Franz Schubert –A Major Rondo for Violin & Strings D438-Some UNMUSICAL Considerations

Posted on November 23rd, 2013 by

First Principles

I have a strange relationship with teaching. I am fascinated with the complexities and challenges of violin playing, the mysterious balance between technical and musical questions: and yet, I don’t teach the violin. However, I am often asked for my input, sometimes for my help. Very often, I find that I learn as much, and often more, from this process, than the student. So I will post aspects from these conversations, which I cannot call lessons, as and when seems appropriate.


Franz Schubert –A Major Rondo for Violin & Strings D438-Some UNMUSICAL Considerations

This is a piece which is very close to my heart. At the beginning of my performing career, I played and directed it a lot, and recorded it, along with the D Major Konzertstück and the B Flat Major Polonaise for violin and orchestra, in the mid-nineties. It was working on these works that got me excited about early 19th Century perforamnce issues -along with the other small orchestral pieces which Schubert wrote for his violinist brother, Ferdinand and their ‘school room’ orchestra (Overture D.9 for example). It was here that Schubert kindled his love of virtuoso violin writing, and these works laid the foundations for the great challenges of the later works (G Major String Quartet, B minor Rondeau Brilliant, String Quintet). Yesterday (22/11/13), a very talented young player brought this work to me for an hour, which brought my fascination with this repertoire flooding back. Of course, a short lesson can only touch on some aspects of a work such as this, but the economy necessary to fit into an hour of playing and talking enables one to jump around a variety of question and ideas. I will just note SOME of those, as I remember them. This won’t come out in any order, but just as they come to mind. It’s all rather technical. If you are not a violin technique obsessive, get some fresh air! Go for a walk, have fun! Anything but this.

Playing Schubert raises so many questions to do with what Elgar used to call the ‘poise’ of the bow. When I was first working on the Schubert string works written between 1812 and 1817, it found that I needed to learn a new relationship with the lower half of the bow. Schubert was educated in a somewhat dated musical institution, the St Stephan choir school, which meant that a lot of the music that he sang and played as a boy dated from the middle of the 18th Century. This had subtle implications for his instrumental music: I remain convinced that I can hear the undertow of Latin word-setting in the lyrical instrumental lines of his chamber works. However, from a practical point of view, I feel that the concertante works seem to imply a use of the new bow-technology available in Vienna (the Tourte bow was delayed in arriving en masse thanks to the war, but longer models –which we would ill-advisedly call ‘transitional’ were in use). However, I feel that many of the expectations of ‘what you can do’ with the earlier, shorter, lighter models remained. And the Rondo is full of that. Here’s an example, from the first solo entry-the ‘Mozart A Major Concerto moment!’ :

The 'flight' from point to heel

The ‘flight’ from point to heel

This entry seems to demand two things: beautiful, Tartini-esque mese de voce on each long note, and then the lightest ‘flight’ back to the heel of the bow, for each linking ‘run’. The late-twentieth century became obsessed with the use of the heel of the bow to generate ‘weight’, which means that it was forgotten that it can be as light as the tip, and it is be possible, as with a classical bow, to sweep through the bow, point to heel, with lightness and grace, without ‘bulging’. Looking at films of Szigeti or Thibaud, one can also point to another quality, which I would argue, can been seen as a ‘folk memory’ of past practice, that the bow naturally wants to ‘float’ to the heel’-the point flying back to the ceiling, as it that is the natural resting point. This quality, the natural bent of the right hand, to fly to the heel, light as air, is a quality which, it seems, is crucial to playing this music, whether fast or slow, but a challenge for a player who has not thought about earlier practice.

A second issue seems, to me, to originate with the changing tenor of violin writing at this moment. Schubert played the violin and viola, though clearly never to the level achieved by the young Beethoven. His brother, Ferdinand, was a gifted violinist-their collaboration laid the groundwork for the miraculous late collaboration with Paganini’s Bohemian rival, Slawik. However I would venture, that, were I to suggest a difference that emerges with works such as this, speaking technically, it is that Schubert is unwilling to relinquish the chromatic freedom and ease of the piano, for the convenience and limitations of the violin. Works such as the contemporaneous ‘Konzertstück’, show that he was perfectly capable, and happy to write ‘open-hand’ violin figuration, but the ‘Rondo’ is a modest sea-change-which I recognise can also be witnessed in the Viennese composers around him, most particularly Josef Mayseder, who he would have known. The result is passages such as:

'Chromatic 'un-violinistic'(?!) writing-the beginning of the new approach

‘Chromatic ‘un-violinistic'(?!) writing-the beginning of the new approach

In order for these to flow, not to sound forced, or tiring, it is necessary to ‘ground’ the hands, technically and harmonically, and to reduce the amount of unnecessary movement to a minimum. A simple, though labour intensive way of accomplishing this is to pre-set all the reachable fifths across two strings, mainly with the 1st and 2nd fingers. A lot of energy, most of it nervous, is expended by violinists hopping backwards and forwards between two adjacent strings for parallel or adjacent finger placings, when simply plotting the placement of the first and second fingers, on two strings, not one, as much of the time as possible, will remove this anxiety. It also reduces the amount of movement made by the hand, and has a musical benefit, of encouraging the player to build harmonic foundations, quite literally, into the hand. Of course, not all of the fifths which are ‘covered’ will be harmonically ‘apt’ (this doesn’t have a sonic result), and it is entirely up to the player how purist they are about the interweave between harmony and technical structure. Whether you see this as an aesthetic or ethical question, is entirely up to you.


The view from here. Covering two sets of fifths, with the 2nd and 1st fingers.

The view from here. Covering two sets of fifths, with the 2nd and 1st fingers.


The last technical area that I will rabbit on about is linked to the above. Since I first studied the violin, a number of ‘rules’ have been queried and de-bunked. One of these was to do with string crossing. When you think about it, it was musically, compositionally’ unsound in the first place. The rule was, that you should avoid string crossings where there is a ‘string in the way’. It’s not unlike the ‘don’t start a sentence with a conjunction’ rule, which is a wonderful rule of thumb, until there’s a rhetorical need for it. The early baroque approach to the violin is full of ‘leaping passages’, exploiting the ease with which a light, short, bow, can pivot across 3-4 strings. By the end of the 18th century, composers, working with the longer stick, had begun to avoid it. However, the new virtuosity of the early 19th century, particularly coming out of Italy, revived the tradition-hence the high-speed leaping in Paganini (see the 23rd Caprice) He was reviving the practice of Vitali, and later, Locatelli. Schubert gives notice, with the Rondo that by the end of his career, he will demand dramatic, high-speed string crossing from his players. This piece includes a number of passages which gain lightness and grace, if we allow the bow to fly, over an intermediary string. This has the added benefit of ‘unlocking’ the left hand, and allowing the instrument to ring free. Having once performed this piece 10 times in two weeks, I can with all honesty say that anything which allows the left had to relax is a good thing. Here’s a passage, with two possible fingerings, one half-, one fully-open, allowing this to happen. I notice that in my old performance, I used the ‘completely-open’ option.

Leaping bow. Open and half-closed possibilities

Leaping bow. Open and half-closed possibilities

Approaching the right hand like this takes the pressure and attention away from the hand and fingers and towards the poise and level of the arm itself. It demands that he find a bow arm ‘Legrange Point’ for the elbow, where it can hover, with tiny adjustments of level, allowing the leaping and finessing at the contact point(s) to happen with the least effort and disturbance. Calibrating and incorporating these levels has a similar effect to planning the fifths with the left hand, releasing the body and mind to think about other things, or even better, not to think, but not to ‘get in the way’ of what is the most important aspect of this, the music itself, which you will notice, I have not talked about at all  here!

AND-an old performance! (1993)
Franz Schubert-A Major Rondo D438

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For Violin with String Orchestra (1816)

Adagio – Allegro Giusto

Franz Schubert – Konzertstück  in D major, D345 – Adagio – Allegro

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Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin/Director (WE Hill & Sons 1903)

Parnassus Ensemble of London (1993 performance)