Historic Violin Treatises in Practice and Teaching

Violinists focus on developing their technique because it can influence the quality of performance significantly. To achieve high results, violinists need a strong educational foundation that can be provided concerning historical violin pedagogical treatises that were created by Francesco Geminiani, Leopold Mozart, José Herrando, L’Abbé le Fils, Louis Spohr, and Pierre Marie François de Sales Baillot centuries ago. Modern teaching methods are usually based on the well-known principles presented in these works (Hann 2). As a result, the impact of violin pedagogical treatises on modern performance and teaching should be viewed as significant, and modern educators need to improve their instruction and refer to techniques and prescriptions provided in the treatises with an emphasis on left-hand and bowing techniques. Thus, I want to discuss the following question: Why do educators view these pedagogical treatises as influential and valuable?

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First, it is important to focus on the history and development of violin techniques. In the late sixteenth century, violin music was associated with entertainment. Still, the violin became actively used by musicians in the orchestra in the seventeenth century (Taruskin 68). Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), the Italian composer and virtuoso, was among the first violinists who focused on discussing basic elements of the violin technique (Hann 4). I should state that Corelli’s approach to playing the violin influenced other performers’ and composers’ visions of violin techniques (Masin 5). Corelli’s followers organized the Italian School of violin playing and influenced the first authors of pedagogical treatises.

In the eighteenth century, Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762), a student of Corelli, wrote his The Art of Playing on the Violin (1751) that became one of the most famous violin pedagogical treatises in the European countries. Hann pays attention to the fact that, in his treatise, Geminiani “emphasized a migration from traditional music to solo and orchestral works” (3). The violinist focused on explaining a posture, left-hand techniques, a continuous vibrato, and tone patterns. According to Geminiani, a violinist was expected to hold the violin “just below the collarbone without support from the chin” (Masin 48). The author also proposed to mark the placement of left-hand fingers on the instrument according to his map of tones and semi-tones (Silvela 56). For the left hand, Geminiani provided the following recommendations: “Place the first Finger on the first String upon F; the second Finger on the second String upon C; the third finger on the third String upon G; and the fourth Finger correctly on fourth String on D” (1). As a result, the author created the ‘Geminiani grip’: a specific position of fingers, a wrist, and an elbow of the violinist’s left hand (Masin 48; Example 1).

Geminiani grip
Example 1. ‘Geminiani grip’ (Geminiani 1).

The author also proposed the bow technique and stated that “the bow should be held between the thumb and first joint of the fingers and tilted inward,” and then, “with free, relaxed joints, the player can draw the bow parallel to the bridge with the weight of only the index finger” (Hann 3). Thus, in his treatise, Geminiani described effective positions and hand placements, and all these details can be discussed concerning his pieces that were composed for the violin. The most remarkable example is Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major that represented Geminiani’s vision of using vibrato, ornaments, and intonation.

I should state that Geminiani was an important figure in the eighteenth century, and his treatise influenced the development of the violin technique, but in 1756, Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) wrote A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing that became even more popular (Todd and Williams 126). According to Mozart, the purpose of the treatise was to “pave a way for music-loving youth which shall guide them with certainty to good taste in music” (6). In the treatise, the author described his experience in working with young violinists and stated that students could begin to practice playing the violin only after learning the history of music. Furthermore, he proposed two approaches to holding the violin.

According to the first approach, violinists were expected to put a tail of the violin against the collarbone in a way to guarantee that a bow could “be pushed upward instead of the back” (Hann 5). Still, such a position was discussed as uncomfortable. The second approach was more appropriate: “the violin [is] placed against the neck so that it lies somewhat in front of the shoulder and the side on which the E (thinnest) string lies under the chin” (Mozart 54). I should note that this technique is followed even today. In his work, Mozart also focused on left-hand fingering techniques and chromatic scales. He proposed to use “a ‘slide’ fingering” and accentuated “different fingerings for chromatic scales written in sharps from those written in flats” (Stowell 129; Example 2).

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Mozart’s approach to fingering, chromatic scales
Example 2. Mozart’s approach to fingering, chromatic scales (Mozart 66-67).

In his treatise, Mozart also discussed the “position playing” (132) and identified natural, whole, and half positions that differed from definitions of positions that are used today. It is important to note that the natural position is related to the modern first position, the whole position is associated with the third, fifth, and seventh positions and the half position is correlated with the second, fourth, and sixth positions (Hann 5). Thus, Mozart’s treatise was created for teachers rather than for students and young violinists because it included many pedagogical principles that are followed even today. Additionally, it declared not only German standards of instrumental music but also rules typical of the Italian School.

I should also pay attention to the fact that, in 1756, one more treatise was created. José Herrando (1680-1763) wrote his Arte y Puntual Explicación Del Modo de Tocar el Violín. As a representative of the Spanish School of violin playing, Herrando created the treatise to include all the details regarding the theory and practice of playing the instrument in Spain (Werner 530). Similar to Mozart, Herrando also focused on standardizing the approach to holding the violin, but his recommendations were comparably simple. He proposed to hold a tail of the violin under a chin and turn ahead to the right to make the posture more comfortable (Werner 530). This variant of a posture became a standard. Furthermore, Herrando’s vision of the violin technique influenced the modern teaching practice in Spain. In the nineteenth century, Herrando’s principles could be observed in Pablo de Sarasate’s technique that also became a model for violinists in Spain and Latin America (Yu 26).

In France, the famous pedagogical treatise was written by L’Abbé le Fils (1727-1803). Principes du Violon was created in 1761. L’Abbé le Fils also focused on left-hand techniques and approaches to holding the violin. He proposed to pay attention to stabilizing the instrument, but, in contrast to Mozart, L’Abbé le Fils accentuated the role of a chin “to brace the violin on the side of the G string” (Hann 6) when Mozart referred to the E string in his treatise. While discussing a bowing technique, L’Abbé le Fils proposed to focus on individual movements of fingers to control and direct a bow by the index finger, and the pressure could be put on the first and second joints (Nelson 127). L’Abbé le Fils also paid attention to the artificial harmonics (12). Thus, he proposed to stop the movement of a string with the help of the first finger and touch it with the help of the indicated finger to achieve the unique sound of a note that was two octaves above the first stopped note (Hann 6). The violinist also emphasized the use of diatonic and chromatic scales, as it was illustrated in L’Abbé’s Suite de Jolis Airs de Differents Auteurs Varies pour un Violon Seul (Example 3).

L’Abbé’s approach to fingering
Example 3. L’Abbé’s approach to fingering (Stowell 125).

In the eighteenth century, one of the most popular treatises was Violinschule. It was written by Louis Spohr (1784-1859) in 1832. Spohr followed the rules declared by the German School, but he was also interested in techniques typical of the French School (Masin 51). The violinist wrote his work while orienting to both teachers and students who needed the support while making their first steps in playing the violin. Violinschule was divided into three large parts. The first part described the construction of the violin. The second part included information about the violin technique. Spohr also explained his principles of the chin rest technique. The third section described the aspects of music styles, interpretation of notes, and performance. According to Masin, Spohr also recommended “the use of unsounded anticipatory notes when changing positions, a device still used today by pedagogues” (53). Like many other violinists, the author of Violinschule also stated that young performers needed to practice all day long to use ornaments effectively, refer to fingering, focus on a rhythm, and emphasize the intonation (Nelson 140). In this context, a student needed to learn how to interpret the notation and follow it strictly.

In 1835, Pierre Marie François de Sales Baillot also wrote the treatise known as L’Art du Violon. This work became one of the most actively used manuals oriented to improving violinists’ techniques (Hann 7). Baillot described a violinist’s posture, positioning, bowing, as well as for left-hand and right-hand techniques in his treatise. Much attention was paid to standardizing movements of fingers to produce sound effects (Silvela 110). Baillot accentuated the necessity of keeping a relaxed and comfortable posture, “with the feet placed in a natural position and the emphasis of body weight to the left side” and emphasized the advantages of holding the instrument “at a 45-degree angle, with the chin to the left of the tailpiece” (Masin 55). The violinist also discussed ornaments and vibrato in his work, noting that vibrato could be a result of “a wavering effect caused by variation of pressure on the stick” (Stowell 131). This approach can be observed in Violin Concerto no. 19 by Viotti (Example 4).

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Ornaments and vibrato in Viotti’s Violin Concerto no. 19
Example 4. Ornaments and vibrato in Viotti’s Violin Concerto no. 19 (Stowell 131).

I should state that Baillot also advised focusing on practicing only one piece at a time while linking the learned elements with the previous and further experiences (Masin 55). Thus, the author of L’Art du Violon provided clear teaching instructions to work with novice players, and they are actively used today because Baillot developed an effective structure of a standard lesson. The violinist started by explaining the technique and examples, and then, he focused on technical exercises to train the use of an element. From this point, Baillot accentuated the importance of improving violinists’ techniques and contributed to the development of modern teaching standards.

After discussing the treatises, I should state that they were written to standardize the violin technique and provide educators with important recommendations regarding the practice of playing the violin. The treatises reflected techniques that were developed in the context of French, Italian, German, and Spanish traditions. The authors of the well-known treatises proposed the most efficient and convenient approaches to using left-hand and bowing techniques. As a result, these treatises influenced the development of modern teaching methods because the violinists emphasized the role of the theory in connection to the importance of regular practicing to improve performance. Much attention was paid to developing the standardized technique that could be used by any student and that could reduce the risks of making technical errors. Even though the authors of the treatises proposed different visions of methods and elements related to playing the instrument, they contributed to developing the improved violin technique and teaching methods that were applied widely with certain modifications.

Works Cited

Geminiani, Francesco. The Art of Playing on the Violin (Facsimile of 1751 Edition). Travis and Emery Music Bookshop, 2009.

Hann, Hanna. “The Influence of Historic Violin Treatises on Modern Teaching and Performance Practices.” Ursidae: The Undergraduate Research Journal at the University of Northern Colorado, vol. 4, no. 3, 2015, pp. 1-10.

L’Abbé le Fils. Principes Du Violon. Centre de Documentation Universitaire et S.E.D.E.S., 1961.

Masin, Gwendolyn. Violin Teaching in the New Millennium. 2012. Web.

Mozart, Leopold. A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. Oxford University Press, 1951.

Nelson, Sheila. The Violin and Viola: History, Structure, Techniques. Courier Corporation, 2003.

Silvela, Zdenko. A New History of Violin Playing: The Vibrato and Lambert Massart’s Revolutionary Discovery. Universal Publishers, 2001.

Stowell, Robin. The Cambridge Companion to the Violin. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Todd, Larry, and Peter Williams. Perspectives on Mozart Performance. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Werner, Michael. Concise Encyclopedia of Mexico. Routledge, 2001.

Yu, Tao-Chang. Spanish Dances for Violin: Their Origin and Influences. 2006. Web.

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