Elgar and Heifetz’s Third Finger

Posted on December 6th, 2009 by

Elgar –  A minor Etude Characteristique 1882

Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Violin (Stradivari 1698  ‘Joachim’) Bow – Tubbs (given to Elgar)

25 1 14: Detailed work with the ‘Elgar Bow’. Note to self. Was Elgar on the brink (as he became a composer, and less a virtuoso) of developing a gernuinely British School of violin technique, based on a democratic equality of all the digits of the left hand and what he called the ‘poise’ of th ebow.

Elgar Meets Heifetz

On the 5th May 1920, George Bernard Shaw penned his by now legendary note to the 19-year old Heifetz.

My Dear Heifetz

Your recital has filled my wife and I with anxiety. If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly. Bernard Shaw (Letter George Bernard Shaw, 5th May 1920)

Later the same year, another writer noted that:

A pleasant memory of hardworking violin days was awakened lately by a visit from Mr Jascha Heifetz. Among the many subjects of which we talked, violin technique took a foremost place. IN 1877 I was a pupil of Adolph Politzer, and about the same age as my distinguished visitor; in looking through a multitude of sketches made in the year name and also earlier, Mr Heifetz was interested by the exercise which accompanies this note. It must be remembered that Schradieck’s School of Violintechnik  had not appeared; Baillot’s Exercice Journaliers [sic] as used in the Paris Conservatoire was the method in general use. Students were led to invent passages for their special needs. Politzer, one of the very best teachers and players that we ever had, was much amused by the studies and exercises of my invention – I say invention, for the effort involved in ‘making’ these things can scarcely be called composition. Five of the studies (dedicated to Politzer), mainly of the ‘poise’ of the bow, although the left hand is not neglected, were published long after their inception, but this merely technical exercise has not appeared; in the hope that a trifle which interested a great teacher of the past, and a very great artist of the present might amuse other violinists, the ‘3rd finger exercise’ now appears in facsimile at the request of the editor of this page.

Edward Elgar.

The MS for the study notes “…coped for Mr Jascha Heifetz November 1920 Edward Elgar”

1920 was the year of Heifetz’s debut in Britain, on which was marked by both wonderment and consternation. The sheer brilliance of his playing sparked admiration, but when it came to the music of Edward Elgar, a degree of concern. Curiously, this concern was not so much aimed at the young violinist himself, but expressed itself, in a number of the critics in musing as to the nature of ‘English Violin Playing’. Heifetz is not a violinist associated in the musical ‘wheel of stories’ with the music of Elgar, yet by the time he come to record the concerto in 1949, he had three decades of playing the work under his belt. Before he arrived in the UK for his tour, Elgar’s brilliant ‘itsy-bitsy’ (as Heifetz would have it), La Capricieuse had appeared in a Heifetz recording. Indeed Heifetz was one of the first string players whose playing was well known on record long before he was heard ‘live’. This led to some further discussion, as was noted throughout his career, his sound was heard to best advantage in the concert hall, rather than close miked.

Ayke Agus has noted in her Heifetz as I knew him that 1921 would mark a serious crisis in Heifetz’s artistic life. In public anyway, this was marked out after the W J Henderson, ‘critic of the New York Sun, criticised him for a certain lack of depth that had begun to creep into his playing, and also for a tendency for superficial brilliance.’ (Heifetz as I Knew Him, Ayke Agus, Amadeus Press, New Jersey, 2001 Pp. 148-9)

Henderson was echoing the concerns which had been voiced in Britain, and indeed, the famous back-handed compliment of George Bernard Shaw, quoted above. But the British queries had been, frankly subtler, and reflect a particular and unique fact; the Elgar Concerto, and Elgar’s music, had entered the national consciousness as explicitly English music, in fact as the epitome of English-ness. In fact, the Elgar Concerto was the first major violin concerto to become a national Icon. In the 20th century the only equivalent would be the concerto by Jean Sibelius, which did not achieve this until the composer had made extensive revisions, as is well known. However, from the moment of the premiere of Elgar’s sprawling work, by Fritz Kreisler, at the beginning of 1910, the piece embedded itself into the popular imagination.

Heifetz’s performances of the work brought a technical ease to the work which had never been encountered. Fritz Kreisler had not worked in depth on the concerto with Elgar, (that was the English violinist/composer WH Reed) but had made extensive changes, most of which removed techniques which were not in his armoury, and hotted-up some of the colouristic effects. Other violinists who had performed the work by 1920 included Eugene Ysaÿe, with whom Elgar had a vicious copyright dispute, and Adolphe Brodsky, professor at the Royal Northern College of music, who had earlier premiered the Tchaikovsky Concerto, the Grieg C minor Sonata, and the Brahms C minor Piano Trio. However, the sheer brilliance of Heifetz’s performance and the fact that he seemed completed unfazed by any of the  piece, particularly the famous cadenza, led many to wonder whether there was a specific ‘English’ violin playing, that he did not ‘get’. Implicit in the remarks was an uncomfortable possibility that the essence of such English playing would be a degree of vulnerability, even weakness, which not only need to be felt in the musical argument, but perhaps needed to have a technical manifestation. There was no way that Heifetz could possibly have second-guessed such a debate, and it is very difficult to know what he could have done about it. After all, the most popular English violinist before the First World War was the prodigious Marie Hall, herself a violin student of Edward Elgar. Nothing about her playing suggested any of these qualities. The composition of the concerto itself and even its thematic material had been inspired by the violin concerto of Hamilton Harty, which had been written three years earlier for another virtuoso, the 16 year old Josef Szigeti, who was no slouch…

Nonetheless, the subsequent history of the concerto, and indeed, the trajectory of 20th century English playing, suggests that the critics had hit on something, that Heifetz had hit a nerve. The slow burn of Albert Sammon’s career, and his association with the concerti of Delius and Elgar, and later the sound worlds of the great English Virtuosi, such as Ralph Holmes suggest that there at the heart of this is a metaphorical ‘break; in the voice’, a vulnerable simplicity, even linked to the sound of the English church choir, not available to one born outside the tradition.

But it seems clear that Elgar had no such concerns. But it is interesting to briefly consider what Elgar and Heifetz were discussing and the exercise which the young man enjoined the composer to copy out for him. The exercise that concerns us here is for the third finger, and is part of a series of finger-strengthening exercises. In 1878, he had written a large-scale left-had tremolo Etude, which like this one relies on ‘locked’ hand positions and exercises the mobility and flexibility of one finger at a time. This would surely have been one which the two violinists might have pored over, as they looked ‘though the multitude of sketches’. However, this etude is 32 bars long, and runs to four pages in the new Elgar edition. In the days before photocopiers, it simply was easier and quicker for Elgar to copy out the ‘Exercise for the 3rd Finger’. Both the copy made for Heifetz, now in the Library and the original fair copy, which dates from October 1878, bear matched pencil emendations, reading: “The chords are not to be played: the 1st, 2nd and 4th Fingers remain in the positions indicated”. It is clear from this that in the course of the conversation, which I like to imagine, took place, violins in hand, Elgar clarified to Heifetz something which would not have been necessary with the study simply being for his own use, that is, the ‘locked’ hand. This is not necessarily a technique which one would use religiously in performance, as there are moments, where, even with a flexible hand, it puts the player into considerable physical discomfort-rather it utilizes a notion of physical training, almost like a form of weightlifting, or what would have been seen as physical jerks, to develop muscle tome and precision with the least flexible finger.

However, there is more. The left hand technique advocated by Heifetz’s teacher, Leopold Auer, was based around what he called ‘rhythmic fingering’:

“To effect changes of position…by means of rhythmic instinct.” (Violin playing as I teach it, Leopold Auer, Pp. 40-41)

In Auer’s students, Elman, Zimbalist, Seidel, Heifetz, this manifested itself in a fantastic mobility and surety, ‘rotating’ around the lower number fingers, particularly the first, as is evident, from listening and watching these players. However, Elgar’s line of teaching, through Politzer, a student of Alard, a student of Habeneck, who studied with Kreutzer, etc, was very French, and given to an equality of finger usage, if we are to greatly simplify.

All that one could suggest is that the conversation between these two musicians was to do very much with two schools meeting; one the great St Petersburg/Odessa hothouse, the other the French-rooted school of this institution, and that Heifetz was looking for answers. Perhaps it took a musician of Elgar’s stature and genius to give him the stimulation he required to discuss this; there is little question that a mere technical theorist would have bored him