Monthly Archives: November 2011

A Goal

I haven’t been practicing much lately. Playing, yeah; practicing, no. I’ve spent much more time listening, thinking, and writing than actually practicing. Since I’m aiming to become a music writer rather than an actual professional musician, I have a feeling that the practicing will take a back seat more often than not. This is dispiriting.

I should have a goal, I think to myself.

I page through the music crushed in my overstuffed folder.

Yeah. A goal would be nice.

I have some goals. Had some. At one point. Last Christmas’s goal was to play the first movement of Bruch. I can hack through it now. Or I was able to, a couple months ago. So…checkmark. On the other hand, I ruined it for myself for a good long while, at least when it comes to using it for orchestral auditions, which right now is the only use I’d have for performing it. I played it too much and practiced it too little, and now it needs a lot of detail work. Especially rhythmic detail work. Why is my rhythm so awful? I’ve always had problems with rhythm. I never was taught a consistent method of how to count. One-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a…I can’t keep that straight in my head, so I limp along with other less effective homemade methods. I should teach myself another way. How do I teach myself another way? I page backward. Kabalevsky? Do you play Kabalevsky at an orchestra audition? I heard a rumor one of the players in the first violins soloed with a local orchestra once in Paganini 1. Hmm. Actually. No. I read that in a program book once. It wasn’t a rumor. Hmm. Well. There’s another orchestra in town. Maybe I could audition for that. But it rehearses so late at night. It would screw with my sleeping and medication schedule… A goal. I need a goal.

I page back further. Bach. Solo Bach. The g-minor adagio. I smile at that. I’m making progress with that. Unlike everything else. Probably because I brought that to my lesson early last month. I have five copies of it. A beat-up one I’d learned off originally – one with the pencil marks my teacher made – a copy of the one with the pencil marks my teacher made, in case it got lost – one where every fraction of each beat is slashed off, so I can see what notes fall on what portions of what beats. That one looks like heiroglyphics. I can hardly see the notes. And then there’s the one smooth clean plain one that I’m hesitant to mark. A few weeks ago I determined that I need to make a master copy, with only the necessary markings. I need to spoil that clean sheet of paper. I haven’t had the heart to yet.

Amy Beach Romance. I love that piece. I’ve had this idea of presenting a recital of pieces dedicated to female violinists, and chatting a bit with the audience in between each piece about the woman it was dedicated to. Yeah. That would be cool. Beach Romance, Coleridge-Taylor violin concerto, Mozart K454, Lark Ascending. Something like that. I’ll have a lot of fun finding an unpaid pianist for that endeavor. Or getting the nerve up to embark on such a project without needing colon hydrotherapy afterward.

Hmm.

Kreutzer…

Hm.

Orchestra music. I can sight-read that, luckily. Christmas music… Lots and lots of Christmas music… God, the year’s gone fast… So many changes… So many things to think about… StopFocus.

I page further back.

A Mozart duet. Another smile, fainter this time. No excuse to bring that one out. Unfortunately.

Then I see a piece which, for the moment, will remain nameless, since I’m embarrassed to admit I’m trying it. My motives for learning it are not entirely musical. It can’t be used for auditions. It wasn’t dedicated to a female violinist. I don’t have anyone to play it with. It stretches me technically, probably too far. It meshes with exactly zero of my musical goals.

I take it out of the folder.

After a moment of deliberation, I prop it up on the stand.

The logical side of me collapses and starts weeping in frustration. The illogical side rejoices.

I take a closer look at it. Actually, it features lots of techniques I’d like to work on. Double-stops. Lots of those. Double-stopped fifths. Lots of those. High shifts. Lots of those. …Am I insane?… Some trickier timings, for me leastways. Some new styles of bowing. All in short spurts, easy to split up, easy to practice, easy to focus on. If I take it slowly…

Yes. I like it. I like this choice.

I spend an entire practice session on this piece. On a single line from this piece. On a single simple line from this piece. I go over it and over it and over it. The metronome goes click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. Over. And over. And over. And over. And over.

And over.

My obsessiveness feels a little unnerving, especially since it’s so calm and exacting. Calm obsession strikes me as being more dangerous than wild obsession. More productive, too. I inch the metronome forward notch by notch. I trance out in a haze. Once in a while I will skip backward or forward, but I know it’s just a little rest for my brain and my hand, and my concentration always finds its way back to that same line. Two grace notes, four sixteenth notes, a quintuplet, eighth note, eighth note… Two grace notes, four sixteenth notes, a quintuplet, eighth note, eighth note. Two grace notes, four sixteenth notes, a quintuplet, eighth note, eighth note. Blahduh – one-ee-and-a trip-uh-let-plus-two da da.

I suddenly feel a swell of happiness, secure in the knowledge that this is (apparently) all I need to occupy myself. Happy, and a little scared.

When I start to get tired, I turn off the metronome and try it, see if I can play it while hearing the click-clack in my head. I can. But as usual, my dependence on the metronome has resulted in a total lack of understanding of where the line rises and falls. So I try shaping the notes a new way. Suddenly the notes sound like someone talking – like a person sassing back while imitating someone who has frustrated them. I like that. I like the way it sounds, and I like the way it makes me feel as I play it. I like the things I’m finding to pick out to improve. They’re things I wouldn’t have picked out last Christmas. They’re proof I’ve improved this year. Somehow. A little. Maybe.

I snap the case shut and turn off the light.

A few notes, I’ve decided, is a perfectly acceptable goal.

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Article: How To Play the Violin, Girl’s Own Indoor Book, 1880s

Here is a chapter from The Girl’s Own Indoor Book. There is no date, but it appears to date from the 1880s, possibly 1883 or 1888. It is indicative of the popularity of the violin amongst girls in this decade that an essay on how to play the violin was nestled between such uncontroversial chapters as “How to Paint on China”, “Bridal Etiquette”, and “Salads in French Cookery.”

Aside from the fascinating glimpse of how Victorians viewed women violinists, this article is also interesting for the many wise tips the author shares, most of which are still relevant today. This piece was written by a woman named Caroline Blanche Elizabeth FitzRoy, who, after her marriage, became Lady Lindsay of Balcarres. I can’t seem to find much biographical information about her, save that she was a patroness of the arts, a painter, a writer, and a violinist. She eventually separated from her husband and moved between London and Venice. Here is a beautiful 1874 portrait of her, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

***

I have been asked to write upon the art of violin playing, but, whilst doing so, I am well aware that it is far easier to say how the violin should be played than to play it, and many a girl who reads this chapter, and who has grown discouraged and despondent over the manifold difficulties of her favourite instrument, will doubtless agree with such a statement. Still, there are some beginners and students who, though persevering and conscientious, are uncertain whether they are really following the wisest course of study; to them much conflicting advice is usually given, until they scarcely know what they should do or leave undone, and to them, perhaps, a few words of explanation and encouragement from a fellow-worker may not come amiss.

First of all, there is no doubt that the violin, whilst it is perhaps the most beautiful and fascinating musical instrument we possess, is difficult in absolute proportion to its beauty. No one should attempt to learn the violin who is not prepared to give up much time to it, to make many sacrifices for it, and to serve, like Jacob, many years for his beloved object. Very much work is required for the smallest result. The beginning is possibly not so difficult as might be fancied; our friends and we ourselves are surprised to find that we can pick out a popular tune on four strings. We are delighted; but, as time goes on, and we leave the comfortable harbour of the 1st position and the safe anchorage of open strings, and sail out amongst the stormy seas of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th positions, grappling with double stopping, arpeggios, and passages, the intricacies of which are felt much more keenly by performers than listeners, we begin to know something of the hard work and toil that lies before us, growing seemingly ever harder and more uncompromising.

Yet such work is not without its reward. The greater the struggle the greater the reward, and it sometimes happens that, as it is darkest before dawn, when we are most out of heart we are making the most progress. It is best to place our standard of excellence high from the very first, however far off and unattainable it may appear. After all, it is like climbing a hill to see a fine view. Though it be a steep hill, we may get a good deal of pleasure during the ascent; it is not all fatigue. Nor is the view, when we at last come within sight of it, the only gratification we shall have gained. Surely a walk on a summer’s day, as we go cheerfully up the hillside, is worth something; there are many lovely sights and glimpses of pretty country on the way, and, above all, we have pleasant companionship. For, as we toil up the side of the steep and rugged hill of musical knowledge, it is not necessary to wait until we become first-rate performers to spend many a happy afternoon or evening of music, to grow keenly interested in our own practising, and glean much delight from the playing of others, nor, more than all, to enjoy the companionship of the great composers who have written so much for our benefit, and whose works no one can thoroughly know or appreciate without learning to play them.

Perhaps of all instruments, the violin is the one to which the performer – and, therefore, as a rule, the owner – becomes the most attached. Its great advantages over other instruments are: -

1. Its extreme portability. You need never part from your instrument, need entrust it to no one, and, carrying it about with you, can always play on the same violin, and are not therefore puzzled or dispirited, like many unfortunate pianists or organists, by the complications of a strange or inferior instrument.

2. The violin greatly resembles the human voice in its tone, and whilst possessing a far wider range of compass than the voice, has a similar capability of creating a responsive vibration in the hearts of its hearers, together with the same power of portamento, that is, of blending or carrying one note into another.

3. The notes are not ready-made, but have to be created by the player. Every player brings out a different quality of tone to that of other players, even when using the self-same instrument, and this adds much to the charm and personality of the music.

4. The violin is tuned in perfect and natural tune, and not according to the tempered scale, as are of necessity all ordinary keyed instruments (where the notes are divided), such as the piano, for example. Its vibrations are, therefore, infinitely more pleasing to the ear than the sound of any instrument tuned according to the tempered scale.

5. The violin is less monotonous for practising than many other instruments: it is more interesting to train the ear, together with the hand, in seeking after beauty and quality of tone, and not mere manual dexterity. Also, music written for violin is often simple, and so easily learned by heart that much practising may be gone through by moderately-advanced students whilst walking about the room, thus gaining a pleasant change and rest, though such a method is scarcely to be recommended for careless players.

6. Lastly, and not least, the violin is the leader in an orchestra, as in a quartet; and, even among its own family of beautiful stringed instruments, it is more brilliant and more capable of variety of tone than the viola or the violoncello.

It is not very long since the violin was considered an ‘unladylike’ instrument, ungraceful and impossible for women. I remember, as a child, reading in a story-book of a little girl who had surreptitiously bought a red fiddle, and who delighted her schoolfellows by playing to them in secret. This unfortunate girl was not allowed to become a great violinist, but was, on the contrary, reprimanded by the schoolmistress, who advised her to choose a more ladylike occupation for the future. I have also in former days known girls of whom it was darkly hinted that they played the violin, as it might be said that they smoked big cigars, or enjoyed the sport of rat-catching. But now all this has changed; there is scarcely a family of girls where there is not at least one who plays the fiddle. (I heard lately of a lady whose six daughters are all violinists!) Classes are held for female violinists, who likewise play in the orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music, and in that of the Royal College of Music, and it is no uncommon sight in our streets to see a girl carrying her fiddle in its black case. Besides this, in almost every programme of a concert we find the name of some lady violinist, who probably plays with fine tone and execution, for there are many good artists among us now.

For this change we are indebted to Madame Norman-Neruda (now Lady Hallé). She, by uniting with the firmness and vigour of a man’s playing the purity of style and intonation of a great artist, as well as her own perfect grace and delicate manipulation, has proved to the public at large what a woman can do in this field. Madame Neruda’s masterly playing is not to be surpassed by any one, whilst her feminine ease and elegance add an unusual charm to violin-playing.

Even in former years there were some notable exceptions to the universal custom which precluded women from such performances, viz.: the sisters Ferny, the sisters Milanollo, and others; but these ladies, while achieving much reputation, seem to have had but small influence on others. It was reserved to Madame Norman-Neruda to head the great revolution, and to enlist an enormous train of followers. And yet it is difficult to say why a prophet should have been so sorely needed, for in the Middle Ages, and later even, women and girls were taught to play on viols and similar stringed instruments, held sometimes downwards like violoncellos, but also often beneath the chin as we hold our violins, whilst in the old Italian pictures, in the works of Fra Angelico, Bellini, Raphael, and many others, angels and feminine figures are constantly depicted playing on the violins of the period, so that we may assume that, in the eyes of the great painters, such doings were by no means unwomanly or ungraceful. Be this as it may, the question need no longer arise, the crusade need not be fought anew; Madame Neruda, like a musical St. George, has gone forth, violin and bow in hand, to fight the dragon of prejudice, or rather, like a female Orpheus, has made captive all the wild beasts about her by the sweet sounds she has evoked. Certainly, no one requires now-a-days to be encouraged to learn the violin, but rather the contrary. Nay, sometimes, I am haunted by the fear that all ‘girls of the period’ of the next generation will scrape unmercifully on their fiddles, with much complacency, perhaps, but with little time or tune. There will be no one left who does not play the fiddle, and with our modern system of mental cramming, patience and leisure will alike be wanting for necessary practising; consequently, but few will play well, and, alas! the pianoforte, the harp, the organ, the guitar, the zither, and many other beautiful instruments will be altogether laid aside, or left to the sterner sex.

The best axiom, therefore, for our present times seems to me: Let no one learn the violin who has not a distinct and earnest vocation thereunto; and let whoever is determined to learn, learn well and thoroughly. Or, as Mr. Haweis wisely says: ‘Do not take up the violin unless you mean to work hard at it; any other instrument may be more safely trifled with.’

To those who work, and want to work, I would venture to give a few practical hints.

Use every endeavour to learn from a really good master at the very outset, and to have as many lessons from him as possible. Later on it will be easier for you to practise alone. At first, by working alone (however carefully, even with the help of books written for students), many bad habits are engendered that are afterwards hard to cure: the violin is held wrongly, or is imperfectly tuned; the bow is not drawn straight, nor is the whole length of the bow used; the wrist of the left hand is allowed to support the instrument for the comfort of the player.

When you have advanced sufficiently to play fluently you can get on tolerably alone, though by no means so quickly as under the guidance of a master. But, having a naturally correct ear, you can make progress, using a metronome, a practical school of violin-playing, and, occasionally, a looking-glass.

Remember that each hand has its special work to do; each different, yet very necessary to supplement the work of the other. Your right hand represents tone, your left hand tune. Your right hand gives expression, your left hand correctness. Most people think that the left hand does all the work – that bowing consists of sawing the bow up and down across the strings. Yet the right hand has perhaps the harder task of the two, as its duties are manifold, pure intonation and careful fingering, though important, being the sole occupations of the left.

It is very difficult to bow well; to hold the bow aright, lightly, and in what seems a constrained attitude; to keep the thumb steady, and the four fingers straight (not curved outwards), the tips resting firmly on the bow. It is very difficult in slow passages to bring out a full and mellow tone, to give fine expression, to draw the bow to its utmost limit (for there must be no tell-tale greyish mark on the horsehair near the nut to prove that the whole length has not been in constant use), also, to learn the different short, quick styles of bowing, staccato, saltando, etc., to mark a crescendo or diminuendo by more or less pressure, to prevent the bow from squeaking or slipping on the strings, or from giving a little grunt of disapprobation whenever you come to the end of an up or down bow, and proceed to draw it in the opposite direction. All these difficulties and technicalities can scarcely be overcome without the help and counsel of a master, whose patience and endurance must equal the docility of the pupil. But these are the difficulties of all beginners – nay, or all students, and many a moderately good artist has by no means conquered them.

It is absolutely necessary to stand well in a steady, upright, yet graceful attitude. Many girls, whose movements are natural and positively pretty before playing, undergo an extraordinary transformation the moment they take a violin in hand; they contort their features, turn their heads overmuch round, place their elbows and wrists at fearful angles, and look as though they were enduring frightful torture. Believe me, if from time to time you attempt a few bars before the looking-glass, it will by no means feed your vanity, but rather prove a wholesome lesson of humility.

It is very ugly to see a girl place a pad like a large pincushion on her left shoulder before playing, or to see her use a piece of wood like a patch of black sticking-plaister on the violin itself. All that is required to prevent the violin from slipping under the chin (thus causing premature double chins and all manner of wry faces) is, to raise the shoulder very slightly, keeping the elbow well forward and a little turned inwards. Hold the violin high, that is to say, quite horizontally, and you will soon forget that it was ever disposed to slip away. Habit will become second nature; even in changing the positions the attitude that at first was so trying will grow perfectly easy; you must, however, remember that in the lower positions the wrist must never be allowed to touch the violin, but your hand must slide comfortably up and down, the neck of the violin merely resting between the thumb and first finger.

In all this, I fear, my hints are chiefly negative. It is easier to point out probable faults than to give instruction on violin-playing merely by writing. As I said before, the practical teaching of a master is absolutely necessary to all beginners.

I will, however, now suppose that you have mastered the first difficulties, that you have had a certain number of lessons, and have profited by them sufficiently to play little pieces and moderately difficult exercises fairly well. I will suppose that you are in the country, unable for some time to come to obtain any further instruction, yet anxious to ‘get on.’

I should recommend you, above all, to practise regularly – that is, every day at stated times, one, two, three hours, as the case may be. Practise regularly, even though you are disinclined; unless you are really ill, a little weariness or fatigue soon goes off, and after playing for ten minutes you will probably feel fresher than before you began. Play good music, but do not disgust yourself with well-known beautiful things by playing them badly. Preserve them rather for by-and-by; pull them out of the drawer every few months, and play them through once or twice; then you will see how much progress you have made.

It is a good thing when you are working alone to vary your form of practice on alternate days. Let one day be devoted to difficult exercises, and to studying hard whatever pieces are to be studied. The following day, go through only a certain number of finger exercises, and then read at sight some easy sonatas, with or without pianoforte accompaniment, according to your opportunities.

In practising pieces that you have learned, but cannot quite conquer, do not play them all through, or you will tire of them quickly, but pick out the difficult passages, and leave the easy ones to take care of themselves.

Invent small exercises and new combinations for yourself; try to add thirds and sixths to notes in different positions, thus accustoming yourself to play chords; learn by heart as much as possible, for two reasons, viz., that you should not always have the trouble of preparing a music-stand, candles, &c., also because you will never play any piece really well that you do not know by heart, even though you play it from the book before your friends.

Whenever you are studying any new music, play it through once or twice with a metronome. Even though no metronome time be marked, the indications of allegro, andante, or adagio, will give you an idea of how to adjust the pendulum.

It seems to me more difficult to play in time on the violin than on the piano, because there is no bass for a foundation. The bass in pianoforte music is almost to the eye what a metronome is to the ear, and is a natural guide. In violin music you have but one stave; you cannot see what is going on below, and cannot, therefore, grasp the true nature of the composition.

A correct appreciation of time is very requisite. We often hear of amateurs who play charmingly, with wonderful genius and expression, but without any sense of time. That is very dreadful. Never allow your love of sentiment to put more rallentando passages into the music than are absolutely marked by the composer or dictated by your master.

It is a good thing to play often with pianoforte accompaniment, so as to learn the piece as a whole, to grow accustomed to the sound of the piano, and also to learn to play in time. But if you have no accompanyist, play the violin part once or twice from the book in which both violin and piano parts are written. Or, if you are a sufficiently good theoretical musician, look at it well and study it, and hear the whole composition, as it were, in your mind. But the best plan of all is to play the accompaniment yourself on the piano, for, indeed, every violinists should be somewhat of a pianist also. In most conservatoires a slight knowledge of the piano is obligatory. The pianoforte is, in our drawing-rooms, the nearest approach to an orchestra; on this instrument alone can you get any orchestral or complete effects; and, as a musician, if you do not study it at least a little, you will debar yourself from much musical knowledge and advantage.

In playing before an audience, however limited, however friendly, you will probably be nervous, more or less nervous according to your nature. Some people unfortunately never quite get over nervousness; but it is best to do our utmost from the very first to struggle against it. Do not begin to play without careful consideration; see that your bow has a sufficient amount of rosin; tune your violin steadily; try to avoid being flurried. Practise the art of beginning well, not with a scrape nor out of time, so that the accompanyist must needs begin again.

Wash your hands always before playing (as, indeed, before practising), and keep your violin nice and clean, carefully wiped before putting it away within its case under a silk handkerchief and flannel coat, the strings always in good order.

If you know that you are to play to an audience, try the strings a little beforehand. If you put on a new E-string, play on it for an hour or two in your own room before using it in public. Play enough beforehand to be in good practice, and to feel your fingers comfortably supple. Avoid if possible practising at the very last the piece you have to perform. Chopin, who usually performed his own pianoforte compositions, used immediately before his concerts to practise Bach’s fugues.

As you progress in your art, you cannot fail to grow more and more devoted to it; violinists are, as a rule, as enthusiastic and ‘shoppy’ in their talk as the keenest sportsmen, racing or hunting men, golfs, &c. To play or even to practise will be your greatest delight; you will lament the very shortest separation from your dear violin.

Do you remember the old rhyme? -

“Jacky, come give me thy fiddle,

If ever though hope to thrive.”

“Nay, I’ll not give my fiddle

To any man alive.

Were I to give my fiddle,

The folks would think me mad;

For many a joyful day

My fiddle and I have had.”

If possible, go often to good concerts, and hear good music, which, like good pictures, and indeed all good art, is thoroughly inspiring. We may be depressed by hearing a moderate player, but we become ardently anxious to work as we listen to something really great and fine. Such a performance incites our best efforts at imitation; we feel that it is worth while to work. You will learn a great deal by going to the Saturday or Monday Popular Concerts, by hearing and seeing Madame Norman-Neruda, the queen, and Herr Joachim, the king of violinists; or Signor Piatti, to whom his mighty violin of larger growth is a true slave of the ring, a potentate that conquers us but obeys him. You will learn more of bowing, phrasing, more of attitude, more of style, tone, or tune, than can be taught by a mountain of books or essays. You will learn, in fact, if not how to play the violin, at least how the violin should be played.

I have said nothing about books, violin-methods, or schools, as they are called. Any master you learn from will probably prefer one or another. To me, the elementary or first part of De Bériot’s violin-school seems the best and easiest for beginners. Berthold Tours’ Violin Primer (Novello) is also useful for beginners, and very cheap. At the commencement of De Bériot’s and many other schools, you will find drawings of mild young gentlemen, in different attitudes, that will show you clearly how both the violin and the bow should be held. As you progress, you will probably learn to play the exercises of Kayser, Dont, Kreutzer, Dancla, Léonard, Ries, and others. As for drawing-room pieces, there are a great many, more or less pretty. You must choose these for yourself. Messrs. Stanley Lucas, New Bond Street, can provide you with as many as you wish, especially those published in cheap German editions. As you gain mastery over your instrument, you will love more and more the Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, the old music reprinted in the Hohe Schule; by-and-by, trios, and quartets.

We have no space, unfortunately, for the history of the violin. It is an interesting history through these last three centuries, during which time the instrument itself has been scarcely altered in any way. ‘What a little thing to make so much noise!’ says the ignorant observer. ‘What a little thing to have so stirred the hearts of men!’ responds the philosopher. And, as we hold the treasure in our hands, reverently and affectionately contemplating the delicate work of Stradivarius, Guarnerius, or Amati, we wonder through whose hands before ours our fiddle has passed, whose magic touch, long since silent and dead, evoked sweet melodies resonant from the brown wood that still shines with its fair coating of varnish almost as of yore. We seem to hear divine and strange harmonies; we can almost see the shades of Corelli, Tartini, Haydn, Spohr, or Paganini, beckoning us to follow their example, leading us on in the path of music, and teaching us in truth, by those traditions that are our tangible heirlooms, how to play the violin.

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Article: Concerning the Sexuality of Musical Instruments, 1921

I think human sexuality is one of the most interesting things in the world. Heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, demisexuality, pansexuality - I find all of them fascinating. I’m also very interested in the ways that people’s ideas about sexuality seep into things as seemingly non-sexual as instrumental music. I have a theory that one of the many reasons the violin was considered to be inappropriate for women for such a long time was because a female playing on a violin (an instrument with a high range, a small size, and a womanly shape) was suggestive of lesbianism. This is a point that this alternately hilarious / creepy article vaguely touches on. I still haven’t studied gender or sexuality in any academic setting (actually, the one high school course that I took that even that mentioned sexuality assumed all of its readers were straight, and obviously there was never a word about anything like asexuality or pansexuality). So I don’t have the intellectual tools that I’d love to have to analyze all the implications that this article is making. But I found it fascinating anyway. Hopefully someday after I’m better educated I can come back and really understand the points this byline-less, source-less article is trying to make.

This is from The Common Opinion, June 1921.

Addendum, 11/23: For an immensely entertaining take-down of this article, head over here to Sam Bergman’s blog entry “How To Tell If Your Bassoon Is Gay.”

***

In quality of sound, as compared with the human voice, the violin is soprano, the cello is tenor, and the contrabass may be defined as baritone bass. For the same reason that the normal average man prefers the soprano to the tenor and the woman generally shows more appreciation for the tenor, the choice of musical instruments is governed, when there is liberty of choice and the individual is conscious of his or her leanings. The violin artist, as Konrad Berkovici goes on to say, in Bruno’s Review of Two Worlds, even physically is of a different type from that of the cellist, the first being generally full of masculine vigor and life, while the second is apt to be effeminate, showy, soft and silky. Among gypsies, we are told, one seldom finds a cellist and almost never an alto. Their women, who are proverbially jealous, seldom or never play the violin; and for the most part the players of the contrabass and the alto are elderly men in any human society. Not because these instruments are physically easier to play nor because they demand greater experience, but because the advanced age of the players decides their inclination.

Superstrenuous music of the Wagner and Beethoven kind has its explanation in Kraft-Ebling‘s analysis of their sex-psychology. Both men seldom used the violin or cello for the leading melody. Tschaikovsky’s music, to the writer in Bruno’s Review, suggests Oscar Wilde’s literature, there being a strong psycho-sexual resemblance between the writer and musician. Tschaikovsky gave the viola and the contrabass preeminence in his music, whereas the music of such as Berlioz or Verdi or Mascagni or Massenet is of the male of the species – tenor and violin.

Not only have string instruments sexual character, but, we are assured, the cornet, the oboe, the flute, also have such a character. Berkovici observes, in this connection, that the French and Italians are the best wind-instruments players and that Teuton women have a predilection for the oboe and the nondescript saxophone, tho these instruments are bulky and physically difficult to play. “As to the men, to every saxophone student in a conservatory you will see ten flutes and twenty clarinets. The violin classes are always full of fiery dark-eyed boys. Seldom, if at all, have blue-eyed violinists reached any artistic height, while the classes of cello are comparatively swamped with female students. The males studying cello are in a minority and of totally different type than their brothers of the violin; blue-eyed, soft, shy, retiring effeminates.”

Commercial reasons of supply and demand do not regulate these classes. There is said to be an oversupply of male violinists and an unsupplied demand of male cellists. A woman violinist is a comparative rarity. Normal sexual males do not like the contralto voice. Their choice between a Tetrazini and Schumann-Heink is made as quickly as Elma and Kushevitzky. And it is due to their sexual indirectness that the alto of the violin and the clarinet are in the background of orchestras.

We read further that in the harmonic blending of voices, where a mixture of string and wind instruments is necessary, the flute and clarinet cannot be used to complete the violins because “they are of the same sex.” Instruments representing opposite sexes are instinctively used by musicians for this effect, tho this analyst “has a feeling that Beethoven and Mozart knew more about it than other composers.” Primitive races, or races in process of ascendancy, are said to produce more male violinists than highly cultivated ones. Russia, Hungary and Bohemia have given us the latest great ones. Spain and Italy gave the best formerly. The Teutons and the French have not given a single great violinist in the last hundred years. Ysaye, Thibaud, Vieuxtemps, are Belgians. Almost all good violinists are composers, having creative minds, and their compositions, even when not for the violin, have a strong sexual element. The waltz, with its exact rhythm, is a favorite vehicle. There is love appeal in every bar, impetuous, lascivious and pretentious – in one word: male.

Konrad Berkovici, as the result of personal investigation in the quality of voices of violinists and cellists, male and female, reports that out of fifty male violinists, none older than thirty years, forty-one had deep baritone voices, of the other nine, six were tenors, and three non-descripts. Out of twenty male cellists, none older than thirty years, seven were altos and the other thirteen nondescript, and mostly effeminate voices. Out of ten female violinists, not over thirty years old, eight had alto voices, one a soprano, and one almost a baritone. This last one had also a masculine exterior. Out of fifteen female cellists, fourteen had soprano voices.

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Article: Miss Marie Hall, The Girl Violinist, A Romance of Real Life, June 1903

Forgive the Marie Hall kick, dear friends, but here’s another fantastic interview with her. As if Hall wasn’t spunky and amazing enough already, she says in this article that she wishes she could be a conductor! Even today, a hundred years later, it is relatively rare to see a woman taking on that job.

This piece is by M. Dinorben Griffith; it appeared in the Strand Magazine in June 1903.

***

“Marie is always, for ever and ever, plactising, plactising,” was the irate comment of two little boys when they failed to induce their but little older favourite sister to play with them.

It is this “always, for ever and ever, plactising,” or, in other words, that infinite capacity for taking pains which is the sign-manual of genius, that has brought Miss Marie Hall, the girl violinist, to the front of her profession before she has reached her nineteenth birthday.

Hers is no history of that forced and most miserable of spectacles – the child prodigy, often of ephemeral life and fame. A child prodigy she undoubtedly was, but of natural growth. Her talent was discovered and fostered by strangers, and it speaks well for her bodily and mental vitality that hard work, poverty, and even sorrow have only given strength to her personality and a finished maturity to her art.

She loves her fiddle, and even when idly handling it a beautiful tenderness comes into her face, which is generally sad and grave almost to sternness. With her bow she shows her inner self to the world, at least to as much of the world as can understand its language; her clever fingers not only interpret the masterpieces of the great composers, but the longings and aspirations of a young life striving for the perfection which alone can satisfy it; and for fame, not for fame’s sake, but because it will enable her to carry out a noble, unselfish purpose.

Like all highly-strung natures her personality is complex, oftenest grave, impulsive, yet sometimes as merry and gay as a little child.

To interview her is as difficult as to follow a will-o’-the-wisp.

“Where was I born? Oh, dear, must I go back as far as that? It was ages ago! In Newcastle, on April 8th, 1884, and I was called the ‘Opera Baby.'”

“Why?”

“Because my father, Mr. Edmund Felix Hall, was harpist in the Carl Rosa English Opera Company, which toured all over England. My mother always accompanied him, and while at Newcastle I was born; the company took a great interest in this important event, and called me the ‘Opera Baby.’ I may as well go a little farther back and tell you that my grandfather was a landscape painter and a harpist; my father, his brother, my mother, and sister are all harpists, and I ought to have been one too, I suppose. I did start; but I hated it, and used to hide when my father wanted to give me a lesson. I wanted to learn the fiddle. My father had his own ideas on the subject; I had mine, and I stuck to them.”

The little lady, I noted, had more than one side to her character. Into the grave face as she spoke came a mutinous, mischievous look reminiscent of an enfant terrible. It was also easy to infer that her early childhood held no pleasant memories for her. She was one of a family of four sisters (two of whom died) and two quite young brothers, one of whom – Teddy – is the stimulus to hard work and the making and saving of money on her part. He shares his sister’s love of the fiddle, and, although not yet nine, according to Miss Hall is “much cleverer” than she.

“Teddy is a genius,” she says, enthusiastically, “but, oh, so delicate. I want to have him with me always; to get him the best advice, to care for him, educate him, and love him. That is what I have been working for, that is what success means to me.”

She started learning the harp when only five, and the violin at the age of eight and a half, her father being her first teacher. Those lessons were not shirked, they were her only pleasure. More may be learned of Miss Hall’s early days from what she leaves unsaid than what she says, but there is no doubt that when Mr. Hall left the opera company, that meant to him a regular weekly income of twelve pounds, and more especially on the termination of a short engagement at the Empire Theatre, Newcastle, the family were in dire straits. From the orchestra Mr. Hall had to come down to playing in the streets, his wife and children in turns assisting him in earning a precarious livelihood.

The struggles of those days are written on Miss Hall’s face, but the fragile little figure is linked with an indomitable will. She is of the stuff that heroes are made of, withal a very girl, with a keen sense of humour and a pretty wit of her own.

The day of her first violin lesson was an era in her baby life, for the little maid had planted her foot firmly on the first rung of the ladder of fame. She had no thought of what was to follow; she had gained her point, and it behoved her to prove that the violin was her special métier.

“One day,” she said, “I played Raff’s ‘Cavatina’ to my father. I had been practising it hard as a surprise for him.” A surprise indeed it was, for it convinced him of her ability, and she was sent to Miss Hildegarde Werner, of Newcastle-on-Tyne, for lessons. She made remarkable progress, and her teacher was so proud of her precocious little pupil that she introduced her to M. Sauret, who predicted great things of her in the near future.

“After I had been learning the violin for a year I made my first appearance on the concert platform,” said Miss Hall. “I was then about nine and a half. After the concert was over I got several offers of engagements at music-halls.”

“Did you then play in the streets?”

“Yes, we all did; I hated it.”

“What were your usual takings?”

“Oh, a penny, and up to six-pence.”

“And is it indeed indiscreet to ask what you make now?”

“I will tell you with pleasure. My first concert in London, at the St. James’s Hall, brought me in five hundred pounds.”

Four hundred people were on that occasion – her second appearance in London – turned away from the doors. A guinea was cheerfully paid for standing room, and two guineas for a seat.

Before little Marie reached her eleventh year her parents moved to Malvern, when, she pathetically remarked, “times were very bad. My sister and I had to do all the housework, as we could not afford to keep a servant, and to help by playing in the streets and in the vestibules of hotels. I used sometimes to go inside the little gardens and begin playing, and was often then called into the houses.”

“Did you dislike it?”

“I hated collecting money,” was the reply, with a flash of her eyes. “Sometimes mother went out with father and she did the collecting, while my sister and I stayed at home.”

One can easily picture that untidy ménage, with the little drudges turning out in the evenings to play for money when tired out with the hopeless task of keeping things straight at home.

“Things might have been worse, you know,” she remarked, “for several people got to know me and were very kind. Fifteen pounds was subscribed among friends to buy me a violin, but my father thought the money would be more wisely spent in taking me to London, so that Wilhelmj could hear me.”

“With what results?”

“I stayed in his house for several months, he giving me free lessons as well as keeping me. I then returned to Malvern and took up my old life; not from choice, but from necessity. I played in the streets and in hotels until I was thirteen. Herr Max Mossel heard me play and offered me free lessons, so I went to Birmingham, living with some rich friends, who paid my parents a pound a week for letting me stay during the three years I worked under Mossel.”

Herr Mossel was charmed with his pupil; he recommended her so highly to the Birmingham School of Music Committee that she received a free studentship, which she held for two sessions.

When fifteen years old she competed for the first Wessely Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Music and won it, but was unable to take it up, as she had no means to live on while in London.”

“It was such a disappointment,” said Miss Hall, “and things were worse than ever at home. We moved to Clifton, and there met with friends who were most kind to us all. They were Mr. and Mrs. Roeckel, of musical fame. We got to know them through a strange incident.

“As I told you, my uncle was a very clever harpist; he used to go about the country playing. Mr. and Mrs. Roeckel were spending a short holiday at Llandrindod Wells, in Wales. My uncle was there too, and they were delighted with his playing and spoke to him frequently, and learnt that his name was Hall.

“The Roeckels, on their return to their home at Clifton, heard one evening a harpist playing outside their door who reminded them, both in appearance and superior skill in playing, of the harpist they had met in Wales. It was his brother – my father.”

From this time their kindness was unceasing to the family, who owe much to their frequent and timely help. They took a practical interest in the clever girl violinist, and enlisted Canon Fellowes’s sympathy for their young protégée.

By Mr. Roeckel’s advice Marie got up a subscription concert, Canon Fellowes promising to bring Mr. Napier Miles, the Squire of Kings Weston, near Bristol, to hear her play. The concert was a grand success, the playing of the delicate, frail, little fifteen-year-old débutante astonishing all present.

“Wonderful! delightful!” said Mr. Napier Miles. He asked if she had ever played with an orchestra. “No,” was the reply. “Then you must come to Kings Weston for that purpose.” Her future tuition and expenses were practically assured from that day.

Mr. Miles and a few other friends combined in sending her to study under Johann Kruse, and she stayed with him a year, or until, in her own words, “I had got all he could give me.”

It was while she was in London with Kruse that she first heard Kubelik. He had shortly before been playing Bristol, and Marie had urged her father to see him and beg of him to hear her play.

“I saw,” said Miss Hall, “an announcement that he would give a recital in London on the 19th of June, 1900. I went. It was a red-letter day in my life. I went mad over his technique. As soon as the concert was over I went behind and waited outside his door, determined to see him if I had to wait until two o’ clock in the morning. After what seemed to me a long time he came out, followed by his accompanist. I rushed forward and said, ‘Oh, will you hear me play?’ He seemed very startled, drew back a little, and stammered, ‘I don’t know you, do I?’ Breathlessly I explained that my father had seen him at Bristol, and finally I left him with an appointment for ten o’ clock the next morning. I practised nearly all night, for to sleep was impossible.

“I found Kubelik and his accompanist at breakfast. I do not think they expected me; they seemed to think I was amusing, especially when I asked Kubelik to accompany me.”

With the sublime audacity of youth she had elected to play one of the very pieces she had heard Kubelik play the previous evening, the “D Minor Concerto” of Wieniawski, which was the success of the evening.

Kubelik was enthusiastic. “You must go at once,” he said, “to Prague to my old master, Sevcik.”

“But what do you think?” said Miss Hall, with a burst of merry laughter at the recollection. “Kubelik and the accompanist were so polite to me they both rushed to place a chair for me at the table, so that I could write my name and address, and I sat down – not on the chair, but on the floor,  with my feet in the air and my hat – well, I don’t know where it was. I felt so small and so humiliated, and they – I do not know how they managed it – never even smiled – at least, for me to see.”

It is difficult to get Miss Hall to talk about herself. She acknowledges being a “creature of moods,” very full of spirits one moment, correspondingly despondent the next; gave, sympathetic, sedate, or a real little hoyden, full of fun and laughter.

Asked if she had received any offers of marriage since she had come out, “Two only,” was the reply – “one from a Greek, a literary man, and one from a Bohemian musician.”

“Were they nice?”

“Well,” with comically raised eyebrows, “one was old and silly, the other very young and impressionable.”

“No millionaire offers?”

“Sorry to disappoint you – no, not one.

“When did I go to Prague? Oh, very soon after my interview with Kubelik. My kind friend, Mr. Napier Miles, made all necessary arrangements. I went first to Dresden to learn a little German, which I managed to pick up without a master – Sevcik does not speak a word of English – and also to practise for my entrance examination for the Conservatoire.”

She was the great Sevcik’s only English girl pupil, and he says, “She is the most gifted pupil I have ever had.” In addition to lessons at the Conservatoire, she had private lessons as well, working often fourteen hours a day and getting up at four in the morning.

“Had you no recreation at all?”

“Oh, yes; while I was at Prague I read all Dickens’s and Thackeray’s works – to broaden my mind,” she said, with a smile. “Do you know, I am very fond of shocking people?” she added. “In Prague it is considered very improper for girls to go out alone, especially to any public place. Several girl students lived together at a pensionnat, and we English ones used to love to dress up and go and dine sometimes at an hotel; people used to look at us, shrug their shoulders, and say, ‘Es sind Englanderinen.’ I was also very fond of dancing, and learned all the Bohemian national dances, which are very pretty.”

“How long were you in Bohemia?”

“Eighteen months. A concert is given at the Conservatoire every year, in which all the students that have won their diplomas take part, and I played and was recalled twenty-five times.”

Miss Hall during her holidays once went to Marienbad, where Kubelik was also staying, and he gave her a few lessons. He has always taken a  great interest in her and considers her playing marvellous. She had a grand reception at Vienna, where she gave a recital before returning to England, being recalled no fewer than five times after each piece, a great compliment from so critical an audience.

“What is your fiddle?”

“An Amati. It was lent me by my master – Sevcik – and is the one used by Kubelik when he made his début. I have no violin of my own yet, but have three bows. I think I must learn to play on them.

“A pretty incident,” Miss Hall went on to say, “occurred when I appeared for the first time after my return, at Newcastle-on-Tyne. A workman stood up and said, ‘Miss Hall ought to have a new violin. I have just made one and would like to give it to her.’ He evidently did not think much of this Amati, did he?”

“Is it not true that a violin worth two thousand guineas is being purchased by public subscription as a presentation to you?”

“Yes, it is so, but it will be some time yet before such a sum can be collected.”

I was shown a letter from Sevcik; curious – as it showed his manner of giving his pupil violin lessons by post.

“He is coming back here with me in the autumn, and I hope he will settle in London.”

“What are your plans when the season is over?”

“After my two recitals here on the 30th of May and 23rd of June, I am going back to Bohemia. I shall take a little cottage in the country there where I can have perfect quietude and devote myself to practising, for I play with Richter in Manchester next season. I have a lot to do before I can rest, though. I am booked up for a tour in the provinces.”

In March last Miss Hall was made a ward in Chancery, which, on account of family differences, her friends considered a wise measure.

“You do not know,” she said, “how I want to help my family. I have offered my parents a regular income if they will only let me have my little brother Teddy.We are so fond of each other, and I want him to get strong and well. I have offered also to have my sister in London. She is fourteen, and her great wish is to have lessons with Mr. Thomas, the Welsh harpist.”

Miss Hall has very artistic tastes, is fond of pictures, and has the usual feminine love of pretty clothes. She always designs her own gowns. In a literary way her favourite books are the biographies of great musicians.

In reply to a query as to her favourite composers she said, “The three great B’s – “Bach, Brahms, Beethoven; and last, but not least, Paganini. I do not really care for anything but classical music, but the public taste must be studied too.”

She recently played for the first time before the Prince and Princess of Wales, and met with great appreciation. She is in much demand at smart “At-homes.” I heard an amusing story about a very smart society function at which she was asked to play. Her first piece was Bach’s famous “Chaconne.” When she had finished, and received the usual applause, a lady came up to her and said, “You played it divinely. It is my favourite piece. Do you play his ‘Chaconne’ also?” Miss Hall, when she had recovered a little, simply answered “Yes.”

“I forgot to tell you one thing that is important,” said Miss Marie, with a laugh. “I am immoderately fond of oranges, and eat I do not know how many a day; they taste better if I am reading a novel at the same time; that is what I was doing when you came in,” pointed to “Temporal Power” and a plate of orange peel lying side by side.

“You are a second Kubelik, people say, I hear.”

“I am not a second anybody or anything,” she quickly retorted, with a proud little gesture. “I want to be myself, with a method and style of my own. If I were a man I should like to be the conductor of an orchestra. I should love it. That is not impossible, is it? although you are unfortunate enough to be a girl.”

“Perhaps not impossible, but it would be a startling innovation, would it not?”

Miss Hall is fortunate in having as an accompanist a charming Bohemian lady, who was introduced to her by Sevcik himself. Miss Vojácek has travelled with, and accompanied, all the Sevcik girl pupils in England and on the Continent.

“Do not forget to mention,” said Miss Vojácek, smilingly, “that Marie always sits on the table when she is practising with me; it is so characteristic of her.”

There seems – if she does not overtax her delicate frame – to be no limit to the possibilities that the near future holds for this youthful and gifted violinist. Her short public life has been, and continues to be, a series of triumphs that might spoil a less modest and natural person.

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Article: She Began As A Street Musician (Interview with Marie Hall, 1906)

Here is a surprisingly frank interview with violinist Marie Hall (1884-1956). She obviously had a dizzying drive and spunk to spare. She saw what she wanted and she went for it, other people’s opinions be damned. I wonder if all of these astonishing stories are true…

This article originally appeared in Success Magazine in March 1906.

***

She Began As A Street Musician:

Marie Hall, the Greatest Woman Violinist, Tells the Story of Her Hard Struggle to Win

by Ernest R. Holmes

“I was always determined to be at the top, and I’ve always had plenty of energy and perseverance.”

It was a very slight girl who said this, a girl with a thin, pale face, very serious brown eyes, and a mass of most rebellious dark hair, neither long nor short, just “coming in,” after an attack of typhoid fever. An utter stranger might well have questioned what it could be that such a frail person could lead the world in. Yet that girl of twenty-one can almost lay unquestioned claim to be the greatest woman violinist, and she is compared with Kubelik, her friend and benefactor, pupil of the same master.

But as I talked with Miss Marie Hall, the day after her second New York concert, her pale face grew animated, her eyes opened wide and flashed, and her words came with a decision that revealed a soul on fire with her art, and a determined will to great for her slight frame. One felt almost a pitying fear that her efforts would over-tax her strength.

As Miss Hall talks, one forgets her frailty, so sure of herself is she, and so full of her music. And the impression of an iron will and a dogged determination keeps recurring as she tells incident after incident of her rise from street and music-hall playing to a place among masters of the most human of instruments.

“Yes,” she said, “even when eight years old, I was determined to be a great violinist. My father was a harpist. He was with the orchestra of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and another, and he tried to teach me the harp. But I wanted the violin. He taught me a little on this, but still discouraged my continuing. I heard a lady play a concerto of Paganini, and I was bound I would play it too. With only a little help from my mother, I learned it in a few hours, and then played it for my father. He was astonished, and gave up to me. I had my beloved violin lessons.”

She had won by the weapon she has used ever since – winning prizes, tuition, instruction by the best masters, and now financial and artistic success.

“I have been lucky,” she went on. “I have always found friends to help me, I don’t know why. And if people won’t do what I want, I play for them, and generally then they do what I want,” and she gave a roguish smile as she thought of the magic power she keeps in little, slender, white fingers.

It was thus she won Kubelik, and through him his master, Sevcik, with an audacity that surprises when one thinks what she must have been at sixteen. Kubelik was taking London by storm.

“I went to hear him,” related Miss Hall. “I saw immediately that he had something I never had been taught, and I felt sure that it was from his teacher. I heard all his concerts, and I resolved that I, too, would learn that wonderful technique. I waylaid Kubelik – I was only sixteen, and my long hair was hanging loose. I told him I wanted him to hear me play. He smiled, and seemed amused, but consented. I went next day. His accompanist met me, and, seeing my violin, said, “But are you really going to play to him?” “Of course I am,” I answered, “that’s what I came for.” Kubelik came. He was very kind, but still seemed amused. I told him I wanted to know who his master was, who had taught him to play so, for I wanted to go and learn to do so too. He said, “I’ll hear you play first. I suppose you play from memory?” “Of course I do,” I replied with spirit, and then I played him two concertos that he had played the day before. He said it was wonderful, that I must go to his master, Sevcik, at Prague.

“I went to Professor Kruse, my teacher, and said, ‘I have found something that you can’t teach me. I must go to Sevcik to learn it.'”

The girl’s audacious proposal met with strong opposition from her master and her benefactors, who were supporting her in London. When there was no other way to gain her point, Miss Hall declared that if she could not go to Prague, she would quit studying and go home. She had her way, and it proved for the best, just as her decision for the violin and against the harp was for the best.

The ten years between her first public appearance at a little hall in her birthplace, Newcastle, and her triumphant debut at Prague, in 1903, were full of ups and downs, but that childish determination to be “at the top” shines through it all, and illumines seeming wilfulness that somehow always led to better things. One can gather, too, for Miss Hall is very frank, that her parents, musicians though they were, hindered rather than helped her high ambitions, though willing enough that she should help the family purse by playing in the way they always had. When enthusiastic Newcastle gentlemen wished to educate her, her nomad father took the family across England to Malvern, near Worcester. Her next benefactor, Max Mossel, violin professor at Birmingham, gave her a year’s instruction, and secured her a free scholarship at the Birmingham School of Music. Friends, won by her playing, aided her father to take her to London to Wilhelmj, who was so delighted that he wanted to adopt her, and he did keep her and teach her several months. But, as she told me, “I did not stay long. I was afraid of him, and of the bulldogs he kept in the room next to where I practiced.”

Then the ambitious girl tried for a Royal Academy scholarship, and won in the competition, only to find that it meant merely tuition, and there was no money to pay her board in London. She had to give it up, and go back to playing for her father in concert halls, and even on the street, for the family was then desperately poor. They wandered to Bristol, and there something in the little minstrel’s playing appealed to a musical clergyman, now Canon Fellowes, of Windsor. He asked her to his house, found out her poverty, her genius, and her ambition, and interested wealthy friends in her. Here again her unambitious father was an obstacle. He did not want to sign an agreement to give her to others’ care for a three years’ systemic course. When provision was made for the family, to compensate for the loss of her now valuable earning capacity, he consented, and the way was clear to accomplish all that the girl’s genius was capable of doing.

Then came Kubelik. When she had won consent to go to Prague, Kubelik aided her in every way, even to securing an apartment for her, and won over his old master, Sevcik, and Dvorák, director of the Conservatorium, to a lively interest in the little English girl.

“And there I worked,” said Miss Hall, reminiscently, “ten hours a day, but it was pleasure.”

When Miss Hall talks of Sevcik and his method, she grows enthusiastic. She says no one else on earth teaches such technique, and in such a systemic way. To that method she ascribes her sureness, and the confidence with which she attacks the most difficult concertos. On entering the Conservatorium, her attainments were recognized, so that she was admitted to the sixth year work, and in one year she had completed the whole course. Then for five months Sevcik gave her private lessons, – his “little concerts” he called them, so delighted was he with her playing.

When she gave her “coming out” concert  in Prague, to invited guests, they recalled her over a score of times after her rendering of Ernst’s concerto in F sharp minor. Two gold caskets and a laurel wreath were hers before she left Prague for other triumphs at Vienna, and then her appearance at St. James Hall, London, where the enthusiasm is said to have been unequaled since Rubinstein took London by storm. The long years of patience practicing (four thousand bowing exercises, she told me,) the alternate hope and despair, and the struggle with unappreciative parents and dire poverty had borne fruit – she was a great concert performer.

When I asked Miss Hall how much of a great artist’s success is from genius and how much from hard work, she looked puzzled for a moment, and then said: -

“Well, you must have the mind, the feeling to know what is right. You do feel, you don’t know how,” and she put her hand to her breast in an effort to express intuition. “You must be able to grasp the principles of art. If a person does not admire beauty in whatever form, if he is satisfied with the course and vulgar things, he can never become a great artist. Hard work will not make him one.”

“But in your struggles did you not get discouraged?”

“Yes, indeed I did, and I do yet. I just give up, and think I will not try any more. Then I conclude it is worth while, and I go at it again.”

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Interview with Marie Hall, 1913

Here is a chapter from the 1913 book Modern Musicians: A Book for Players, Singers, & Listeners, by J. Cuthbert Hadden on violinist Marie Hall (1884-1956). I feel badly that I missed the 55th anniversary of her passing by a week. Marie Hall was an extraordinary women who apparently overcame extraordinary obstacles.

***

CHAPTER XXIX. MARIE HALL

Soft as the rain that falls on April night,

Light as the falling petals of a flower,

Dim as a misty landscape seen at night,

Low as the murmuring waves at twilight hour,

Your music held me with its strangely subtle power.

It rose and fell in lingering melody,

It held the speechless yearning of a soul,

Struggling for freedom – some great threnody

Woven in song, poured forth, a perfect whole

From those impassioned strings in mystic harmony.

Thus a rhymster in a Montreal paper in 1906. In England there was long a deep-rooted prejudice against lady violinists. It continued far into the nineteenth century. A musical journal of 1819 wrote: “We are tempted to ask why should not the prejudice against ladies playing the violin be overcome? It seems to us to be an instrument peculiarly adapted to their industry, delicacy, and precision; while what we have seen and heard of female violin-playing fully bears out the recommendation we feel disposed to give to its adoption.”

The Spectator in 1860 said: “Female violinists are rare, the violin being, we do not know why, deemed an unfeminine instrument.” In 1869 The Athenæum, noticing the performance of some lady violinists, said: “The fair sex are gradually encroaching on all man’s privileges!” Man’s privileges! What would that critic say now? Violin-playing by ladies made slow progress in England, even after the wonderful achievements of Mme. Neruda (later Lady Hallé) gave it such a splendid impetus. For instance, the first lady student of the instrument entered at the R.A.M. in 1872. Now the lady violinists at the Academy must be nearly a hundred.

And why not? Sevcik, the famous violin teacher, was asked recently whether in his experience men or women made the best pupils. And this was his answer:

“Girls don’t drink too much or smoke inordinately, therefore they keep their bodies in better condition. Besides, look what patience women have compared to men! Perhaps at first a woman does not put as much expression and feeling into her playing as a man, but wait till she falls in love! Then the soul comes. However, some remain as cold as ice for ever. Men, too, have often no idea of feeling, and imagine that if they put on a tremolo that they have done all that is necessary. Kubelik lacked expression at first, but it came to him as he grew older.”

It may be added that some leading lady singers, notably Christine Nilsson and Marcella Sembrich, have been good fiddlers.

Among living lady violinists, Marie Hall takes the first place. Her history has been quite romantic. She said once: “I am really sick to death of all that has been written about my youth and its vicissitudes.” But the way in which she triumphed over these vicissitudes is entirely honourable, and ought to be recorded for the encouragement of others.

Born at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1884, she received her first lessons from her father, a harpist in the orchestra of the Carl Rosa Company. When she was ten she had a year’s tuition from Sir Edward Elgar – a very interesting connection, surely! Subsequently she studied for three years with Max Mossel at Birmingham, making several appearances meanwhile as an infant prodigy. The struggle was severe at this time owing to her father’s lack of means; and she was reduced to playing ephemeral music in saloons and sometimes on the pavement’s edge.

In 1899 she gained one of the recently-instituted Wessely Exhibitions at the R.A.M., but was unable, through poverty, to take it up. The story goes that a little later a clergyman, an enthusiastic lover of music, found her in a half-starved condition playing for composers in the streets of Bristol. Recognising a talent beyond the ordinary, he took her to London, and with the assistance of some friends – among them the late Mr. Hill of Bond Street – placed her in a position to continue her studies with Professor Johann Kruse. After she had made steady progress with him for a year and more, her friends again came forward, and sent her, armed with a letter of introduction from Kubelik, to Professor Sevcik at Prague. The rule at the Prague Conservatoire is that every pupil who enters must take the entire six years’ course before leaving; but Anton Dvorák, at that time chief director of studies, was so impressed with her playing that for the first and last time he allowed the regulation to be broken, and the first five years to be taken as fiddled. Hard work is the initial demand that Sevcik makes on his pupils, and it was a demand which Marie Hall was fully prepared to meet. During her year at the conservatoire, and her extra five months of private study with him, she practised eight hours a day at least, and oftener ten.

And yet Joachim had refused her because, as he alleged, she played out of tune!

Sevcik was so delighted with his pupil that he lent her his own Amati violin for her début. This was made at Prague in 1902. The lady’s success was enormous and instantaneous. When she appeared in London in 1903 she created a great sensation, and since then her brilliant career has proceeded on the usual virtuoso lines.

Marie Hall has been everywhere in the course of her tours. Her account of the Americans is very complimentary, but she has an amusing word to add about the New Yorkers. “The 1812 Overture of Tschaikovsky appeals to them,” she says. “They like something big, with plenty of sound. It seems more for their money.” At private parties in the States she has had sometimes to shake hands with 500 people. In Australia she was literally smothered with flowers. Harps and lyres, shepherds’ crooks, and bouquets were showered on her after her concerts.

An interviewer said to her once: “Will you tell me the most extraordinary experience you have had?” And this was her reply:

“I think the one that appealed to me most was a concert I gave at Suva, the capital of the Fiji Islands. Our boat put in there for a few days to take in some cargo, and a concert was hastily arranged. There are about 1100 white people there, and I think they all went – in fact, it was a sort of universal holiday. I went to the only draper’s shop there to see if I could get a cotton dress, as mine were packed away, and they explained to me that they could not let me have one that day as they were all going to a concert, and expressed much astonishment that I was apparently not going too. When I explained that I was going, and wanted a dress for that reason, that changed matters entirely, and they all set to work and fitted me out with something which answered the purpose. Suva does not boast a concert hall, so the concert was held in a sort of large tent, and the heat was something terrific; I had to have a man to keep an electric fan moving right over my hands, or I could not have played at all. The piano was a very old one and fearfully out of tune, but at last we found an old sailor from a warship who volunteered to tune it. He was very deaf, and had his own ideas about tuning, and he informed me with great pride that as a piano always sounded more brilliant if the upper notes were a little sharp he had tuned up the treble. He had really done so, with the result that for about an octave and a half in the treble the notes ascended in varying degrees of sharpness. The Governor and his wife were to be present, and someone was wanted to play “God Save the King” at the beginning, so the small daughter of one of the residents was pressed into service. She not only played “God Save the King,” but about twenty variations as well, during which the audience had to stand. I am pleased to say the concert was a great success, and we wound up the festivities by a dinner at the Governor’s house. I also played at Honolulu, in the Hawaiian Islands, and Miss Alice Roosevelt, or rather Mrs. Longworth, was staying there with her husband, and very kindly came to hear me. Another concert I gave was at Vancouver, but as we were only to be there for a few hours I had to go straight off the boat, and was on the platform within ten minutes of our landing. When I got back to England – after being away eight months – I was booked to play at a concert at New Brighton the day after my arrival, and had to be up early the morning after we landed to attend a rehearsal with the orchestra.”

Marie Hall, like all other artists of fine expression, is nervous when playing in public. “I have been very nervous on many occasions,” she said a year or two ago. And then she continued:

“I remember when Sevcik sent me to play in Vienna while I was still at Prague, how miserable I felt. It was only the fact that I felt I simply must do my best to prove my appreciation of all my master’s trouble that made me able to get through it all. Again at my début in London in February 1903 I felt so much alone and quite wretched. Mr. Henry J. Wood was a tower of strength and so kind to me, and all through that evening I felt as though Sevcik were present in the hall, and I forgot all about my fears and the audience, and just played to him. I may say that never in all my career have I enjoyed a concert as much as that (to me) memorable one. The only remedy I know for nervousness is to be able to concentrate one’s attention wholly on the music. By so doing all thoughts of self vanish, and one becomes lost to everything but the beauty of the music.”

She has interesting ideas about her profession, this fiddler of the frail physique. She thinks nineteen quite young enough for a violinist to “come out.” She says it is much better to wait until one’s education is finished, though finished is merely a convenient term, for “there is always something more to learn.” But certainly, she adds, “one is more fitted to appear before the public at nineteen than at twelve. I believe in gaining a certain amount of experience before playing in London or any other big town, and a hint that may be worth having is to try always to play before the concert in the hall in which you are to perform so that you may get some idea of its acoustic properties. Another thing I should like to say is that violinists should not neglect any opportunity of hearing the best music, and not only other violinists, but music of every kind, pianists, singers, orchestral, and chamber music.”

She says that violin-playing of the virtuoso sort is hard work, but she does not find it trying, because she loves it so much. She enjoys practising, and never allows anything to interfere with it. “I have practised,” she says, “in the train, on the steamer, and in all sorts of odd places when travelling, and I am not happy if I cannot get in about six hours a day. During my spare time at home (when I have any) I love to play chamber music, and have been revelling lately in quartets. I think every violinist ought to acquire a knowledge of chamber music, for, besides being most enjoyable, it affords such a splendid training.”

She plays on the famous “Viotti” Stradivarius. “It is a great treasure,” she says, “and it seems so wonderful to think that is over 200 years old, and is yet as beautiful as ever.” In 1911 Miss Hall was married to Mr. Edward Baring, of the firm of concert-directors, Messrs. Baring Brothers, of Cheltenham. Mr. Baring had been her business manager.

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Something Old, Something New: Some Reflections on the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics Project

It’s a warm night for November in Minneapolis, but I’m wearing tights, and I’m in a bus shelter, and I’m getting very cold. I remember I’ve forgotten something important, something I was stupid to forget, so I take the bus up the street to Target. I don’t know the store, but it’s big and it has escalators, so I assume it has what I need. It doesn’t. So I go outside again. My feet are throbbing in my cheap heels. I have a fleeting guilty thought of how vain I am, that I’m forcing body parts into painful positions on the off-chance that some strangers I’ll never meet again might find elongated legs aesthetically attractive. Adding credence to the thought of vanity is the dawning realization that although yes, I am a very small girl, I am not a size 1 girl; the secondhand dress I was so proud of finding at the thrift shop is beginning to feel more and more like a whalebone corset. I struggle to take a breath; my body forces me to yawn instead. I glance up and down Nicollet Mall and see a Walgreens. So I cross the street and wander up and down the aisles. Finally I find what I need. I pay and leave and sit down in the shelter again. I worry I’m sitting on my skirt, that I will stand up and find that the black fabric that has been so carefully ironed is now crushed. I feel a flash of frustration; if I’m going to wear a too-tight outfit, I want it to look spectacular, dammit. I shift my weight on the tulle. As I do, my stomach starts making strange noises it hadn’t made before I buttoned up the dress. I wonder idly how this bodes for the quieter moments of the concert I’m about to attend. I wonder if anyone else will hear me, if they’ll guess that the noises are from the too-tight dress, if they’ll think me vain. Am I vain? A kind-looking woman steps inside the shelter; she speaks pleasantly to the man standing next to her, then takes out her phone and screams that she’ll be home in a minute, that she’s waiting for the bus, and that’s she’s fine, except she’s cold, very cold! She quits the call suddenly without saying good-bye. A little girl runs between us and starts to cry. Buses come and go. Mine is late. I hop aboard and sway down the street. People speak in a buzz of languages I can’t identify, much less understand. I pull the cord for a stop; at the next corner the back door doesn’t open. I bang at it a little; everybody looks at me with raised eyebrows, except the driver, who doesn’t see me at all. I sigh and stand back from the door. At the next stop I get off and sit for a moment on the edge of a fountain that has been drained for the winter. I see the hall in the distance; it’s further away than I want it to be, but it’s not worth waiting twenty minutes for the bus in the other direction. A man comes by and tries to sell me a rose. I tell him no thank you. This is an unwelcome reminder that appearances are deceptive; despite the seemingly expensive dress and musical tastes, I have no money. (Tomorrow afternoon I will have to scrounge through my purse to find a few dollars’ worth of coins to pay a parking garage fee I forgot I owed.) I finally bundle up against the wind and set off for Orchestra Hall. Once I get inside I limp through the lobby and down the stairs. I get into the restroom and try to steady myself. It’s hard; my ankles are wobbling. I soak my hands in very hot water.

When the auditorium doors open and I take my seat, my mind is still buzzing with inconsequential thoughts. Judging by the fragments of lighthearted chit-chat I hear all around me, so is everyone else’s. The only discussion of the music is coming from an elderly woman behind me who is reading the program notes to her companion slowly, in a loud voice. A little after eight o’ clock, the house lights go down and the orchestra tunes.

But the rites and rituals of a traditional orchestral concert end there. A violist, brandishing a microphone instead of a viola, and a conductor – a stylish young female conductor – come out onto the stage. She ascends the podium and raises her arms to cue the orchestra. The lights go dark, and darker, and darker. The first aching strains of the third movement of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony emanate into the hall.

“I’ve often thought that one of the best ways to take the measure of an artist is to observe how he reacts to circumstances beyond his control,” the violist says. “How does he respond to hardship, to success, to criticism, and how are those responses reflected in his work? When an artist finds himself in a place that is nakedly hostile to Art, how does he defend himself? Does he become a rebel, speaking truth to power and risking his freedom or even his life? Does he flee to the safety of art that challenges nothing and acquiesces to the powerful? Or does he carve some more complicated middle path, and leave it up to history to sort out his legacy?”

The blackness of the hall, the music, and the words transport me to a different place. Thoughts about the dress and the heels and the tulle and the (lack of) money and the cold and the pain and the bus and every other inconvenience I’ve suffered on this long, long day of travel suddenly vanish. Physically, I may be in Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall, at one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics shows on Shostakovich five, but mentally, I’m in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Despite my exhaustion, I don’t get to sleep until well past one o’ clock that night. I’m unable to get certain notes of the symphony, or the violist’s terrifying suggestions of what those notes might mean, out of my mind. This is music at its most engaging, I think to myself, lying on the hotel bed and looking out at the Minneapolis skyline, all lit up in the crisp November night. This is a new way of doing an old thing. And if my experience as a listener is any indication, it just might be working.

***

I started reading the Minnesota Orchestra blog, Inside the Classics, sometime in 2009. I feel safe in saying that it’s one of the most engaging in the classical music world. It’s written by two big musical personalities, Orchestra violist and former ArtsJournal news editor Sam Bergman and Principal Pops and Presentations Conductor Sarah Hicks, both of whom bring their own unique and eloquent voices to the virtual table. Entries are wide-ranging in both tone and subject matter. To give a little taste of what they write about, a few of the eighty-odd tags on their blog include elitism, loud brass instruments, musical dorkery, musician humor, new music, philosophical musings, stirring the pot, the long-suffering audience, things that make us look lame and snooty, and Sam as neurotic freak.

Three times a year Sam and Sarah (as they call each other on the blog and onstage) get together with the orchestra to give what they call “a show about a concert.” Last year they covered Dvorák’s seventh symphony, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and La Valse, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I’d read about these concerts in the promotional booklets the Orchestra sends out every year and thought they looked interesting, but – and here’s a shocker – it turns out that when you’re a disabled young person caught up in the cogs of the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression, you tend to not have a lot of money to go see concerts, much less concerts in other cities. However, when a review that I wrote about the Minnesota Orchestra for violinist.com last summer became the subject of a flattering entry of Bergman’s (gotta love the echo chamber!), I decided I wanted to do whatever I could to get to Minneapolis and meet him and see what he does in-person. (Okay, so clearly I come to this subject with some bias, especially since [in the interest of full responsible journalistic disclosure and all that jazz] I’ve met Bergman a few times since then, and I took a violin lesson from him in October, and I think he’s a good guy. But in my opinion, writers who think themselves free of bias are deluding themselves, especially when they’re writing about the incestuous world of classical music, where everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone else. If the alternative to bias means not getting to know the most interesting people in our art, I’ll choose the bias any day, thanks. If you feel this invalidates everything I’m about to say, you’re totally free to quit reading. Anyway.)

Long story short, this March I was finally able to make the trip to Minneapolis for an Inside the Classics show on Ravel, and I had a blast. The show’s first half consists of Sam and Sarah having a dialogue about the composer, elements that influenced him and his work, and the form and structure of the piece in question, with the orchestra supplying samples of it and other related works to put it into perspective. (This portion of the show is similar to what Michael Tilson Thomas does in the San Francisco Symphony’s gripping PBS series Keeping Score. If you haven’t seen that show yet, you must. In fact, you have my permission to stop reading this and watch an episode. You’re welcome.) After intermission, Bergman puts away the microphone and heads back to his seat in the viola section, Hicks ascends the podium, and the orchestra blazes through a full uninterrupted performance of the work. Cue wild whoops and hollers from the appreciative audience. Last season’s concerts featured informal Q&A sessions after each show, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to wait around afterward and say hi and engage them in a quick conversation about what you like (or don’t like) about what they’re doing.

(Sam and Sarah sell the ItC concept on Youtube. Look, classical musicians have finally figured out how to upload videos! Go us!)

I think shows like these tend to succeed or stumble based on two things: the quality of the writing and the charisma of the host(s). Bergman and Hicks leap over both hurdles with flying colors. They’re smart, funny, and sophisticated; they know how to appeal to seasoned concertgoers without ever talking down to newcomers; they have chemistry to burn. One or the other could easily hold the stage alone, but together they conquer it. They both are a real inspiration to this writer who loves music, and who is trying her best to figure out how exactly one field can inspire the other: put another way, how to use words to discuss a wordless art form. When I see Sam and Sarah taking their bows after the first half of the concert is over, and then look around me at a 2500-seat auditorium filled to the brim with a crowd much younger and more engaged than the hoity-toity moribund one stereotypically associated with orchestral music, I feel all sorts of questions percolating in my brain. How exactly have they built up such a loyal audience? What have they done right (because obviously they’re doing a lot of things right)? Why does so much orchestral music have the reputation of being so irrelevant and incomprehensible since, framed correctly, it’s clearly not? How can we share it with people who are interested in it but hesitant to set foot in a hall? How can we fulfill audiences’ thirsts for knowledge – thirsts that sometimes they didn’t even know they had? Where do new technologies and new traditions fit into the picture?

I’m a dork; I’ve always been a dork; I’ve never really stopped to think about any of these things before, because if there’s an orchestra concert and I’m in town and I have the money, I go to it, no questions asked. But not everyone is as fortunate as me; not everyone has six years of private music lessons and a summer at chamber music camp under their belt; not everyone has a family supportive of musical endeavors; not everyone has kind engaging musician friends who are willing to drop everything to discuss what they love and loathe about their art. So, if the vast majority of orchestral audiences don’t have those advantages to stoke their love of music, how can we reach them and serve them and deepen our connection with them? The whole Inside the Classics project – the blog and the concert series both – encourages me to ask these hugely important questions. I’m well aware they’re ancient chestnuts to a lot of people who make their living in the arts, but they’re new and exciting to me. And I’m finding it fascinating to watch the members of the Minnesota Orchestra attempt to answer them.

***

In November 2010 the Inside the Classics team announced they were commissioning a major new orchestral work by Brooklyn-based composer Judd Greenstein. Okay, whatever, big deal; commissions like this happen all the time, right? Wrong. This project is unique on a variety of levels. It wouldn’t be financed by one major donor, or a fund contributed to by major donors; instead, it would be paid for by ordinary people who would each chip in anything from $1 to $1500. Bergman and Hicks labeled this project the “Microcommission.” A donation page was set up on the Minnesota Orchestra website, and at the end of each 2010-2011 Inside the Classics concert, viola cases were scattered throughout the lobby, in which audiences were encouraged to drop any spare cash. (I knew viola cases were good for something!) By June 2011, hundreds of people had given $20,000, enough to buy the Inside the Classics audience a brand new orchestral work. Leading up to the big premiere in March 2012, Greenstein – a thoughtful, engaging young composer who writes appetizing music influenced by a wide variety of genres – is contributing his thoughts about his work and the creative process on the Inside the Classics blog. (He wrote a mind-bogglingly interesting entry this month about nomenclature and why he’s hesitating to call this new work a symphony. If that kind of thing floats your boat, you’ll want to check it out.) He was even a part of the Shostakovich 5 show this week, elaborating on the idea of how composers “steal” from one another, employing an extended metaphor about a very tasty crouton. (Okay, so maybe you had to be there, but trust me, it was entertaining and enlightening.) Next January he’s going to be in Minneapolis again to provide input on the next Inside the Classics show on John Adams’s My Father Knew Charles Ives, and of course he’ll be an integral part of the March season finale at which his new piece will be dissected and premiered. And as if there wasn’t enough going on already, he and Bergman have just launched a project called The Listening Room, described here as “an online book club, only with music instead of books.” Together the two of them are going to be soliciting questions from blog readers, resulting in a (hopefully) absorbing discussion of the music that has influenced Greenstein. (Even if you live nowhere near Minnesota, you can take part in this. So stay tuned.)

(Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, during a visit to New York earlier this year, Bergman conducted a five-part video interview with Greenstein in which they discuss everything from Milton Babbitt to the future of live music to social experiences in the concert hall. So yeah. They’ve been busy.)

The microcommission is one of those ideas that is so painfully obvious, it’s embarrassing that nobody in the classical music world has embraced it yet. (At least not that I know of, anyway.) The idea of microfunding has permeated our modern digital culture, from the emails we get from various politicians and fundraising organizations begging for “small donations of just $5, $10, or $20!” – to celebrities going on Twitter hiatuses until their fans chip in a certain amount of cash for various charitable purposes – even to late-night television, where this April Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert sang a duet of Rebecca Black’s Friday as a reward for their audiences after 2000+ viewers raised nearly $120,000 for the awesome website Donors Choose. So heck, why not extend the concept to orchestral music? All the cool kids are doing it, so why can’t we nerds have some fun with the idea, too?

The Inside the Classics team didn’t stop there, even though they easily could have done so, and patted themselves on the back for their innovation, to boot. But they didn’t. They realized they could seize this opportunity to get even more creative: to use new technology to connect audience members and to help them form an emotional and intellectual connection to “their” piece and its composer. (By the way, their selection of Judd Greenstein as the microcommission composer was an inspired one. He very neatly and effectively shatters the myth that all contemporary composers live in lonely unheated garrets, suffering from acute social anxiety disorder and writing hideous cacophonous things that they swear to God our grandchildren will understand.)

(Case in point, Greenstein’s fantastic quartet Four on the Floor, performed by, you guessed it, members of the Minnesota Orchestra.)

After the show on Shostakovich 5, the audience was invited to stay for a post-concert performance of Greenstein’s quartet Four on the Floor. This high-voltage piece was performed by four musicians from the orchestra (including Bergman, who obviously had a bit of a full plate this weekend). It’s a fun piece to listen to, but it’s even more fun to watch. Complicated rhythms ricochet back and forth between the parts, and at times the first and second violins seem like they’re in a wild dance-to-the-death with the viola and cello. After the final virtuosic chords ripped through the hall, the audience – which was bigger than I thought it would be – burst into wild applause. It was quite a sight to see the ensemble and the composer taking their bows together onstage: three ridiculously accomplished members of the orchestra, the violist/writer/host who has put so much thought and creativity into making this series happen, and the young up-and-coming composer who I feel is on the edge of unleashing some very, very exciting sounds that even small-town Midwestern me will be able to appreciate. I hope I’m able to make it to Minneapolis in March to see the final result of this creative ferment.

That being said, I have no idea how the project will pan out. Nobody knows yet if audiences will like Greenstein’s new piece, or if tickets will sell. Speaking more broadly, I don’t know how many more years the Inside the Classics series or blog will go on, or if the concept could survive in any meaningful form if either Bergman or Hicks would, for whatever reason, give up their ItC duties. But maybe, in some weird way, that’s all beside the point. Maybe it’s the mere willingness to experiment that matters. Because even if certain aspects of the project fall short of expectations, chances are, others won’t. And some might even exceed them. Actually, it’s totally within the realm of possibility that the Minnesota Orchestra is starting new concertgoing traditions that will serve to deepen their audience’s appreciation for old and new music alike. That’s exciting. That’s thrilling. Maybe musicians in other cities will sit up and take note and try similar things, customizing ideas for their own individual communities. And maybe in the process we’ll finally shut up at least some of the people who take such sadistic pleasure in telling us that no matter what we do, we and the music we love are doomed to perpetual irrelevance. God, wouldn’t that be fantastic?

 * * *

Where is orchestral music headed? Are we in our final death throes, like everyone keeps insinuating we are (like we keep telling ourselves we are)? Is an out-of-the-box approach going to charm an audience that comes largely for old programming served up in a traditional manner? Can we get an audience that thrives on new experiences to buy tickets to the warhorses, as long as they’re performed with passion and commitment? Can we serve both demographics, or even get the two demographics to mix? Are either of those ideas wise in the long-run? What traditions will tomorrow’s audiences embrace? What will our programs look like ten years from now? Twenty? Fifty? Will there come a day when wordless all-music concerts will be heavily supplemented by concerts with affable, intelligent hosts? Will more orchestras start employing eloquent, opinionated bloggers as tools to establish deeper connections with their audience? Will we eventually be expected to communicate about music just as effectively with words as we do with our instruments?

I’d be a presumptuous ass to say I knew the answers to any of those questions. I’m wary of anyone who claims with any certainty to see the future. But I do know that my life as a listener has been vastly expanded by the new approaches the Minnesota Orchestra is trying, and you know what? For me, that’s reason enough to love what they’re doing, and to encourage other musicians in other communities to think about following at least some of their leads at least some of the time.

Because I want other music-lovers to have the same exciting experiences I’ve had. I want other people to come to concerts totally absorbed by stupid inconsequential things, then be transported to other times and places via the power of thought-provoking writing and music. I want witty charming intelligent musicians onstage sharing their thoughts about the repertoire. I want insights to bring back home to my own listening – insights that I simply won’t ever get in a traditional music-only concert. I want other people to have mind-expanding experiences with the work of living composers, and maybe even with the actual living composers themselves. In short, I want other people to get the same joy out of orchestral music that this blog and this series and this orchestra has given to me. I hope to God that’s not an impossibly naive wish.

So if you’re in the Minneapolis area, buy a ticket to an Inside the Classics show, give it a try, and let me know what you think. (I don’t think Sam or Sarah would mind hearing your thoughts, either, positive or negative!) If your own local orchestra has a similar program, try it out; see what works and what doesn’t. Putting on these kinds of concerts and utilizing new technologies are just two of the many tools available to us orchestral musicians as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. If audience-cultivating methods like these can succeed, maybe – maybe? – we’re not quite as close to dying off as we like to think.

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Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy

Confession time: I live in small-town Wisconsin, and it’s driving me crazy. This year I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Minneapolis metro, and while doing so I’ve discovered beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m actually a big city girl at heart. (Well, bigger city girl, anyway. I realize that some people don’t consider Minneapolis to be a big city. However, I invite those people to move to western Wisconsin, live there for twenty-two years, and then visit Minneapolis. I can assure you they will reconsider their opinion.) Nothing else fulfills me – artistically, emotionally, spiritually – like the kind of world-class performances you find so often in the Twin Cities. Every time I walk down Nicollet Mall to Orchestra Hall, drunk with the throbbing energy of the city, dizzy with the thought that any minute now I’ll be in the big hall with the big orchestra and the big soloists, I feel like a magical new dimension of life is opening up before me. So you can imagine how thrilled I was this week when the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to see the Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in an 11AM program of Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy. The concert exceeded expectations in unexpected ways; I learned more about orchestral music in one morning than I’ve ever learned at a single concert before.

The concert began with the haunting Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. I haven’t listened to much Britten, and I’m not sure why; I invariably love whatever I hear, but I just never take that next step to seek out more. Note to self: more Britten. This is lovely, powerful, weirdly unsettling music, soaked through with misty moonlit atmosphere. I love it. The orchestra played beautifully, although I don’t recall any individual standout moments. (Upon reflection, this may have been because I was too busy fangirling and thinking “oh my God I’m in Orchestra Hall! and look! there’s Osmo Frigging Vanskä! and Erin Keefe and Sarah Kwak and Sam Bergman and Peter McGuire and Tony Ross and all the others oh my God!” to pay as much attention as I should have to the actual music.) I did, however, get the general impression that the Britten was, more than anything else, serving as a curtain-raiser for the event that the orchestra website and brochures have been trumpeting for months: the return of Midori to the Twin Cities.

This is not my first encounter with Midori; I saw her in July 2010 in recital in Winona, Minnesota, and I wrote after that concert that “Her sound – at least as I heard it from the front row of the balcony – was clear, classic, elegant, beautiful, but maybe a bit small, and focused at the center of the hall, as opposed to extending out to the sides.” This time I was way out on the side of Orchestra Hall in the seventh row, so I had a chance to test out my July 2010 hypothesis. Turns out my doubts as to whether her sound could carry out to the corners were well-founded. Her playing was anemic, and it wasn’t a matter of mere acoustics; concertmaster Erin Keefe pierced through much more effortlessly during her brief solos in the second half of the program than Midori did in any of the Sibelius. In an attempt to get another perspective I listened to the MPR broadcast of Friday night’s concert, and I heard the same thing there. In both the broadcast and in real life, certain brief passages came across as clear and loud and gutsy, as if a technician had turned up a mike, but then within a few measures the sound would invariably, mysteriously, fade away again. I’d noted the same disconnect in her sound between the main body of her program and her encore in her July 2010 recital; it’s a very odd phenomenon. To add to the awkwardness, one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s trademarks is a huge dynamic range. Usually, of course, this is a divine treat, but in this particular performance, it almost became a liability as various players struggled not to obliterate their soloist. Whenever a tutti came and they were cut loose to do their wild magnificent thing, it ended up sounding like a toddler was futzing with the volume dial on a very expensive speaker. They never did find their balance, at least not from my seat. I’m sure part of the problem is that I’ve never heard the Sibelius live, and I’m spoiled with unnatural balance on recordings, but my gut’s saying it was more than that, that another player could have pierced through more often. Hopefully someday I’ll get another shot at hearing the Sibelius live, and then I’ll see if this was just a fluke, or if everybody vanishes so far away into the texture. (And who knows, maybe someday I’ll realize I owe Midori an apology for expecting superhuman volume.)

Aside from the projection issues, there were a couple of strange interludes in the first and second movements where everything seemed to slow down, where I didn’t quite understand where she was headed, where my thoughts wandered, where my attention was drawn to the second violinists, or audience members up high in the tiers, or the sheen of Erin Keefe’s hair underneath the spotlight. (Although to be fair, Erin Keefe does have gorgeous hair.) I heard a lot of passion in what Midori was playing, but I felt absolutely none of it. It felt very odd – almost voyeuristic, as if I was in the same room with someone who was crying over a love letter that I’d never be allowed to read.

Clearly, for whatever reason, our two souls didn’t quite connect that morning. Question: why do some performances grip you; assault you; touch, burn, something raw and searing and elemental deep within you – while others only make you think “hmm, impressive” and nod appreciatively while the bravos are shouted and the bows are taken? I know, I know, music is subjective, even (especially?) at the very highest levels of performance. It’s probably part of the reason I love it so; I enjoy being frustrated by ambiguity. But it’s still mind-boggling to me how I can be in the same room with two other much more experienced listeners and apparently hear a totally different performance.

Now it sounds like I’m coming down hard on a great violinist, which I don’t mean to do. There were elements to her performance that I really liked, too, like the dozens of little details she put into that ethereal opening, and her beautiful yearning shifts. Her technique felt solid, aside from a couple of passages in that beastly third movement where just about everyone struggles. She clearly has the chops. But based on my experiences seeing her last year in-recital, and hearing various mind-blowing Vanskä Sibelius performances over the radio, my pre-concert guess was that the orchestra itself would be the real star during the concerto…and I was right. I wish there had been a solo encore so I could hear how she sounded without having to compete with the orchestra. Maybe she’s just one of those violinists whose strengths are best appreciated in a recital setting.

After intermission came an orchestral arrangement of Clair de Lune. Vanskä has a habit of striding onstage and starting the orchestra before the buzz of the acknowledging applause has entirely dissipated in the hall. I’m not sure if he’s frustrated with audiences taking too long to clap as he comes onstage, or if he’s just that excited to get to the music, or what. That quick transition from applause to music didn’t work so well here; the weird result was that the entrance to Clair de Lune sounded jarring. The orchestra played beautifully (of course), but the arrangement itself struck me as rather cloying. I suppose it didn’t help that I watched Twilight last week and there’s that awful scene where Edward and Bella stand around in Edward’s bed-less bedroom for approximately eight hours while blankly stammering and breathing at each another, before randomly, improbably, bonding over their mutual appreciation for (you guessed it) Clair de Lune. (Note to self: don’t ever watch Twilight before going to see a Debussy performance. It will ruin it for you.) (Actually, just to be on the safe side, don’t ever watch Twilight again, period.)

Erin Keefe had a small solo during the piece, and now seems as good a time as any to mention that she is total dynamite. She approaches her new job with the precision and body language of a chamber musician, and she clearly has technique and musicality to burn. I hope her coworkers love her as much as I do. Halfway through the program I even caught myself imagining how amazing it would be to play in her section, and that has certainly never happened before. I’m itching to see if she can deliver the goods playing a concerto gig. Minnesota Orchestra programmers: get on this.

An arrangement of the piano piece L’Îsle Joyeuse came next. This piece was much more satisfying in orchestral form than Clair de Lune was. What a sweep of elegance and excitement! In the program Eric Bromberger mentioned that Debussy worked on the piece while vacationing with his mistress on the Isle of Jersey. Hmm. I’d heard the story before, but I never would have made the connection between the Isle of Jersey and L’Îsle Joyeuse; it certainly lent a whole new dimension to the defiant, bittersweet exultation that permeates the piece. I love enlightening program notes.

The last work on the program, La Mer, was the highlight of the morning by a million miles. Lushness, color, beauty, everything, and lots of everything. Sweeps and slides galore – touches of gorgeous schmaltz – washes of pure sound, followed by perfectly articulated clarity – astonishing, impossible dynamic contrasts. Phrases of only a few notes had (and I’m not exaggerating) five or more dynamics. Every single phrase was gorgeously shaped, especially in the lower strings; principle cellist Tony Ross in particular was a total standout. The whole concert I was really struck by all the principles, and how they interacted with one another and with Vanskä. For whatever reason, the entire orchestra gave off the vibe of a chamber group, and it was such a joy to watch. Music students: watch and learn.

There was a big moment toward the end of the first movement when a bold brass fanfare soared through the hall, and I felt as if I was on the top of a cliff overlooking a choppy salty sea, hair whipping across my face, coat whipping against the wind, totally absolutely against-all-odds invincible. Right away the tears began to prick at my lashes. Okay, I admit it – the brass made me cry. Not the violins, not the violas, not the cellos…the brass. So kudos to them for making this brass-averse string-player tear up. They were just magnificent. From now on whenever I listen to that portion of La Mer I know I’ll remember the way that the notes surged out above me, and how they so brilliantly, so miraculously, encapsulated everything I felt that morning – the relief of escape, the glory of the ecstasy of sound, the exultation of being in a big bustling city crowded full with interesting people who share my obsessive quirky passions. What a breathtaking experience.

So if you have the chance to see a great orchestra and haven’t yet taken advantage of it, for God’s sake, stop putting it off. Go into the city – find a friend to split the costs – take a very long day-trip – just do it. Find a way to make it happen, because I guarantee you that no CD or DVD or Blu-Ray or state-of-the-art surround-sound system can deliver inspiration with the same intensity that a world-class ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra can. Trust me on this one.

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Meeting Edith Lynwood Winn (And Her Opinions)

Meet Edith Lynwood Winn.

Winn (1868-1933) was a turn-of-the-century writer, violinist, and pedagogue. She had a lot of opinions, and she took great joy in sharing them. Her books include Violin Talks (1905), How To Prepare For Kreutzer (1910), How To Study Fiorillo (1910), and The Etudes of Life (1908). I just stumbled upon them yesterday by accident. Winn sidetracked me with her authoritative voice, and ever since I’ve been reading her highly entertaining work in my spare time. I know relatively little about her besides what she reveals in the books. She apparently studied in Europe (as almost all serious musicians did in those days) – once had a nervous breakdown after practicing too hard for too long – taught in public schools and colleges – lived in Boston – studied with Julius Eichberg, a Boston-based teacher who taught many great female violinists – and had “unfortunate fingers”, in particular an obnoxiously short fourth finger (just like me!). She sounds like a very interesting, strong-willed lady, and even when I oh-my-gosh totally absolutely 100% disagree with her, I still find I Can’t Stop Reading Her.

Here are some excerpts from Violin Talks.

Children’s work in America has been as yet an experiment and is not based on psychological and pedagogical training such as teachers in the public schools are obliged to receive before they are entrusted with the education of the young. The theory that “any teacher is good enough for a beginner” is fast becoming null and void. There must be teachers trained for children’s work. They most love this preparatory work. They must be willing to serve art from the beginning of child training. Such teachers are born and not made, and yet their preparation for teaching must be broad. They must know violin literature; they must love children and be able to meet the child on his own plane; they must be unselfish, consecrated, thorough. Above all, they must be able to produce a beautiful tone, – the first model which a child hears.

The teacher should possess a winning personality. The child should be obedient, respectful, prompt, and willing. The German child always comes to his teacher with a “good morning” and a hand-shake, but he stands somewhat in awe of his master. Teacher and pupil can be sympathetic without seriously interfering with the dignity of their relation. The nervous and high-strung child suffers under severe teaching.

In general, if a pupil has worked hard for eight or nine months without interruption, he should have a vacation during the summer, and he will begin with more freshness and vigor in the fall.

I believe that ear-training should go hand in hand with violin study. It is unfortunate, indeed, that the public schools of every town do not afford some musical training for children, but it is only in the average large town and city that there are trained teachers of music who direct and supervise the study of music through the various school grades. The consequence is that music teachers have to do more real drudgery than they should, and they are also compelled to teach ear-training, time values, and many other things which students ought to have learned long before.

Many people ask at what age a child should begin violin study. This depends upon the constitution and taste of the child, and upon his musical environment. It is better to begin at fifteen years of age with a competent teacher than to begin at seven with an inferior teacher. If there is no fine violinist in the town, let the child begin piano study with some good teacher, for piano teachers are more easily found. At the proper age let the child go to the city for violin lessons. Country and city standards differ. Country teachers, because of little competition, are prone to advance pupils too rapidly. The thoroughness with which the best city teachers work is an evidence of high standards. A faithful study of the first position requires two or three years for the average child.

Every violinist should play the viola to some extent. This aids one to produce a robust tone, and a knowledge of it is very helpful to the ensemble class.

It pays to be broadly educated. It makes us richer. It makes the world richer. It helps us to be happier. The man and woman who intend to devote life to the profession of violin teaching, or concertizing, cannot be too well educated.

Few pupils know how to practice, hence the prevailing fault of neglected rhythm. Said a well-known teacher: “Never let anything pass which is not up to the standard of true musicianship. It is better to play twelve Etudes in one year, and play them well, than to go over the whole range of Kreutzer and Fiorillo. You will have it all to do over again some day, and it will be hard indeed to undo what you have done unwisely or carelessly.”

Many piano pupils use a metronome for daily practice. Let the violinist use his brains.

“Rag-time” music is the very enemy of careful reading, attention to rhythm, and the cultivation of the highest in music. It develops inexcusable laziness in pupils, and the teacher has to undo a host of faults which could be avoided if parents only knew them to be positively the result of the “rag-time craze,” and would forbid it. This would save hard work on the teacher’s part, and much sorrow on the part of the pupil.

A certain pupil has an over-emotional temperament. She even plays unrhythmically. A year or two of ensemble work will aid her greatly. Another pupil suffers from the effects of overpractice. She also plays unrhythmically. Rest is her only cure.

If I were the mistress of a home I should teach every child to recite poetry. The child who cannot feel the rhythm of poetry will not feel it in music, but he can cultivate both. I should allow him to dance. From his earliest years he should sing child-songs. When he is older let him study the languages and learn to scan Latin. Our greatest musicians are fine linguists.

Few girls can practice over four hours daily. Common sense and physique forbid.

Naturally a girl has more supple fingers than a boy. She also has a fine command of her upper notes on the E string, for her fingers are small, delicate and agile, but she has no the endurance of boys. She can play, and play well, but she must keep her health and practice only as much as she can endure.

The effects of overwork are spasmodic movements of the body and face, nervous bowing, and unsteady tone, affectation, and absence of rhythm. This, added to a poor sense of pitch, which often accompanies nervous troubles, is a serious detriment to success. Life is too short and too full of meaning for us to cripple our energies by overwork. The violinist should keep his energies normal.

From the first the violin should be a good one. There is no inspiration in a bad violin. Not everyone can have a good, or, rather, a valuable violin. Everyone can have a violin correctly made.

The violin should go to the repairer at least once a year. The bow should be rehaired as often as necessary. Mine goes to the shop three times a year. Both violin and bow should be kept very clean and free from excess of rosin. Many students permit rosin to accumulate under the bridge. That is dangerous. Rosin injures the varnish, and dust-particles spoil the resonance of the violin. One can wash the bow with good soap and water and a little ammonia.

Two or three half-hour lessons a week are sufficient for the average intelligent boy or girl. It is well to have someone at home supervise the daily work of the child, but that person shuld attend the lessons with the child.

I don’t know why it is, but violinists are very often quite sensitively organized and delicate. One or two hours of daily practice is the most the beginner should undertake. I regret a year of hard work at six hours a day of practice. I paid for it by a nervous collapse.

I have often said that pupils should devote from fifteen to thirty minutes daily to scale practice; then they are not hampered by technic, as in Etude work, and, because the mind is concentrated one one thing, there is no excuse for faulty position. The prevailing “bad point” of new pupils is that the left elbow is not well under the right side of the violin, thus compelling the hand to tilt to the left, the thumb to cling too closely to the neck of the violin, and the whole arm to be changing its position constantly. There can be no progress with such a position, for intonation will never be correct, and technic, as well as a command of positions, is out of the question. Teachers who neglect these points do so at the risk of their own musical reputation.

Speaking of fingers, many violinists have most unfortunate fingers. I am one; my fourth finger does not reach to the last joint of my third finger, and in the higher positions, my thumb sometimes clings to the body of the violin, instead of to the neck. I have found, however, that persistent practice in the positions, with my fingers (on the E string) a little inclined toward the left, aids my thumb, while raising the hand and running the elbow very far under the violin permits the thumb to regain its proper position.

And now we must labor to obtain a normal position and as little extra movement with arm and hand, for all unnecessary movements cause great uncertainty and loss of security and time.

A prevailing fault is that of grasping the violin too tightly with the chin. The violin should be held by the left side of the jaw and not by the chin, which should rest upon the instrument at the left of the tail-piece.

There are many methods of holding the bow, but there is only one way of holding the violin – and that is the right way, – free and beautiful.

Now that I have spoken of the position of the body, it may be well to remark that young students should try not to move about much while playing. Paganini indulged in many contortions of features and of body, but his day is past. Many violinists sway the body to the rhythm of the music. It is, indeed, very hard to stand perfectly erect and motionless. The great artist is very full of moods, and he responds to the spirit of his music to such an extent that he is prone to move his body as he plays.

The violin is a difficult instrument indeed, but the drudgery of teaching lies in certain almost necessary repetitions. I find myself saying certain things daily. One is, “Do not allow the left elbow to remain far to the left of the violin.” Another is, “Keep the fingers down as long as possible.” Still another is, “Do not cling to the violin with the thumb.”

And these excerpts are only the first thirty-odd pages! She has much more to say throughout the rest of the book.

So what do you think? Anything in there that leaps out at you as being incredibly relevant? Incredibly irrelevant? Good advice, bad advice, advice you can’t make heads or tails of?

Winn’s books have made me wonder, what will teaching be like a hundred years from now? What conventions of today that we take for granted will tomorrow’s students laugh at? Which of Winn’s ideas are due for a come-back (personally, I love the ideas of mandatory ear-training and viola-playing)?

Isn’t it wonderful to read the work of a woman from a hundred years ago who is just as opinionated about the violin as we are today? What an honor to be part of this long continuum of passionate intelligent music-lovers…

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Filed under Not My Writing, Women Violinists