Detail. Hands

Posted on November 25th, 2019 by

I make no apology for the fact that, this week, I want to write a about detail, particularly the relationship between technical and musical priorities on the the violin. This will be pretty nerdy, so if you aren’t really, really, interested in how the violin works, I suggest you find something better to do!

Monday 25 11 19

Courante. Westhoff-A Major Suite

This (above) is one of my working parts of the Westhoff 6 suites. With a lot of 2, 3, and 4 four part writing, I run several such working copies, so that I can puzzle out solutions to the little puzzle here. This can either be seen as a technical problem with musical outcomes/or a musical problem with technical solutions.

The question which I would like to explore this morning is one of line, particularly the way that technical lines through the music, around the instrument, offer musical lines for the player, the piece, and the listener. This is at once a simple and complex thing. When you hear it done well (think Stephen Hough playing Chopin) it is so clear that it seems childishly simple, even obvious, until you try it, and then the truth dawns. It is not.

Imagine this from a technical point of view. The passage which I have offered above is musically simple – in two parts. This is useful, because it means that the questions which are being explored are at the very least apparent, and have straightforward solutions.

Two- part playing is fascinating for a simple reason, that we always have to make a decision as to whether the parts will be matched. Will one be louder?will they both follow parallel lines? will the line of each be broken, unbroken? All these questions not only have technical answers, but also reflect, counterpoint, abut, and contradict the technical means to play in two parts on the violin. This will take a little unpacking, so I will begin by looking at what is going on in the extract above. I will talk about the relationship between the parts in physical, non-musical terms- hands, violin, bow, fingers.

I have marked up the score in the traditional manner – up and down bows and fingerings. Then my system; red marks for ‘covered 5ths’, and blue for ringing/open strings. But you will immediately see that there are a yellow lines, which predominantly remain loyal to the upper or lower lines of this two part texture. These clarify (when unbroken) when there is a technical link between adjacent notes, or (when broken), if there needs to be a caesura, a lift.

A quick explanation of why their might be a break in a line. Look at the 2nd to third notes/chords. First an A Major chord, fingered 4-2-0 ( with the open E string). The second is an octave A-A’, from open A fingered 0-3. To get from the first to the second gesture, I need a link that well not be obstructed by the technical move from one to the other. That’s the E string, where I move from fingering 0 to 3. I can continue bowing the open E string (whilst waving my left hand fingers in the air) and then place the 3rd finger in the new position without ‘breaking’ the top line, but the bottom line must be ‘broken’. Hence the single yellow joining line.

The next chord, you will see, is joined by a yellow line between the bottom two notes, A to C sharp, whereas the top line, from A’ to the open E String, is ‘broken’. This means that I keep the bow on the A string, and lift it off the E string, meaning that there is a join/ligato between the two lower notes. This is a musical, not a technical choice. There’s a simple aesthetic reason for this, which is, that I like to redress the balance; a join between two upper notes is answered by a join between two lower notes. It also sets up the next move, to the last chord of the bar, which has to be ‘broken’ between the bottom two notes for a technical reason: you will see that both chords have a second finger, playing a C sharp on the A string, and a G natural on the E string. This means that the finger has to move from not just laterally, but backwards at what is effectively a 45 degree angle. There line has to be has to be a break in the line, also to enable the fourth finger to go down and cover the E’ on the Astring.

From then on, the next four chord changes, are ‘unbroken’ on both lines – see the double-yellow lines. This is satisfactory on both counts: the finger moves and bow placement demand no substitutions as above, and the two lines are in ‘similar motion’, so the technical and musical are in accord. This is not always the case.

As every violinist knows, working out this ‘threading of the needle’ is fundamentally, an ethical obligation, and needs to be done with all material, contrapuntal or not. I remember Manoug Parikian demonstrating if for the first virtuoso passagework in Beethoven’s C minor Sonata Op 30 No 2. Not doing it is lazy, and whilst in be done, it results in un-vocal breaks in the line (by which I mean the line as defined by Klee or Hogarth, not just the materially sustained line) or a kind of jamming of the gears, which is a feature of quite a lot of chordal playing.

However, a caveat. This is one of those cases where, whilst there is no virtue in avoiding the work, embarking on the process demands that, once the patterns of the hands, bow and fingers have been puzzled out, the work needs to begin all over again. It’s like a painter priming the canvas; now the invention and thinking need to begin in earnest.

Next up, applying this to more complex chordal writing.

Post-practice debrief 4 am 26 11 19

The back of the ‘Charles II’, with a Prelude by Albinoni

So yes, I know that I was going to write about more complex chordal writing, but I have just finished practice, and too much came up, which might or might not be relevant. All right, I did not just finish practice – that was an hour ago, and by now, the birds have begun singing in the Blackthorn outside the window – but there are things to say.

I think that one of the reasons that we string players love our instruments the way we do is the obvious parallel between the art of the luthier and that of the composer. Both challenge (and often intimidate; both are constituent parts of inspiration) us to respond in kind, with integrity and finesse. It is not difficult to see how the elegance of this extraordinary British 17th century violin might inspire fine work at the instrument. And and a violin like this, both in sound and substance, for me, calls to mind some of the contemporaneous poets : Anne Finch, Anne of Winchelsea, Aphra Behn…

But I thought that I would bring up something which is, perhaps obvious – I have voiced it perhaps too many times – That pieces of music teach us about instruments and instruments teach us about music. Tonight I have been working on 4 of the 30-odd preludes which make up the set published by John Walshe in 1700. I have been studying and performing the cycle for 6 years now, and it continues to fascinate. The three pieces that I picked up to rework, at this violin, are by the Moravian Gottfried Finger, the Venetian Tomaso Albinoni, and Marc Antonio Ziani – Hofkapellmeister to Leopold I in Vienna. In each case, the new conjunction of each piece and violin brought up ideas, timbres, and colours, which had not struck me previously. Here’s an overview:

The Finger E Major Prelude is, perhaps inevitably, magnetically drawn to the colour and brightness of the open E String. There is an obvious parallel to Bach. It’s only in the last of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas , also in E Major, that he became, dare I say it, neurotically fixated on the sound of one open string – the E. Like Bach would, a quarter of a century after this prelude was written, Finger used a lot of ‘bariolage’ – crossing from the open E to an adjacent finger string for timbral effect. What I noted that this violin seems to encourage, is a certain darkening of the notes on the adjacent strings. The instrument points to a plangent possibilities in these figures, which, until today, I had over looked. From a technical point of view, it is very interesting, just in the case of intonation, how the hand can slot into a paradigm, and stick to it, and resulting adjustment in the poise of the hand seems to become part of the music and how I approach it.

Ziani’s prelude is in the melancholy key of F minor. To my surprise, tonight, on this violin, I found myself ‘bringing out’ slow downward portamenti over semitones at particular key moments in the piece. The fiddle seemed insistent that I really ‘drag’ the finger between the notes, and this seemed to point to the possibility of dramatically slowing down pivotal emotional, rhetorical points.

Albinoni, of course, used to be the most mis-represented composer in baroque music, courtesy of one marvellous piece of romantic forgery (which I loved when I was a kid). His C Major Prelude, in contrast to the Finger, is all venetian dancing wavelets and reflections. The particular singing and speaking quality of this violin seemed to suggest two things, that I find space between the light fanfares and sequences, and perhaps more interestingly, that I experiment with more complex bowing. There are no slurs in any of the passage work, but I have been experimenting with a number of rather Tartini-esque patterns.

That’s it. More in the morning

26-11-19 More parts

The Allemande from Westhoff’s A Major Suite

As promised, I am going to begin untangling more complex chordal material, sticking with the A Major Westhoff suite that I used at the start of this post.

A note: that the very thing which used to be seen as the main objection to the violin playing solo multi-voiced music, that it has difficulty delivering 3-4 part chords ‘vertically’ (that is with all the notes struck at once), would have been alien to almost all musicians and instruments until surprisingly recently. The fascinating thing about instruments such as the organ and harpsichord, is that, except when they are using separate or split manuals, there is no way to ‘voice’ one line or note without playing with time. Put simply, a solo line will be rendered ‘in relief’ by displacement – either before, after, or some how, within what I might call a chordal mass.

At this point, I am going to get myself into trouble, and note, that I have observed, over the years, a certain advantage, in voice-leading on the violin, for players who can’t express themselves well at the piano (I certainly can’t). This is/was always seen as a deficiency, but the ability to ‘get to’ chordal material too easily in an instrument prone to ‘verticality’, like the modern piano, can result in unwillingness, to hear lines, threads. There’s something fascinating about the language of composers who find the piano difficult, such as Tippett, Henze, Berlioz, and this might, or might not, be related to this question…

Back to the boring stuff. The passage above is marked up in the manner which I articulated earlier. You will see that it is mostly in 3-4 parts. There’s no consistency to the number of notes in the chords – but most of them, fourteen, in fact, are in 3 voices. The line running through this half of the Allemande, is self apparent: watch/play the quavers & semiquavers (1/4 & 1/8th notes) snaking their way through the passage. For most of the time, this line is solitary (‘a line going for a walk’ as Paul Klee might have it), but on two occasions, it is two-part (Bar 2, system one & (Bar [sic] 2, system three). At these points, the motion is parallel, so you will be able to see that my yellow markings show none of the ‘breaks’ I discuss earlier. That’s the simple part.

What is not so simple is how to move from part to part, where the first note of a melodic fragment in one voice, is the last note of a melodic fragment in another. Look at the end of the first line. Here:

Bars 4-5

My yellow markings show some of the decision-making, particularly when two ‘leading lines’ are separated by an interstitial note, which prevents them both being projected with similar ‘ligato’ (I purposefully am using this, meaning ‘joined’). Look at this segment -the whole lower part is a melody, which we could call ‘wannabe bass-line’. So the yellow line is almost unbroken. I will talk about how this works with the right hand later. If I was this wannabe bass player, I would view the upper line material as commentary, admiring reaction, to ME!

Here’s one of the upper figures, cleaned of chordal material

So you will see that the yellow line (grudgingly) has to abandon the D string on the fourth quaver beat, spread up to the top line, and then reverse the process, downwards, on the next full crochet beat. The bottom line needs to be given enough ‘oomph’ or ‘top spin’ as Yo-Yo Ma would call it, to carry the mind’s ear over the gap that results.

This is not, by any means, counterpoint, but this ‘threading the needle’ process, is fundamental to working out how to clarify real polyphonic material. That will be my next step. But first, a public service announcement:

Playing fugues, the main priority will not always be to highlight the subject, but often to play with it, to weave it into material, to look at it in different lights and angles, and sometimes to obscure it. Unfortunately this is rarely taught at conservatoires, and the majority of well-prepared, dutiful performances of say, the three Bach fugues, do little more than ‘follow the white rabbit’ through the material, without even considering the emerging drama in all the materials.

I will leave you with plate 1 of Paul Klee’s ‘Pedagogical Sketches’ as food for thought.

‘a line going for a walk’ (never forget that Klee was a violinist)

28 11 19 In at the deep end

So I have been thinking about where to begin? It seems to me that the best place to go right to the heart of the three J S Bach fugues from the Sonatas & Partitas to one of the more notorious spots. For violinists this is like a patch of black ice on the race track. We know that it’s there, and it can seem as if there is no safe approach, or at least, no method that does not result in, at the very least, a quickening of the pulse, and the barest hint … of panic. Here’s the monster:

The end of the exposition of the A minor Fugue from Bach’s 2nd Solo Sonata

I don’t mind admitting that this bit of score looks a little less organised that I would like. For some reason, I did not colour-code it. So the covered fifths are just marked with dark crosses, which are less-than-clear.

But the crux of the matter is the group of the first four chords seen here, after which the passage becomes technically straightforward. This is an occasion when the musical drama of a sequence is matched by the technical ‘writhing’ necessary to execute it. The best way to illustrate this, initially is to follow the path of the weakest finger, the fourth, over those four chords.

The first (B flat Major Ib) is simple, a relaxed hand position with the fourth in its conventionl first position on the G string. But, the move into the second chord(Aug 4th D-Gsharp) requires the fourth remain in situ whilst the third tucks in close behind it on the D string, before the move to chord three (A minor DimVIIb) requires the 4th to ‘smear’ at 45 degrees onto the G sharp that the third finger is playing, whilst constricted by the ‘contracted fingering ‘ (which translates as ‘all bunched up’) of the 2nd and 3rd trying to push each other out of the way. And to make things worse (!) the move to the next chord (A minor Ib) requires the fourth finger to remain in contact with the D string, and glide to the A natural, whilst the second and third fingers swap positions between G and A strings. It’s, shall we say, awkward enought mapping out the finger positions on the table.

You will notice that I don’t refer to these as reaching for chord positions, but rather observe the chords that are arrived at. There’s a simple reason for this, which is, for this to work, to make sense, in the counterpoint, each line needs to have it’s own life, its integrity, and, as I started to hint in the entry above, there is, to be delicate, a counterpoint (both dissonant and consonant ) between the lines traced by the music, and the lines walked by each finger. Both of them have to be worked out, and the one way which makes no sense, is as a series of blockchords, played, or thought of as ‘verticals’.

Possible solution

Here’s, a possible ‘first stage solution’. The red arrows show the predominant bow spread direction across the strings. The Yellow as before indicate how the line is ‘carried’ technically through the segment.

However, this is just the beginning of the series of decisions that should be made and explored: if you simply execute these moves with similar emphasis/inflection from the right hand, the chords with the most notes (which are, in the music context, the lightest) will sound disproportionately heavy. So next, we really need to talk about how the bow ‘threads the needle’.

29 11 19 Stepping back and thinking about it

David Matthews is, without doubt the greatest writer of fugues for violin alone. His set of 15, written over a two-year period for me, is one of the great musical and technical challenges for any violinist, and immensely satisfying/beautiful, for audiences, in part, or as I prefer, as a cycle. Here’s the last of the set – my working part.

The score of Matthew’s Fugue 15
and how it sounds

This morning, I just wanted to talk a little about how we think about counterpoint. When David was beginning work on the set, I made one condition, that they, when he was writing in more than 2 parts (there are 2 and 4 part fugues), should 1. Use two staves 2. Voices should remain loyal to the stave on which they started, even when that meant that a voice on the top stave might be below one on the bottom. See Bar 26. My reasoning for this was that, I wanted to hear the lines clearly, in my mind, and to be be wrestling them from the the notational compromises that might be made to make the fuge ‘playable’.

Along with this, and I cannot stress this strongly enough. Nobody would be stupid enough to sight-read a fugue in public, so there really is no need for the performing/study material to be configured in a way which enables ‘instant readability/performability’. Hence the look of the score, which I love.

Before you jump up and down about this (if you are violinist, or, if you are a keyboard player, think ‘whatever’) it’s worth mentioning that any resistance to playing from more than one stave is psychological. Most string players can pick their way through a piano score (which is, in addition, in two CLEFS), so the resistance to a violin score of tonal music like this is just prejudice. When I was little and waiting for an operation in hospital, my mother bought in a book of jokes to try and make me feel better about the procedure. One of them stuck with me: ‘How do you know you don’t like custard and chips [french fries]? You’ve never tasted it.’ That’s what I feel about this notation. We spend a lot of time on difficult music, so the notation does not need to speed the process up, but rather to clarify the material as much as possible, which this certainly does.