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Violinists Today

December 28, 2008 at 3:16 AM

Louis Spohr.  Certainly we've all heard the name as the inventor of the chinrest, first prominent user of a conducting baton, and inventor of modern rehearsal letters.  As a composer perhaps we played his earlier concertos as students or heard his 8th concerto on the recent Hillary Hahn CD, but how is it that the rest of his huge body of work has been all but forgotten?

Recently I was able to hear one of his pieces of chamber music (a sextet) and was truely amazed!  Of all the more obscure works by a violinist-composer (ex. Rode, Accolay, deBeriot, Dancla, Kreutzer) it was by far the most moving.  Tender, playful, and colorful are adjectives that come to mind.  For me it was the missing link between Beethoven on one side who, despite his radical jumps in form and expressive intent, sounds distinctly classical to my ear and the likes of Schubert and Mendelssohn on the other who, despite the traditional structures, are in their own worlds of romance and fantasy.  I would not be surprised if the quality of his work is uneven, but at least some of his work seems worth reviving.

It also makes me marvel at how the repetoire for violinists seems to have shrunk since just a few generations ago despite the writing of the Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Barber concerti and the Prokofiev, Poulanc, Shostakovich, Shinittke (Etc. etc.) sonatas.  Leoplod Auer and Carl Flesch, in their books, make many references to chamber music and concerti by Joachim, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Spohr, Hubay as well as composers such as Dohnanyi.  In addition, in the recordings of the "Golden" age we hear compositions by Auer, Goldmark, Enesco, Ernst, Bazzini, and much of Sarasate that is simply never performed today.  Sure, Wieniawski (second concerto, Legend, Polinases, Scherzo-Tarantella), Sarasate (Zigunerweisen, Carmen Fantasy) and Vieuxtemps (fifth concerto) are recorded occasnionally, but when's the last time they were actually programmed on a concert?  At least I've never seen them performed live.  Of course I love the war-horses but we violinists have so much repetoire it'd be nice to hear some of the other stuff on occasion.  Come to think of it, I haven't heard any Beethoven sonata other than 2, 5, or 9 performed live despite the number of recitals I go to every year...

Last but not least, I had to wonder where all the violinist-composers have gone.  Corelli, Locatelli, Kreutzer, Rode, Firollio, Viotti, deBeriot, Spohr, Bazzini, Hubay, Sarasate, Ysaye, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Joachim, Dont, Dancla, Paganini up through Auer, Heifetz, and Milstein.  All of these guys could compose and arrange and on a high level (albeit not all at the level of a great composer) and had a strong understanding of harmony, structure, and invention.  In contrast, most people here at Oberlin tell me they don't like studying theory, don't understand theory and don't much care, or think that analyzing a piece gets in the way of being expressive and, with all credit to Joshua Bell for his cadenza, none of the major solo violinists of our day have composed so much as a show piece.  How can we think to perform music when we haven't tried to understand the process of composition ourselves?  When did the violinist change from an artist to a performer?  In a recent biography of Albert Einstein by  Walter Isaacson, there is a story of Toscha Seidel giving Einstein a violin lesson in exchange for Einstein trying to explain Special Relativity to him.  Perhaps musicians of the past were intellectuals in general, even more than an artist? I wonder if on some unconcious level this is why I can listen to Milstein's and Grumiaux's recordings of Beethoven sonatas again, and again, and again when I have only listened to the more recent recordings once.  (which is not to say I don't enjoy the recent recordings.  I adore Perlman and Zukerman's recordings of Beethoven)

From Corwin Slack
Posted on December 28, 2008 at 7:04 PM

You are on to something.

My teacher/mentor claims that equal tempered tuning was not universal nor reliable until about 1918. He claims that there have been no great performing artists or composers since the universal adoption of equal temperament. (By that he means anyone whose ear was formed prior to equal temperament).


From Jodi B
Posted on December 28, 2008 at 8:48 PM

I must admit that I have never heard of Sphor until recently. My daughter's violin teacher suggested that one of her next pieces that she play be one from Sphor, he went on to say that his works are truly amazing and really quite difficult.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 28, 2008 at 9:23 PM

I too find Beriot, Spohr, Hubay, Joachim , and most of all, Vieuxtemps, are incredibly beautiful and lyrical and wonder why they are not more performed or recorded by the top soloists today. I had the fortune to meet Pinchus Zukerman a couple of months ago and asked him the similar question. The answer was yes Vieuxtemps is nice but he recorded it when he was a kid.  That was the famous #5, what about the other 6?

From Joseph Galamba
Posted on December 31, 2008 at 2:19 AM

I really enjoy Vieuxtemps 5-7, but if I'm to be honest I don't like 1-4 nearly as much...

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