The Challenge of the Solo

Tuesday, 15 May 2012 - 1:00pm
Museum of London


Pavlo Beznosiuk, one of the world's leading baroque violinists, explains and demonstrates the challenge of music for solo violin; works by Nicola Matteis and Heinrich Biber lead to a discussion and performance of the famous Chaconne from Bach's Solo Partita in D minor. Can such a work be satisfactorily analysed or does "music begin where words leave off"?

This is a part of Professor Hogwood's 2011-12 series of lectures, The Making of a Masterpiece, in which he examines a number of acknowledged masterpieces, but each from a select angle only - their scoring, compactness, virtuosity, accessibility, memorability or other flavour. 

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Transcript of the lecture

15 May 2012

The Challenge of The Solo

Professor Christopher Hogwood

C = Chris Hogwood
P = Pavlo Beznosiuk

C: Good afternoon, everybody – welcome. May I introduce Pavlo, who you were expecting to see here with one violin and instead he has brought six! The number of performers involved in these lectures is going in much the same direction as the Greek economy! We started with a sextet, we went down to a quartet, and now we are reduced to one player.

In this series I have been exploring the parameters surrounding the creation of a masterpiece. How does a composer cope with technical as well as artistic challenges? Is a masterpiece written because of or in spite of the instrumentation or the musical raw material that is on offer? 

I think that if we had opted for a solo flute player or a trumpet player today, you might have rather quickly got bored because there are not very many options besides the single melodic line. We want to deal with one player coping with polyphony. It could have been a grand piano, of course, on which one musician can play an awful lot of notes. It might have been a guitar or a lute, which can in fact play more notes simultaneously than a violin, but which have no power of sustaining. But the most practical and challenging instrument – and the instrument with the most exciting repertoire - is the unaccompanied violin. I thought that this was an opportunity to build up towards the piece that has been mentioned quite a few times in the course of this year – the Bach unaccompanied chaconne. But I want you to see where it comes from and, in addition, where the instrument comes from. That is the reason we have this variety, because not all these instruments have the four strings that you expect.

P: I am going to start off with this beast, called a lira da braccio. This is a Renaissance instrument. It was the Renaissance reinvention of Orpheus’ lyre. They got it completely wrong, of course, because Orpheus plucked his lyre and this a bowed instrument. It has seven strings, two divergent. They are tuned in an octave. The first two on the finger-board are tuned as an octave, and those two pairs are very rarely fingered. You basically make all your chords with the top three strings. You will notice, if I hold it this way, that it has got a very shallow curve on the bridge and this is the feature that makes it a polyphonic instrument. It is impossible to play single lines on this, whereas playing polyphony on the violin is exactly the other way round. 


P: That was a strophic song from Italy, a sixteenth century form.

C: Italy, I think, is an important, defining factor, because most violins that people care about come from Italy. It is interesting that, while we now assume it to be a considerable advance to play more than one note on the modern violin, you have no option but to play many notes together on this instrument.

When you come to a violin, is the bridge going to stay flat? The more the bridge is rounded, of course, the more the bow can avoid hitting more than one string. If it was totally flat, you would just play all four or six simultaneously.

P: Exactly. I brought this instrument along in its modified form to demonstrate the violinistic polyphonic heritage, if you like, something that comes from the lira. This is what I use for playing Renaissance music. It has a curved bridge.  But the piece I am going to demonstrate a few bars of is by one of the first really renowned virtuoso violinists, Biagio Marini, who played, among other things, for Monteverdi in his band at St Mark’s in Venice. There are many solo sonata pieces for violin. This capriccio is an extraordinary piece. It is printed in very ancient music printing, so  it is quite hard to read, and the few words that you see at the top are an explanation of Marini’s, to move the two thick strings closer together, so that the bottom three can be played “a la modi de la lira”. So it is a rather fascinating missing link, the violin and the piece. I’ll just give you a few notes from this because it is not officially an unaccompanied piece, and we do not have any continuo here.


P: That is the introduction. Then, because we have the advantage of it being a curved bridge violin, we can play our melody on the top string.


P: And then we are back to that lira style of playing.

C: Is the next step in the instrument’s development to do with stringing, or the shaping of the bridge, or the type of bow - or all three?

P: In this piece of Westhoff, which I am about to play an extract from, I shall demonstrate some of the solutions to making three-part (and sometimes four-part) harmony work on a bridge as curved as that. Obviously, with the straight line of the bow, you are balanced, at best, on two. Sometimes, with a lot of weight, you can get into three, and that is going to be demonstrated in this piece. 

Johann Paul von Westhoff was a real pioneer in seventeenth century violin composition because of his contribution to polyphony. There is a celebrated set of six suites, which dates from about the 1690s, and which are really quite challenging. This piece I am about to play an extract from is a seventeenth century equivalent of the giveaway CD you sometimes have attached to the front of BBC Music magazine. It was an A3 sized sheet of paper, with this rather elaborate violin suite engraved on it, marking one of Westhoff’s several visits to Paris. This particular visit was made in the winter of 1682, if my memory serves me. 

You are going to hear four distinct techniques for making polyphony work on a curved bridge. In the first passage, all the notes are written in sustained values. This is impossible to play, so one has to use one’s nouse and artistry to try and bring out the lines in as best a way as possible. The same prelude is then repeated, the same chord shapes, with a technique known as bariolage, which is this…


There, I am not playing the notes simultaneously, but I am trying to give the impression of doing so. In the allemande, you will hear three notes being played at exactly the same time: once in forte, which requires a rather vigorous bow stroke. However, Westhoff complicates things by asking for the same passage in piano, so you will notice another technique for making that work.


C: I love that piano. To what extent does playing polyphony on the violin depend on a sort of oral deception? You said that the beginning of that prelude is written in long, sustained notes. It looks as though it is organ music on the page, but in fact, it cannot be played. There are not many instruments that sponsor a notation at odds with what they can actually play. So, are they relying, rather like the cinema, on the retention of an image on your retina so that frames can blur together and make a moving image? Are we hearing that music with some of the harmony expressed and some of the harmony just imagined?

P: Absolutely. That is a very good analogy, this idea of retention, the persistence of vision. That is exactly how one approaches, for example, playing some of the more complex fugues of Bach, which are quite finger-breaking pieces, where the main line of expression is written in large note values, and you cannot sustain and jump to the other part of the violin. There are number of ways one deals with that, particularly the way you launch a long note, for example, a semibreve, in a bar where there are moving crotchets underneath, tricking yourself and the audience into thinking that that note has been sustained. If it is a four-three suspension, for example, the way you pick up the resolved note is very important - it has something of the quality of that note that you have just launched. It is all smoke and mirrors!

C: Of course, so is piano playing, because everybody is led to believe that the piano is a singing, sustaining instrument when, in fact, this is completely untrue. Everybody knows a piano plays a note and it diminishes, and there is nothing on earth you can do to retrieve it once you have played it, but by a lot of subtle grading, great pianists can make you believe that you are hearing a melodic line rather than a series of points that evaporate. However, at least in piano music, the notation shows you what you play. Chopin puts all the notes down - little notes, big notes, pedalling and so on. It becomes a technical chart. But I think you are telling us that, with violin music, you are given the ideal but impossible picture.

P: Yes.

C: And the player then has only one way of solving it. Or is it up to the player to find different means of conveying the impression?

P: There are usually two or three ways you can tackle most passages. I am thinking here now of fugal movements of Corelli, where, often, the violin is playing a fugue subject up there and, indeed, starts on another string playing some basso continuo line. Again, whether you try and sustain that top note and how you do it is where the art lies.

C: There was a funny fiction involving the Bach bow. Tossy Spivakovsky, a wonderful player, devised the theory that the difficulty of sustaining on more than two strings is one of pressure and of actually getting to those strings on the violin. He basically invented this bow, which was enormously bowed, and had a sort of thumb-catch, which looked extremely complicated, where you could adjust the tension on the hairs. So, when you wanted to get the hair to cover all four strings, you slackened it so much. It actually made a rather horrible sound, I thought, but it was possible, although it was completely fictitious. This was presented as a retrospective solution to the problems that Bach left us with, if you were to take the notation seriously and honestly. I think we have now come to the conclusion that this notation is a way of showing, in theory, what you would like to hear.

P: Yes.

C: But the way you break a chord, other than bariolage, can either leave an image of the bass note in people’s minds or not.

P: Indeed. Well, maybe we will deal with that more in detail when we come to talk about Bach. It just occurred to me that the other great violinist who had a humorous and wonderful way of making four-part harmony work was the jazz violinist Joe Venuti. In the middle of a solo, he would undo the frog from the bow, turn the stick round the other way, hold the hair and just drag it across the four strings. I do not know if you have heard it – it is a fantastic effect. He could do an imitation of a whole saxophone section of a Count Basie big band, as part of his solos. 

C: Yes. I suppose one should qualify this idea about not being able to hit these strings. It is easier to get them from underneath, because some Yugoslav violins and some folk violins, and I think also some Indian violins, are bowed the other way around – the hair is under the string, and you pull it upwards.

P: The erhu, I suppose - the Chinese form of stringed violin.

C: Yes.

Is this the moment to show a very small single line before you get onto polyphony? Here is the answer to people who found the normal violin too bulky to travel with. This is what they call a pochette, which was favoured by the dancing masters. If your job was going around teaching people to dance – a very French occupation on the whole – the dancing master had to carry his own music with him, and so this tiny instrument was devised that could slip into the pocket of your tailcoat. The dancing master would pull it out of his pocket (hence the pochette), and it really plays!


C: I am not sure I could stand an extended recital of it but I think for the practical purposes of having a tune to dance to…

P: Exactly, yes.

C: But there is no polyphonic music written for a pochette, is there? I rather hope not!

P: Well, the only music I know which specifically implies a pochette is Monteverdi in L’Orfeo. There is a moment in an early scene where some birds are twittering outside and he uses two of these little things just for a matter of four bars.

C: Okay, back to real life! We mentioned that the main factories for the making of all these stringed instruments would be various Italian cities. Nobody has quite put their finger on why Cremona and a few other cities became the established centres of this, but there was a congregating of violin makers, there was an availability of suitable wood, there was a call for music, of course. We do not know whether the secrets of Stradivarius are to do with his varnish or the fact that the wood floated in from the sea and absorbed salt. There are many, many theories for why great violins are great violins, and I do not think anybody has really managed to analyse the DNA of a Strad and replicate it yet.

P: Not replicate it, but there are some wonderful modern makers - really, really great.

C: Is the secret of the varnish still thought to be part of the mystique or is this just a ‘Dan Brown’ style conspiracy?!

P: Yeah! Partly, but also one has to realise that the varnish and the instruments are different from when Strad made them. The varnish oxidises. The varnish on this violin is original, dating from about 1676. But it is a bit like looking at wine that is too old to drink – it goes a slightly brown colour. This is not what this instrument would have looked like to begin with. The varnish is oxidising, the wood is drying out over the years, so they change. But if you see instruments which have barely been played, like the famous Lady Blunt Stradivari, which was sold at auction just last year, or the Messiah Strad in Oxford’s Ashmolean, they look very different from the normal sort of brown violin that you see. Because that instrument was hardly played in its life, it looks remarkably like a new violin.

C: Do you think that, as well as looking different, it now sounds different?

P: Well, violins, of course, have been modernised – is that what you are getting at?

C: I am just wondering... When we started forming orchestras with period instruments, in the last century, there was a clamouring to have set up violins in the Baroque manner, but there weren’t many famous ones available. Most of the famous violins, the Strads and so on, had been modernised in order to make them saleable to and playable by great virtuosi who wanted a higher tension instrument for playing big concertos. And so quite a few good makers started making modern copies based on good early models, and everybody was very surprised. I was particularly very surprised how wonderful some of these instruments sounded straight-off, because I think I had been brought up on the theory that almost all violins sound a little bit green and young and, like wine, have to mature a bit before the sound materialises. Of course, you never say this of a Steinway piano! You know that the newer it is, the better it is - this is the common assumption. But it seems to me that that went for some of these violins too, that there was not a lot of evidence that age was going to make them better.

P: No. They were just very good to start with! Realistically, we can never know. Old Strads are old and there is definitely an age factor contained in the sound. However, there are many instances of people doing ‘taste tests’ between Strads and modern violins, and either people are not able to tell the difference or they actually favour the new Strad. I was lucky enough to study for a while with a great violinist called Charles Libov in New York. He owned the last instrument to be authenticated by Stradivari. Because it was such a temperamental instrument, he very often, towards the end of his life, favoured a Chinese factory-made instrument that he had been asked to sponsor, and it just worked. It sounded like an open A-string, thrillingly bright on every single note, all the way up the G-string, all the way up the D-string and everything – it was extraordinary. Whereas, Strads can be notoriously temperamental: if the humidity changes by one degree, a whole part of the G-string clams up; if you look at it in a less than approving manner, it starts squeaking! They are very temperamental, but incredible, violins.

C: And when you look at some of the very old Strads, you see that his hand was shaking when he was doing the cutting, so there is not a clean line but a shaky line.

Okay, back to Italian music. My point about the instruments hailing mostly from Italy is a prelude to the fact that most of Europe was wowed by Italian players as well, and so every country - England as much as anywhere - went overboard when the violin and its practitioners arrived. Of course, the standard old English musicians declared them all to be charlatans, but a few of the English observers, Roger North in particular, picked out the arrival of the violin in the hands of Nicola Matteis, who was a fairly shrewd but great Italian - a great showman. He published, presumably for the benefit of British players, which must have included amateurs, sets of pieces suitable for the violin and notated in such a way that more elementary players and advanced players could play them. He gives you the basic line of the piece, and if you are a beginner, it is just melodic; if you are a more advanced player and can manage polyphony, then here are little dotted notes that are the second or sometimes the third part that show what he was expecting to be possible.

P: It was an ingeniously practical way of using that engraving, punching little ghost notes so that more advanced players could play some double-stops and maybe the odd triple-stop. The piece I am about to play is not really in the style of those things that Matteis published, which were four books of airs for the violin. This piece exists in a manuscript in a library in Dresden. I think this is interesting as a piece because it seems to be a ‘proto-Bach’ prelude. If you look along there, you will see just a few triple-stops, occasionally quadruple-stops, and this marks a sort of separation of bass and treble voice. So, a little bit like in Bach, I am going to play this first sequel in such a way that, hopefully, the C is going to carry on in your loving memory until we reach the B halfway through the first bar, and you are going to experience a descending bass line.


C: I love the way he turns off the style at the end and just ends it simply. Yes, Roger North acclaimed Matteis, saying, of all men in the world on the violin, he could do “wonders upon one string”! But, as you say, the effect, the oral image of the implied bass is one of the things that holds the piece together harmonically. You could have a variety of spread chords, so long as you know that there is an implicit imaginary base line going on.


Both of the next two pieces you are going to play - Biber and Bach - adopt a form that you would have thought to be the antithesis of what the violin ought to be doing. You will remember I discussed the chaconne or the passacaglia in a previous lecture. I talked about the repeating bass pattern of the chaconne, the ostinato, that starts as a single bass line over which the player piles up different variations and constructions. That is a perfect formula for orchestras, for keyboard, for continuo accompaniment and voices. It is perfect if you have a lot of multiple parts all consistently available. It does seem a slight contradiction for an instrument that has to give up playing the melodic line if it is going to show you the bass, and vice versa. So, all these famous pieces are therefore based on an illusion.

The Biber begins in the simplest way, just giving you the bass and once. It is not hard to memorise either, that bass.

P: Yes, it is a very simple descending bass line, four notes…G, F, E flat, D...


P: This is repeated 65 times or something – I do not know if there is any numerological significance to that, but it is an ingenious piece for the way that it is sustained and evermore complex variations are added on top, in typical Biber style.


C: It is clear you do not get very far away from that pattern of four descending notes and you do not get any hint – only one little hint of modulation, and then a wonderful moment of a turning into the major at the end.

Matterson says that the quickest way of killing your best friends is to play them two chaconnes in succession, so I apologise for now playing you the Bach! I have two questions here. Firstly, what is the meaning of the Bach? Can you analyse the music by numbers? Is there some secret behind it? One lady has written a book that shows there is a corral lying in the background of this music. Somebody else has said, if you count up all the variations in the Bach chaconne, they act as a sort of diary of Bach’s life, year by year, and therefore that terrible moment where it suddenly turns in the minor correlates with when his first wife died; when it comes back into the major, he remarries Anna Magdalena, and so on. Do you place any faith in any of these descriptions, or are we once again in Dan Brown territory?!

P: I do not know that they help me in playing. There is certainly a narrative going on, but I would rather not hazard guesses along the lines of, “Oh, this is where he had a cup of coffee”!

C: The other question that many people quite rightly, ask is: why does Bach choose such a medium in which to write a chaconne? Would this same music not be easier on the ear and in technique if it were scored for the organ or the orchestra or the keyboard? In fact, Bach himself made arrangements for keyboard of some of the unaccompanied violin music, so clearly it was adaptable. We can see what the great challenge is of playing it on the violin, but what is the virtue of the music being cast for the violin, where you have to do a certain amount of imaginary extension to it, rather than playing it on an instrument that would play all the notes, all the time, if you require?

P: I think the biggest advantage is that one has sustaining possibilities, admittedly not all at the same time. One has more dynamic possibilities of crescendo, diminuendo, and of course the violin is prided for its closeness to the sound of the human voice, which I do not think you can say about the harpsichord.

C: I hope not!


© Professor Christopher Hogwood 2012