Regarding Old Masters

Edited: October 9, 2017, 10:39 AM · Consider the following well-known video of Oistrakh and Menuhin playing Bach's Double Concerto in D minor:

I'm not sure if everyone noticed; however, both of them are using a lot of bow, e.g. Menuhin's whole bow eighth notes at the beginning of the piece.

In my music school, which basically teaches the Russian school of violin playing with Hungarian colors, my teacher will be quite upset if I were to use so much bow for those short notes: disliking the airiness of the tone.

But the tone color, or timbre, of Mehuhin and Oistrakh sounds far from airy! Their tone is full and vibrant, even through the lacking quality of the recording. Not to mention that their rhythm is precise and accurate.

So I'm quite confused now. Not only about if there was something about the art of using miles of bow that is lost in the past. But also about why the masters of the past play with such different techniques, and how did they sound like that? Oistrakh was one of the epitome of the Russian school of violin playing; however, no teacher in my school play with a remotely similar style.

Replies (11)

October 9, 2017, 10:47 AM · It's a matter of taste/style I think. My teacher insist on longer bows. Perhaps your school is holding off longer bows until - whatever. You can always practice on your own.
Edited: October 9, 2017, 6:30 PM · Szeryng used a lot of bow as well--I always assumed it was a Flesch thing what with his emphasis on sustained notes and long bows, but obviously Oistrakh is from the Russian school.
Edited: October 9, 2017, 2:08 PM · Oistrakh said to one of my first violin teachers (who played for Oistrakh a few times), "You should feel as if the bow is never long enough."
Edited: October 9, 2017, 2:11 PM · I'm thinking that there's a level of detail in their bow control that's hard to see from the video. There might be several "pressure corrections" occurring between the frog and the tip, in order to both use maximal bow while simultaneously retaining a concentrated and accurate tonal response from the strings.

Another example of this might be that only half of the bow is actually being played, and the other half is actually hovering above the string, in order for the player to be able to start the next note at the tip or the frog (Since the bow can "bite" most effectively at the tip or frog due to the cambered design).

Then, there's the fact that they're performing in a big venue where they need maximal projection, and where the size of the hall might affect how their notes are heard in the audience.

Then there's the specific instruments they are using. If their violins are more responsive and resonant (and I'm sure they are), then they can get away with more abrupt bursts of speed in the bow without getting an "airy" tone.

I just think you're oversimplifying by making a false duality between "lots of bow" and "less bow." There are so many gradients that can occur between those two that it's hard to say exactly why your teacher is encouraging less bow.

Are you currently studying this exact piece? What level of advancement are you at?

October 9, 2017, 3:40 PM · Here is one from experience. I occasionally catch myself doing this when trying to overpower the band.

Long bow strokes need a couple of things to align to sound like that:

1. Your the tension of strings has to be lower than the maximum your instrument can take.
2. Your bowing technique has to be impeccable in direction and pressure.
3. Your bow pressure should yield a sound below breaking point (hard to do on lower end fiddles)
4. The instrument should be balanced perfectly to achieve maximum resonance.

It's not impossibly hard, but It's like tenor singing. When done right it's always near the breaking point.

October 9, 2017, 4:39 PM · Chao Peter Yang, your observations are spot-on. Modern setups and strings have enabled a different playing style. Changes and alterations are nothing new in the history of the violin, but the latest changes started in the 1970s.
October 9, 2017, 6:05 PM · Hi David, this is quite interesting to know and learn. Would you might explain a bit more in detail on what has been done in terms of setup to accommodate modern style of playing, vs pre-1970 where most player uses gut core low tension string (I recall Oistrakh uses wounded gut GD and steel AE)
October 11, 2017, 11:11 AM · Respected Erik Williams,

I definitely think that they were using more bow than one would normally use for those short notes. For example, I don't think nowadays anyone would use a whole bow for eighth notes and a third of the bow for quarter notes, especially in that musical context.

I am not currently playing that piece nor have I ever played it. My level of playing is basically at an average high school level, just finishing up Mozart no 4 and moving onto Lalo. I currently have 4 Bach movements largely under my belt, but I think I still have a very long way to go.

October 11, 2017, 11:15 AM · Respected Mr.Auckerman,

I don't think my teacher is "holding off" long bows per se since she always emphasizes to use the minimum amount of bow to create the maximum amount of sound; she likes the denser tone created by short, slow bows.

October 11, 2017, 12:35 PM · Another important thing to notice: during the "tutti" sections of the piece, they are using whole bows for 8th notes, but not during the "Solo" sections.

So they're probably trying to "blend" more during the sections where the orchestra is playing their part, and then use a more "Dense" tone for distinction in the solo sections.

Since you're not playing with an orchestra behind you, your teacher probably wants a distinct tone for ALL notes, including the sections that would normally be tutti.

However, you may find that a more "blending" timbre works well when you take over the harmony and the melody is passed to the other violin, as to not compete with the distinction of their notes.

October 11, 2017, 1:18 PM · I was taught to play more staccato than that for the 8th notes. I enjoyed hearing it their way. I noticed that they were well-matched stylistically -- basically belting it the whole way through, but with some very sensitive nuances too.

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