Romantic performance practice on the violin

January 6, 2011 at 03:29 PM ·

I'm studying the Baroque era at the moment, and every book I'm reading discusses performance practice (and rightly so). We also hear a decent amount about classical performance practice, and we often hear symphonies up till Beethoven performed in a way that is said to be "historically informed." I got to thinking, why don't we hear much about Romantic performance practice? (For the purposes of this discussion, let's say the Romantic era is roughly from 1850 to 1920, or through the early recording era.)

First of all, why is this? Because we're closer time-wise to the Romantic era and take the style for granted? Because our style of playing hasn't appreciatively changed in the last hundred years? (I find that hard to believe...) Because not enough research has been done on the subject? Or because research has done by musicologists and other scholarly types and haven't yet made it to the front lines of performance, as it were? Or is there another reason altogether?

Second of all, if you want to become a more historically aware interpreter of the music of Brahms and Bruch and their contemporaries (I'm thinking the generation of Sarasate, Joachim, Ysaye, and Norman-Neruda), what should you do? Where should you go? What books should you read? What recordings or violinists should you listen to? I found a book on Amazon called "Theory and Practice in Late Nineteenth-Century Violin Performance: An Examination of Style in Performance, 1850-1900" by David Milsom, but it's going for $120 at the moment, so a bit (okay, way) out of my reach, and I can't tell if it's geared toward musicologists or performers. It looks like David Milsom performs in this style, but I couldn't find any samples of recordings by him. I'm also not finding any websites that talk much about romantic performance practice.

Third - what would romantic performance practice on the violin consist of? Using rubato? How? Using a particular kind of vibrato? Using it sparingly? How? When? Where? Why? What kind of fingerings? Slides? Where? And at what speeds? Should we abandon a shoulder rest? Chin rest? Use a certain kind of strings? When I actually stop to think about it, my mind boggles. Not saying that I'd change all of those things while performing pieces from this era, but it would be nice to be at least somewhat familiar with the basic conventions.

Just some idle thoughts meant to spark some conversation.

Replies (24)

January 6, 2011 at 04:26 PM ·

 Go to Youtube and search for performances by Kreisler, Thibaud and Ysaye. They epitomize the romantic style.

January 6, 2011 at 04:53 PM ·

Absolutely, and I love all three of them. But I was looking more for a deconstruction of their technique: i.e., why they used rubato where they used rubato, why they shifted where they shifted, how they shifted where they shifted, etc. Also, I'm curious how their technique and sounds differed from the generation preceding them.

January 6, 2011 at 05:05 PM ·

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music publish "A Performer's Guide to Music of the Romantic Period".  I haven't seen it, but if it is anything of the standard of their "Performer's Guide to Music of the Baroque Period" (which I refer to a lot), then it will be worth having.

January 6, 2011 at 05:28 PM ·

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music publish "A Performer's Guide to Music of the Romantic Period". 


I was fortunate enough to stumble upon it in my school's library. Checked it out and read it a few times through. It's a good place to start. There's actually a good bit written about violin performance practice during the Romantic era that were written as it was happening. Unfortunately, a lot are in private collections or library archives that you have to be on site and in some cases get special permission for (bummer, really).

But since the mid '90's I think romantic period performance was coming increasingly to the awareness of musicologists and musicians especially with the "period baroque ensemble" trend. Performer's Guide talks mostly on how musicians read music (which counter-intuitively is overall being more true to the composition than during the classical era. anyone else switched those two ideologies? maybe just me =/ ). The most interesting section for me was the one on piano. I did not know that during the romantic era there were so many different kinds of pianos with varying ranges and timbre, which actually effected the works of pianist-composers like Chopin greatly since each composer had a preferred make.  

As far as violin performance I know the idea of continuous vibrato wasn't widely taught or practiced and as far as rubato goes, it depended then on the nature of the composer--think Wagner vs. Brahms. Also, the use of dashes versus dots is still unclear because some composers used them interchangeably, but music institutions also taught their "theories" as to how to "interpret" them, which sometimes countered the thought of composers. A lot of the technique though has survived into today. 

January 6, 2011 at 09:02 PM ·

Listening to recordings by Kreisler et al, I notice a lot of what would today be regarded as schmaltz: lush vibrato, exaggerated slides into notes, etc.  I think you can deduce a lot about technique by listening closely: slides dictate shifts, for instance, and shifts dictate positions that you wouldn't have to use if you just wanted to hit the basic notes.  On the other hand, romantic pieces played in modern style might not have as many embellishments as they would if they're played in the style prevalent when they were written 100 years ago.

January 6, 2011 at 09:21 PM ·

For starters, Joachim and Ysaye is NOT of the same time period.

Joachim was late romatics (together with Bruch and Brahms) while Ysaye is early modernism (together with composers like Delius, Nielsen and the likes).

Kreisler on the other hand belongs to the Schönberg time period, and is considered a modern violinist.

So if you want to find out how the music of Paganini was played you can't go by any of those violinist, neither if you are looking for information on composers like Berlioz or Mendelssohn. They were inspired by musicians from an older generation.

Fortunally we have a LOT of information on how they played.Beriot (Bellini, Berlioz, Strauss generation)  David and Alard (mendelssohn generation) all wrote violin schools and almost all of the violinist-composers from that time span wrote fingerings and bowings in their music.

But we must also remember that the romantic period was the time of the individualist, and they all had strong perional stamp on their playing. One used improvisations, the other didn't, one used vibrato and the other didn't and one imitated farm animals and the other didn't.

January 6, 2011 at 10:00 PM ·

Sorry, you're right. I should have been more specific.

Thanks for the responses, all.

January 7, 2011 at 01:55 PM ·


There are several ways to approach this.  Interestingly for me, a friend of mine did a project as part of his doctoral studies on violin/piano collaboration using period pianos.  We did two concerts, the first of which was an Hommage to Joachim.  Using a late 1820's Graf piano (same model as used by Schumann and Brahms), I decided to request mid-19th century strings by Damian Dlugolecki and acquired a copy of a Pajeot in amourette for the occasion.  What surprised me from Dlugolecki was that Joachim used very thick strings.  The A was also 435.

I had listened to all the recordings of the early 20th century for a long time, but what became important was to let the equipment speak to me.  I had originally practiced the material on modern strings and got urtext parts.  The first rehearsal, I had to change every change I had made back to the original.  By doing what was there we achieved perfect balance.  I also had to watch things like portato, vibrato, bowing and things because if I didn't respect the text, it just didn't sound good.  There were also qualities and limitations to equipment that helped define the style.  We coached with Malcolm Bilson, the great performance practice specialist, and he opened my world to what articulations and markings, including those from vibrato and rubato from those days really meant.  Some, I found in volume 2 of the early edition of Carl Flesch's Art of Violin Playing.

After the recital, someone came to me and said "I just don't know how to say this, but you sound like a pre-1925 violin recording."  I thanked him for the compliment saying that we had fulfilled our objective.

I think that with everything, a lot is defined by the equipment we used.  Today, there are things you can't do on modern instruments because it doesn't work.  You will never achieve certain balance with a modern piano that you will then.  But what you have to preserve is the spirit of the music as best as possible, in my humble opinion.

Just a personal experience if it adds something to your research.


P.S. We also did a later project with Mozart Sonatas where I was able to use an original transitional Louis Tourte.  Unfortunately I couldn't get a period violin and though I learnt a great deal, I wondered what it would have sound with a violin completely setup from that period.

January 7, 2011 at 05:20 PM ·

 How totally fascinating. I was just thinking of you the other day, Christian. Good to hear from you.

January 7, 2011 at 07:03 PM ·

Sp[eaking of Mozart, there is a recording of his piano quartets on a violin, viola, and piano he owned and a cello from the same period.  However, particularly for piano, as well as some other instruments, the 19th century was a period of enormous transition driven by the need to be able to play in larger venues..  Brahms tried unsuccessfully to convince Clara Schumann to use the new Steinway grand pianos.

January 9, 2011 at 03:48 AM ·

 Kreisler may be a contemporary of Schoenberg but he studied composition with Leo Delibes. Joachim was a protege of Felix Mendelssohn, an early romantic. The most modern thing that Kreisler ever played (big piece anyway) was the hyper-romantic Elgar Violin Concerto. Ysaye was more a man of his time that Kreisler who was an anachronism. 

January 9, 2011 at 08:14 PM ·

Corwin - you misunderstand completely :)

First, the composers were inspired with violinists that were on top of their game when they composed, not the young ones they had under their wings. Mendelssohn was influenced by David when he wrote his violin concerto, and Joachim (a student of David) called Davids playing old fashioned. If you compare Davids violinconcertos (in Hummels style or Mendelssohn string symphones) with Joachims violinconcertos (Brahmsian) or their violinschools you will see that they were definitly a generation apart.

And the fact that kreisler played Elgar and Ysaye played Ysaye has nothing to do with who is the most modern violinist. Only what music they preffered. Not one scholar would say that Ysayes violin playing was more modern than Kreislers.

January 9, 2011 at 09:15 PM ·

Corwin: Fritz Kreisler gave the première of many modern works during his days, not only the Elgar, but also Julius Conus concerto first performed in London in 1904,suites for violin and piano by Karl Goldmark and York Bowen, concertos of Frederic d'Erlanger(London , March 12 1903) and Ernest Schelling ( premiered in 1916), and he played the solo sonatas of Eugene Ysaïe in some recital for solo violin including Bieber's and Bach works... He did perform the Saint-Seans and Bruch concerti with the composers conducting the orchestra... He was one of the first violinist ever to perform the complete Tschäikovski concerto  early as 1901 ( he made in 1936 his own arrangment of the Tscaïkovski that he first performed in New-York with Eugene Ormandy in 1936)

It is a shame that Fritz Kreisler is being remembered only for his recording legacy...

I would add that Joachim as well as Vieuxtemps disliked the use of vibrato ( I believe that they were incapable of doing so, because you have to learn it young, and Sporh disliked it as well) and it was considered by them as bad taste of playing when using it to often... Ole Bull testified about Paganini's continuous vibrato in his memoirs and also Carl Ghur and both mentionned that Paganini was simply rivalising with great singers of his time,like "La Malibran" and was deeply influenced by Rossini's operatic virtuosity...

Joachim played the Brahms concerti senza vibrato... Vieuxtemps disliked the use of vibrato as stated by Ysaïe... But Lambert Massart was the teacher of Wieniawski, Sarasate and finally Fritz Kreisler. Massart as well as Wieniawski in Russia were both teaching the continuous vibrato. At the time, it was called the French Vibrato...

Influenced by Wieniawski, Auer had to change his mind about the use of vibrato, and all of his students, starting from Elman, to Heifetz,Seidel Eddy Brown ,had the most exquisite vibrato...

The first to have impose a revolution in that sense was Fritz Kreisler. Before him, Ysaïe made use of it more often than his predecessors and also Sarasate...

January 10, 2011 at 04:20 AM ·

 Good to know Marc and it appears that most of these works were hyper-romantic. 

In my opinion the first modern violinist was Jascha Heifetz. He was a great violinist with a unique and beautiful sound but the imitation of his playing by his numerous inferiors is the most pervasive discernible trend in violin playing from his era on. It defines the modern sound.



January 10, 2011 at 01:56 PM ·

 Performance practice in the 19th century is something that for a long time it was assumed we understood adequately. It has come in for major reconsideration of late, but /very/ few performers are making any real attempt to revive 19th century performance aesthetics. The recordings of romantic repertoire on period instruments are mostly played in a kind of light, cleaned-up way derived from the performance of classical rep: not much rubato, no portamento, light tone. This appears to be historically baseless, although some genuinely great interpretations have come out of this not-so-period style (Norrington's Beethoven and Wagner, Mackerras's Brahms, L'archibudelli's Brahms). 


January 10, 2011 at 02:39 PM ·

Corwin: If you compare the young Heifetz playing (his acoustic recordings of 1917) to Kreisler in 1916-17, it is obvious that Heifetz was deeply influenced by Kreisler. Flesh, Gingold, Francescatti, Mistein, Szigeti, Oskar Shumsky all agreed that Kreisler changed everything in the style of playing. And all experts do agree. Just compare the historical recordings of Sarasate, Joachim, Maud Powell, Ysaïe, Franz von Vecsey, Jan Kubelick to the most early recordings of Kreisler in 1901-1905, and you will hear the drastic difference and realize how revolutionnary Kreisler was. Kreisler was giving great recital programs and playing all the major concerti... Unfortunately, he is only remembered for his late recordings and short pieces, and during the 1930-45 period, he was not practicing anymore and was not as skillful and brilliant as he was in 1916 or so... The recording legacy of the very young Jascha Heifetz (1910-1912) proves beyond  any doubt that he was first taught to play in the style of the era just preceding Kreisler's. He sounds more alike Joachim or Ysaïe... the changes occured later when he probably heard Kreisler for the first time in 1912 in Berlin. Kreisler accompanied the young Jascha at the piano playing the Mendelssohn concerto...

It is Kreisler that made the revolution in violin playing!!! There is a tendacy here to attribute solely to Heifetz the entire benefit and credit in great changes in violin playing. Do not forget that Francescatti and Oistrach were of the same generation as Heifetz and they did not influenced each other in their style of playing when they were very young and developping their own style... Francescatti (born 1902) and Oistrach ( born 1908), as well as Jascha Heifetz( born 1901) , Milstein and Pablo Casal the cellist, were all influenced by the new modern sound of Kreisler!!!

I do not by these statements diminish the greatness of Jascha, I only put things into their just and historical perspective... And by the way, Heifetz playing Walton, Korngold or Waxman-Carmen is hyper-romantic. Szigeti was a more modern violinist than Heifetz: Heifetz did not play Bartok concerti or sonatas, or Alban Berg. The only chance he had with Schoenberg he missed it declaring the work unplayable.... I just believe he did not understand at all the process of writing in dodecaphonic and serial music. He simply with his funest words killed the concerto and we had to wait until Hilary Hahn to have justice rendered.

Was Heifetz really modern??? I doubt this. Modern is not only something that has to do with sound. Both Kreisler and Heifetz used the portamenti and the vibrato in a similar manner. I would also add Toscha Seidel and the young David Oistrach... Hilary Hahn rarely uses portamenti and you seldom hear her shifts: this is what I call true modern playing in my sense... The credit in Heifetz era should be attributed to Szigeti and Jelly d'Aranyi, sorry... And I would add that Maud Powell was more modern and revolutionnary than Heifetz ever was or could. She premiered the Sibelius in America and many other works... The early critics about Heifetz performing in New-York circa 1920 often pointed out that the young violinist did not present serious programs and avoided the great and serious repertoire. Many complained about him playing outdated salon pieces and old repertoire of romantic baroque arrangments... (David-Auer)  It is much later during the 30,s that Heifetz extended a  modern vision of his recitals program... But still in 1939, he included the old version ( Wilhemny) for violin and piano of the first movement of Paganini concerto number one and always concluded with numerous small encores and arrangments as stated by several commentators... In 1928, Kreisler, as mentionned before, played solo works in  recitals including Bach Chaconne,Bieber, Ysaïe sonatas and Honneger first solo violin sonata that the composer created himself in 1919...

Heifetz offered great standards in violin playing. Oistrach , Francescatti and the young Toscha Seidel as well. I agree that Heifetz was the most fascinating virtuoso probably of all times and an outstanding musician too. But not the greatest musician and not the most complete. I would rather give the palm in that field to David Oistrach.

Hopefully, in the "numerous inferiors" of Mr. Heifetz you do not include Milstein, Francescatti , Oistrach, Neveu or so many other fine musicians... To me, the word inferior sounds terrible to my ear, I must point it out, and I fell very much uncomfortable with it...

All of this is said in a friendly manner and with no offence to your own views and opinion.



January 10, 2011 at 09:27 PM ·

 Marc, Your point is well taken but in my opinion Kreisler was a revolution that went nowhere. I do agree that his sound is unique and perhaps he truly was the revolutionary but the sound that Heifetz pioneered was the icy brilliance of tone that he achieved by some degree of pressing of the hair into the string. This is the sound that continues today without the wit, intelligence or ear of the great Heifetz to make it live.

January 10, 2011 at 09:58 PM ·

Pressing the hair into the string kills the natural resonance as quoted by Heifetz himself. It is speed and natural weight of the arm that produces great tone. By the way, it is very well documented that Kreisler had a truly projecting tone!!! And also, Mr. Heifetz insisted the the mics should always be very close to his violin while recording... that is why you always hear the "jit" sound of his violin.

January 10, 2011 at 10:03 PM ·

As an aside Marc; do you know why he did that?  did he want to record the sound for other violinsts to hear what it should be like or maybe he liked crunches :D

Shame they did not simultaneously record the sound in the hall...

January 10, 2011 at 10:11 PM ·

At least parts of the Milsom book are available in Google books.

Here's something else by Milsom about Joachim's playing, specifically, which is available in toto for free:

You might also be able to get something of a feeling for pre-"modern" fingering, portamento and bowing from editions of music that were prepared at the beginning of the 20th century by musicians who had been schooled in the second-half of the 19th century.  Many of the Peters editions fall into this category.  In some ways, the differences from modern performance practice stand out most sharply in editions of Haydn and Mozart--precisely because they often seem perversely wrong to contemporary tastes. 

Many of the compositions from the late 19th century include are represented by editions that were prepared by contemporaries of the composers.  For example, the Simrock edition of the Brahms concerto was edited by Joachim.

Hope this helps!

January 10, 2011 at 10:40 PM ·

I agree with you Elise and a great violinist and friend of mine expressed the same opinion about the insistance of Heifetz to have the mics very close during recording sessions. Maybe he wished that all the infinite details to be captured and also, wished the sound to be equal in volume to the orchestra or the piano... For sure, he insisted on a kind of artificial magnitude of his sound and most of his late recordings , living stereo, are not conform to reality. The sound is tampered with that technology. I much prefer the older recordings.

You see how careful you must be when judging the sound of a violinist by listening only to recordings and not attending the concert halls. Some recordings do not render justice to the artist, and I have in mind those done by Ginette Neveu. Her recordings were all done in England just after the war and Europe was devastated and recording material was not of the best quality. Oistrach sufffered from same dilemna. But not Heifetz in America.

January 11, 2011 at 04:43 AM ·

Emily, I just got my copy of Journal of The Violin Society of America VSA Papers, volume 22, #1, Summer 2009.  (No, the mail isn't that slow.  The VSA just isn't that fast.)

There is an article titled "The Evolution of Violin Vibrato in the 20th Century" by Colin Gough.  He details, with loads of colorful graphs, computer readings of various artists' vibrato.  And while the article covers violinists of the 20th century, Joachim and Auer are analyzed and discussed.  Fascinating stuff!

You might be able to purchase this volume as a back issue:

The Joachim analysis of the Brahms' Hungarian Dance #1 were of personal interest to me, as I spent a lot of time aurally analyzing that CD recording when learning that piece.

This article covers vibrato, but there are other things to consider.  Rubato and tempo are also most important.  And of course, the slides!

January 11, 2011 at 04:46 AM ·

Also, the early violin recording catalogue isn't as perfect and complete as we'd all like it to be.  Sarasate, Auer, and Joachim, giants that they were, weren't really caught in their prime.

There is a larger catalogue of the singers.  Listening to the early recordings of singers can be most eye-opening.

You could start with, say, Nellie Melba...

January 15, 2011 at 11:23 PM ·

Great ideas, all.

Here's an interesting article I found about romantic performance practice and how it relates to Marie Soldat.

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