Micrologus; Bach and the Baroque Violin
85-06 BACH AND THE BAROQUE VIOLIN
Nowadays it is taken for granted that Bach's clavier music sounds best on the harpsichord, and while it is still an essential part of a pianist's training, it is no longer a common repertory for concerts and recordings on piano. The same is not true of Bach's music for solo strings. The Suites for cello and the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin continue to be the proving grounds for solo string players. But the style of string playing which Bach had to mind is very different from the standard modern practice, and there is still considerable mystery about it.
To talk about that, my guest is Sigiswald Kuijken, one of the few violinists to have recorded the Sonatas and Partitas on baroque violin. I was fortunate to be able to chat with him backstage before a recent concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
DUFFIN: What is the difference between the modern violin and a baroque violin?
KUIJKEN: Well, the main difference is the one you hear, I hope, and for those who want to know more than they hear, I could say the following things: the violin as it is today is originally a baroque violin. All the master violins which some of the big virtuosos of today play are, in fact, (or were, I should say) baroque violins. They have been made in the 18th century and we commonly call the 18th century, up to the middle in any case, we call that the baroque period—this can be discussed but that is how it is. So the baroque violin—the body—looks the same as a normal violin, since it is the same. Inside, however, there are differences. The bass bar—which is a piece of wood which is glued underneath the table to support the tension which is on the sound board of the instrument—well, the bass bar which runs the length of the body became always thicker and heavier as time advanced, because the tension which one put on the instrument also increased. One put on other strings—more thick strings mostly—then, later, other materials such as steel strings, which increased the tension terribly. One has also reversed the position of the neck backwards, so that means that the angle of the strings on the bridge is more sharp. That means, again, more tension. So, all these things together, all these alterations which have been undertaken to the violin from the very end of the 18th century, well, they have made from the baroque violin the normal violin that we know today. And even Stradivari never saw or heard his instruments as they are being played today by many famous artists. The wonderful thing about Stradivari is that, in spite of the fact that he did not invent them that loud, it seems to be in it: you can get it out of it, so it must be in it.
DUFFIN: Is the volume of sound the most noticeable difference between the baroque violin and the modern violin?
KUIJKEN: Well, at first glance I think it is. But when you listen a bit more carefully, then you will also find that the color of the instrument, besides the volume, is a bit more different. The baroque violin tends to be a bit more nasal perhaps, but is more free in sound and gives much more colors than the modern one. Since you can play very lightly on it and very respectfully, you can let the instrument do it for yourself and you can also force a little bit if you want to, or dig really and have a deeper sound from the inside of the instrument. All this you can also do on the modern, but the thing is that you have to start on a higher level or the thing would not speak. That is also why we have today much heavier bows and more hair strands on the bows. All this fits together and there is no mystery about it. There has always been a close connection between the bow, the instrument, the pitch, the music you play, the style you play, the aesthetic views of what the artist wants to express about himself or not. All this is always closely and organically tied together, and today is a high point of people wanting to show off and wanting to play as loud and as fast as possible. I hope the high point might be just over and that people begin to realize, perhaps again, that it should not be always that fast and that loud, and we become a bit more aware of the thing that we lost.
DUFFIN: What about the bow strokes themselves? How does the stroke that is used by a baroque string player differ from that used by a modern string player?
KUIJKEN: Well, a good player, even a baroque or good modern player, can do everything he wants to do. But, still, you can speak about a general difference, and it would be—well, if you want to speak in generalizations— the modern bow stroke would be much more, would tend to be equal, would have a clear attack, and often have a little bite at the beginning, and tend to sustain this level right to the end, whereas the baroque attack would be a bit hidden. Leopold Mozart would say in his Method [Versuch, 1756] that the strongest notes, even the shortest and the strongest ones, would always have a little weakness before their beginning. This is a very clever way of saying a thing which is almost impossible to explain, but I understand it as such that one does not have the "bite," the typical modern bite of the bow, which really consists in giving the tension before you give the departure into motion—and then you have a little noise, which is not perceived as a noise. But in baroque playing you would not do this, or very very seldom, but you can give an impression of very direct playing even without this little bite.
[MUSIC: "Gavotte en Rondeaux" from Partita III in E Major by J. S. Bach, performed by my guest, Sigiswald Kuijken]
Now back to the interview.
DUFFIN: One of my pet peeves, especially in the performance of Bach unaccompanied music, is the performance of the multiple stops in modern string playing. Can you say something about how multiple stops would have been done in the baroque era?
KUIJKEN: Well, it is very simple: they played always from bottom to top. I suppose that is your question. You wanted to know, if the theme is in the bass, if one should reverse the chords or not, for instance. Well, one should not, definitely not, and this again is understandable through the instrument. As the baroque violin has more easy resonance, it has less volume, but more easy resonance, so you can have a melody in the bass in a Bach fugue or whatever fugue, and still between every bass note you go up to the top of the chord (which is accompaniment). And after all those series of notes you will still hear that melody as a melody in the bass—well not as a sung melody but as a spoken distinct line. In modern playing, because you have less resonance, you have to work more, and you have to sustain the note. And if you have to sustain, you cannot sustain the bass note and then have every time a chord afterwards; it would be too slow. And otherwise you cannot sing the bass, so that wants to go from top to bottom, in that case. But it is clear in every Method, every source, that one always does arpeggiando, so also you would never break a chord of four parts in two and two, or one and three, or three and one—whatever strange things. You would just do one-two-three-four, the one after the other. And I would not be too theoretical: I would sometimes play two notes at the bottom together for musical reasons. If, for instance, there is an important dissonance in the second note from the bass, I would sometimes hit it together with the bass, so that it has more impact on the chord, because if you always start only with the bass and you slide upwards in a kind of diminuendo, which is the normal way of bowing, then that note in the middle would sometimes suffer by being too much passed by. So, sometimes I think one should still play two notes at the beginning and then the two others not as a couple, but as three and four, the one after the other, you see. So, one-two are together and then three and four are after another, but one should be able to give the impression that the main note is not necessarily the top note always.
DUFFIN: Could you say something about vibrato in string playing?
KUIJKEN: Yes, well, with pleasure. Vibrato is one of the most beautiful things you can ever do, and many people in the 18th century did it a lot, especially Geminiani. He would say one should use this effect “as often as possible.” This, of course is a very elastical idea. How much is this "as much as possible"? Well, we can just take it for ourselves, and what is possible for one person might be too much for one, or not enough for another. I think if you use the baroque technique as much as possible, as I try to do, that means without pinching the instrument with my chin—I do not touch the instrument at all with my chin—then I think you are close to the limitations which would tell you when it goes in the red lights, when it goes "tilt!" if you make too much vibrato. Because the position, of course, is a little bit less comfortable, and if you make constant vibrato as in modern playing—alas, all too often—the violin would not fit well. This position would make nonsense altogether. So, I think if you adopt this position that there is a kind of natural indication of when you would go too far in your vibrato all the time. But it does not mean that all the music needs this kind of conception (like Geminiani). Leopold Mozart, who was at the same time as Geminiani—the younger generation, a bit—he would just mock at people who did too much vibrato. And, strangely enough, the 19th century violin methods by the great virtuosos, like Kreutz and Baillot, they would sometimes not even speak about vibrato at all, or say explicitly that you should use it very seldom and give a special sign—print a certain little sign—to indicate where you should use it. It is very interesting to see. For instance, Spohr, in his Violin Method of 1832, gives his whole ninth concerto by himself and one by Rode (A Minor), and he indicates every note which should be made with vibrato. Well, I think you can in one movement—say, the first Allegro of the concerto—you can count them on your two hands for the whole movement, the notes which he had indicated as being vibrato. So I think Geminiani would have said, “It is not enough." Mozart would agree [with Spohr] probably. And, well, it is clear that only later on, I think after the First World War, mostly, people started this crazy idea of a beautiful sound is a vibrato. For me, it is like having no confidence in your sound in itself, and always thinking you have to make it beautiful, and this is a pity, because there are so many other things possible than vibrato.
DUFFIN: And confidence in tuning, too, because the tuning needs to be so precise.
KUIJKEN: Of course, it is what we would say in French, "cache misère"—to hide your miserable problems, you can make vibrato, and it fits easier. But it does not mean we should be against vibrato. But one should be conscious about it. If you do it a lot you should be able to say why you do it a lot, but you should not just do it automatically. That is the only thing you should not do, and that is, alas, the thing which is all too often happening still today.
[MUSIC: The first movement, Grave, from Sonata II in A Minor by J. S. Bach, performed by Sigiswald Kuijken]
DUFFIN: The Kuijken family has proved to be astonishingly talented and successful in the field of early music. Sigiswald's elder brother, Wieland, is one of the most eminent viola da gamba players of our day, while his younger brother, Barthold, is often heralded as the world's best baroque flute player. Sigiswald achieved early success as a violinist in his native Belgium, but his natural inclination was towards earlier music, and this led him to learn about the technique of the baroque violin through the study of the 17th and 18th century treatises. About 1970, on the advice of Nikolaus and Alice Harnoncourt and Gustav and Marie Leonhardt, Sigiswald had his violin rebuilt to original baroque specifications. This was a turning point.
KUIJKEN: From that moment on, well, the information given by the instrument in your hands is so enormous, much more than you could ever study in the books. Well, you have to read the books as well, but the books alone would not make it: your ear, and even the physical feeling, and the instrument, and the music, and the way of notating, and everything. And when I changed the position, when I decided to drop the chin rest and not to touch the instrument with the chin any more at all, that was a very difficult and hard moment, but I learned the most of all—first of all—by negative things. Of course, a lot of things were not possible any more—really, not possible—and so it was clear that these things should not be done. Then I had to replace this emptiness by doing something new, and feeling at home again in this kind of little limited field. But that was the greatest lesson, the limitation of it, and the guarantee, more or less, that within this restrained field, the probable truth—more or less, if you can ever speak about truth—should be situated. So I explore this more and more and, I must say, I still make discoveries all the time and am still happy to have done this adaptation. And only today—after about fourteen years that I do it and it has been followed by many, many people—I am kind of regretting lost years. More and more young players as well seem to lose courage and before even having tried it well, give it already up again and play in a very compromised technique. But this does not mean anything about their musical talents, of course. You can play in every position, even backwards or upside down, if you want; if you are a good musician, you will play good music. But the technical aspect, I think, is still very important and for me it is so linked with the music. But I regret when I see people having, not chin rests, but having the chin on the instrument, which gives a very thin, nasal sound, and having to put leather and things on the instrument not to damage the varnish and so on, all things which for me are the proof that is not right. But it is comfortable, of course, but it is a big compromise. And, well, I think a bit more courage would give way to such an enormous adventure for these players, as well. They are giving up a lot of possibilities, I think.
DUFFIN: Do you think, with that kind of commitment that you are saying is necessary and desirable, do you think it is possible for string players today to be able to play successfully with modern string technique on the one hand and play baroque music with baroque string technique on the other hand?
KUIJKEN: I think it is possible, if you divide the fields well. If you try to combine them in the way of making it unified, then I think you are going to have problems. I still play modern violin sometimes and viola, and every time I do it I enjoy it more, and in a way I feel more comfortable, although I am not at all influenced by baroque technique at that moment. But the baroque technique gives you a kind of loose technique and loose everything—you know, more supple. And I think it is very useful and you think about technique much more than if you just go on playing modern technique, as you learn it; it becomes more automatic. And now I appreciate the modern violin much more, since I realize much more from where it comes: from inside, from underneath, and not from some teaching or tradition from my professors and so on, which were very good, but that is another thing.
[MUSIC: The final movement of J. S. Bach's Sonata III in C Major for Violin Solo, performed by my guest, Sigiswald Kuijken]
You've been listening to a program entitled "Bach and the Baroque Violin."
- Bach and the Baroque Violin
- Producing Organization
- Contributing Organization
- Ross W. Duffin (Pasadena, California)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Nowadays it is taken for granted that Bach's clavier music sounds best on the harpsichord, and while it is still an essential part of a pianist's training, it is no longer a common repertory for concerts and recordings on piano. The same is not true of Bach's music for solo strings. The Suites for cello and the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin continue to be the proving grounds for solo string players. But the style of string playing which Bach had to mind is very different from the standard modern practice, and there is still considerable mystery about it. To talk about that, my guest is Sigiswald Kuijken, one of the few violinists to have recorded the Sonatas and Partitas on baroque violin. I was fortunate to be able to chat with him backstage before a recent concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
- Created Date
- Asset type
- Talk Show
- Media type
Guest: Kuijken, Sigiswald
Host: Duffin, Ross
Producing Organization: CWRU
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Ross W. Duffin
Identifier: cpb-aacip-4e607727bb0 (Filename)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Micrologus; Bach and the Baroque Violin,” 1985, Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 3, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-87b36e183c0.
- MLA: “Micrologus; Bach and the Baroque Violin.” 1985. Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 3, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-87b36e183c0>.
- APA: Micrologus; Bach and the Baroque Violin. Boston, MA: Ross W. Duffin, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-87b36e183c0