Importance of bowing as written

January 1, 2019, 8:58 AM · I've been watching a few YouTube videos of performances of pieces I'm learning and finding a lot of performers vary their bowing from what is written. Dvorak's Romance in F for example varies significantly between performers and doesn't match the versions I have found. How do we know what the composer actually intended in the piece and how important is it to stick to the score as written? My teacher always was a stickler for playing as written.

Replies (22)

January 1, 2019, 9:40 AM · Other look at the piano part (may have the original bowings, but not always), buy a pocket orchestral score, or get "Urtext" parts whenever possible.

And don't rely on youtube performers.

January 1, 2019, 9:56 AM · The same kind slurs are used for bowing and phrasing.
Phrasing rules!
January 1, 2019, 10:13 AM · In general, today's violinists start from the urtext -- the composer's unmodified original. (Note that scholarly urtexts, such as editions from Henle and Barenreiter, will generally resolve conflicts that exist in the original manuscript, and may specify areas where there are two reasonable alternatives for the composer's intent, or where something is likely an error.)

"Bowings" in an urtext may indicate either phrasing or an actual suggested bowing. Violinist composers are more likely to have at least some of their indications actually be bowings, but you have to kind of guess what a violin-playing composer intended by marking a particular bowing (i.e., is there a particular effect that they were trying to indicate, and is this a gestural intent that they figured other violinists would interpret as they saw fit).

The composer expects a violinist to add their own bowings. Playing the text exactly as written is usually pretty silly.

Interpretation today emphasizes faithfulness to the composer's intent. That was not true a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, so if you watch the great violinists of the 20th century, they will care a whole lot less about the composer's intent.
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A lot of today's violinists grew up learning repertoire from the International editions edited by prominent violinists. That means that there's a fairly strong core of what you might regard as "traditional" at this point. And a lot of players today have Perlman's interpretations in their mental ear from childhood. But older editions can be fairly significantly different from a modern scholarly urtext, especially for things like Mozart concertos.

For the Dvorak Romance, the International edition is edited by Gingold. Good, but you'll probably want to change bowings to suit yourself, and it's not an urtext.

January 1, 2019, 10:18 AM · Happens all the time. Does it matter? Only if you think it sounds wrong
January 1, 2019, 11:26 AM · One of my teachers insisted I follow the bowings exactly, and would stop me if I cut a note out of the bow or something else silly like that. It drove me right up the wall!
I experiment with my bowings for days until I find what I like. And if it happens to be the same as the original bowings, so be it. At least then I'm sure they work.
January 1, 2019, 12:06 PM · I'm of the opinion that for solo playing you have to temper your bowing practice to your interpretation of the music, your personal skills, and the acoustics of your instrument, the venue and accompaniment.

For ensemble playing you may have the same considerations but you also have to consider the dynamic considerations of the entire ensemble. Amateur groups often fail to have a sufficient dynamic range because they fail to do this properly.

Edited: January 1, 2019, 12:52 PM · I think it's defensible to argue that interpretation is all about introducing subtle shades of tempo, rubato, articulation and tonal variation that the composer would have expected to hear from an intelligent and "musical" performer but was happy to leave to their discretion. That undoubtedly includes bowings. In the string quartet medium I suspect there are few if any ensembles that insist on playing to the urtext in early repertoire, or the printed bowings in later music.
January 1, 2019, 2:44 PM · Most composers are pianists, and should not try to set bowings, the ups and downs. The exceptions would be Stravinsky and Bartok. My opinion is that composers and arrangers should notate how they want it to sound, the phrasing and articulation, and let the soloists and concertmasters figure out the mechanical details.
Edited: January 2, 2019, 5:15 AM · I have a different slant to add to this question of bowing.

As an arranger, often writing for senior school ensembles in particular, I can't place a piece if I don't make all the bowing clear for all parts. Teachers (ensemble directors) say they don't have time to go through the parts and mark in bowing. It doesn't matter if they do or don't have time, they won't pick the arrangement if it has little or no bowing.

And I make sure I play through the parts before I take arrangements to ensemble directors.

Now, all this is not a bad thing: quite apart from the extra proof-reading each part must pass, any piece of music can be significantly varied by altering the bowing. Often, rhythms and "grooves" in my arrangements stay as I thought of them, if I mark in the bowing.

I also place some ensemble music with folk musicians, who loudly protest if the parts come with bowing, and who sometimes produce performances I am quite disappointed in, playing quite differently to how I thought of the pieces.

January 2, 2019, 5:16 AM · When I was learning CG I went to Youtube to find out how NOT to do something!
January 2, 2019, 5:38 AM · I think we can agree that most times people change the bowing, they split bows rather than create more slurs. This is because it's simply much more comfortable. I think if there are no immediate plans to play with orchestra or to play in an extremely large hall, the student should suffer and learn to sustain the sound. This promotes playing as close to the bridge as the sound possibly allows, and increases projection through the creation of greater upper harmonics. Bow distribution also becomes much more of a factor when having to sustain many notes in 1 bow.
January 2, 2019, 8:56 AM · While I agree that learning to sustain the sound is an important skill, it's also not appropriate for all circumstances (even solo circumstances). Some instruments don't deal well with close-to-the-bridge playing, for instance, and/or combinations of player's technique and violins that benefit more from the use of more bow rather than more weight with a slow bow.

Edited: January 2, 2019, 5:37 PM · As others have said, go to an urtext to find the composer's bowings as written. Then see how they work for you and adjust accordingly.
Edited: January 2, 2019, 1:52 PM · True freedom and maturity starts on the day you sharpen the pencil and update bowing and fingering to suit musical needs. Between rigidly following (the editor) and losing musically expression and changing the bowing and performing musically....well. There are plenty of examples...the most recent arpeggios in 1st viola and 1st cello part in Mendelssohn's octet. One edition the whole bar of triplets under a single bow, the other 1/2 bar slurred. Pianissimo...so how on Earth is one supposed to provide a beautiful harmonic background if one has to "fly" on the frog and at the tip, with some exotic chords in left hand? Music comes first, always!
January 2, 2019, 2:54 PM · Good comments. It seems a lot of pianists think “with their sustain pedal” when writing slurs,
and so their slurs are a good guide to phrasing. However, much of the time it is hard to take the
composer’s slurs seriously as an indicator of actual bow strokes.
January 2, 2019, 5:40 PM · Good points, Rocky. OP will find when exploring various pieces that he will disagree with bowings chosen by composers and needs to revisit and adjust them when that happens. There is nothing sacred about the composer's chosen bowings, particularly if the composer was not the greatest violinist (e.g., Beethoven).
January 2, 2019, 6:04 PM · 'There is nothing sacred about the composer's chosen bowings, particularly if the composer was not the greatest violinist (e.g., Beethoven).'

I'm not so sure.. I am not a professional violinist, nor professional composer but I'd REALLY appreciate it if someone followed the bowings and slurs in my compositions more or less exactly. To me, it is a way of communicating phrasing and articulation. Basically I don't think you need to be the greatest violinist in order for your bowings to be taken seriously, whether the violinist composer is me or Beethoven.

Rocky makes very good points, but I think his example shows the opposite of what usually happens when people want to change bowings, since most people actually love to split bows. Just out of interest though, is it necessary to fly from frog to tip if every half bar is slurred? This might be an unpopular opinion, but maybe less bow could be used?

January 2, 2019, 7:34 PM · by flying I meant when your left arm makes movement like bird's wing - string crossing at the tip are not fun! By the way, I dislike Beethoven's attitude toward a violinist who complained about some parts being unplayable. Yes, he was inspired by his muse (or whatever), but stressing a slurred note when there is no bow left inevitably leads to vertical movement. I play his quartets and do think that his music is one of the ultimate tests for a violinist....
January 2, 2019, 8:33 PM · I think you have to distinguish the bowing choices made by bad violinists (or for teachers seeking to simplify things for less-skilled students) and the artistic bowing choices made by more capable players.

More capable players are certainly capable of thoughtful bow distribution (including conserving if necessary), as well as essentially (or wholly) inaudible bow changes. Splitting up a slur isn't a big deal if you have the control to mask the change.

January 2, 2019, 8:42 PM · James - Beethoven was a great pianist but not a great violinist. So, while we can take his bowings seriously because he was a great composer, some of them simply do not work well, as Rocky points out. A composer such as Bach or Mozart, who was an excellent violinist as well as a great composer, has a better claim to our attention to his bowings, although not one which is compelled.
January 3, 2019, 3:02 AM · James's point about the tendency for some players to fly from frog to tip is well taken. I can't have been the only beginner to have it drummed into him that I should use the whole bow, not just that easy spot in the middle. Some, I think, now find it hard to break the habit and apply it to every note, regardless of its length. I see some pretty competent players who seem to think that the faster they get through the bow, the more sound they'll make, while the converse is probably closer to the truth. And in slow pianissimo passages it often makes sense to ensure evenness of tone by using the upper half only, even if that requires more changes than the printed bowing indicates. Such matters are the player's concern rather than the composer's.
January 3, 2019, 3:53 PM · There might not be anything sacred about the composer's bowings, but there certainly is about the concertmaster's (no matter how strange they might be).

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