Intonation Vs Interpretation

April 10, 2004 at 04:55 AM · Interesting topic that a fellow musician brought up in a discussion.

He found it troubling that we strive for perfect or near perfect intonation. He feels that an individual should interpret a piece to his or her own colour of taste...

What is the professional attitude towards this?

Replies (32)

April 10, 2004 at 05:04 AM · I don't see how false intonation can be part of an interpretation. Perhaps the "expressive" intonation Gingold spoke about, but that can't be done on every note. I'd say 99.9% of the music must be perfect in intonation. The color of the sound doesn't have to be made through a bending of the pitch. There are so many other ways to do it.

April 10, 2004 at 07:46 AM · wrong...heifetz played sharp...a say about 10-20 percent of the notes in his concertos are sharp to achieve an effect. and 20-30 in his showpieces. there is no perfect with violin, becuase its not equally tempered...we play sharps sharper, and flats flatter. If we played perfectlly, like the intonation on a piano, it would sound terrible. this is why this type of thing is open to interpretation. There is, of course, the "perfect seeming" playing which can often not excite me unless it has something special that cant be achieved by hours in the practice room

April 10, 2004 at 01:52 PM · Greetings,

Dan , I think you are criticizing Brian for something he didn"t really say.

I think it is worth remembering that anotehr element in all this discussion of interpretation and coloring and the rest of it is that -we make music with othe rpeople-

So, you can a rgue about how your interpretation of a Haydn string quartet part is correct until the cows come home but if it is not in tune with everyone else then yes, you are playing out of tune.

I would also note that when we are within a specific key certain intervals are generally accpeted as having to be constant. This is a fairly well established principal and if you want to go beyond thta then you are basically talking about something completely laissez faire and that is not going to hold water anywhere.

Where I think I might split hairs with both of you is that these discussions also miss the point that we are not actually talking about perfect intonation as such. We are actually referring to the ability to adjust within such a rapid speed to what makes sense within a conetxt that the listener is left wholly unaware that any such (usually unconscious adjustment has taken place). There is no such thing as perfect intonation in the sense of hitting every note square on.

To tell the truth I find statement like 'Heifetz played 20% sharp most of the time' a little odd. We should perhaps be thankful that he set standards for intonation taht have yet to be improved upon,



April 11, 2004 at 03:35 AM · if you were to ask him during his life time if this "standard in intonation that is yet to be improved on" meant anything to him, he would have said 'no'.

April 11, 2004 at 06:28 AM · Dan, you are making statements that really are going sort of off topic. I don't think it matters if that would've meant anything to Heifetz or not. I know about playing sharps sharper and flats flatter, but isn't that implying that all violinists should do that and so then theoretically the interpretation on intonation at least would be the same for every violinist? And if it is not the same, then it's just a mistake? Then the only way to be "different" in intonation would be in the degree of how much sharper or flatter one plays a note, and once you get into that small of an area of adjustment, it's almost unrecognizeable. When I spoke about perfect intonation, I wasn't speaking about a certain specific set of intonation. For example. I know that an A can be 440, or 441, or 442, etc., but if you do that, you have to adjust all other notes accordingly.

Say that you play a D sharp on a violin tuned to an A 440, and you play it sharper than according to the D sharp on a piano. Then say you raise the pitch on the A. That means if you then raise the D sharp proportionally, it may get so high that it becomes an E natural. So if you tuned to a higher A, then would you raise that D sharp proportionally or keep it the way it was before you raised the A on the violin?

April 11, 2004 at 09:12 AM · Greetings,

Dan, what"s your point? You don"t know what Heifetz would or wouldn"t have said about anything. I interpret you saying Heifetz "playing twenty percent sharp" as playing twenty percent out of tune . that is a laughable statement,



April 11, 2004 at 09:29 AM · I don't think Heifetz's standard of intonation has yet to be surpassed. I could point out a moment or two in his recordings where other players (contemporary and 'golden age') play that certain passage more in tune than Heifetz, and I think there are some players today who also play generally at least as 'in tune' as Heifetz did.

At any rate, good intonation is a means and not an end. I don't care if Oistrakh's intonation was not as good as Heifetz's - I think Oistrakh was a deeper musician.

But why look for spots on the Sun?


April 11, 2004 at 06:37 PM · sorry for getting off topic

i want to point out a sonata for violin by Poulenc. In the fonal mvt the last part is purposfully "out of tune" and is obviously interpreted by the performer how out of tune the notes will be played and how their combination will have an effect on the audience. Its a very wonderful piece, one of my favorites, if you haven't heard it. So what i am saying is that sometimes this kind of playing has more of an effect on me than "perfectly in tune" works. The mvt is called presto tragico and i could feel the tragedy in the music and it wouldnt be the same if in tune.

April 11, 2004 at 08:17 PM · Heifetz played out of tune? Coulda fooled me...

This is a tough topic...but I still think a few slips on intonation are forgivable if the performance is good or powerful enough. Take Vadim Repin's Ronde de Lutins or Nel Cor Piu Non Mi Sento. There are a few slips here and there but the performance is excellent. I guess as long as its not totally wrong or 20 percent off its alright...I guess, hehe.

April 11, 2004 at 08:47 PM · I don't think anyone answered my question yet. Let me put it another way.

A D sharp is 622.5 Hz in terms of frequencies. Say that since you're playing the violin you played it at a frequency of 653. Then if you raise your standard pitch for the A4 to 445 instead of 440, would you raise the frequecy of the D sharp to 658? If so, it would be a E5 which has a frequency of 659.25.

April 11, 2004 at 09:42 PM · I was thincking alot about this and I realised this is not a problem of measuring the perfect frequence in the moment of creation, maybe only in the moment of critic. I human being can play perfectly in tune at violin like it would be a tempered instrument, without feeling the need to play some notes lower or some passages sharper. Even the image of the perfect violonist: Paganini, Heifetz, Szeryng(yes, from interpretation, Szeryng is the First perfect violonist-he doesn't play Bach like Mozart or Mendelssohn like Chachaturjan), Grumiaux, sometimes Oistrach, with his obsession for perfection, feels he has to play "wrong" technically. But here appear also the problem of many kinds of "perfection"...and the problem of the kind of "wrong" intonations: it can be all about playing the sharps sharper and the flats flatter or playing whole passages lower or sharper. Sometimes this concept becomes a mark of a violonist and shows his conception about interpretation: Paganini and Heifetz wanted their notes to be bright, brilliant, and this effect is known to be obtained by sharper notes. Szeryng and Grumiaux have the concept of full, consistent and noble sound-they play lower. Even Ginette Neveau has some moments(in Chaussson's poem) when she plays lower) and Gitlis in Tchaikovsky and Bruch. Perfection is not a matter for untempered instrument when comes to soloists. Maybe in an orchestra, the things are changed.

I made a little "study" for absolute ear to see if there is a difference between relative ear and absolute in hearing untempered. I "discovered" that, even at musicians with absolute ear, the need of untempered exists, especially if the first instrument they studyed was untempered( and I say that from my own experience-sometimes I feel I want to make something to the piano to play the flats lower...) This is a matter of how every violonist feels, of "sentimento". Ysaye said that, in a passage, it is only one way to play a certain note, and that this way should be searched by hearing. In the moment of search, everyone's ear is sovereign, but sometimes influenced by the musical instinct and, not very often, by the brain.

April 12, 2004 at 04:40 PM · One person, Ricci. I have heard that his intonation on a few pieces was awful, but I guess that was his interpretation. I also heard, however, he could play Paganini's Caprices backwards and his Moto Perpetuo with fingered octaves...hmm.

April 13, 2004 at 01:46 AM · Greetings,

actually Ricci did hit an awful lot of duff notes at times and no, it wan`t interpretation. But, it was all part of the devil may care attitude to the violin of this fatntastic player and he deserves a lot more mention than he gets at times,

And yep, he can/could do many perverse things on the violin that mere mortals don`t,



PS I am not sure Paginin died of alcoholism but my memory may be hazy. Anybody?

April 13, 2004 at 02:27 AM · OK. Ricci had fantastic fingerboard dexterity but his intonation suffers to the point where I can no longer enjoy his playing.

Sorry, but your intonation has to be good or your interpretation is devalued no matter how fast you can get around the fingerboard!

By the way Heifetz does have the occasional intonation slip but it's rare - perhaps every second or third concerto you can hear one note that's not quite there - but he's human too!

Possibly, Kogan's and Milstein's intonation were on a par with Heifetz.

April 13, 2004 at 02:38 AM · Yea, alcohol and gambling got to Paganini. He was so far in debt that he had to sell his violin. However, a [rich] man heard his playing and was so moved he gave Paganini his Guaneri.

April 13, 2004 at 03:25 AM · Greetings,

Matt I have been through rather a lot of books and web sites on Paginini.

The Oxford Music Dictioanry states that Paginini died of cancer of the larynx but there is a wider consensus taht the actuall disease of the larynx he suffered from was syphalitic in origin.



April 13, 2004 at 05:53 AM · that would not suprise me one bit

April 13, 2004 at 07:55 AM · Yes, Paganini's health problems seemed to have stemmed from syphallis that he contracted as a young man. He consequently developed all sorts of other health problems and aggrevated his situation by taking a purgative, which was supposed to be a wonderdrug cure-all at the time. Apparently it was nothing more than quackery which only made people more ill than before.


April 13, 2004 at 10:24 AM · Greetings,

thanks Carl. I also kept coming across the reason his "cheeks were sunken" too. Apparently a dentist in Prague pulled out all his teeth.

Hope he cancelled that check...



April 13, 2004 at 05:04 PM · The purgative apparently destroyed his teeth to a large degree as well.


April 14, 2004 at 12:01 AM · Greetings,

Carl , I guess that is why they had to be pulled out. I think this research has explained why everytime I being the opening bars of `Il Palpiti` in public I think `I`m a gonna `ere,`



April 14, 2004 at 12:47 AM · Why do you think his compositions are so wacko (he is my favorite composer)? He must have had some mental stimulant. About the alcoholism. That's what a music history teacher told me. Oh well :)


April 14, 2004 at 03:22 PM · RICCI ROCKS!!!

April 14, 2004 at 04:22 PM · Actually, of all the many musicians who have had problems with alcohol, Paganini was not among their number. The main vice which plagued him, according to all sources, was his skirt-chasing. Which, if one is at least capable of having some control over one's immediate urges, is not such a terrible thing, I hope you'll all agree. If you believe some - not necessarily friendly - eyewitness sources, he was also a bit miserly. As a result, one definitely unflattering nickname he earned was "Paga-niente" or "pay-nothing". But even his detractors never tried claiming he was an alcoholic.

As for the rich man giving him his Guarneri, this happened when Paganini was a teenager. It is how he acquired the "Canon", the del Gesu he bequeathed to his native Genoa, which is currently on display at the Palazzo Tursi there. In Paganini's own words, gambling was a vice in which he indulged when very young and which he quit after the episode with gambling away his fiddle. When he died, far from being so broke he had to sell his instruments (of which he'd built up a noteworthy collection) he was very, very rich indeed.

His teeth were indeed pulled, in Germany when he was in his thirties or early forties, where a botched dental operation resulted in this drastic measure. As for what ended up killing him, though his health was sufficiently frail throughout his life that it necessitated somewhat regular cancellations of concerts, he died of several diseases. From medical detectives of our day, it is surmised that he died of, as Buri said, cancer of the larynx which had developed slowly enough that throughout the last few years of his life he was unable to speak and had to have his son, Achilles, act as his literal spokesman. Nicolo would hoarsely whisper something in Achilles' ear, and the latter would do the talking. Moses and Aaron, in other words. But still other medical Sherlock Holmeses have looked carefully at portraits of Paganini and concluded that he also suffered (like Abe Lincoln) from Marfan's Syndrome, or the Spider Disease. Marfan's sufferers are typically quite tall, cadaverously thin, with spidery-long and slender fingers. They also, usually, die quite young. Paganini, in fact, lived longer than medical science would have given him credit for, though such a disease might be thought to be a blessing in disguise for a violinist in respect to the hands. And, of course, he did have syphillis though how advanced and deadly it was is anyone's guess.

A curious side note is that, according to one source, Nicolo's very religious mother claimed that an angel came to her in a dream to tell her that her son would become the greatest violinist in the world. So it was only her devout faith that saved his life at the age of four. It seems that, following some typical child's ailment, four-year-old Nicolo suffered a seizure and fell into a coma. The doctor pronounced him dead and preparations were begun for his burial. But his mother, remembering her dream and noting that dead people usually have difficulties playing the violin, walked into the bedroom where he lay already wrapped in a shroud. Suddenly, she saw his hand move and, naturally, halted all preparations for the funeral. Actually, not only did this episode set the tone for much of Paganini's later life in terms of his precarious health, but also set the tone for premature announcements of his death in newspapers (that had inadequate fact-checking resources) throughout the 1820s-40.

April 14, 2004 at 04:09 PM · I just found the tablet that hung on the wall of the house where Paganini was born. And it is rather poetic:

"High venture sprang from this humble place. IN THIS HOUSE, on October 27, 1782 was born, to the credit of Genoa and the delectation of the world, Nicolo Paganini, incomparable master in the divine art of sound."

April 14, 2004 at 05:37 PM · thanks Emil, a lot of that i didnt know

April 14, 2004 at 07:52 PM · I just tried finding my source for the story of Paganini having had his teeth pulled in Germany when he was in his thirties or so. To my chagrin, though, I'm unable to do so. So it could well be that Buri is right and that the operation in question was in Prague which Paganini visited, if I recall, before his German tour. I'm pretty sure the first portraits of him that I've seen with a sunken lower jaw (indicating lack of teeth) was from the mid-1820s, but there could certainly have been others, dating from still earlier...

Oh, and a cute little Paganini story, entirely unrelated to the intonation vs. interpretation question. It seems that Ernst, when he was young, was determined to learn Paganini's secret by spying on the Master's practice methods. And so, for some months, he followed Paganini around Europe, taking rooms in hotels next to his idol in order to hear just how the man managed to play the way he did. But to his dismay, he never heard Paganini practice, as such. Ernst recalled, much later, that he'd sometimes hear Paganini run through a caprice or two, but not really practice it. Just run it. As Ernst said, "if he made an error, he'd do the caprice again from the beginning and it would be perfect. He had an iron will."

Finally, after some months of fruitless spying, Ernst realized that no eavesdropped epiphanies were headed his way and decided to declare himself to Paganini instead of skulking after him. So, gathering his courage, he knocked on Paganini's hotel room door.

Entering, he found the Paganini seated on the window sill, looking meditatively down onto the street below. "Maestro," said Ernst, "I have to confess that I've been following you around Europe, hoping to overhear something that would reveal your violinistic secrets to me. I have to confess that, in this, I have failed. But having heard you in concert as often as I have, now, I must declare that you, sir, are the First Violinist of Europe."

Paganini looked around from the window and smiled. "Young man," said he, "I don't know who Europe's First Violinist may be. But I am certainly at least the Second."

April 14, 2004 at 10:23 PM · Um, yes, positive that Paganini was into alcohol.

April 14, 2004 at 11:46 PM · Greetings,

Matt , being positive against the prevailing wind is fine if you can give any reasons or sources for that assertion.

I have read just about evrything written on Paginin i in English and find no support for excessive use of alcohol. I also note that as an indirect support of this view , it is simply not possible to operate at the level of facility on the violin Paginini did while drinking.

Cheers, hic,


April 15, 2004 at 03:27 AM · that's a good story Emil, i remember reading he hardly ever practiced in later life, but somehow retained his skills, much to the bafflement of his students

April 15, 2004 at 03:59 AM · I never said he was drinking while playing. hah. I have heard and read in many places that he gambled a ton, and he did have a few drinks.

April 15, 2004 at 05:23 AM · At least we know that practice doesn't always mean perfect in this sense... -_-

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