Art, virtuosity, and the violin

July 11, 2013 at 12:36 AM · When did violin playing become an art, rather than a display of exceptional virtuosity? Or when did violin playing become a display of exceptional virtuosity, rather than an art?

Replies (26)

July 11, 2013 at 03:37 PM · Perhaps virtuosity gets their attention, but it's art that keeps it. On the other hand, there is an art to virtuosity, and there's virtuosity required to produce art.

I recall a Heifetz quote somewhere that he thought that the most difficult composer to play, technically as well as musically, is Mozart.

Maybe a few more quotes are in order:

Glenn Gould: "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."

Tennessee Williams: "The object of art is to make eternal the desperately fleeting moment."

Arthur Schnabel: "The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children, and too difficult for artists."

So are things clear now?



July 16, 2013 at 02:29 AM · Musical expression and virtuosity have always coexisted, side by side.

Virtuosity as a display of technical prowess, plays an important part in the music of the Baroque violinist composers including Corelli, Tartini, Biber, Vivaldi, Locatelli, Leclair, etc. Meanwhile, the great J. S. Bach was widely regarded as the foremost keyboard virtuoso of his time. In fact, we can read in his biography by Christian Wolff, that Bach liked to be referred to as "composer and virtuoso." He resented being called "musikant" or "musician for hire."

Beethoven first achieved reknown as a pianist and one time he even engaged in a pianistic competition or "duel" with Stiebelt.

The two greatest exponents of virtuosity were Paganini and Liszt. They raised the whole concept of the virtuoso to a new level. Virtuosity was no longer just about speed or accuracy. It was about bravura playing which meant excitement, boldness, drama, reaching for the extremes of loud and soft, fast and slow. It was about sonority and color. It was about making the audience weep and leaving it exhausted.

This tradition was certainly carried forward by the great artists of the twentieth century including Heifetz and Horowitz, and forward to Rabin, Perlman and Lang Lang. I think it's interesting to note that Julia Fischer, one of the most thoughtful and "correct" of today's artists, started out by learning all the Paganini caprices while she was still a child. Then there are today's more elemental performers such as Vengerov and Markov.

So where do your preferences lie?

July 16, 2013 at 03:08 AM · Mr. Sonne stated it perfectly.

July 16, 2013 at 02:14 PM · Prior to the introduction of the violin into European serious culture viols were used, and playing these was an art. So the violin must have been an art from the beginning of this time. Of course it remains an art - virtuosity has to be an added feature.

July 16, 2013 at 06:44 PM · None of the above: 'a way to make music' ... :P

July 16, 2013 at 07:35 PM · I'm just curious about this. In my mind (and I have no way of backing this up), it seems that in certain time periods there emerged a greater attention to music as an art form, for instance in the time of some of the great romantic German composers Brahms, Wagner, and earlier Beethoven, Mozart and performers like Joachim or earlier Spohr were considered to be great interpreters. Then you have Paganini earlier followed by Wieniawski, Ernst, Vieuxtemp. Is this also not just a matter of time periods, but national cultural ideas?

July 16, 2013 at 11:49 PM · There may have been any other sort of social currents-- I'd guess that if you took a look at the baroque Italian fiddlers, some were real showmen and others excellent workmen, and still others more artistic.

Even in the 19th century, you had German, Central European, and Nordic players who were entertainers in a way that Joachim despised.

July 17, 2013 at 01:12 AM · Virtuosity is a necessary but insufficient condition for artistry. Fritz Kreisler was well known for his miniatures but he recorded a version of Paganini No. 1 in his seventies. Szigeti didn't play show pieces in his maturity but he comments on them in his books. Oistrakh played Paganini caprices in master classes. Heifetz, a virtuoso and an artist, didn't play much Paganini although he taught it.

Even amateurs should aim higher in the studio than they do in the living room. It makes music easier.

July 17, 2013 at 05:13 AM · Well, this discussion is definitely becoming more lively, and deservedly so. This is a great topic. Thank you Bruce for getting it started.

First, let me state unequivocally that for me, artistry comes first. It is indeed the highest and primary goal of a violinist. In fact I regard artistry as so important that I have devoted my website to it. Please check it out.

School of Violin Artistry --

That being said, I also believe that virtuosity is a natural and indispensible part of violin artistry. I don't believe that they are opposed to one another. I don't believe it is a question of either or. I believe that the best artists are also among the best virtuosos, the prime example being, of course, Heifetz. I use the term virtuoso in it's best sense, not in the sense of vulgar showmanship, but in the sense of delight and enjoyment of the mastery of the instrument, and the communication therof to the public. Just watch the videos of Perlman to see his joy and delight at all the wonderful violinistic things he can do: a sparkling spiccato passage elegantly tossed off, a luscious slide, a special vibrato moment. And this is not done at the expense of art. In fact it enhances the artistic expression. And I believe that this delight with the violin is an important part of why people love him.

Bruce raises a really interesting question about the shifting attitudes towards the virtuoso. In the Baroque era, especially in Italy, the violinists were the superstars. The major composers were violinists. They were the leaders of the important orchestras. I think the virtuoso element was an important part of the scene. Then things changed. The keyboard players -- harpsichordists, organists, and then the pianists became the leading figures. I think that the importance of the virtuoso was less in the classical and early Romantic era, until Paganini burst upon the scene, along with Chopin and Liszt. They inspired and set the tone for the rest of the century. Then in the twentieth century the reaction set in, and most of the century was spent rejecting the excesses of the nineteenth century. The ideal became the invisible musician whose personality did not intrude upon the music. Toscanini, Reiner, Szell, Serkin, Schnabel, Szigeti, were among the formost exponents of this wave. Of course there were the throwbacks, Heifetz, Horowitz, Rachmaninoff, Bernstein.

I think that now we are experiencing a partial return, a reaction against the reaction, as it were. Individuality and creativity in performance is becoming acceptable again. The ideal of the invisible performer is losing ground. For me this is a good thing!

July 17, 2013 at 08:19 AM · I wasn't being entirely facetious by my comment on 'making music'. I think virtuosity is reasonably well defined above - any aspect of technical limits disregarding expression.

However, would someone care to define 'artistry' -to my mind it is using the violin for creative expression; thus virtuosity and artistry are not mutually exclusive. The third option is 'rendition'.

Edit: thus to me (I hope I'm not being too picky here) 'artistry' had an essential element of creativity.

Thus to follow on from Roy's post above, we are moving from a long era of virtuosity and (largely) rendition to one of rendition and artistry (least I hope so).

I hope that makes some sense...

If I may try to illustrate: a paganini caprice is generally accepted as an example of virtuosity; an excellent (but not creative) performance of, say, a Mozart concerto with a standard cadenza is (to me) a rendition, whereas artistry is a performance of the latter with a unique approach, together perhaps, with a new cadenza.

July 17, 2013 at 01:27 PM · Roy, great fun, we're going to have a rip-roaring argument on this point about the importance of virtuosity post-Baroque, pre-Paganini, but first I would raise the question of whether "virtuoso" meant the same in Bach's day as it does now - after all, the root of the word has something to do with virtue. Maybe there was still a hint of that meaning in the word when Bach used it of himself, and then classical composers/performers were a bit ashamed of trying to appear too virtuous (Remember Mozart almost apologising in his letters for NOT getting involved in extramarital affairs? Of course, once Paganini had burst on the scene, the divorce between virtuosity and virtue was inevitable!)?

Now for the ding dong: Taking virtuosity in its modern sense, weren't concertos getting incrementally more advanced technically, at least in terms of notes? The Mendelsohn was written with Ferdinand David especially in mind (And surely he would not have dared to write his own cadenza without close consultation with David?), and wasn't Beethoven expected to really give the 'cellist something to bite into when he composed the Triple?

July 17, 2013 at 03:06 PM · OK, relying on the authority of no one in particular, how's this?

Virtuosity is the art of mastering the technique of playing the violin. Art is the utilization of a superior technique in achieving the aesthetic, emotional, and musical "vision" of the composer as translated through the aesthetic, emotional, and musical "vision" of the violinist.

OK, let's see you work your way around that one!!!

(OK, so you probably will.)



July 17, 2013 at 04:23 PM · >Glenn Gould: "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."

>Tennessee Williams: "The object of art is to make eternal the desperately fleeting moment."

>Arthur Schnabel: "The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children, and too difficult for artists."

Sandy, I loved, loved, loved these quotes. They're all getting copied/pasted to my journal/mirror/fridge/violin case.

(("Momentary ejection of adrenaline..." Yikes, I had to read that one a second time more carefully. It was sounding decidedly... well, you know.... or maybe not, maybe no one else read it that way... okay, I'll just creep away now.))

July 17, 2013 at 04:48 PM · I suppose MY initials ARE JR ...

July 18, 2013 at 04:22 PM · Yes, it all boils down to how we define our terms. And "virtuoso" is a term that evokes an emotional response in many people. It is also one of those slippery concepts that we all define differently.

So Sandy, you define it this way.

I define it differently. Virtuosity is much more than technical proficiency. For me, virtuosity has an element of display, of calling attention to itself in the best sense -- a sparkling spiccato, a difficult passage done with ease and elegance, the joy of an exquisitely done slide, the fascination of an unexpected tone color, and the frequent and purposeful use of the full resources of the instrument - dynamics, bow strokes, fingerings, etc.

July 19, 2013 at 03:47 PM · Roy:

Good point. However, I might point out that the (ahem) last word in definitions (well, maybe not, but it's interesting anyway), the Webster's Deluxe Unabridged Dictionary (which I have a copy of in my office and which is bigger than 2 Chicago phone books put together) defines virtuosity (as it pertains to music) thusly:

"Great technical skill in some fine art, especially in the performance of music; sometimes, mere technical skill."

However, I like your definition better.



July 19, 2013 at 08:01 PM · I have often revisited the Paganini Caprices, and even though I cannot play them perfectly I always learn something new about violin playing which makes me a better player and teacher.

In relation to this, I listened recently to Youtube recordings of the Caprice #2 by the following: Tiana Yueng, Julia Fischer, Andrez Rozendent, Maxim Vengerov, and Alexander Markov. There are, of course others. Which performances do you find the most virtuosic, artistic, or both?

July 29, 2013 at 02:51 PM · Except for the absence of non-sexist language, this could have been written this morning:

"The virtuoso is not a mason who, with chisel in hand, faithfully and conscientiously cuts his stone after the design of the architect. He is not a passive tool that reproduces feeling and thought without adding himself. He is called upon to let these speak, weep, sing - to render these to his own consciousness. He creates in this way like the composer himself, for he must embrace in himself those passions which he, in their complete brilliancy, has to bring to light. He breathes life into the lethargic body, infuses it with fire, and enlivens it with the pulse of gracefulness and charm. He changes the clay form into a living being."......Franz Liszt



July 29, 2013 at 07:19 PM · I love that Liszt quote. In fact I posted it on this list a while back and the discussion was not unlike this one. Sandy had a few things to say too. Here's the link

July 30, 2013 at 08:05 AM · I get it - so what you and Liszt are saying is that a virtuoso is an artist; and an artist is a virtuoso. :P

Topic done.... :D

I guess we should have had two topics on 'what do we understand by a virtuoso' and likewise on 'artist' before attempting this one. I think the intent here was actually much more narrow - exactly what Liszt said about the chiseller.

July 30, 2013 at 09:37 AM · one of the reasons enescu didn't write a violin concerto is that he saw it mainly as an opportunity of showing off your skills while the emotional/musical part of it came second. i think that having a good technique, but lacking in emotions gets you nowhere. there are performances that don't excel in intonation, but are nonetheless shattering through the emotion they convey.

July 30, 2013 at 12:18 PM · This is not the first reference I've come across to Enescu's supposed emotional deficiency in music. Apparently as a pianist, his technique was better than that of Schnabel, but it's Schnabel people remember as a pianist.

Oops, Mircea, it's your national composer I'm denigrating!

July 30, 2013 at 05:52 PM · i think i may have got the wrong message across: enescu did not want to write a piece that would require a huge display of skills just for the sake of virtuosity, but would deny the composer some of the rights of getting the right feelings across. i never heard of his "emotional deficiency" before and nothing i read about him pointed in that direction. i find his pieces and the few recordings that exist highly emotional which stand to prove this. i do hope that in defending him, i did not misunderstand the sense of "emotional deficiencies".

as for the piano, he always sought recognition as a composer and less as a performer. he would occasionally play the piano while touring as a violinist, but didn't perform as a pianist as such.

getting back to the topic, i believe that virtuosity is meaningless if it's not employed in the use of art. being able to play and playing with a purpose in mind produce 2 different notes. i don't think though that violinists have ever separated virtuosity from art. they come together.

July 31, 2013 at 03:00 AM · I haven't read every post...but...

I believe that a 'virtuoso' actually meant that no technical problem could interfere with musicality. Anything was playable- and the word came to describe what I call violin-hero after people fixated and obsessed on the technical side of the definition.

I think Heifetz was indeed a virtuoso, but Kogan was a neo-virtuoso of technique and flash substituting musicality as the gripping factor in a performance.

To answer the question though, playing became focused on art when I started compulsively listening to music, discovering amazing works not for my instrument (google "der doppelgänger" by Schubert...) and striving to emotionally move others like music had since then been moving me.

July 31, 2013 at 12:44 PM · A number of excellent points have already been made. I'll just add a point or two, without, hopefully being too redundant.

I don't think that the two aspects have ever been totally segregated, though some have focused on, or been known more for one or the other. Arguably, the 3 greatest composers - Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven - were all keyboard virtuosos, and proud of it. Paganini, the ultimate virtuoso of his time - and most other times - in private, loved to read Beethoven quartets with friends. Joachim, known as a great and very serious and probing musician, wrote challenging cadenzas that most of us know - and a most virtuosic "Hungarian" concerto. Menuhin, often thought of as a great humanist of the violin, said that he applauded virtuosity - as long as it didn't just feed on itself. Isaac Stern cautioned that we should play the violin to make music, not use music as an excuse to play the violin. But as a young man he was a searing virtuoso, who could play the Wieniawski D minor concerto like nobody's business.

All that said, in the 19th century there did seem to be something of a divide between the relative purists, represented by Clara Schumann, Joachim and Mendelssohn - and the more "vulgar" Paganini, Liszt, Ernst axis. But that was also a time when you could either be in the camp of Wagner or Brahms - and not both. I think that with Vieuxtemps - who at the premier of his 4th concerto, was applauded as a composer, for the moving orchestra introduction before he played a single note - Ysaye, and Kreisler, the strands became more and more fused, with some exceptions here and there.

July 31, 2013 at 01:44 PM · Hi,

I think that one of the issues at the centre of this question is that over time, the definition of virtuoso has changed.

In the book Great Masters of the Violin by Boris Schwartz, there are several interesting chapters on this subject. One is on Paganini, the second is titled After Paganini: the Age of Virtuosity, one titled Countercurrents and one called A New Breed of Virtuoso.

The main distinctions are made on the basis of the function of the repertoire and the role of the artists, with the desire or ability of the artist to put his skills at the service of music not written by himself as a focal point.

In this regard, composers whose works were designed to showcase their own skills primarily, or who focused mostly on presenting their own works are referred to as exemplifying virtuosity. Joseph Joachim who, although he composed music, some of it of breathtaking difficulty is considered a countercurrent as his focus was essentially on presenting the works of other composers. Beginning with Ysaÿe and Kreisler, as violinists who did write their own music but centered their careers on playing the music of other composers are considered to begin a new breed. In this context Heifetz for example, though he had great technique and did some arranging but did not compose, would be considered more of an interpreter than a virtuoso regardless of the brilliance of his playing.

An important factor is that the nature of careers has changed as well as the ease of transportation has increased. Virtuosi like Paganini would essentially present their works in a run of concerts in a city moving on and rarely if ever returning there again.

With the nature of careers today, and really since after WWII, and the fact that most soloists can play both brilliant technical works from the violinist composers as well as those by the composers not of that heritage, not to mention chamber music, I think that we live more in the age of the interpretative virtuoso, or virtuoso interpreter, where most try to strike the best balance that they can.


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