Mischa Elman sound

June 30, 2006 at 04:38 PM · Recently I just got out the Mischa Elman CDs that I bought months ago and gave it another try. I was astonished that sometimes Elman had such a different tone color concept than most violinists. Sometimes his tone almost sounded like viola to me. He has a beautiful and round sound. I wonder what kind of strings he preferred to use.

Elman savored every note on this recording "Virtuoso Masterpieces for Violin."

Tempo was almost several notches slower especially in comparison to Heifetz.

I am wondering if there are people out there in this forum who have heard Elman live. Maybe they would like to share a story or two?

Thanks in advance.

I am sure this topic has been discussed ad nauseum somewhere on this forum before.

Replies (50)

June 30, 2006 at 04:45 PM · He plays marvelously " Serenade (Drdla) 1921"

June 30, 2006 at 05:27 PM · Tim,

My teacher told me that one of the factors in his sound was that he played with his fingernails. This has been corroborated by a few other people here.

June 30, 2006 at 05:58 PM · Pieter,

You teacher is quite right about Elman vibrating on his fingertips. When he wanted to goose a note he would stand up on his fingernail and vibrate sharp (listen carefully you will hear it). My teacher was very good friends with Elman and often played chamber music with him. Elman's tempos were very much different from Heifetz's. To quote Mischa, he said "You have to love everynote". Here's a good story. One night after playing chamber music with my teacher and a group of other fine musicians, (Elman had his accompanist Joe Sieger there as well)he took his violin in his hand and said to the other musicians: "Now, I'd like to play you something that David Oistrakh has had alot of success with. If I miss a few notes, you'll have to forgive me."

He played the Khachaturian Concerto and of course he didn't miss any notes.

June 30, 2006 at 07:26 PM · I feel very fortunate to have heard Elman in person very often. He was a diminuitive man with a giant and gorgeous tone. The violin looked like a viola in his hands. He caressed the strings with unsurpassed sensitivity. There was great power when the music called for it, but never a scream or a harsh note. He had a way of telling the story of the piece with a tone like the voice of someone reminiscing about a deeply cherished memory. When he touched on the fingernail sometimes in his vibrato he did not go sharp. Rather he placed the finger below pitch such that the note heard, with its vibrato, was precisely in tune. In my view, the history-making beauty of his tone owed much to its being founded upon dead-on intonation.

June 30, 2006 at 08:06 PM · It's that Auer technique again.

June 30, 2006 at 08:29 PM · Oliver,

Is everything a contradiction on this site. I never said Elman played sharp. His intonation was definitely dead on. I said that he vibrated sharp (the note above rather than below)this added an extra excitment to his sound when he wanted to goose a note. As I said before, my teacher was extremely good friends with Elman. Elman considered him a colleague not just a friend, and Elman showed him how he got that special sound on a note when he wanted to give that extra bit of excitement. I also know the technique, since my teacher showed it to me.

June 30, 2006 at 10:55 PM · I suppose sound could be described in technical terms. But I am even more interested in the aesthetic concepts of the sound.

Techniques could be analysed and practiced. But to develop one's own sound is perhaps the most interesting aspect of playing.

It is getting harder and harder to guess who the violinist is on radio these days. The conservatories/factories have mass-produced lots of clonees who sound equally good or equally bad... hmm, maybe I am one of them. LOL.

July 1, 2006 at 02:09 AM · "Aesthetics?"

Different era, different approach, different goals.

July 1, 2006 at 06:04 AM · Joel, The vibrato sure was a part of the Elman sound, but he had that gorgeous sound on open strings too, so I would say that the BIG secret of his tone was in the right hand - not in the left.

July 1, 2006 at 06:19 AM · There was, I believe, a huge difference between the early Elman (through the '20's) and later. His vignettes recorded early in his career not only have THE most sumptuous tone, but a visceral songfullness that to me has been unmatched by anyone. (Although I love Kreisler, Stern and Menuhin in a similar fashion.) To me it comes from an instinctive musical conception that was very profound and which I think he was especially heir to for a specific period in his long career. It makes me think of the many great physicists whose major discoveries were restricted to their years up until 30. Now I know that musicality isn't the same of course, but there was a sense of spontaneous discovery that Mischa had in his early recordings that is one of the wonders of violinistic history.

July 1, 2006 at 06:54 AM · Related story: Perhaps 50 years ago during a lesson, my teacher baited me into admitting that Heifetz was a superior player to Elman. As I was listing the reasons for my choice, a tiny bald man entered the studio from the living room, laughing to the point of tears...Thus was my introduction to Mischa Elman.

July 1, 2006 at 10:04 AM · Could it be that big, fat, sweet, powerful, delicious as honey tone, might have been aided by that big, fat, sweet, powerful, delicious as honey toned, Italian violin he played on?

July 1, 2006 at 11:42 AM · Absolutely, and don't forget that that big, fat, sweet, powerful, delicious as honey toned, French bow he played on either.

Elman had a difficult childhood, and I'm sure that factored into the depth of his playing. I had a difficult childhood too and so I can relate to what he's doing. I don't really know the details of the Elman life, so I can't speculate on what events had what impact on his soulful but happy violin playing.

Maybe it's me, but I've always liked Elman as much as I've liked Heifetz or any other violinist. He's not capable of doing "everything", but nobody is. I do find myself returning to his recordings more than I do to those of many other violinists, of course.

I also wish to point something out for Suzuki students, particularly the beginners. Elman's "Virtuoso Masterpieces for Violin" is a 2 CD set featuring one CD of "classic" violin hits and another CD of Kreisler arrangements. The "classic" violin disc features pieces featured in Suzuki books like the Beethoven Minuet in G, the Gossec Gavotte, and the Dvorak Humoresque. Beginning Suzuki students might want to take a peek at this great violinist's adorable renditions (a syncopated figure on the first violin note of the Gossec Gavotte? Way cool!)

July 1, 2006 at 01:30 PM · Mattias,

Once again, a failure to communicate. I was talking about one aspect or feature that made Elman unique. Elman had one of the greatest bow arms of any violinst. Yes, that's why he had that gorgious fat sound even on open strings. If you look at some of the other posts I've written on, you will find I'm always emphasizing the bow arm when it comes to sound.

July 1, 2006 at 02:51 PM · Joel, English is not my native language - My fault :)

July 1, 2006 at 05:01 PM · There are so many players that I respect and love, but two affected my playing more than any other: Perlman, and Elman. And I have seen that many of you have found all kinds of reasons to explain the “Elman sound.” In my humble opinion, I think we ought not try to do so! Why? You’ll never capture it in words, and you especially will not capture it by trying tp emulate technique. In fact, to try to capture it in technique is almost a sure way to never capture it. The reason Perlman and Elman (and so many others) sound so great is they go “beyond” technique, they find what is deep inside of them and then they fight to get that out of the strings. I think that if more players concentrated on that, rather than where their bow arm is, etc., they too would find some of the music that Perlman and Elman found.

July 1, 2006 at 05:14 PM · Jon Holland wrote: "they go “beyond” technique, they find what is deep inside of them and then they fight to get that out of the strings."

Thank you for articulating an enormously important point. I certainly agree. I think that as long as one bears what you say in mind, and doesn't confuse content with means of transmission, there's no harm in trying to understand things about the technical

means through which this content is delivered.

July 1, 2006 at 07:26 PM · Very well put, Jon. The richness and sonority that one CAN produce comes from deep within.

The absolute finest symphony performance I ever heard was not quite two years ago when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and volunteers from 13 other major orchestras gave a "solidarity concert." They were protesting being locked out of their hall and gave a free "thank you" concert for the public as a way of saying thanks. (That's not an adequate description, but it will have to do.) This was a highly charged emotional performance. Watching and listening to these world class musicians give their all from deep within was something I will never hear again. Talk about a richness of tone and music played emotionally...; Wow! After the final note there was dead silence. An eerie silence. EVERY person in the audience and some in the orchestra had tears in their eyes. Deadly quiet. Almost toomblike. Then the cheering, clapping, and screaming started. Older, dignified, patrons were standing on their rickety seats with even more rickety bodies yelling their lungs out.

Would the incredible cheering ever cease. It finally stopped when lungs and throats wore out and Maestro Zander held up his hands. He acknowledged the ovation on behalf of the combined orchestra. He then said they would play a calm encore to help get everyone's emotions back under control.

This relates to the sound you are talking about because to generate something like that you have to bring out more than technique, you have to bring out your soul.

July 1, 2006 at 08:21 PM · Ray... that's incredible. Who says classical music is dead?

July 1, 2006 at 09:27 PM · I like Elman's early recordings from around 1910, he played so beautifully on those recordings. He made a great recording of the Caprice Basque by Sarasate, and those Chopin Nocturnes. I have a live performance of his, playing the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos made in the 1940's with the NY Phil. I have to say it really isn't very good playing. As he got older his rhythm got more wayward, his interpretations became more eccentric, and his intonation really deteriorated. There are a few clips from the 'Art of The Violin' DVD in which it shows Elman struggling with playable passages in the Mendelssohn Concerto, then the DVD plays a completely different clip of Elman from his early days in a nice performance of the Dvorak Humoreske. He made his name and reputation from playing the way he did when he was young, back before he fell victim to his well known inferiority complex he felt towards Heifetz. I remember reading a amusing story in Elman's biography on when he was on tour in South America, Heifetz happened to also be down there for a concert tour. Each day Elman would check the newspapers to see how Heifetz was being reviewed.

July 2, 2006 at 12:05 AM · Ray-

Playing with the soul should be a given in music business, but it is not. I have been to so many lifeless (I calle it "duck-taped") symphony performances here in the states, more than I can count really.

And all these free-for-all standing ovations have lost their meanings. So many times I have heard from musicians that "we had fifteen minutes for Shostakovich Eighth (insert your piece here), and it was scary."


A decline in playing usually goes with age. I am sure you would agree that's the norm. Of course there are exceptions to the rule.

There are many out there will put down Elman as a "salon violinist." But I actually love that quality in his playing. There is a kind of bittersweet sentimentality in Elman's sound- sort of "fin de siecle" nostalgia that became his signature.

As much as I love Elman and nostalgia, I have to say some of the stuff he recorded did have intonation problem. I am sure some of the recordings were done in one take. But really I am not interested in intonation perfection here. I will take an Elman recording over a boring technical routine anyday.

July 2, 2006 at 12:02 AM · Sometimes I wonder if Mischa Elman and several other great violinists had trouble with hearing as they got older.

I'm constantly trying to protect my own hearing, even in practice. Maybe it's just me, but I now wear earplugs constantly because I find the unamplified classical violin too loud up close. When I don't wear earplugs, my ears ring for hours afterwards and sometimes into the next day. And when there's a piano or orchestra playing, OUCH! Recently I discovered that I play much more in tune when I wear earplugs, and the stronger the earplugs the better in tune I play when I'm recording myself. The earplugs dampen many of the violin's overtones, thus allowing my brain to center on the "core" of the note with much greater precision. For me, the difference in playing the violin with and without earplugs is so great that I've had to rework my technique to accommodate the "improved" intonation when I have earplugs in. I have gotten into the habit of wearing earplugs 100% of the time ESPECIALLY in performance with other musicians on stage.

Elman played the powerful "Recamier" Stradivarius, an instrument vastly more powerful than any violin I play or own. He practiced and performed several hours a day, often with piano and orchestra which only made things even more loud. I've played a few Stradivari violins and my ears could never withstand that kind of power without going deaf over time. Could it possibly be that Elman lost some pitch sensitivity over the years as a result of active concertizing without ear protection?

Since getting this earplug thing going, I've wondered about the decreasing intonational sensitivity of violinists as they've gotten older. Fritz Kreisler is another example of a violinist who had excellent intonation as a young man and then gradually got more "off" as he got older. Nathan Milstein (another guy who lost some amount of intonational accuracy as he got older) stated that Kreisler "couldn't hear at the end". Granted Kreisler had that big car accident, but it's clear that he still had fantastic manual facility even in his final recordings. Jan Kubelik supposedly retired from the concert stage because of intonational problems but those "mysteriously disappeared" when he resurfaced decades later. Kubelik performed on both Stradivari and Guarneri violins - could it be that he also ended up fiddling his hearing away too? And might a short hiatus from the deafening impact of those great violins have given Kubelik's ears a chance to recover?

Jascha Heifetz owned a fantastic Guarnerius, but he was known to practice on his Tononi. To my knowledge, Heifetz was able to retain full control of his intonation to his final days on stage. I've long wondered why Heifetz had a "practice violin", though a Tononi is a genuine concert violin by any standard. But aren't Tononi violins less powerful than Guarnerius del Gesu violins?

My opinion of the violin's ability to damage the hearing of the violinist is only speculation and is totally unsubstantiated by any formal review. I'd be interested in seeing what everybody's opinions on the impact of a powerful concert violin up close is on their hearing, particularly those that concertize for a living.

July 2, 2006 at 01:45 AM · Elman probably struggled with the physical aspects of playing, given that he was a small man. Couldn't have been good for joints...

July 2, 2006 at 03:46 AM · You might be right on Elman about this, Pieter.

On the other hand, I never got the impression that Elman was physically struggling with the violin. He doesn't look like he's having any problem in the pictures or videos I've seen him in, and he sure doesn't sound strained even in his later years. In fact, Elman's career ran until his mid 70s. My recollection was that he played the violin until the end of his days.

Being small doesn't mean that one has joint problems playing the violin. I am 5'4" with short arms and small hands. I don't have any physical problems at all after 26 years of playing virtuoso stuff. Elman was probably in my size range, like so many male violinists in the past were. Heck, Ruggiero Ricci comes up to my SHOULDER and he was playing Paganini in 1997!

July 2, 2006 at 04:45 PM ·

July 2, 2006 at 04:46 PM · "When I don't wear earplugs, my ears ring for hours afterwards and sometimes into the next day."


Ringing in the ears after exposure to loud music is a sure sign of damage to the ear's hair cells. Such damage resuolts in an elevation of the hearing threshold and may become permanent after repeated insults. Please check out this excellent link:


Best regards,


July 2, 2006 at 05:16 PM · I don't think that Strads and del Gesus present a threat to hearing. They are not loud, rather they are rich in carrying overtones. When strung with gut strings, they are even less loud and more rich in projecting overtones. It's amplified music which is the threat.

July 2, 2006 at 06:18 PM · the biggest threat to my hearing in classical music was this stupid Webern composition... I was sitting up front in the 2nds, right next to the piccollo which had to blast an inane little motive over and over, this really high pitched, blood curdling sound. My ears rang for days, and I've been to some of the loudest rock concerts on earth; The Who, Iron Maiden, Rolling Stones, ACDC, Guns N' Roses etc...

Piccolos are bad for your health.

July 2, 2006 at 06:58 PM · Thanks, Anthony Barletta. I spoke to one of my doctor friends and she told me the exact same thing as was on the website. That's why I've been wearing earplugs 100% of the time while playing the violin now. It's just too loud for me.

Oliver Steiner, I find your comments on Strads and Guarneris very interesting and valid. You've played them, so you know what you're talking about. I probably hear things a little differently from you as I'm not your same ethnicity. I actually find gut strings to be LOUDER than synthetics, especially in the overtones. It physically hurts a lot of time for me to hear those gut overtones, and my intonation is always the first thing to go. Elman was a gut string player for many years, and I am wondering if the combination of gut with Stradivari had the same deafening impact on him that it would have on me today.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've had to listen to stereos on the lowest possible settings otherwise it was too loud. Orchestra concerts are also too loud for me, even string orchestra. Even violin recitals can be problematic depending on the hall and the musicians. That's always been the case, and I got into a habit of carrying earplugs with me wherever I go now.

It always amazes me when I'm at a concert either as a performer or auditor and people are sitting there happily enjoying things. Meanwhile I've got my earplugs in and it's STILL too loud.

July 2, 2006 at 07:04 PM · Kevin,

Some individuals have somewhat hypersensitive hearing. You sound like someone who does and I believe you are absolutely doing the right thing to protect yours. Hearing loss is often frequency specific, and it stands to reason that the high pitches of the violin at excessive decibel levels can result in intonation difficulties in those registers. Earplugs may prevent us from adding to age-related hearing losses that we have less control over.


Anthony Barletta, MD

July 2, 2006 at 09:42 PM · Hi Kevin,

Which maker did the virtuoso primarily use for his bow? To my hearing, bows do play a most important role in achieving what may be perceived as the 'ideal sound' from a particular instrument.

In the case of Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesu, most any bow of good quality will cause the violin to produce a strong dominant tone; but the inherent tonal qualities of such masterpieces are ready for the asking irrespective of the bows quality.

In some ways, this could be compared to the varying performance levels of an automobile relative to the octane number of gasoline it runs on. The power is still there, but 87 octane doesn't "burn as hot" as 93 octane.


July 2, 2006 at 10:33 PM · Thanks for the advice, Dr. Barletta. Maybe I'll come to visit you one day - my brother just started his radiology internship at UCLA.

There was an extraordinarily informative post on bows used by the pros somewhere on violinist.com. Elman's name came up, but I can't remember what he used. It was GOOD, of course.

I've long stated that the quality of the best French bows shows not in power but when one is trying to achieve tonal shadings. Elman was an absolute master of utilizing the bow to create a wide range of colors. There are many "gymnastic" violinists who may have played harder and faster but are essentially black and white as opposed to Elman's Technicolor.

Having a great bow as opposed to a so-so one is like taking a picture with a professional photographer's camera with proper lighting as opposed to doing it with an El Cheapo throwaway camera bought at Wal-Mart.

July 2, 2006 at 10:49 PM · Greetings,

okay two topics...

]) there are certainly some extant Elamn recordings such as Mozart 4 which are so lunatic they are actaully difficult to listen to. However, I do have a recording of the Mendellsohn with the Vienna State Opera Orch (I seem to recall) which , inspite of the rythmic errors (triplet passages fluctuating between 16ths etc) the technique is suffieent that one can just enjoy the most sumptious sound and fascinating phrasing. Is it appropriate for Mendellsohn? I find this verison so pleasurable I think `why the hell not?` Its more exciting than many modern performances I hear which seme to delight in adhering rigidly to a kind of tepid metronomic brass rubbing.

2) As far as hearing is concerne dorchestra payer sreally must protect their hearing. A useful techniquer during loud endings (to just about everything) is to -hum- the note sof the brass about a sloud as you can get away withg. I am not sure what the mechanics are but apparently humming closes down the exposure to loud noise. It seems to work for me.



July 3, 2006 at 07:14 AM · Why are so many violin players “law givers?” They focus on technique (when that is just a means to an ends, and is worthless, I repeat, worthless, if it does not achieve the desired end- the sound you were after), or counting, or perfect intonation, etc., when they should be listening to only one thing—how much real “music” did the performer create.

The truth is Elman played more real music than just about anyone. And I for one do not care about triplets counted out as 16ths, etc…

I want to repeat what I wrote earlier: The reason Perlman and Elman (and so many others) sound so great is they go “beyond” technique, they find what is deep inside of them and then they fight to get that out of the strings. I think that if more players concentrated on that, rather than where their bow arm is, or playing perfectly in tune 100% of the time, or counting out everything exact, etc., they too would find some of the music that Perlman and Elman found.

Indeed about the surest way to NOT capture the kind of music that players like these achieved, or are still achieving, is to become a “law giver,” totally immersed in technique, intonation, counting, etc…

This is not to say that these things do not matter, it is to say that they are not the essence of real music, and not the essence of what made players like Elman the gods of the violin that they were.

July 4, 2006 at 02:48 AM · Has anyone heard Elman's Beethoven concerto with Solti conducting?

July 4, 2006 at 06:33 AM · RE Elman's (?1963) Beethoven concerto recording, my feeling was he was so far past his best, inc. on intonation, that out of respect to this wonderful violinist it is better to let it rest and focus on his earlier recordings.

July 31, 2006 at 09:21 AM · Clip of Mischa Elman found on Youtube:


Beautiful and sweet sound...

July 31, 2006 at 01:39 PM · I don't know what I could possibly add to this great discussion. Except that I think that Elman was another one of those unique giants that dot the history of violin playing. And, yes, I agree that the early Elman was brilliant beyond words, and the Elman of old age was a shadow his former self, and almost painful to listen to.

Great discussion.


July 31, 2006 at 02:16 PM · I just watched the video clip of Elman on you tube. WOW! Now I realize that Oistrakh was part of a larger tradition which simply did not survive well after Heifetz captured everyone's imagination. In their drive to be like heifetz everyone thought they need ed to have a skinnier sound, and thus an entire playing culture was changed perhaps, irreparably. But for the first time I realize that oistrakh was not an anomaly.

July 31, 2006 at 05:05 PM · it looks like he only has 3 fingers on his right hand! :)

August 2, 2006 at 06:29 AM · You sould hear Elman on Zigunderweisen from Elman- Favorite Encores.

It's totally funky... I've never heard it so slow before.

It is a different piece suddenly.

August 2, 2006 at 07:40 AM · I have that recording of Elman playing Ziggy. It's really strange, not really what I think of when I think of Elman. Weird...

August 2, 2006 at 08:04 PM · Yeah, Marty. The rest of the recording is fine. But that "Ziggy" is kind of wacky. And dare I say it, it sounded almost amatuer.

Before the flames shower on me, I have to say I love Elman's sound, and I think of him as a great violinist. But this "Ziggy" was... well, those of you who have the CD, check it out and tell me!

August 4, 2006 at 11:12 PM · Hello Kevin,

It sounds to me as though you have hyperacusis.

'that's wehn something (such as constant violin practice or loud high-pitched playing close to your ear) has caused your pain threshold to move, so that your ears hav ebecome uhyper sensitive. YOur hearing is not damaged, but this puts you at more risk of developing tinnitis etc in the future. But I think you are taking all the right precautions. From personal experience, I think it's not enough just to wear earplugs. YOu have to have periods of rest for your ears. So occasionally hav some weeks away from the violin,or don't practise TOO much (8 hours) all day...and play a violin that isn't too loud under the ears. SO a mellow dark violin is better than a soprano violin, which is built to emphasise the upper harmonics.

August 5, 2006 at 12:49 PM · You're probably right, lorenzo.

Oddly enough, it's my mellow dark sounding Gagliano that gets me and not my brighter sounding "Hartrain" old high arched violin (though a neck reset on my Hartrain will probably amplify that violin about double). But the Gagliano has a good high range too.

I will follow your advice, lorenzo, and give myself some rest away from noise in about 2 months or so. I'm gigging all the time, so it's a bit tough. But I'll do my best to follow your advice since I want to hear into my old age.

August 5, 2006 at 01:44 PM · good luck! I have it slightly too. IT's worth going slower, for the long term

August 11, 2006 at 04:44 AM · See if you can get a recording of "ziggy"from 1930 on pearl records

by Elman. Quite well done , sounds like "ziggy" should sound.

August 11, 2006 at 01:01 PM · The recording that comes to mind when speaking about Elman's tone, phrasing and tempo, is Gluck's Melody. He draws out all the beauty possible in this lovely piece!

August 13, 2006 at 04:02 PM · I thought Elman's Humoresque had a nice bow division to it; very precise and well thought out!

September 23, 2006 at 02:32 AM · Two recordings of elmans" you

should have if you can find them are:

The Dew Is Sparkling, Rubinstein

May Breezes,Mendelssohn

Both will make you cry, they are gorgeous

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