Summarizing the essence of an individual instrument, particularly one as ubiquitous as the violin, is a risky endeavor. Existing histories of the violin have incited their share of controversy, and general studies must grapple with the problem of scope, the subject ever too broad to be treated satisfactorily by a single author. Robert Riggs acknowledges these pitfalls in his preface, stating that the book is by no means comprehensive and neither a history nor an encyclopedia; instead, the goal is to provide "space for moderately detailed discussions" on a few topics (p. xii). The majority of the five-author volume forms a chronological discussion of repertoire in the modern West, though outer chapters touch on symbolism and non-Western traditions. Riggs addresses The Violin to an audience of serious performers and informed listeners, to expand their understanding of "the musical and cultural contexts of the violin and its repertoire" (ibid.). This group is certainly well served by targeted literature, but such undertakings are always in danger of perpetuating undue historical stereotypes.
In "Associations with Death and the Devil," Riggs interprets "deeply entrenched" cultural traditions that position the violin as a symbol of mortality and the demonic (p. 3). He invokes the early Church's condemnation of dancing and instrumental music, and discusses twelfth- through fifteenth-century "Dance of Death" iconography: illustrations of skeletons dancing with the living, sometimes playing instruments (p. 5). In later vanitas and memento mori illustrations, instruments sometimes symbolize material pleasures. He also considers Romantic literary trends and the sensationalism surrounding Nicolo Paganini, both of which resulted in associations with the supernatural. Riggs identifies reflections of these attitudes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century musical compositions. The final element of his argument is the epithet "the devil's box," which came into use among some rural, conservative Americans due to the fiddle's connection with dancing and secularity (p. 30).
By my estimation, the evidence presented by Riggs in chapter one is not sufficient to assert that the violin's associations with death and the devil were culturally pervasive before the nineteenth century. While church figures have in certain cases condemned dance and instrumental music as lascivious, blame was rarely aimed at bowed strings in particular. Riggs notes that medieval iconography often depicts the devil dancing; it is true that the violin has consistently been associated with dance music, but because the violin family was not widespread until at least the mid-sixteenth century, these examples cannot apply to its reputation. Most Dance of Death scenes also appeared pre-violin family, and, as Riggs states, the majority of instruments represented were not bowed strings (p. 8).
After introducing the violin family (unfortunately applying the anachronistic label "cello" to the bass member) and its development into the seventeenth century, Riggs argues that depiction of violins and other instruments in seventeenth-century memento mori art (intended to remind viewers of their mortality) is another connection to death (pp. 13-14). The first example depicts Death as a skeleton violinist behind a couple engaged in music making; however, the violin here represents Death's participation in the activity rather than his character. The second is a still life with a pochette (a dancing master's narrow violin) and a skull resting on a music book. Rather than death itself, the pochette symbolizes mortal vanities that death will render irrelevant, so neither image quite positions the violin as inherently symbolic. It is the romantic imagination that allows such associations to materialize.
Next, Riggs surveys the violin's role in fiction since the nineteenth century. Chapter 2 is divided along subgenres: novels featuring violinists' personal and professional lives; violin-playing detectives in mystery and crime; violins as characters or recurring symbols, fantasy and the supernatural; and short stories. Riggs finishes with Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (Stockholm: Bermann-Fischer, 1947), blending the previous categories. This series of short reviews is a useful guide for violinists interested in reading fiction related to their instrument.
In "The Violin in Italy During the Baroque Period," Peter Walls provides historical context for three well-known luthiers (Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati), giving an overview of violin making in northern Italy during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The next two sections cover seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers and repertoire, followed by "The Italian Diaspora" and "Performance Practice." Walls succinctly communicates the success and influence of Italian style across Europe during these centuries, and his survey of available treatises along with discussion of stylistic boundaries make this chapter a suitable introduction for mainstream violinists curious about historical context.
In "Bach and the Violin," Peter Wollny investigates how Johann Sebastian Bach made profoundly idiomatic contributions to the repertoire despite his reputation primarily as a keyboard virtuoso. In the section on "The Violin in Thuringia during Bach's Youth," Wollny considers the performers, repertoire, and techniques that Bach would have been exposed to as a student and member of a musical family. The remainder of the chapter is a progression through categories of violin works in Bach's output; "Bach's Earliest Pieces for Violin" focuses on chamber music produced at Weimar and relationships with regional virtuosi. On the subject of the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas composed in 1720, BWV 1001-6, Wollny discusses the influence of Antonio Vivaldi, Bach's changing responsibilities during the late Weimar and early Kothen years, and five surviving manuscripts. Next, he provides similar context for the six Sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord, BWV 1014-19. Regarding violin concertos, Wollny notes that the few surviving manuscripts represent only a fraction of what once existed given Bach's orchestral responsibilities. Among vocal works, Wollny chose to discuss a few violin parts from the church cantatas of the Leipzig years and selected arias from the St. Matthew Passion (Matthauspassion, BWV 244) and the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232).
In "Mozart, Beethoven, and the Violin," Riggs considers accompanied keyboard sonatas of the 1760s and other influences upon the music education of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He also surveys Mozart's Salzburg concertos, the Mannheim and Paris sonatas, and the Viennese sonatas. The section on Ludwig van Beethoven focuses entirely on sonatas for violin and piano: a biographical introduction includes some reception history of the op. 12 sonatas, and four additional analyses cover opuses 23, 24, 30, 47, and 96. Beethoven's op. 61 concerto appears in the following chapter, "The Violin Concerto and Virtuosity in the Nineteenth Century." Riggs briefly discusses stylistic trends in solo violin writing at the beginning of the century, including the influences of opera, touring virtuosi, and activities at the Paris Conservatoire. He groups post-Beethoven concerto composers into several categories according to major figures and concepts. Louis Spohr, Paganini, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, Charles Auguste de Beriot, Henri Vieuxtemps, and Henri Wieniawski are first; Felix Mendelssohn, Joseph Joachim, Max Bruch, and Johannes Brahms follow; a third section covers Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky and nationalism; and Jean Sibelius and Edward Elgar complete the chapter.
Though these later concertos date from the early twentieth century, Riggs notes that the majority of violin concertos composed before 1930 mainly adhered to nineteenth-century practices. In the next chapter, Riggs presents twelve violin concertos that he considers to be more representative of twentieth-century compositional trends, beginning with Sergey Prokofiev's Concerto no. 1 in D Major (1917), among the first to appear in a wholly modernist style. Igor Stravinsky's Concerto in D (1931) represents the neoclassical movement, while the concertos by Alban Berg (1935) and Arnold Schoenberg (1936) manifest ideals of the Second Viennese School. Riggs gives a brief introduction to serialist techniques and aesthetics, which will be helpful to performers or listeners who find them unfamiliar or off-putting. Concertos by Benjamin Britten, Bela Bartok, Samuel Barber, and Dmitrii Shostakovich demonstrate the diversity of mid-century style. The concertos by Philip Glass, Elliott Carter, John Adams, and Gyorgy Ligeti provide examples for a similar survey of trends of the 1980s and 1990s, from minimalism and postmodernism to avant-garde pluralism. Riggs closes the chapter with a few comments on the state of the violin concerto in the twenty-first century. Ideally, he would have devoted a few slots to compositions from the last fifteen-or-so years, framing the long twentieth century as he did the nineteenth. Doing so would also have provided a good opportunity to discuss works composed and performed by women, as these are blatantly absent from most topics in this collection. Equally influential as several works treated in this chapter are the concertos of Joan Tower (1992) and Jennifer Higdon (2008).
Eitan Ornoy's study of performance practice via historic recordings in chapter eight, "The Masters' Voice," will be particularly enlightening to players interested in the multiplicity of expressive choices made by virtuosi throughout the twentieth century. Information of this type can help active violinists develop and contextualize their own performance practices. Ornoy briefly discusses developments in recording technology and their effects upon performance behaviors. He analyzes recordings in three periods--early (1898-1930), intermediate (1930-70), and recent decades (1970-present)-using both direct listening and software-based data collection. In early recordings, Ornoy noticed a division between violinists with Franco-Belgian training and those of the German school in their expressive techniques. Intermediate period recordings captured more homogenous performances; interpretive differences became less extreme and dependent on lineage, a trend that Ornoy suggests was a result of more frequent exposure to other styles via recordings and airplane travel. He argues that the greatest influence upon recordings of recent decades has been the historically informed performance (HIP) movement, which has expanded the palette of performance options via the introduction of physically different instruments, bows, and techniques.
In "The Peripatetic Violin," Chris Goertzen samples four violin traditions outside of Western art music. The Tarahumara Indians of Mexico first encountered the violin among early seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries. They began making their own fiddles, which have become important to traditional matachines dance, ritual dramas for saints' days, and lately to tourism. In South Indian art music, violins introduced by British colonists turned out to be particularly well suited to melody roles in Carnatic music. A section on tango addresses ways in which the violin expresses and embellishes within an internationally popular genre that is fraught with class tensions. The final example examines repertoire of the vanlig fele (regular fiddle), a counterpart to the Hardanger fiddle in the carefully curated landscape of Norwegian folk culture.
In "The Devil's Box No More: Fiddling in America," Goertzen pivots to fiddle tradition in the southern United States, though he gives a relatively thorough background on the eighteenth-century Scots fiddle. The discussion on vanlig fele in the previous chapter provides good context, as there are many parallels between North Atlantic fiddle practices. This chapter also touches on American popular music prints, fiddling in minstrelsy, and the current Texas contest and old-time fiddle scenes. The tune "MacDonald's Reel" is the thread connecting all topics.
As a collection, The Violin succeeds in emphasizing the versatility and global reach of the instrument to readers in the early stages of exploring these topics. Riggs' unconvincing investigation of demonic and macabre associations is a minor weakness, and some may find the accompanying iconography and early-modern history to be intriguing. In addition, though Riggs devotes space to non-Western genres, the majority of the book systematically presents "standard" violin repertoire without encouraging readers to question the criteria and limitations of the canon (the terms "great" and "greatest" appear frequently in the chapters on the nineteenth-century). Regardless, this volume has the potential to expand the worldview of the average Western classical violinist and encourage further inquiry.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2018|
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