Friday, February 13, 2015

Musings Up and Down the Fingerboard: A Violin Ramble

[UPDATE: You can hear a recording from the concert here. There's a program in the folder as well.]

A few days after I finally had the chance to practice exclusively on the violin (rather than on the viola) in order to sound like a violinist for this forthcoming concert above, my instrument decided to develop a crack. Perhaps it was reacting to the extreme changes of temperature and humidity we have been having in the Midwest, or perhaps it was reacting to too much sudden "exercise." In the 20 years I have had the violin, this is its first crack. At any rate, I made the decision to use a different violin for the concert: my Grandfather's violin, which had been sitting unplayed in various family closets for a number of years.

I switched my new Larsen strings and Westminster E from my normal violin to it (if you are violinist who has never tried a Westminster E, I advise you to do so right away: it will change your life), and discovered bit by bit that it is a terrific fiddle.

Getting to really know a new violin is complicated. You have to instinctively learn the curvature of the bridge, and know what kinds of colors come from which unconscious combination of bow speed and pressure, not to mention the way the instrument responds to the weight and characteristics of different bows.

After I made the decision to use this instrument for the concert, I decided to spend about an hour per day playing scales and arpeggios slowly in every key. At 60 beats per minute for each note, there is enough time to pay attention to what by bow arm needs to do in order to keep the bow perpendicular to the string, particularly during string crossings. There is also enough time to pay attention to shifting properly (I'm concentrating on "old finger" shifts these days), and actually thinking of the names of those notes with multiple ledger lines up on the E string. There is enough time to make sure that everything is in tune in every key, and there is time to fix it if it is not. The whole three-octave gamut, as outlined by my friend Hřímalý, takes me about an hour. It is an hour I know my bow has behaved, my vibrato has been free, the sound has been vibrant, and I have made it comfortably from one note to the next through every bit of step-wise and tertian musical terrain. It is always an hour well spent.

At 60 b.p.m. there is even time left over to use as a sort of "free brain" state which is a sort of meditative state for me. While I was navigating the key of F# major (again with the F# major!), for example, I was thinking about the seasonal cyclical nature of these scales and arpeggios, which begin in C major and add flats until no more can be added, and then bloom into sharps, dropping one at a time until the cycle of fifths has come to an end. I was thinking about the bird I heard singing this morning: a steady pitch that seemed to serve as a warning that it may look bright outside, but it is terribly cold. The fact that the birds are singing means that spring will come eventually. They have not been defeated (and there are a good many singing outside my window as I write).

I started thinking about the 12 tonalities we have in western music, and the 12 months we have in the year, and then I switched to Kreutzer and started thinking about the violin again. Then I took a break and decided to write this post.

The program, you ask? Who are these composers?

The German composer Emilie Mayer (1821–1883) wrote six symphonies, several concert overtures, a great deal of vocal music and piano music, and a considerable amount of chamber music (nine violin sonatas, thirteen cello sonatas, eleven piano trios, seven string quartets, three string quintets, and two piano quartets). She studied with Carl Loewe, Adolf Bernhard Marx, and Wilhelm Wieprecht, and worked hard to see that her music was published and performed. Mayer was well respected during her lifetime, and in 1885 she was (posthumously) made an honorary member of the Munich Philharmonic Society. After her death, performances of her music stopped. Most of her music is housed in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, and remains unplayed.

The American composer Marion Bauer (1882–1955) grew up in Walla-Walla, Washington, moved to New York in 1903, and traveled to France, where she traded lessons in English for lessons in composition and analysis with Nadia Boulanger. Bauer was the first of Boulanger’s many American students. When Bauer returned to New York, she helped found the American Music Guild, the American Music Center, and the American Composer’s Alliance. She and Amy Beach were founding members of the Society of American Women Composers. Bauer taught composition, analysis, and music history at New York University from 1926-1951, and she taught at The Juilliard School from 1940-1955. She was a mentor and teacher to Ruth Crawford (Seeger), Aaron Copland, and Milton Babbitt.

The French composer Mel (Mélanie) Bonis (1858–1937) entered the Paris Conservatory in 1877. She studied organ with César Franck and harmony with Ernest Guiraud, but her parents made her withdraw because they disapproved of her romance with fellow student Amedee Hettich. In 1883 Bonis’s parents arranged for her to marry Albert Domange, a businessman twenty-two years her senior, and she set music aside in order to raise a family. In 1893 she rekindled her relationship with Hettich, who helped introduce her music in the salons of Paris.

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