Old-fashioned Editing

March 11, 2009 at 09:12 PM ·

As a self-taught amateur, I have not had the benefit of the insight that comes from a great teacher. However, I have player-friends who are willing to keep me on the right track and point out little technical things that do make a difference. I was playing a few tunes from a folio called 'Violin Pieces the Whole World Plays' (Embassy Music, 1916) and one friend asked, "Where did you get those shifts and fingerings?" When I showed them the edition, they commented, "Oh. That's old-fashioned stuff."

In reality, there are much more comfortable (and just as sweet) ways to play these pieces, but I had assumed that the 'old-fashioned' editing was done for a reason. I would appreciate and welcome any comments.

Replies (24)

March 12, 2009 at 01:11 AM ·

The older editions of violin music is mostly pretty bad. Some of it reflects the taste of a bygone era, and some reflects obvious technical difficulty. Some is downright strange.

Taste: many editions of baroque music would have you play high up on the G and D strings. People just don't do much of that anymore. Why? Personally I don't like the timbre up there. And it's unnecessarily difficult. Some would say overly romantic.

Technique: It becomes obvious in examining older editions that people didn't like to play in either 2nd or 4th position, and so the fingerings show all manner of attempts to avoid these. Remember Bjorn Borg running like crazy to avoid using his backhand? But I'm dating myself.

Just bizarre: recently I was playing something, maybe Mahler 4. It was a slow movement, and I got a kick out of the stupid fingerings, especially the long open A. Something that would get you fired today. Also, they seemed to use harmonics at the drop of a hat, even for an orchestra. No matter how dreadful the effect. Even Galamian was guilty of that--I really love how everyone still does the harmonic on the D at the beginning of bar 3 in the B-minor Allemande.


March 12, 2009 at 06:03 AM ·


You might like the book Violin Fingerings, by Carl Flesch. It's modern in spirit: it advocates doing what works to achieve the sound aimed for. Sound ideals have changed though: playing in higher positions on lower strings in Baroque pieces has fallen out of favor.

Perhaps other people on V.com can suggest more recent books on the same subject.

Hope this helps,


March 12, 2009 at 08:05 AM ·

Ciao Scott & Bart,

Thanks so much for the precise and meaningful responses. VERY helpful.


March 12, 2009 at 09:40 AM ·

Avoiding any use of second position is clearly an old fashioned idea; I have a Peters edition of the Beethoven Quartets that is like this. Very little of the printed fingering is actually useful, at least in the viola part. 

March 12, 2009 at 05:36 PM ·

First of all buy old recordings of chamber music (in particular) and orchestral music. Listen to the string sound. It is truly voluptuous. You can hear the shifting and it is beautiful. Compare and contrast the Flonzaley Quartet with the Emerson String Quartet. It isn't even the same genre. 

When you look at old editions you can see that the editors didn't regard the violin as a piano. It was an instrument of vocal potential and they treated it so.  Adolfo Betti, the first violinist of the Flonzaley Quartet edited many old-ish editions. Listen to his playing and study his editions.

The intention of most modern fingerings seems to be to hide shifts. I heard a shiftless performance of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Variations a few years back. It was ooogly. 

But it is pointless just to play the old fingerings if you don't have a similar technique and a similar tonal aesthetic. 


March 12, 2009 at 02:03 PM ·

IMO, your question is in good part a variation on the perpetual questions around things like Medieval & Baroque playing practice and sound. Do we try to imitate to our best knowledge how the player/composers of those times played, or not? Some folks are very strong proponents for  purist approaches, others less so, some  quite opposed. We surely would not want to homogenize everything, but some practices, particularly for Romantic-period music, seem to have fallen quite far out of favor to modern ears; we ought to include listeners in the equation, too. There are surely researchers, teacher or performers out there who have made a study of the editor & editing of particular pieces or collections who could offer additional opinions. For myself and my students, I like to work up everything printed sufficiently well to understand its intent regards tone, vibrato use, expressive use of slides & string changes, etc. I don't hesitate to make changes, but I always have a rationale, and generally the rationale relates to a musical choice, not just an "it's easier this way" sort of choice. Sue

March 12, 2009 at 02:32 PM · Every editor of a piece has their own way of thinking through and solving a problem. As Scott points out, Baroque works were distorted by tastes at the editor's time which were not informed historically (See Galamian's edition of the Corelli Sonatas for an example). Use what works is the best maxim. If the fingering works, and it does what you want it to, and you understand the good and bad to it-then use it.

March 12, 2009 at 04:22 PM ·

This is an interesting question that I've never thought about.  Like most people I was told what baroque editions to use (the most modern and "scholarly").  The consensus is still that I'd guess.

But really, why not play them in an old style if you'd like?  It might not get you a recording contract, but then nothing else will either.  It might get you ridiculed by those whose message is mindless conformance (clap, clap, what a wonderful conformance :)). You don't have to prove anything to anybody with your violin.  You know, there's a whole genre of parlor music written with a lot of the same ideas in mind.  I don't know where you even start looking for it today.  It might not be Brahms, but then hey neither is Brahms really...to be honest.



March 12, 2009 at 05:03 PM ·

As has previously been mentioned, contemporary tastes in fingering tend to minimize slides, using them very selectively.  This practice seems to have emerged since the Second World War.  In the style of playing that prevailed in early years of the 20th century and earlier, slides were used much more extensively, and there was a greater tendency to play an entire phrase on a single string so as to achieve a uniform tone color.  Contemporary fingerings tend to go across the strings to minimize slides, where earlier fingerings would go up and down a single string. 

You can hear this in older recordings of violinist such as Kreisler and Elman and even some whose careers extended into the 1950s such as Heifetz.  The more extreme examples of the earlier fingerings, especially when applied to 18th century music, can be somewhat grating to contemporary ears that have been conditioned against it, but when this technique is used tastefully, particularly for 19th century music that was written with the expectation that violinists would perform it that way, it can be very satisfying and expressive.  Modern musicologists claim the slides are inappropriate for 18th century music, although this is of course not based on anyone's actual recollection of how music was performed in the 18th century, and perhaps they were used more extensively back then than anyone today realizes.  (There was also probably a much greater diversity of regional styles of playing back then too, and in addition, some of the practices that 18th century treatises deplore may have been the target of criticism by the likes of Leopold Mozart precisely because they were so widespread.)

The older style of playing is reflected in the fingerings of editions dating from the pre-WWII or even pre-WWI eras -- and the catalogues of many leading music publishers such as Peters, Schirmer and Carl Fischer largely consist of editions that were prepared back then.

March 12, 2009 at 06:11 PM ·

One other point worth noting:  the "Violin Pieces the Whole World Plays" collection largely consists of pieces that were written during the period when slides were in fashion.  So why not play them the way the editor intended them to be played?  Even a piece such as the Bach-Wilhelmj "Air on the G String" is essentially a late 19th century recomposition of a movement from a Bach suite.  Even though in Bach's day the melody would probably have been played differently, failing to play the Bach-Wilhelmj piece entirely on the G string would not be faithful to its character.

March 12, 2009 at 10:57 PM ·


>Contemporary fingerings tend to go across the strings to minimize slides, where earlier fingerings would go up and down a single string. 

Not sure I would necessraily agree with this small part iof anotherwise rgeat post.   I think it has more to do with the individual player.   I forget which was which,  or even exactly whom, (;)  but if you go back to Baillots time you can find descriptions and evidence showing clealry that Viotti favored shifting up and dowen one stirng and Baillot (?) favored string crossing.   Historical inexactitude aside it wa sclealry a presonal issue then.  

Back in the present ,  my trio has been coached by many dfiffernet eminet teacher sfrom  a variety of European conservatoires including Vienna and Prague. Someof them have been adamnat that if it is one phrase one stays in postion. Others have been equally adamnt that one goes upward sot preserve the color of the voice.

Incidentally,  ther eis older fingering and older fingering.   I suoppose one might describe the Heifetz  editions of his encores as `older` but they are actually as timeless and educational as one could wish for.  An astonshing lesosn in the art of violin playing.   Likkewise those of Oistrakh are hardly spring chicken.  Like Scott I think of usless older fingerings as the shoddy old Peters editions in which dead Germans have avoided the evn positions.  Sort of like doing only half the Kama Sutra....



March 13, 2009 at 03:28 AM ·


Scott Cole wrote "The older editions of violin music is mostly pretty bad. Some of it reflects the taste of a bygone era, and some reflects obvious technical difficulty. Some is downright strange." 

>>(opinion not a fact)

SC: "Taste: many editions of baroque music would have you play high up on the G and D strings. People just don't do much of that anymore. Why? Personally I don't like the timbre up there. And it's unnecessarily difficult. Some would say overly romantic." 

>>Didn't Bach have 20 something kids?  Something tells me he was pretty 'romantic' :)  As far as the fingerings go, are you suggesting that one should play Bach in the 1st position all the time?  

SC: "Also, they seemed to use harmonics at the drop of a hat, even for an orchestra. No matter how dreadful the effect. Even Galamian was guilty of that--I really love how everyone still does the harmonic on the D at the beginning of bar 3 in the B-minor Allemande."

>>How is playing a harmonic any less historically accurate in Bach?  Do you use a shoulder rest?  Do you play on steel or synthetic strings?  Do you use a modern bow?  If you answered 'yes' to any of the last 3 questions, you technically are not playing Bach with an 'authentic' interpretation.  It often boggles me how pseudo authentic  the interpretations are of modern players playing baroque music.  Casals said that the best Bach performance he heard was by a gypsy violinist because it came from the heart; something I think that is lacking from many of today's performances of baroque music.


March 13, 2009 at 04:11 AM ·


ther eis another aspect to this very complex issue,  I am guessing.

It seems ot me that inthe past a publishing company would seek out a big name violnist or whatever and ask them to edit a work.  The tacit asssumption was that they would simply notate what they did (although artsits such as Ysaye often had no idea what they did because they were sponatneous- now thats contorl) .  There would also be a piano part done by a famous pianist who may not evenhave spoken to the violinist!    Thus we get editions by Francescatti fro example where the fingerings are veyr much suited to his type of hand but pretty usless for an awful lot of players,  especially those with hand son the small side.  I think the trend gradually moved towards notating fingerings that belonged in the once sezxe fits all mold.   This can be very useful but perhspa makes things less interesting at times although from an experienced artist such as Oistrakh  it can be veyr educational. 




March 13, 2009 at 06:09 AM ·


I don't disagree for the most part. Fingers are, after all, opinions. However, I'm not sure I'd equate such things as a shoulder rest or even string material with fingerings, especially where a harmonic is concerned. My problem with harmonics is that so often, they are used on a long note at the top of a phrase. In the student literature, it lets students off the hook, so to speak, and lets them get away with not bothering to vibrate--not pedagogically sound for me. Kind of a cop-out, as it were.

I think there are sound modern principles of violin-playing that do make sense that were not adhered to in the past and that make for more convincing expression. For example, I often see editions in which a string change or shift is suggested on a slur when it could easily have been avoided. I hate sitting next to people in orchestras who pull that kind of crap.

Bach may have had almost 20 children, but not necessarily because he was romantic--he may well have been merely fulfilling his duty as a Christian...."I vas only following orders"....... 



March 13, 2009 at 06:40 AM ·


plus I think we should remember that Bach did not actually have the children.  Just the pleasure in making them.



March 13, 2009 at 08:15 PM ·

Well, he was an organ virtuoso.....

March 13, 2009 at 09:27 PM ·

So, doing a shift where it can be "avoided" is "pulling that kind of crap", according to some "sound modern principles of violin-playing"... But "breaking" a melody to death by constant and repeated string changing seems to be OK... Good to know! And if somebody has a real mastery in "forming" the tone with the bow, harmonics in high notes can be a pretty interesting effect, as demonstrated by the likes of Milstein, Heifetz and other "pullers of that kind of..." BTW I think the revisions of most of Mahler's works were done under supervision of the composer himself and he really did care for the fingerings been used and has talked a lot with violinists about this theme, so the fingerings may get you fired, but are also "authentic". Difficult times...

March 13, 2009 at 10:03 PM ·


I didn't quite get what you were getting at, but I will say that there are certain combinations of fingerings and bowings that, regardless of the era and style, will mark someone as either an amateur (not trying to offend amateurs here), untrained, or just lazy. In other words, unmusical. For instance, when an entire section has a slow passage that winds its way up to end softly on a note and one person crosses up to the next string to that one note on the E string. It's not much different from sitting with someone who constantly gets stuck at the tip.

I'm not talking nuance here, just the really obvious stuff (naturally, people will have different fingerings in an orchestra).

March 14, 2009 at 07:34 AM ·

You brought up a good point Claudio how the growing trend amongst many today is to break the line with repeated string crossings in order to avoid shifts. 

March 14, 2009 at 01:20 PM ·

Growing trend? Since 1955 at least if recordings are any guide. By the time High Fidelity came out shifting was on a rapid decline.  There is hardly a modern (post Hi Fi) recording that isn't sterile (compared to pre Hi Fi) . No shifting and adoption of shoulder rests are highly correlated but it is not clear what the motivation was. Did players start using shoulder rests so they could hide their shifts or did shifts get hidden because players were using shoulder rests. 

March 14, 2009 at 01:53 PM ·

'Violin Pieces the Whole World Plays'   I LOVE that book. I first bought it when I was 13 or 14 and eventually wore out that copy and bought another one. I pretty much self-taught myself from that book at that age (after having stopped 8-years of lessons at age 12).

I spent months last year on Amazon and ebay searches trying to find a copy to give a student for Christmas, and finally had to assemble the gift from two purchases - one that yielded the piano part and one the violin part, both, it turned out were printed in 1934. None of the few sellers realized there was a violin part to go along with the bound piano part (of which I now have a surplus) - or a piano part to go with the paper-covered violin part.

There was another book important in my self-teaching at that time, too. "Standard Violin Concertos" (that had ten of the all-time, bit-time favorites - but no Mozart) reading through that book did wonders for my sight reading (and trying to play them close to Heifetz speed too. Unfortunately it is no longer available for sale (I tried to buy that one last year, too, and only found one used copy of the piano part).

I must admit that I learned fingerings from those books (although I also had alternate concerto fingerings from other editions). However, playing in a community orchestra, with good professional string coaching, taught me better  approaches to fingering, and once I got started on thinking along those lines, I got around to re-fingering some of the parts in those old editions.

I think that if you get some good fingering principles from this thread and from the people you play with you can launch yourself into a lifetime of improving fingerings.

And finally - those HARMONICS! I think rich use of natural harmonics was part of the "salon violinist idiom." With that in mind, a few years ago I went "through my violin" and cataloged all the natural harmonics.* You see, when you get old enough, it gets really harder to get some of those high notes (especially fast enough) and it is useful to find alternatives (every harmonic  that you can find up high can also be found on the first octave of the same string). Besides, sometimes I like the effect - playing 150 year old music the way it was written to be played.


* Those of you who have studied physics must recognize that the natural harmonics of a string represent the same kinds of vibrational nodes that quantization of electron "orbitals" do in atomic physics. Bohr's "original" quantization idea had a long history (that I don't recall ever seeing referred to in my Quantum Mechanics studies - preserving the myth, I guess).

March 14, 2009 at 02:24 PM ·

Following up on my earlier post, I wonder whether violinists in the 18th century used harmonics more than is today considered "stylistically appropriate" for the music of that period.  Most of our knowledge of fingering in that era is derived from treatises, but the treatises were aimed in large measure at a relatively elementary level of violin playing.   At a more advanced level of playing, harmonics are a natural and useful technique for reaching high notes and, used tastefully and effectively, can add coloristic interest.   I don't mean to denigrate the efforts of Boyden and others to recover historical performance practices, but I sometimes suspect that we know less about the expressive possibilities available to 18th century violinists than we think. 

The most extensive and comprehensive source of information about 18th century violin technique is the treatise of Leopold Mozart.  But he wasn't a particularly distinguished violinist himself--his highest attainment (apart from the treatise and his son's musical education) was a position in the second violin section of a second- or third-rate provincial orchestra.  Could it be that the received wisdom about 18th century violin technique is to some extent a reflection of his prejudices and limitations?

March 15, 2009 at 10:38 PM ·


thta just reminded me... I am a big fan of Danclas music which I think is highly underatted and extremely valauble for both teahcing and performing wprks.  If the fingerings he gives are urtext then he very much fvaored the use of harmonics in melodic lines.  I am not convince dthis wa sa tehcnial inadequacy of the times by any means. 



March 19, 2009 at 02:06 AM ·

Here's a link to a bunch of free facsimiles of original editions of parlor music for guitar. With PICTURES...

Wonderful, fascinating, adventurous, soul-saving, blow your mind, and not-so-easy-to-play stuff.  There's got to be as many equivalent things for violin out there.  But then it seems like everything is so focused on I don't know...zigunerweisen and other big names...



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