By James Reel
In 1756, Leopold Mozart, a leading Salzburg violin teacher and fourth violinist in the local prince-archbishop’s court orchestra, brought into the world two important offspring. Both would gain international recognition over the next few decades, but their notoriety and respect would decline by the end of the century, only to rise again decades later.
The first of these offspring was baptized Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart; now we call him merely Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Six months later came the second progeny, carrying an equally weighty name but known to us in English as A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing—sometimes referred to simply as the Violinschule.
Initially, it appeared that the treatise would be the more influential of the two and would enjoy greater longevity. Wolfgang was musically gifted and became known throughout Western Europe as a child prodigy, but people began to lose interest in him when he entered his teens and seemed likely to become just another common Austrian musician.
The treatise, in contrast, was a tremendous and longstanding success. It was soon translated into French and Dutch; a second German edition, with just a few revisions, came out in 1770, and this was reprinted unchanged in 1787 and again in 1800. After that time it fell prey to editors and abridgers, and before long it was supplanted by more up-to-date treatises taking note of advances in violin making and performance technique. Not until 1948 did a full translation (by Editha Knocker) appear in English, currently available from Oxford University Press.
Leopold was certainly a solid composer, though no innovator, and as a violinist and teacher he valued steady, assured, tasteful playing free of gaudy effects and tricks that disguised poor technique. He deeply respected the work of Italian violinist and theorist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), and seems to have picked up some pointers from Tartini’s own writings about ornaments, although Leopold generally rejected the flashier, vibrato-laden elements of the Italian manner of violin playing. He seemed to be unfamiliar with earlier treatises on violin playing by Michel Corrette and Francesco Geminiani, for he touted his Violinschule as the first of its kind.
Little Wolfgang started parroting music on the harpsichord at age three, and it’s said that around that same time he tearfully begged to play his father’s violin. By the time Wolfgang was seven, he and his older sister Nannerl had developed such impressive musical skill that Leopold decided to take them on the road. On June 9, 1763, father, mother, son, daughter, a servant, and presumably a few copies of the Violinschule set off by coach for a tour of Europe.
Leopold exploited his children’s talent to the hilt, and he was criticized for a certain lack of taste in his advertisements of their appearances. It’s tempting to imagine that he trotted out little Wolfgang and his violin as a sort of living infomercial, and after the demonstration hawked his treatise—“You, too, can groom a child prodigy if you buy my book!”
In reality, though, Wolfgang did most of his playing on the harpsichord, and at any rate the first edition of the Violinschule was sold out a few months after the family began its long tour. (Leopold spent seven out of the next 11 years on the road with Wolfgang, and wondered bitterly why he never got promoted to kapellmeister in Salzburg.)
Leopold directed his Violinschule more toward teachers than students; in it, he offered hints on pedagogy and practice, and he stated explicitly that his aim was to reform bad teaching, and thereby improve the musicality and accuracy of violin playing. Perhaps because he was writing for fellow teachers, he felt free to go off on a few tangents (the folly of intricate scroll design, for instance) and indulge in some rustic Austrian folkisms. This is not particularly dry reading; translator Knocker recounted her delight upon first reading just the book’s foreword:
“No thinking person could, I believe, fail to be charmed by Leopold Mozart’s dry humour, his wit, his imagery, and his childlike and literal acceptance of history as told in the Old Testament. Nor could he fail to be impressed by his knowledge of the classics and of the general literature of his own day.”
Leopold justifies his credulity when it comes to ancient legends in a footnote: “At the time these men lived, learned people were idolized. And this is the very reason why everything seems so fabulous. Who knows? Perchance the poets of future centuries may have cause enough to celebrate as gods our present-day virtuosi of song, for it really seems as if old times might return.”
It’s as if Leopold anticipated the 20th-century deification of his newborn son.
Leopold could be a tough customer, though. Regarding the exercises he provides for bowing practice, he sadistically remarks, “The more distasteful they are, the more I am pleased.” And in a pugilistic footnote in the section describing musical symbols, he declares, “Those who will not use the sign [NATURAL] in their composition are in error. If they do not believe this, let them ask me concerning it.”
Does Leopold’s Violinschule hold any interest for string players and teachers today? At first glance, its contemporary application would seem limited. His explanation of time measure is a bit confusing and elusive for today’s students. He insists that each bar not beginning with a rest should start with a down bow. And his description of left-hand positions doesn’t correspond to modern practice: What he calls “natural position” is the same as our first position, but Leopold’s “whole position” includes what we call the third, fifth, and seventh positions; his “half position” embraces second, fourth, and sixth; and “compound” or “mixed position” cobbles together the second and third.
Yet the treatise tells us a great deal about how string music of the mid-18th century was played—or, at least, how Leopold believed it should be played, with detailed accounts of a wide assortment of trills and embellishments, with names that sound like Viennese confections.
The Violinschule also provides tips that are useful in music from many periods. Legato, it turns out, was very important to Leopold. He came to insist that each left-hand finger be left in place until it absolutely had to move; this would, among other things, produce a smoother legato. He also focused attention on the freedom of the right elbow and hand, insisting that one should keep the bow arm low while tilting the violin toward the E-string side to allow freer wrist action.
John Holloway, a highly regarded violinist who specializes in early music and who has been a mentor to several of today’s leading younger players, finds the Violinschule to be a valuable resource. “For students of 18th-century violin,” he says, “the Leopold Mozart book is essential, as reading material and as practical working advice. From the most basic things such as his bowing exercises, right up to his words of wisdom on the subjects of fingering, articulation, and ornamentation, it is, with the Geminiani book and the Tartini writings, our most important 18th-century information about how the violin was taught and therefore played.”
Several leading violin teachers who do not specialize in early music declined to comment on the Violinschule for this article, many of them admitting that they weren’t familiar with it. Not so violinist Kenneth Goldsmith, a professor at Rice University who has taught students from age eight through graduate school of all eras. Goldsmith insists that any string player can learn much about 18th-century music from Leopold Mozart.
“He was trying to set the record straight,” says Goldsmith. “He was the first one to advocate double dotting; he said, ‘It looks strange to the eye, but it conveys the right rhythm in this earlier music,’ because people were already losing that style of playing. He puts a lot of things down for the ages that we need to remember.”
Holloway acknowledges that by the early 19th century the Violinschule had become anachronistic. “Leopold never experienced the Tourte bow or the chin rest, which together were to revolutionize violin playing at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, respectively,” he points out. “Still, serious 19th-century pedagogues continued to recognize its worth and to adapt Leopold’s ideas for their own purposes.”
So does Holloway use it today with his general violin students? “In my ‘modern violin’ teaching,” he says, “I use Leopold as a reference point, or perhaps better said, as a discussion point for the reading of Wolfgang’s music—how to play trills and appoggiaturas; how sacred are articulations; whether, where, and how to ornament, add slurs, and so forth. Of course, most modern violin students have to play Mozart concertos for auditions where other considerations may have priority—such as how the listening panel expects or wants to hear Mozart played! In my experience, very few modern violin students are interested in performance-practice issues, and the majority want to be told what to do.
“Nonetheless, I hope by constant reference to relevant sources in my teaching to at least raise their awareness that notation is extremely approximate, and that the more we know of relevant ‘grammar’ the better we can read and understand.”
Goldsmith goes even further than Holloway in his use of the Violinschule with nonspecialist students.
“I have always used this treatise in my pedagogy classes,” he says. “He has very good basic information, especially regarding bowings. We live in an era of ‘convenience bowings,’ so that it’s possible for someone to make a downbeat sound like a downbeat playing with an up bow. Unfortunately you can’t make it look like a downbeat, which is the point Leopold is making by insisting that you always start with the down bow. You shouldn’t fake it. So Leopold is valuable up to music of the middle of the 19th century in his advice on bowing, and playing on and off the string, and rhythms and fingerings. Look at his glissandos—he uses all the slides that the Romantics used.
“It’s not valuable today for Romantic and modern playing, because his technique is all about violins that had no chin rest and were held differently. And, in general, I don’t find applicable his opinions of the stylistic use of vibrato, certainly not in Italian music.
“In 1752, Geminiani wrote, ‘The vibrato makes the sound more agreeable; I use it as much as possible.’ Whereas almost the same year Leopold says, ‘Some play as if the hands have the palsy.’
“He’s talking about Italian violinists, of course.”
Leopold Mozart died in 1787, disappointed at his limited advancement in Salzburg, but no doubt satisfied that he had contributed to the betterment of music with his Violinschule.
Producing Wolfgang was no small achievement, either.