Otakar Sevcik's ultimate 'cheat sheets' for violin concertos and works

January 27, 2011, 4:06 PM ·

Stephen Shipps is now a Professor of Violin at the University of Michigan, but as 15-year-old student, he first faced Wieniawski's "Scherzo-Tarantelle" with some anxiety.

The piece presents a mountain of tricks for the violinist: awkward barriolage; double-, triple- and quadruple-stops; fast arpeggios – all Presto-fast.

"I studied with Josef Gingold once a month and I had lessons every week with a man named Jacques Israelievitch, who was Gingold's assistant at the time," Shipps said. "Every four weeks I'd get something ready and play for the big man."

"After a year, it was time to learn Scherzo-Tarantelle," Shipps said. "It was a stretch for me, but it was time to do it. So he handed me this decrepit old Xerox copy of Ševcík exercises."

This turned out to be the Holy Grail of all violin cheat sheets – an entire etude book devoted to Wieniawski's "Scherzo-Tarantelle" – all exercises written by the turn-of-the-20th-century violin pedagogue, Otakar Ševcík.

"I had this decrepit old Xerox that floated around in my music. I carried it everywhere," Shipps said. "It turned out that there were multiple pieces that Ševcík had done this with. The two that I learned first were the Mendelssohn Concerto and 'Scherzo-Tarantelle.'"

Who was Otakar Ševcík? 

Otakar Ševcík

He was a Czech violinist with a knack for deconstructing the difficult and reassembling it into easily-playable steps. He taught at the Kiev Conservatory, Prague Conservatory and Vienna Music Academy, and his students included great violinists such as Jan Kubelík, Jaroslav Kocián, Efrem Zimbalist, Juan Manén, Marie Hall, Victor Kolar and Erika Morini.

"Franco Gulli, my last teacher, never played Kreutzer or Rode ...he played only Ševcík," Shipps said. "His father had been a student of Ševcík. Gulli became a total and complete virtuoso by the age of 13, never playing Kreutzer. He went right from Ševcík to Paganini."

Most teachers are familiar with Ševcík's basic method books, but the repertoire books have been something of an open secret. In fact, Ševcík wrote an pile of books of "Analytical Studies" that were devoted to specific pieces of violin repertoire: with exercises specific to the Wieniawski Concerto No. 2 in D minor; Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; Brahms Violin Concerto and Brahms-Joachim Cadenza; Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1; "Ronde des Lutins" by Bazzini; "Moses Variations" by Paganini and "Hungarian Airs" by Ernst. Versions of the Kreutzer and Dont etudes are rumored to exist, as well as an etude book for the Dvorák Violin Concerto.

Ševcík's repertoire exercises have been passed from teacher to teacher, in the form of crumbling copies and Xeroxes, for the 80 years that they've been out of print, said Shipps. "The repertoire pieces are not available anywhere, they've been out of print since 1931."

That's about to change.

"There were a couple of things Gingold asked me to do on his deathbed," Stephen said. "One was to publish Lucien Capet's 'Superior Bowing Technique' book; that came out six or seven years ago. Then Gingold said, 'If you ever have a chance, publish the Ševcík exercises; the world needs them.'"

So Shipps has teamed up with University of Southern California violin professor Endre Granat to edit and restore these exercises to the repertoire. Granat grew up studying in Budapest, where he was extremely well-schooled in Ševcík.

"He knows more about the actual Ševcík exercises, Op. 1-20, than anybody I've met," Shipps said. "He knows the books by memory."

Endre Granat, Villem Sokol (one of the few surviving Ševcík students who was interviewed for this project) and Stephen Shipps

The two professors plan to publish a series of 12 volumes. Each edition will include a solo violin part, piano accompaniment and the Analytical Studies that Ševcík wrote for the particular piece. Shipps and Granat have completed two editions so far: Wieniawski's "Scherzo-Tarantelle" (edited by Shipps and Danae Witter) and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (edited by Granat).

The exercises go measure-by-measure, with exhaustive exercises that teach a student to execute every trick in each piece. "It's an entire 24-page etude book about a four-and-a-half-minute piece," Stephen said, holding the new edition of "Scherzo-Tarantelle" by Wieniawski that contains the exercises. "only Ševcík could have thought of something like that."

"They are mindless," Shipps said. "If you do the series of exercises on the first page of the exercise book (for Scherzo-Tarantelle), you will be able to play the first two lines of Scherzo-Tarantelle, in tempo. You just have to do them correctly and slowly enough, in terms of the intonation level. Ševcík goes through every possible variation of how to practice this passage: backwards, forwards, upside-down, repeated, repeated in legato, repeated in separate, repeated with accents, repeated in rhythms – it's ingenious. This is a whole page on two measures. Difficult measures, because depending on your fingering, it involves an extension."

"Trust me, I did it, and it worked," Shipps said. It also works for his students. "The ones who do these exercises end up being able to play the piece." If there's a problem with a passage, it's easy to find the exercises for that passage in the book, assign the student to work on them for a week, and the problem is solved, he said.

Now that the "Scherzo-Tarantelle" and Mendelssohn Concerto have been completed, Shipps and Granat will continue to delve into the long list of repertoire books by Ševcík. Next, Granat will edit the Wieniawski D Minor Violin Concerto and Shipps will edit the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; and those editions are scheduled for publication in the spring. After that, the two will create a book called the "Essential Ševcík."

"This will attack the weakness of Ševcík," Shipps said. "The weakness, according to us, is that he is long-winded. Ševcík doesn't just give you an exercise, he gives you an exercise and writes it out in every key, in every rhythm. He doesn't do it once and then say, okay here's the little pattern and we hope you are intelligent enough to copy this pattern and not have to buy 50 books. Our idea for the 'Essential Ševcík' is to take all of the important Op. 1-9 exercises and put them in one book, to distill it so that you can have one book of Ševcík exercises, and that's all you need to have."

Shipps pointed out that in the old days, most method and exercises books for violin students came with a second violin part for the teacher to play.

"That was old-fashioned teaching," Shipps said. "If we look back at the Spohr Violin School, 1832, all the exercises have a second violin part. The teacher played along. If you look at Leopold Auer, the Violin School, eight volumes, all the exercises have a second violin part. For example, the Book 1 for Leopold Auer, it's an open-string book for the bow. The teacher gives 'interest' to the open strings. Kreutzer etudes often had a second fiddle published. "

"That was very much a part of the Gingold experience, studying with him," Shipps said. "He knew every orchestra part of every concerto by memory and would improvise in your lessons the entire tutti part of every concerto. Often you couldn't play because it was so beautiful. And that was just part of the game. He never looked at a piece of music, everything was memorized."

"Galamian couldn't do that, DeLay couldn't do that, it was Gingold," Shipps said. "And he got it from Ysaÿe; Ysaÿe did it in (Gingold's) lessons.

"If you were in quartet lessons with Gingold, he would single out your part somehow improvise the other three parts," Shipps said. "That was how well he knew the repertoire. That kind of training doesn't happen any more; we have technology that will do a lot of those things. In those days, if you wanted to hear a Beethoven symphony, you played it at home, four hands on the piano. There were no recordings when he was a child. When Gingold was a child, there was a four-minute 78 side of Elman playing Humoresque; that was it. It was a different time."

Though second-violin parts existed for the Ševcík exercises, "in today's world, we made a publishing decision, an economic decision, that the second-violin part wasn't so important," Shipp said. Their new books include the Ševcík exercises, a piano part, and a new edition of each piece. "Endre and I have each have created new editions based on manuscript, with today's standards," Shipps said. "We have urtext editions of both Mendelssohn and Wieniawski. We tracked down manuscripts whenever they existed so we could give the correct markings, with notes fixed."

"In 1920, if you didn't like something in the music you just changed it, and that is what Ševcík did," Shipps said. "That was a different time. We can't do that any more, we have to play what is written and we have to go back as much as possible and do the bowings, articulations – everything that is original."

In the case of the Wieniawski D Minor Concerto and Tchaikovsky Concerto, "In neither piece does a manuscript exist in the hand of the composer," Shipps said. "The orchestra score is in the hand of Tchaikovsky, but the fiddle part is not. The fiddle part is in the hand of his friend, Iosif Kotek. It's published as a first edition but the actual handwriting is not by Tchaikovsky. So we were debating whether we would be allowed to call it urtext. It will be the original edition that was published, it will come from the original handwritten manuscript that exists, but there isn't an existing fiddle part in Tchaikovsky's -- or Wieniawski's -- handwriting. The first edition was published during their lifetimes, so they approved the first editions. It will be as close as you can get."

"There hasn't been a modern edition of Scherzo-Tarantelle since the early 1960s, since Francescatti," Shipps said. "There are also very expensive editions still out, still selling well, like the Peters Edition from 1890. The Schirmer edition is from the late 1890s. Ours is a truly modern edition, but we go back in history."

"There have been more modern editions of the Mendelssohn, there's a Henle," Shipps said. "There are actually two manuscripts. Isabelle Von Keulen recorded the original edition, it's very different. Ours is the second edition; few people play the first edition, it is more of a curiosity, like the first edition of the Sibelius Concerto, that Kavakos recorded. It's longer, it's a very different piece."

"In the Brahms concerto, you can see in the manuscript where Joachim made all his changes – because they're in a different color. The red pen is Joachim's, and the black marker is Brahms," Shipps said. "It's very interesting to see what's what. But what is published is Brahms. Brahms approved everything, so it's Brahms."

"It's very interesting to see what we actually play," Shipps said. "We don't play original manuscript Brahms, we play manuscript Brahms/Joachim. We don't play manuscript Mendelssohn, we play Mendelssohn/Ferdinand David; And Tchaikovsky, we play Tchaikovsky/Kotek, it's not actually all Tchaikovsky. And Auer. We're publishing both, original and Auer. Heifetz played all Auer. Elman played all Auer."


January 27, 2011 at 10:52 PM ·

That is so fascinating, both the publishing stuff and that those exercises exist--i would have given a lot to use some of those when struggling through some of thoe technique spots!

January 28, 2011 at 12:40 AM ·

It would be truly great to look at a picture of some of the earlier texts without modern markups.

"In 1920, if you didn't like something in the music you just changed it, and that is what Ševcík did," Shipps said. "That was a different time. We can't do that any more, we have to play what is written and we have to go back as much as possible and do the bowings, articulations – everything that is original." 

What?  Why does Shipps say "...we have to play what is written and we have to go back as much as possible and do the bowings, articulations – everything that is original."   Or is the meaning about putting the original into the new modern manuscripts that are being made?This is an honest question. 

Any chance to put one of the old copies of the Sevcik on IMSLP?  I would dearly love to have a look at any of these originals.

While I was in college, I had the luck to have a class with Herman Weiss, for form and analysis. He was another one of those rarities; he knew every symphony by heart and could pump out very well-fleshed out-versions of anything at the piano.  He was a link to that era and I am so grateful to have had some of my musical thinking shaped by it.

January 28, 2011 at 01:47 AM ·

 P.S. Next week Violinist.com will be giving away three copies of the Wieniawski "Scherzo-Tarantelle" edition, with the Ševcík exercises, violin urtext and piano part.

January 28, 2011 at 02:59 AM ·

Wow... good to know!!!

January 28, 2011 at 04:26 AM ·

 When I was studying the Bloch Suite Hebraique getting it ready for an audition, my viola instructor at the time played a reduced piano reduction on viola with me.  As I became more comfortable with the piece, he would have me play the viola solo and switch to the reduction sections where the interplaying of parts were important.   

It was an invaluable exercise to say the least.

January 28, 2011 at 07:35 AM ·

I loved reading this!  It was like looking at a graphed break-down of the Mona Lisa.  I'm incredulous at the amount of behind-the-scenes strategies involved in assembling a work of art.

January 28, 2011 at 09:41 AM ·

I feel like such an idiot! I have had one of his excercise books since I was 12 years old and I don't think I bothered opening it again after my initial defeat. So, thanks to you I'm going right upstair, right now, to see what I can see. Thanks, great article!

January 28, 2011 at 12:32 PM ·

Suzuki seems to have taken a similar approach in volumes 9 and 10 of his violin course, the volumes concentrating on Mozart's last two violin concertos.  The important parts of these concertos are analyzed in some technical detail, and preparatory exercises given.

January 28, 2011 at 01:13 PM ·

 This is a bit in left field, but in the photo, Mr. Sevcik is holding his violin in his right hand, the bow in his left. I tried it, just because I never do, and it's a really, really odd shift in perception, made me aware of both violin and bow in a different, less accustomed way.  (or,  I suppose, maybe the photo was printed backwards).

January 28, 2011 at 02:03 PM ·

His complete studies for Paganini concerto no.1 are on imslp!!! 

January 28, 2011 at 02:57 PM ·

Here is the link.

January 28, 2011 at 04:33 PM ·

I hold my viola like that all the time, Marjory.  :-)

The more I hear about these Sevcik things, the more I'm glad someone was that type of obsessive-compulsive.  I'd hate to live on a diet of nothing but these things, but they look incredibly useful to have around when you need them.  I should say it's nice that someone else was that type of obsessive-compulsive.  :-)  I wonder which ones are good for viola ... ?

January 28, 2011 at 10:27 PM ·

Hello! I own the Sevcik exercises for Brahms Concerto, and some others, too. I bought them in an antiquarian music bookstore.

I tried to do them in order to learn the Brahms Concerto, and they are really good.

But there is a problem, which made me stop using them: All those exercises are made precisely for Sevcic's bowings and fingerings! And I did not like many of his bowings and fingerings! So, if I wanted to do my own fingerings, then I would need to invent different exercises! 

January 29, 2011 at 08:18 AM ·

This is fantastic! Who is going to put the other ones on IMSLP? Looking forward to these editions!

January 29, 2011 at 06:06 PM · Laurie - this is just brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing this

January 30, 2011 at 05:13 AM ·

 I have many of the original editions of the Sevcik repertoire studies. However, scanning them at the resolution (600 dpi) required by IMSLP, on my home scanner, would take more time than I have available. 

Are there any more people who have these exercises in print, so that we could divide labour?

Or could I somehow speed up the scanning process? I don't know much about scanners.


edit: perhaps, if we're patient, in a few months' time we'd have a few works on IMSLP.

edit II: the Sevcik studies are in the Public Domain in Canada and the EU, but not in the USA.

January 30, 2011 at 10:35 PM ·

 This is so fascinating!  I'm glad these will soon be available, and I'm glad you told us about them!  

But now I'm wondering . . . will purists say that it's "cheating" to use these exercises to learn a piece rather than coming up with your own?  

January 31, 2011 at 08:09 PM ·

 This is great!   Great story.  I studied with Jacques Israelievitch and with a contemporary of Gingolds who studied with Ysaye.    Jacques did not convey this info to me but I did not study the Scherzo Tarantelle with him.

I love the Sevcik I have studied.  Very systematic...you always feel a few notches higher after doing some Sevcik.

February 1, 2011 at 09:21 PM ·

 And here we have Tchaikovsky. Downloading in the USA probably violates copyright.


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