MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 12, JUNE 2001  
Online Journal

The frontispiece of Walter's Lexicon provides iconographical evidence of how instruments were played
The frontispiece of Walter's Lexicon provides iconographical evidence of how instruments were played

What advice would you offer to teachers of, for example, an intermediate violinist who might want their pupils to become aware of Baroque conventions in performance and interpretation?

If pupils are faced with a Baroque movement that they don't know, it is important to become aware of the music's roots, in particular, what was important at that time. Therefore, several issues need actively exploring; a thorough knowledge of dance forms and the hierarchy of metre is of utmost importance: all Baroque music needs to respond to its dance basis, it doesn't want equality, which, although a feature central to today's techniques, was quite foreign to Baroque performers. It is worth, therefore, making sure that they vary the feed of the bowing arm so that there are light as well as heavier strokes. That way players can respond to the metre, pointing strong and weak beats, and making sure that the up bow doesn't activate the strings as much as the down bow, and therefore sounds weaker. Leopold Mozart put it quite succinctly when he described his ideas on sound. To paraphrase, he said that it should be played earnestly and with manliness. He goes on to describe the shapes of notes and insists that they are always started with a barely-audible softness to avoid what he describes as an 'unintelligible noise'.

Understanding the basic principles of harmony is also useful, since it helps to develop a sense of line and momentum, especially when bowing dictates such a different approach. This is rarely obvious from a single violin part, so playing from a score is quite important – in the eighteenth century, it was rare to find partbooks and most of the solo and trio repertory was printed in score format.

It's also a good idea to learn a whole piece, rather than just a movement: so much Baroque violin music alternates slower movements with quicker ones, and learning a complete sonata, for example, enables the player to put aspects of technique into a wider variety of situations.

The question of vibrato is one that continually perplexes performers and conductors; how might one approach this technique?

This is a very contentious issue; vibrato must first be clearly defined so that can we decide whether or not it is needed? Leopold Mozart talks about the oscillation of the left-hand finger in certain contexts and Germiniani of the left wrist. Is it a part of the sound or is it the ornamented type that viol players used? Leopold Mozart strongly criticised the over-use of open strings and advocates evenness and beauty of sound: this is naturally assisted by a 'soft', if not a fully-fledged 'vibrato-full' left hand to make the sound more pleasant. Vibrato was clearly used in expressive moments and we do have evidence to suggest that it was used specifically at points when the speed of the bow was increased at a messa di voce type of moment – you start with a soft sound, and then add the vibrato. So it seems that whilst it is allowable (indeed, I would say essential), the size and density of its use should be consciously approached and, unlike today's playing techniques, not automatic.

What about modern editions?

Using good clean editions is very important: these are usually modern and have no slurrings, fingerings or bowings. It is worth looking at the front cover to see if it contains the word Urtext, since this is a 'kitemark' for the most accurate editions. That said, whilst some older prints might contain a separate part that is littered with janissary markings, the editors often couldn't be bothered to put the same details onto the keyboard's score, often resulting in a much cleaner part, so these are often worth considering. Facsimiles are worth investigating: usually these are made from cleaned-up photocopies of the original editions and, in some cases, from the original plates themselves; although they can be hard to read, the composer's intentions often become clearer.

Do modern and historical techniques work together, or can a violinist only specialise in Baroque techniques?

For conscientious students, the two are completely compatible, even when learning the chin-off techniques advocated by some Baroque treatises. From a technical viewpoint, they can definitely support each other – even with the variety of vibrato, the left hand does the same thing whatever the context, but, because the music is often technically simpler, you get the chance to think in more detail about the music. Learning Tchaikowsky might develop the virtuoso side of playing, but it doesn't allow time for other, more basic elements to develop. Simpler music is often more difficult to bring off because it needs to be more detailed…it's not just a case of playing the right notes (as one might in orchestral rehearsals!), but also striving to get all manner of other things right, such as shape and articulation, as well as an accurate understanding of notation, which often becomes exposed with a newly-found subtlety of vibrato and clarity of gut strings.


Pauline Nobes is no stranger to audiences in either her native UK or Germany, where she now lives. She has played with the leading period-instrument orchestras in England during the past fifteen years, and now regularly leads The Academy of Ancient Music. During 2000, she played solo violin for Reinhardt Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln, and is now a regular concertmaster for Das Neue Orchester. She is heavily involved in her teaching at the Royal Northern College of Music and has coached courses including ESTA, Dartington International Summer School and Jerusalem Early Music Centre. She also enjoys prominence with the Manchester-based group Musical Offering. Her solo compact disc records music that she discovered during her PhD studies, for which she has recently been awarded her doctorate, and is reviewed in this month's journal. Editions of this and other music, together with a catalogue of over 65 entries of solo unaccompanied solo violin music before and during the life of Bach are all published under the label Rhapsody Ensemble Editions. To find out more, click here.



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