On violin playing, some thoughts

Posted on February 1st, 2014 by

Beatrix Marr, in 1936, from a newspaper article about the Boyd Neel Orchestra

Beatrix Marr, in 1936, from a newspaper article about the Boyd Neel Orchestra

On violin playing, some thoughts (February 2014)


Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’-that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

(Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, (v.5)

Over the next week, I feel driven to write a little about what I have learnt from composers about how music might be performed. It was made clear to me, from my earliest years, by the extraordinary artists who helped me, that we had a duty, to speak and sing truthfully, however inconvenient that might be.

So, day by day, a series of vignettes. All of them sit alongside the Keats which I have chosen to begin. Funnily enough, the Ode on a Grecian Urn came up most powerfully in conversation with the British composer Howard Skempton, sitting in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum, in 2006. The poem was, he said, fundamental to his music, to his expressive sensibilities, to the directness of expression which he thought.

Day 1. Louis Krasner

But so much of it begins with Louis Krasner, who commissioned and premiered the Alban Berg Concerto, and to whom I went to study when I was 20. Krasner believed that connections between us were, are, everything. He demanded that I believe, as a Credo , that J.S.Bach had arranged the chorale, es ist genug, specifically so that Berg should find its meaning, the ‘kronende Abschluß’ of his own ‘requiem’ centuries later. He made me promise that I too, would, in sixty years, ‘pass it on’, as he had passed it to me.

Louis Krasner at NEC Boston. Photo: PSS

Louis Krasner at NEC Boston. Photo: PSS

There was no question with Louis, of truth being anything but hard won, wrought: “You must fight, you must wrestle with the material, even with the composer, you know, like the story of ‘Jacob and the Angel’. There are many obstacles in the way, and you must seek them out in the music – the effort, the physical, emotional extremes, the furious activity-this will bring you to the truth, to the music. It’s not meant to sound restful, that would be insincere, and you will betray Berg, and Bach!”

Hearing Krasner talk, driving me to take more challenges in music which I thought that I had mastered – his sense of duty, never left me. His picture hangs in my hallway, reminding me to take the difficult road, every time I pick up the violin.

Day 2. Ralph Holmes

I was sent to study with Ralph when I was twelve, by Beatrix Marr, about whom I will be writing later this week. Ralph would have been in 41 when I first met him, and I was not prepared for how overwhelming this encounter would prove. I have no idea why he took me on-I was a mess, and really, musically, very behind the curve. However, he found a way through my muddled approach, using his interest in, well everything. Very early on in the lessons, he used the collection of paintings and sketches, which filled his studio, to illuminate our work directly-when he talked about colour, he would hunt for the precise shade, in a nocturne by Whistler, or the sheer heft, the impact in a  Matthew Smith,  or  in one of Elisabeth Frink’s oil sketches. It took a couple of years before I let on that I had always been a painter, and that became further fuel for the fire.

Coupled with this, something which I am not sure that he could articulate, but which his playing, and his sensibilities could not fail to. Ralph always hunted for sincerity, whether it was to be found in the bustle and bluster of a Leclair sonata, or the brimming lyricism of the last of Prokofiev’s Cinq Melodies or Bach’s E minor (continuo) Sonata. ‘Gilding the lily’ was simply not an option, not acceptable; the beauty which was to be found had to be presented as it was, with its flaws, which so often, were/are integral to its nature. Very early in our friendship, he brought out a copy of Matisse’s Woman with Green Stripe, to make this point.


Lord Nelson-'Though Shot and Shell'. A treasured gift from Ralph Holmes

Lord Nelson-‘Though Shot and Shell’. A treasured gift from Ralph Holmes

Every day I see a gift that he gave me, a wonderful hand-coloured ‘magic-lantern’ slide of ‘Lord Nelson-Through Shot and Shell’. The face is almost overwhelmed in the rage and erosion of the brush strokes around it, by serene nonetheless. I had admired it, standing on his piano, for months, and then one day, he made me take it. It sums up so much of what he was saying, and what his radiant playing imparted.

3. The Living Line

Like so many artists and musicians, there is no divide between the inspiration which comes from working with mentor figures and friends/colleagues. If there was one subject which animated the conversations which I was having with the players to whom I was closest when I was younger, it was the question of line. Debate raged, instruments in hands, over the relationship between the physical nature of the material of music, and its meaning or function. This might not seem to be a ‘blood on the carpet’ issue, but for string and wind players (not to mention singers), it’s fundamental. We fought over this question of integrity: should/shouldn’t the manifestation of music, whether seen formally (like a phrase) or in a concrete manner (the breath running through a note, the tremor and scratch of the bow on the string), reflect/be the music itself? On this subject, it is fair enough to say that no one can agree, and, whichever answer you choose, you will make someone dislike your work. It was/is obvious that the answer was intensely personal? The teachers whom I admired had made it abundantly clear that this was a question of integrity, of conscience, but there is no question that the industry was looking the other way, and perhaps still does.

Egon Schiele -Self Portrait (detai)

Egon Schiele -Self Portrait (detai)

A glimmer of light in the conversation was found in drawing. A few of us became fascinated by the way that the great artists had made their emotional/spiritual involvement apparent in the way that charcoal, pen, or pencil met the paper. It became apparent that the greater the draughtsmanship, the more impossible it was for these giants to resist the manifestation of Eliot’s ‘circulation of the lymph’ in the tremor of line on the page. We turned to Käthe Kollwitz, to Egon Schiele, to Hockney, Guercino and Michelangelo. There in the drawings, an answer seemed to be found. In recent years, meeting up again with the friends who were part of those discussions, I found that far from ebbing, these convictions had remained embedded; we had all found different paths from these small beginnings, but this realisation remained, still fundamental. 


4. Beatrix Marr

In my childhood the violinist Beatrix Marr was a constant. ‘Trix’ had been my mother’s teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, and we would go and stay with her at half-terms, in the beautiful cottage she shared with her husband Norman, in a hidden valley in South Devon. Quite early on, I would take the train down to Devon, and stay with her for lessons. She had studied, like so many of the great London players of her generation, with Rowsby Woof, but had also sought out D.C.Dounis, and his approach was present in her teaching. However, the distinguishing feature of her approach was idealism (She did not believe in treating children any different from adults).  Music simply had to be relevant, and that meant that the musician had to be a complete artist; literature, painting, history, all these were factored in. I still have the books that she pressed on me when I was very young – anthropology, folklore, history, art – and she made me love Patrick Leigh Fermor’s work, a fascination which never dimmed.

Lessons took place under the Hugo von Beckerath drawing of Brahms playing his Op 76, lost in rapture and concentration.  I grew up comfortable with her clear understanding that there were mystical links which did not respect place and time, and that, as artists, as people, we were bound to respect these things, that no note should be produced from the violin in vain. Trix banned me from ‘fiddling around’ on the instrument-‘either play, or be silent, say what you mean’. That stuck with me, and she encouraged me to love practice, not as a repetitive routine, but a place of discovery, of enquiry, of silence. So much of this was beyond me at the time, but as is so often the case with great teachers, the lessons seeped in after the fact.

Stone tool (Spearhead) from Beatrix Marr's garden, Membury, Devon.

Stone tool (Spearhead) from Beatrix Marr’s garden, Membury, Devon.

Bach was always at the centre, and she was the first to make it clear to me the high expectations that Bach set any musician.  She would take one movement, say of the G minor Partita, and have me study and play it in 8 different ways, with different bowing combinations or dynamic gradients. Then she would send me out to hunt for Neolithic tools in her vegetable garden, or to walk to the medieval stone bridge which crossed the river near her land. I now understand, what she was showing. We do not interpret Bach, or any great music, we chisel away at our understanding of the work in the optimistic expectation that we might live it well, that we might stumble across something wonderful in our repeated modest traversals of these pieces. The stone tools which she gave me, and the ones which I found in her garden, are often on my practice table.