The virtuosos composers

Edited: February 5, 2018, 7:30 PM · I am reproducing an open debate I was having with my uncle. He is a pianist. We were talking about who was the greatest violinist of the 20th century and he advocated for Kreisler. He argued that to be a "master" of an instrument, one had to be able not only to play it perfectly (that would be to be an interpreter), but also to create music for the instrument.
As he said, if Paganini hadn't composed its Caprices, he would have remained an anecdote of history. Since then one could bring the crown to others like Sarasate, Wieniawski, Ysaye and others but my uncle would not grant "the crown" to those who did not do any significant composing.
He said that in a pianist, it is expected some composing skills, but he was puzzled about why it does not happen the same with violinists.
I would not agree completely with him but it is true that I would have loved to have compositions from Heifetz, Menuhin and so many others that I do think were real masters. And the same goes with the modern ones. After the conversation I am missing an original album from Vengerov, for example. Hilary Hahn is close by commissioning from others and recording improvisations but.. not yet there...
It is just a dream to play like Perlman, but it would be nice to play a Perlman piece...
Another thought that worried me is that this "end of the era of violin virtuosos composers", implies the drying out of the repertoire. If Kreisler is the last original violin composer, we are getting close to be using 100 year old stock. Not a problem if it's a choice, it is worrying if it's lack of options...
Now for the debate would be if that analysis is true and if so, why is it happening? Is modern playing too demanding to leave time to compose, does playing violin require different skills than before?

Replies (19)

Edited: February 5, 2018, 8:03 PM · I opened a similar thread about a year ago. I agree with your uncle here and there. History never cared about interpreters, only composers and possibly directors. I doubt that this will change in the future. While playing a piece does hold some artistic merit, all the relevant work is already done before people start playing it.

"Master the instrument" is a vague use of words. In the end, the ability of playing an instrument and composing do not need to together.

The fact that most violinists are no composers doesn't matter much. There are plenty of composer these days. It's unlikely that they will be "out of stock" any time soon.

February 5, 2018, 8:37 PM · I don't see the need for connecting composing with playing. Turn the question around and ask who wrote the greatest violin concerto. Regardless of your preference, would Tchaikovsky be excluded because he merely composed for the violin but didn't master the playing side? I doubt you would argue that. We all love the great violinist composers and that combo skill puts them in their own class. But that doesn't make them the greatest violinists.

Personally, I would say the two greatest were Heifetz and Kreisler – a tie between two totally distinctive styles and personalities. I would argue that Heifetz’s style has set more of the (unattainable) standard and modern ideal, and maybe this has something to do with the dwindling of violinist composers. Violinists are searching for a perfect technique, which would have been totally foreign to Kreisler’s ideal. What modern violinist can convey Kreisler’s warmth and charm? Which one even tries? If they did, they might have something new to compose.

February 5, 2018, 11:02 PM · "but it would be nice to play a Perlman piece..."

Hey! I did play one: Indian Concertino.

;-)

February 6, 2018, 1:02 PM · I'm afraid the demise of the virtuoso composer has a lot to do with the state of "modern" music and the conservative taste of modern audiences. Given a chance to hear one of the great violinists of today, I'm sure at least 90% of the potential audience would prefer him or her to play a great concerto of the past, rather than a new composition in whatever style - serial, minimalist, neo-romantic... The fact that the player was also the composer wouldn't alter the situation.
February 6, 2018, 1:56 PM · "I'm sure at least 90% of the potential audience would prefer him or her to play a great concerto of the past, rather than a new composition in whatever style"

It doesn't matter. Does the opinion of mainstream audiences have any relevance whatsoever?

I'm sure that 90%, if not more, would prefer Yiruma better than Chopin, or Einaudi better than Liszt.

Edited: February 6, 2018, 2:37 PM · The audience *should not matter* but it does-many claim the modern audience now "knows better", but I would argue they "know less", by only emphasizing the great but much hackneyed works mostly "everybody" plays, due to often overemphasized reasons, such as "these are the really deep/musical composers and works worth listening to".

Different times, different aesthetics. Both a good and bad thing, as few circumstances come without their own set of cons.

Heifetz did make some arrangements, which are well-known (if not that often performed) nowadays.

The modern soloist tends to write his/her own cadenza-a few years back in our modern era, it was more popular to play a particularly well-known cadenza.

Kreisler is such a crucial part of violin history, that I cannot imagine violin playing as it is known today without his influence (similar level of influence to Heifetz, really-though this could be said of Viotti, Vieuxtemps, and Wieniawski, in a different way.)

(Isn't it funny how Viotti 22nd is deemed a "student concerto" while Mozart 3-5 are not? Even the latter, great Concertos are often underappreciated, actually. Well, some think the Vieuxtemps 5 is a "student work" as well... "whatever", with "modern taste".)

February 6, 2018, 3:16 PM · How much composing did Horowitz and Rubinstein do? Are Kreisler's pieces really that much more than encore pieces? He never wrote a symphony or a concerto. Meanwhile the greatest violin music was composed by pianists, with relatively few exceptions (e.g., Sibelius).

Composing and playing are two things. What changed in the early 20th century was that playing could be recorded and thereby compared to subsequent playing. This was not possible in the days of Paganini.

Edited: February 9, 2018, 7:47 PM · Horowitz had his grand transcriptions.
The Theme from Carmen, Stars and Strips Forever and he even played "Tea for Two" that was discreetly recorded during a warmup. He demanded the cut destroyed when he heard a playback from the sound engineers.
Edited: February 9, 2018, 3:24 PM · I am surprised no one has mentioned this young genius. Alma Deutscher.

She is the real deal.

February 12, 2018, 11:49 AM · Alma Deutscher anyone?
I don't see a lot of the first tier violinist these days playing their own concertos. Maybe being a composer leaves less time to become a virtuoso?
February 12, 2018, 1:00 PM · "Stars and Strips Forever"? Bit exposed, if you ask me!
Paganini would not be merely an anecdote of history without the Caprices, but the output of composers like Brahms and Liszt (and Rachmaninoff and Lloyd-Webber) might be a little reduced - Campanella would still be there, though.
February 13, 2018, 1:15 AM · "He argued that to be a "master" of an instrument, one had to be able not only to play it perfectly (that would be to be an interpreter), but also to create music for the instrument.
As he said, if Paganini hadn't composed its Caprices, he would have remained an anecdote of history."

The problem is the premiss just isn't true.
Paganini has had a huge influence on violin playing (and piano playing, too!) even if the Caprices had not been written down and published.
Joachim wrote a couple of concertos, but his name is preserved in history mostly because the influence he had on Brahms and on the concerto all soloists want to perform. Same with Ferdinand and Mendelssohn.

February 13, 2018, 6:13 PM · Sorry, all you fans of Janos, Mstislav, Jacqueline, Pierre, Julian, Steven, etc.

But you still have Cervetto, Wanhal (whose only recorded 'cello playing was in the famous quartet, otherwise he was known as a violinist), Boccherini, Casals, Cassado, Tortelier, Piatigorsky, etc.

February 13, 2018, 6:57 PM · Keyboard instruments such as piano is the most convenient instrument for composition and doing compositional analysis polyphonic music, but not all composers are good pianists, nor all pianists are composers.

It’s obvious to me that to be qualified as "master" of an instrument one must play brilliantly as well as make music for the instrument, but making music isn’t necessarily mean making written music. Written work does add certain longevity to an artist, provide that the work is good and has been passed down. Question is, had the written works of Paganini, Sarasate, Wieniawski, or Ysaye completely lost in history, would this make them less violin masters?

February 13, 2018, 9:16 PM · Knowing how to play the piano to an intermediate/advanced level is invaluable if you want to be a composer, but there's no inherent connection that I know of.
February 14, 2018, 9:59 AM · So easy to declare your favorite violinist "The Greatest" when you get to make up the rules by which they are judged.

Has to be a composer, has to play a Strad, has to use continuous vibrato, has to be born before 1950, has to be a student of some other, now dead, famous violinist, has to have fashionable sloppy intonation, the list goes on.

What is it with Art as Competition? Personally, I find something viscerally distasteful about music award shows, for example.

If you hear something you like, become a patron of the performer, or the composer. Otherwise, change the (youtube) channel and stop criticizing other people's alleged lack of musical sensibility.

I like Yiruma. He plays beautifully. Granted, his music is fundamentally a lovely theme with variations. Something wrong with that? Does everything need to be an emotionally draining Bach Chaccone to have any legitimacy?

Now I am in a foul mood. Time to put on some Yiruma tunes and zone out...

February 14, 2018, 1:20 PM · Nothing wrong with Bach's Chaconne depth, but just as well with Paganini, Ernst, et al. Snobbery kills music (though haters will argue showpieces and virtuoso violin composers' works are "not music" anyway.)
February 16, 2018, 12:57 AM · Bach played the violin. We may not have the numbers, but we have the greatest.
February 19, 2018, 3:02 AM · We've forgotten ORPHEUS*!

*(As in "Orpheus in the underworld")

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