Bach's intent.

I heard a recent performance with a masterfully executed portamento (tasteful and perfectly timed) -- a "technique firster" said "I didn't like the sloppy shifting." Ah, me. I guess Heifetz just didn't know how to play, huh?

The poverty of Lalo's harmonic palette? Lalo gave the perfect framework for individual interpretation, for crying out loud! I like Symphonie Espagnole.

If you want to get on the HIP bandwagon, how about doing some historically informed performances from the late romantic period? Go ahead and lard it up.

December 7, 2013 at 04:03 PM · Hey! Loved the article. There are definite changes where great works are being played. A cross between demand, what's being taught and entertainment choices. What I mean by what's being taught is the strict discipline of "staying within the lines" of learning a great piece. Not a lot of unique tricks or improvisation are allowed except for cadenzas. Quality, unique and exciting pieces need to be generated to draw an audience to violin performance. It's too important to me to give future children of orchestra instruments a good influence to create quality. Hey, give Miley Cyrus a violin and make a sensational performance!!!

December 7, 2013 at 04:06 PM · Hey! Loved the article. There are definite changes where great works are being played. A cross between demand, what's being taught and entertainment choices. What I mean by what's being taught is the strict discipline of "staying within the lines" of learning a great piece. Not a lot of unique tricks or improvisation are allowed except for cadenzas. Quality, unique and exciting pieces need to be generated to draw an audience to violin performance. It's too important to me to give future children of orchestra instruments a good influence to create quality. Hey, give Miley Cyrus a violin and make a sensational performance!!!

December 8, 2013 at 12:33 PM · Thank you for saying this so well.

December 8, 2013 at 01:11 PM · I've started taking viola/violin lessons again after a gap of 75 years (I'm 85). I'm strictly an amateur. I've discovered a website that listed most composers in public domain and am able to purchase music by great composers like Hummel,Cambini,Viotti, Jenkinson, Fiocco,Fiocco, just to mention a few. Our piano trio (Violin/viola) and clarinet) and a string quartet play in nursing homes or for friends in my shop. It is fun and satisfying. I agree with the author that there is a great trove of music that the public would love to hear- not necessarily from B,B,B and M. There are thousands of great composers who have made life more pleasurable that can be re-discovered.

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