Massenet's Meditation

January 7, 2011 at 03:59 PM ·

Does anyone have any advice for learning to play Massenet's Meditation? I have just been assigned this piece (voluntarily, I might add). It is a lovely piece, and I want to do it justice, but I'm not sure I fully get the feeling of the rubato in the piece. I have listened to it performed by more than one violinist. Any suggestions are welcome.

Replies (37)

January 7, 2011 at 05:24 PM ·

Have you watched the opera?

January 7, 2011 at 05:52 PM ·

I was tempted to write, tongue in cheek,  "Just imagine you're a prostitute thinking about becoming a nun," but that might be offensive and violate the standards of decorum of this site.

January 7, 2011 at 06:53 PM ·

Good advice from folks. Remember that despite the title "Meditation," the piece is about a moment of religious conversion.  To my mind, that requires a slightly different approach than you might think from the title.  In addition, what precisely this type of moment conjures up may well be different for different people.

January 7, 2011 at 08:18 PM ·

I have played Meditation for church services, for weddings, and for funerals.

I have a feeling when I play it that is appropriate to me for the situation. It can be reverence, love, sadness, ore even awe.

My first performance, when I was 13 or 14, was with a harp and organ - it had been a special request - the people (a Baptist church, I think), didn't know me from Adam, but asked me anyway, but I felt really good about it and feel that positive experience launched me into a lifetime secure in enjoying music making. I had not played it before they asked me.


January 7, 2011 at 08:55 PM ·


I`m not usually a big fan of linking specific works to one performer although it is defensible on occassion.  I recall Perlman saying in an interview `The Brahms. That@s Jascha@s.`  so it is clearly a tendency even the best of the best may succumb to.  Although of all the pieces that to me clearly belong to Heifetz (of which there are quite a few;))  the Brahms is not one of them.....

Having said that,  there is for me,  one performance of the Massenet which is so far ahead of the others it never fails to awe me.   The performance by Fritz Kreisler demonstrates his utter genius in the smallest possible time frame.




January 7, 2011 at 10:12 PM ·

suggest you listen to the Grumiaux recording with Radju at piano.  covers all the bases....

January 8, 2011 at 02:21 AM ·

 I agree with Buri. Kreisler's performance of this piece is outstanding. It is hard to put into

words the feelings he conveys while performing it. Maybe his association with the Composer

revealed something to him about the way the piece was supposed to be played. This, along

with Kreisler's perfect playing, set the bar to an almost unreachable height. Just my opinion

of course.

January 8, 2011 at 03:55 AM ·

I'm a plodding amateur of limited technical ability and musical imagination, and I probably shouldn't be giving advice on this to someone who evidently has much more substantive experience and plays at a much higher level than I.  But I've worked on this beautiful (if, let's face it, slightly cloying) piece.  My approach to music like this is to get it under my fingers securely, and then to play it over and over.  When I do that I find that the expressive qualities emerge naturally over time.  And that way, even if I'll never find as much in the music or play it as ravishingly as a Kreisler or another great violinist, I feel I've found my own voice. 

I can pick up a few tricks from recordings, and my teacher gives me a lot of helpful suggestions, but in the end I feel I have to find my own way into the music.  And I do that by playing it over and over.

This is probably not helpful to someone seeking advice tailored to this specific piece, but that's the way I would go about working on a piece like this.

January 9, 2011 at 01:13 AM ·

My teacher as well suggested this beautiful piece. Any recommendation about the edition to use?

January 10, 2011 at 12:36 AM ·

 I think one recording to really understand the piece is a the Josef Hassid recording. He really shows what an incredibly brilliant violinist he was in every recording, but this piece and the Achron Hebrew Melody in particular.

And to answer your question, personally I've preformed it quite a bit, I'd say, and you really just have to make every note operatic, as if you are singing rather than playing violin. You have to keep a sort of tension in your expression as you play, and you have to tap into the rollercoaster of emotions in order really sort of understand the rubato. Oh, and listen to the piano. 

January 10, 2011 at 02:04 AM ·

I agree with Buri: The numerous takes of Kreisler ( 5 or 6) are simply beautiful and each of them sound different. This is the proof that Kreisler improvised a lot while playing and was a truly inspired musician...

January 12, 2011 at 02:15 AM ·

 I remember reading at the bottom of the page that the scene was about the love of a courtesan by a monk. Seems to me the beginning is sublime with turmoil in the middle and back to the sublime again.  Seems to make sense given the subject matter.

January 12, 2011 at 03:59 AM ·

I totally agree with the recommendations of Kreisler and Hassid. Another sublime recording that hasn't been mentioned yet is Maud Powell's, dating from circa 1910 (not sure on the exact year).

Try singing it, or at the least, imagine what it would feel like to sing it. And try thinking in terms of phrases, not in individual notes.

January 12, 2011 at 06:20 AM ·


Simon Fischer descries a veyr interesting technique in Basics.    First practice it without vibrato and achiewve all your expressivceness through bow speed/distribution etc.  Then do the opposite.  use quasi robotic,  veyr mathematical bowing and try to achive the expressive effect you want only through a very varied and exaggerate duse of vibrato.   After practiicng these two oppsing approaches play it as normal and see how the aspects begin to complement each other.

Its interesting....



January 12, 2011 at 04:31 PM ·

Have you ever had a pet dog that died? Think back to how you felt. It has always seemed to me that this is what to communicate (in spite of what the music was actually written for). That's the sentiment that should drive the rubato.

January 12, 2011 at 10:09 PM ·


Sander, are you suggesting there are pet dogs that=don`t - die.   I predict the dog food industry will be queuing at your door from now on....  Perhaps it can be called the `Bach effect.`



January 13, 2011 at 11:19 AM ·

Yes, kreisler's performance is just wow-ing.

to answer the thread question, just listening over and over to different recordings will help. Learn the piece without the instrument and let your brain figure out how you want to play it. Then pick up your violin and go for it.


January 13, 2011 at 06:47 PM ·

Buri: Oh, and here I thought we were talking about "medication for thighs." Silly me.
:) Sandy

January 13, 2011 at 07:28 PM ·

Can anything beat this?

January 13, 2011 at 07:42 PM ·

Not by much. Wonderful performance.

January 13, 2011 at 08:41 PM ·

With all due respect to the old masters, I prefer the passionate, operatic renditions by the younger generation of virtuosi.  Some of my favorites are

Janine Jansen

Mayuko Kamio

Sarah Chang

January 13, 2011 at 08:49 PM ·

I would give you my advice:

let time pass. practice it once per day, and let it go months and months. every time you will practice, a phrasing, or one rubato, or something else, might come like a flash. when you have done this long enough, you will have a feel for the piece.

January 15, 2011 at 02:06 PM ·

I consider the "Meditation" to be one of my signature pieces. It was the first piece I ever played in public, in a student recital - a cappela that first time! - and I have performed it a number of times with piano, and then with orchestra more than half a dozen times,and recorded it on my first CD. If anyone likes, go to Youtube, type in my name, and see/hear my performance of it with the Helenic Symphony at Rutgers U. about 5-6 years ago. I've since performed it twice more with orchestra, and as with any other piece, I always find something a bit different here and there to express.

It's always a vexed question of what specific ideas or actions music can express. For example, I think that Vivaldi actually limited his own wonderful Seasons in a sense by trying to assign this or that seasonal effect to his passages with his own sonnets. For example, in one passage in the 1st mvt. of "winter", he associates a quick double-stop passage with "icicles". Well, maybe, to a certain extent. But emotionally, it goes so much deeper than that. I've always felt that Verdi was way off the mark in his attractive "Va pensiero" in "Nabuco". It's supposed to depict the sadness and nostalgia of the Jewish people on the shores of Babylon, exiled from their homeland. If I didn't know that, I'd think it was depicting a family going on a nice relaxing stroll in a park on a Sunday afternoon. It's not, as Mendelsssohn said, that music isn't specific enough. Rather it's too specific for words. There are so many possibilties. And Copland, once asked what he was trying to say in his music, replied that if he could answer that in words, he wouldn't have to write music. He was often amused when people would sometimes tell him how they could hear this or that specific Appalachian detail in his "Appalachian Spring". When he wrote it, there was not yet any such title or idea. It was simply abstract music for Martha Graham.

So getting back to the "Meditation", I feel many emotions in the course of playing this piece, but religiousity isn't one of them. (I certainly do feel religiousity in the middle section of the Bach Chaconne, fo example.) We're back to the limitation of words and the cornicopia of emotions presented by the music, itself. But in an overall way, the "Meditation" for me is a romance, and a dream. I feel that there should be a long line to it, and a flow - but not too slow. Of course the middle section gets very passionate. But by the time I'm finished performing it I like to feel - and hope that the audience does too - as though I just had a beautiful dream...

January 15, 2011 at 02:24 PM ·

 the responses almost completely focus on feeling and emotion.  i think it will be helpful to point out how to play out rubato technically. 

after all these feeling talk, anyone should have enough ideas -or even his/her own idea-by now.  if the person can sing it out quietly with the rubato in question, but cannot express it on violin sufficiently, then there is also room for improvement in the tech area.  

i think bow control in terms speed and portioning is a biggie.

January 15, 2011 at 05:04 PM ·

Al, I don't disagree with you - except that such details as rubato guidence would be most successfully achieved in a private lesson,even though there are comments by Mozart and CPE Bach that touch on these, as I recall.

But this reminds me of other threads that have asked what it is to be talented and musical. And when it comes to being "musical", that's an inherent talent for bringing music off the page convincingly, as an actor does with a script. It's necessary to have a fine technique that includes skill with bow speed, vibrato, portamento, and a myriad other things. It is also most helpful to know something of the composer and his times, music theory, stylistic considerations, phrasing, nuance, etc. etc. (There are a number of good books on such matters I could recommend in a future post, if anyone is interested.) All of these factors and more go into the development of a viable interpretation. But "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" - that gestalt that transcends the sum of the parts. The parts must be there, technically and musically. But without the basic talent for bringing the page to life, the sum of the parts will be the equivilant of a paint-by-numbers-painting.

January 15, 2011 at 05:21 PM ·

@ Al (& Raphael):

I do think that the feelings talk might sound obscure (and it is to me as a scientist), but at the same time necessary. One FEELS when a certain passage is well played or not, as a performer. When I get a new piece (for instance when I started up with the Brahms A major sonata, such a musically difficult piece!) I sometimes cannot feel how certain passages should be played. No matter how I do, it feels wrong. And then, with time, suddenly it feels good.

What I do then? I repeat it a number of times, and I write into the sheets the exact details of producing this particular phrasing. And I iterate, iterate. Sometimes it changes again. And then, by recording oneself, one can change views. What felt good, often turns out to sound bad! I think, the trick is that one needs to first convince one self, and AT THE SAME TIME, convince the recording device.

I believe, that a feeling for a particular piece, is something one develops over time, either with own imagination or with listening, and sometimes with both.

@Al, I think one can express a rubato even if playing with the bow upside down if one can sing it! Those times when it can feel difficult, its because one is impatient and stressed.

January 15, 2011 at 06:04 PM ·

 raphael,,,great post.  agree that the tech part can't really be covered well here.  not sure if you have sensed it often with your students, that they really try hard to say something-they have something to say-but with improper tech, it just does not come out or come out awkwardly.  it is frustrating and confusing to the students because of the interplay between tech and musical understanding.

lena,  agree that one must have "some" idea where the piece is supposed to go before applying the tech part.   i am not sure if you saw my kid's clip on this piece a while back.  she had no idea what the story was behind the music.  to her the music just sounded sentimental and she reacted to the melodies.  she did not act to a virtual storyline.   if i had to explain to her, i would probably say something like:  it is about a puppy who is used to misbehaving, and one day he decides to be good and not chew on things in the house. but when he sees yet another shoe in the corner,   all the emotions hit him and thus the chew or not to chew...

anyway, after the taping i asked her about the "mistakes".  her reply was that she knew and she tried but she just could not do them at the moment. she felt out of control , not enough tech to manage the delivery of the feelings..


January 16, 2011 at 01:10 AM ·

In my teaching, I'm a stickler for developing good, solid technique. The foundation is so important - scales, excercises, etudes, the how as well as the what. That said, what is most enjoyable for me - with a student who's ready for it - is work on interpretation in repertoire. But there is an important middle ground - applied technique. Let's say we want a certain phrasing in an awkward passage in a Beethoven or Brahms sonata. First we must imagine it, but then how do we achieve it? It could be this fingering here, combined that use of bow speed there or the proper use of bow distribution, etc. etc. But while most important, this sort of thing can only lead to the border of the Promised Land; a gestalt leap is necessary to get completely into it. When it comes to convincing, living phrasing, unlike some fundamental aspects of foundational technique like holding the bow, etc. convincing phrasing isn't a matter of "step one - start a bit slower, now by this point it should be 10% faster, with correspondingly 15% more bow speed, and 4 milimeters closer to the bridge, etc." Some students would like to be spoon-fed like that. It just can't work that way. Musicianship can certainly be guided - but at a certain point we're back to the gestalt. You can lead the horse to water - and that's about all. One of the books dealing with good basic musicianship I'd thought to recommend is "The Art of String Quartet Playing" by M.D. Herter-Norton. There's a preface by Isaac Stern who admired her for something she didn't pretend to do, as well as the many things she did achieve in the book: she didn't "attempt to show the reader how to be a fine and sensitive musician. No book by itself could do that." Really no teacher either, without inherent talent in the student. I sometimes find myself saying "I'm hearing notes, not music." Once I demonstrated part of a Schradieck exercise to a student. He said "Wow, that sounded like it could have been a phrase from a concerto!" I said "Well, good. I'd rather make Schradiek sound like a piece than make a piece sound like Schradiek!"

Sometimes if we have a clear overall feeling for the mood and atmosphere of a piece, a number of details can fall into place naturally. One of Heifetz' favorite conceros was the Sibelius. He once sought out the composer to get some interpretive points. But when he got to Finland and immersed himslef in the unique landscape and mysterious atmosphere, he felt sure of how to approach the piece before he even got to Sibelius. Of course, it helped that he was Heifetz!

 PS Lena - I know that we're not disagreeing, but as a scientist, as far as an intuitive, gestalt flash of insight, vs an step-by-step inductive process, do I remember correctly that Einstein said that his most important realizations came about in the former manner?

Buri - re Simon Fisher, I've had a similar idea. It can be applied to most things, but I find it helpful - for this purpose - to occasionaly review part of a Rode caprice, the slow, expressive introductions that he has to some of his caprices, full of expression marks, 'hairpins', etc. Try to make them sound as interesting and as nice as possible, w.o. vibrato. That will get an expressive right hand going! Honestly, I hadn't thought about the other way - that should be interesting, too.

 John - re the "false ending", yes that can be a problem after that 1st high A. What I usually do to help avoid premature applause is, as I'm ending the note, I turn toward the pianist or orchestra, to give the audience the idea that something more is coming up. That usually works. And if it doesn't, it's not the end of the world. It's a simi;ar problem at the end of the first mvt. of the Mendelssohn. On one hand, it ends with a big "haza". But the bassooon continues and begins the transition into the 2nd mvt.

October 2, 2012 at 02:33 PM · It is one of the things Itzhak Perlman played at the New York Philharmoic's opening this season ( ).

It was the first piece I ever performed in solo performance when I was about 13. I was asked to play it at a local church (I really don't know where they heard I played the violin, since we were fairly new to the community and I had only restarted playing the violin after a year off). I was lucky to have both a harp and organ as accompaniment. It certainly enhanced my development of 5th position playing and my vibrato.

Since then I have performed it a number of times - for funerals (including my best friend's - who died at 52 and weddings and for just plain recitals. I found interpreting for a funeral or wedding easy - just get in the mood and play it. But playing it for a recital was tougher to establish a mood. Sometimes I would just select my feelings from a past performance and try to communicate that.


October 8, 2012 at 03:27 AM · Well, an elderly man I once knew, quite the curmudgeon but very lovable in his own way, used to call it 'Meditation from Nausea'. I see his point somewhat (agree with the earlier poster who said something like 'cloying but lovely'), but I will admit that this is one of my 'go-to' pieces whenever I am called upon to play on short notice for something. Like others here, I have played this at weddings, funerals and in recitals. I have also taught this piece, and sometimes feel that I can micro-manage my students too much with it ('move forward here', 'take your time there', 'major color change here!'). Gotta work on that :o).

I think you have a good variety of suggestions to work with from the other people that responded, and I would agree that you should listen to recordings of this piece-- but I would suggest paying special attention to the accompaniment (either orchestral or piano). I think if you can 'hear' the accompaniment in your ear as you play the piece, it will help tremendously in guiding you with understanding the underlying harmonies, and that, in turn, will also help you with phrasing and rubato.

The only other thing I can add is not to get intimidated by the piece in trying to 'do it justice', as you put it in your original post. You don't have to play it perfectly or discover all its secrets all at once (actually, if you discover all its secrets, write them down and let me know what they are!). The main thing is to enjoy the piece and feel its beauty as you learn to play it. I think doing that will be a very good start to the interpretive aspect of learning the piece. For me, I found that the Meditation was a piece that grew with me as I grew as a violinist. It is a great piece to have in your repertoire, and I hope you enjoy learning it!

October 8, 2012 at 03:32 AM · Whoops, new here, and just learning the ropes. Discovered this is quite an old thread-- and the original poster has no doubt moved on to bigger and better things. Oh, well. Sorry, guys!

October 8, 2012 at 12:39 PM · Ahem...

BTW, what happened to Buri? I haven't seen anything from him in a long time. Or has he just been posting where I haven't been looking?

October 8, 2012 at 08:12 PM · I love Grumiaux' recording, and Hassid's even more.

But where Grumiaux inspires me to at least try to play better, Hassid makes me want to throw my violin out of the window in desperation!

October 8, 2012 at 10:07 PM · try also kreisler, wich I find is close to hassids, just sweeter and more shaped. Michael Rabin is awesome as always and Nathan Milstein gives the piece his eternal clear tone.

October 9, 2012 at 06:20 AM · Raphael, I've been wondering the same thing. Hope he's okay.

October 9, 2012 at 12:39 PM · Maxim Vengerov, great violin performance.

Can anything beat this?

October 9, 2012 at 08:01 PM · .. and save a thought for the OP ..

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