By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
With period-instrument orchestras and even some modern-instrument musicians turning their attention to what performances of Romantic 19th-century music might have sounded like in the 19th century, David Milsom has written a guide for violinists and other music lovers who want to get into an authentically Romantic mood. But be warned: It may be more freely expressive than what we are used to today. And be ready to hum that tune.
The book is (rather unromantically) titled Romantic Violin Performing Practices: A Handbook (Boydell Press, 2020). Its 335 pages include discussions of core philosophies and tools of the trade, treatises, editions, recordings, and more. The author—head of performance at Huddersfield University in the UK who also leads the Nineteenth-Century Performance Research Group—provides technical and stylistic violin exercises, a bibliography, and a discography.
I asked Milsom about what he had deduced about our favorite Schumann and Brahms pieces, based on dusty documents and fragile sound archives, and how performances and listening experiences might be energized and illuminated by exploring the implications of his work, even if it means relying in part on scratchy old recordings of Joseph Joachim.
Milsom tells me that the book’s purpose was to close the age-old gap between what scholars write about and what performers do. “I wanted to write something in a reasonably accessible way that would summarize how to start investigating and experimenting with what could be called ‘Romantic violin performing practices,’” he says. “I wanted to provide resources with which a wider range of performers could start to engage with these things.”
Milsom stresses the difference between performing practices that are notated and practices that are not. “I think one of the key messages of the book is to show that there are un-notated practices that are really exciting and interesting to investigate and experiment with, which open up the possibility of more multifaceted, richly layered views of this music.”
Milsom illustrates his point by comparing the edition by violinist Ferdinand David (1810–73) of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, with mid-20th-century editions. “What immediately becomes evident is a very, very different way of being expressive. The opening phrase in David’s edition includes annotated harmonics, where a modern player would probably play molto vibrato espressivo. And the slow movement has lots of fingerings in David’s edition that suggest a much more obvious use of portamento, and which have been largely expunged from or suppressed in later editions.”
Milsom points to Louis Spohr’s (1784–1859) distinction between what he describes as the “correct” and the “fine” styles or modes of delivery. “The correct style, in Spohr’s view, is highly skillful, very polished from a technical point of view, and highly capable of observing the musical score in expressive ways. But he sees this as a starting point,” Milsom says. “In his view, beautiful performances enter a realm of performer-generated expressiveness beyond the score. Joachim espoused this kind of much freer approach; allegedly every performance he gave was different. He didn’t like to mark editions too heavily because he felt it was too prescriptive.”
Milsom also stresses how profoundly 19th-century vocal ideals served as “the underpinnings” for much of the instrumental music of the time and its performance; his concern is for the disconnections he hears in modern performances “between declamation and song, and song and instrumental music.”
Milsom cites Charles Auguste de Bériot’s Méthode de violon of 1858 for its comprehensive descriptions of sound production and rhythmic realizations couched explicitly in terms of a vocal ideal. Bériot heard music “in a quasi-linguistic way,” Milsom says, “and his justification for choices of fingerings and bowings comes from that overriding vocal philosophy.”
Historical pedagogical literature for the violin has led Milsom to perceive that “they felt there was a very direct connection between all of these things: how you shift, whether you remain on one string or another, whether you treat this rhythm flexibly or not. There was a clear aesthetic logic operating within this group of practices we call Romantic, and it can be invoked now to get people into a way of being that is other than just being literal-minded about whether this is the right portamento or that is the wrong vibrato.
“It’s a kind of hearts-and-minds exercise,” Milsom admits, “to try and get people to recognize that this is very different aesthetically but no less worthy of investigation.”
Milsom believes it may also be a matter “of thinking ourselves into the mindset of 19th-century musicians by asking ourselves what we are trying to do and say as performers. If we can have more of an understanding of obvious things like portamenti or flexibility with notated rhythms, maybe we can begin to understand on a slightly deeper level things we noticed in early recordings, even though one has to deal very carefully with the distinction between generality and specificity.”
The value of old recordings to an understanding of the 19th century cannot be overestimated. Eminent music critic Tully Potter, whose 1,400-page biography of Adolf Busch chronicles one of the great links to Romantic traditions, tells me that listening to the best players of any generation “is immensely helpful. They often knew the composers or were a heartbeat away from them. If you hear Karol Gregorowicz play Wieniawski’s Souvenir de Moscou, you are hearing someone who actually knew the composer.
“On the other hand,” Potter points out, “things never stood still. You can hear the cellist W.H. Squire playing with virtually no vibrato in 1898 or 1899, then in 1906 with some—having clearly heard Kreisler in the interim—and then in 1912 with a lot of vibrato, in fact rather a good sound. And who would you pick from around 1912, Ysaÿe or Kreisler? That’s why I don’t like being too doctrinaire.”
The value of really old recordings is echoed by Brinton Averil Smith, principal cellist of the Houston Symphony. “I make my students listen to pianist Ilona Eibenschütz’s (1872–1967) recordings to understand the idea that melody doesn’t need to line up with accompaniment but should rather be moving around as the music dictates. When you listen to that History of the Cello on Recordseries [Pearl Records, annotated by Potter], the biggest difference besides speeds (usually faster in the old days) and flexibility of tempo was the use of portamenti. This is where Casals was a kind of revolution and you can see the change even from Feuermann’s early recordings to his late ones, as tastes changed. But now, of course, so few know how to slide artistically at all . . . ”
Which is where David Milsom’s book comes in. “I’m extremely enthusiastic, because a lot of 20th-century performances of a lot of this music do it something of a disservice,” he says bluntly. “So I think it’s good for us to get back to first principles and experiment with these things. I’m not forcing players to play in a certain way. I very much dislike language that tells people how they should play something. I don’t feel it’s my place to do that. I simply hope to widen the range of available choices and make it better known to more people. I think that’s basically my purpose.”