The orchestral introduction seems to go on forever, three-and-a-half minutes of some of the noblest music ever written, composed by classical music’s greatest master. Just when things couldn’t get any better, the violas suddenly die away in measure 89. The rest of the strings lose their proud melody to motionless whole notes. All eyes turn to where you’re standing at the front of the stage, fiddle in hand.
As the orchestra hangs on that dominant chord in anticipation, everybody’s waiting for the iconic solo-violin arpeggio—the one that will climb the length of your fingerboard. Every other pitch will be a grace note to another, twisting in the wind an octave above, like lonely seagulls in search of the concerto’s first big theme. Yes, out there in the open with nowhere to hide, it’s time to play the opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major.
And this is what it looks like:
Beethoven certainly isn’t the only composer to fall under the spell of this majestic interval. There’s a bunch of octaves at the bottom of the first page of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. The first movement of the Sibelius saves the broken octaves for the top of the second page, and the Shostakovich Concerto Passacaglia is a non-stop 8va workout. But for instant recognition, intonational purity, not to mention sheer buck-naked exposure, the entrance of the Op. 61 has to be the grandaddy of them all.
Maybe Beethoven was inspired by Rodolphe Kreutzer of 42 Études fame, already the dedicatee of his ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata No. 9, Op. 47. The French violin school of playing, from which Kreutzer emerged, was already famous for broken octaves. It was another exponent of the French school, virtuoso Franz Clement, who commissioned and premiered Beethoven’s concerto at a Viennese benefit concert in 1806. Clement was famous for showmanship and circus tricks—like playing an entire sonata on one string.
Beethoven may have humored Clement with the octaves, but he refused to compose a vehicle for mindless virtuosic display—which is probably why, at the end of the concerto’s premier concert, Clement famously flipped his violin over and played it upside-down.
Whether played as broken arpeggios or bowed together as double-stops, octaves require a particular approach.
1. Keep your fingers light and watch the tension.
Tension can hinder finger reach and shifts, and the prospect of fingering and playing across two strings at once can also tempt the bow arm to bear down and strain itself.
2. Establish the octave shape between your first and fourth fingers, or first and third in higher registers. Adjust that distance between the fingers inward or outward depending on how high or low you are on the fingerboard.
3. Allow a little more bow-arm weight on the lower of the two strings involved.
The bottom pitches on the thicker strings are the ones you’ll tune the upper note into like an overtone and they won’t be choked as easily. Vibrato should also emanate from the first finger on the lower string.
Once all those concepts are painstakingly established, well, then it’s time to actually practice. Working on a specific étude for specific music is always helpful because you can practice the thing to death without accidently ingraining a cautious, unmusical practice approach into your interpretation of the music. Sometimes a tricky exercise pays off by making the original repertoire feel comparatively easy.
The most well-known defaults for octave study are, not coincidentally, Rodolphe Kreutzer’s Études, Nos. 24 and 25. Though repetition of octave pitch pairs is not built into these studies and the level of difficulty for mastery is potentially soul-crushing, these are excellent options thanks to the slurred bowings and arpeggiations they share with the Beethoven.
Acoustic hip-hop might not have much in common with the Beethoven Violin Concerto at first glance, but my eminently jammable étude-duet Your Grandad’s Clothes is another resource. (You’ll find links to an audio recording and a pdf of the music below.) Tuning to the clear reference pitches of open strings and another violin part is great for your intonation.
Sure, the changing meters and keys are pretty off the hook, but instead of unrealistically moving the same interval around the whole time, you get to practice grabbing those octave shapes after negotiating a range of other intervals and challenges. Plus unlike a few other traditional études, add a friend, put the parts together, and it could actually be fun to listen to.
Well tuned and balanced octaves are things of beauty. Not only will approaching them from these different perspectives prepare you for similar passages in other concertos, but many of these principles hold true for double-stop movement across the repertoire.
Now you can button up your formal concert attire for the Beethoven or rip your jeans for Grandad’s Clothes, but octaves will never go out of style.
Gregory Walker is a professor at the University of Colorado Denver and artistic director of the Colorado NeXt Music Fest. His Bad Rap for Electric Violin and Chamber Orchestra is distributed by Lauren Keiser Music and Rock, Pop, and Hip-Hop Fantasies for Two Violins is available from Bellegrove.