By Sasha Margolis | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Through much of the 19th century, virtuosos of the violin were expected to be masters of style, showmanship, and communication. But they were not always paragons of precision. Solo literature of the era required frequent high-velocity trips from one end of the fingerboard to the other. If a stylish arrival entailed losing a few notes en route, it was reckoned a small price to pay.
Then, toward century’s end, precision came into fashion. This was thanks in part to Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, of whom the younger Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe said, “It is he who taught us to play exactly.” But perhaps still more influential was the Czech pedagogue Otakar Ševčík (1852–1934), who literally taught exactitude to his more than 5,000 pupils, including such players as Jan Kubelik (recipient of Beatlemania-like adulation around 1900), the beloved Erika Morini, Marie Hall (dedicatee of The Lark Ascending), Louis Krasner (who commissioned the Berg Concerto), Viennese concertmaster-soloist Wolfgang Schneiderhan, quartet great Rudolf Kolisch, and the ill-fated David Hochstein.
As successful as Ševčík was as a teacher, what earned him lasting fame were the exercises and studies he composed, works of strange genius born from the confluence of a brilliant analytical mind, an abiding love for the violin, and excruciating nights of pain and insomnia.
Born in southern Bohemia of Czech and German parentage, Ševčík studied piano and voice before taking up the violin at seven. It was the violin that won his heart. Upon entering the Prague Conservatory, at age 13, he wrote to his father: “I am devoting myself to the violin . . . and I shall not separate myself from it . . . the violin and I are now one.” After graduation, he held a few brief concertmaster positions in Salzburg, Prague, and Vienna, also earning rave reviews as a soloist. He then moved on to a succession of longer-lasting teaching posts in Kiev, Prague, Vienna, and at his own violin colony in the Bohemian town of Písek. (He taught additionally in Salzburg, London, Boston, New York, Chicago, and at Ithaca College.)
As a teacher, Ševčík was a revolutionary. “Imagine,” says Endre Granat, who has intensively researched the Czech master’s life and works, “at a time when people were kind of in tune and kind of playing all the notes in a run, he insisted that every note should be played, and should be played cleanly. That was a totally novel idea!” But Ševčík didn’t just demand cleanliness. He provided the means, believing that “a student no matter how gifted must be shown how to work.” In the words of one student, he taught how “to practice each measure separately backwards and forwards with all possible combinations and permutations of rhythm, fingering, and bowing.”
In this way, Ševčík seems to have been able to turn any average talent into a proficient violinist. This was the main ingredient in his mystique—along with his generosity to needy students, his absentmindedness, the 150 cigarettes he smoked each day, the early morning walks (which he ended by waking students up to practice), and the giant piles of cash (payments for lessons), which he could never keep track of, that accumulated on his piano.
In addition, there was the rumor about the master’s missing left eye—namely, that he had lost it to a breaking E-string. The truth was otherwise. During Ševčík’s first long teaching stint in Kiev in the 1870s, he began to suffer from terrible aching in this eye. The pain impeded his performing and interfered with his sleep. To distract himself, after days of teaching, he began to spend nights writing violin studies. “As a flagellant wounds his body to heal his mind,” he later said, “so I, inversely, tortured my brain to cure my body.” In 1894, the eye was enucleated—that is, the eyeball was removed—a procedure that gave him so much relief that he described it as a cure.
Ševčík had a passion for violin technique, saying that “real technique in the truest sense of the word must pulsate, like tone, with life.” Pain and passion together produced two large works prior to the eye operation. Opus 1 includes four volumes for the left hand, the first exploring every conceivable first-position intervallic pattern, scale, arpeggio, and double-
stop pattern, with the other three taking similarly exhaustive approaches to the higher positions, full-range scales and arpeggios, and full-range double-stops. Opus 2 includes six volumes for the bow arm, addressing bow division, rhythmic and slurring patterns, and string crossings. Subsequent works continue in the same vein—for example, Op. 3 is a supplement to Op. 2, Op. 8 is devoted to shifting, and Op. 9 to double-stops.
It wasn’t long after publication before Ševčík’s method was adopted by other teachers, first in Germany, and soon practically everywhere. In his Art of Violin Playing, another great pedagogue, Carl Flesch, writes thoughtfully about what set it apart from earlier teaching material. “The études of Kreutzer, Rode, and Dont are after all musical compositions, while Ševčík does not try to say anything musical.” This means that when it comes to shifting, for example, Kreutzer, Rode, and Dont, being musical, include only commonly occurring patterns. Ševčík, in contrast, “deals with shifting in all its logically possible formulas.”
Flesch has strong ideas on how to practice Ševčík each day: no more than 30 minutes on left-hand work, and no more than ten bowing exercises. He cautions against repeating bowing exercises and recommends choosing only one part of the bow per exercise per day, despite Ševčík’s several options. This is because too much Ševčík invites the danger of “intellectual fatigue. . . . One can most appropriately compare the Ševčík exercises, on the whole, with medicine, which, according to dosage, can have a deadly or healing effect.” Too much will “result in a deadening of expressive ability, and the loss of one’s artistic personality.”
Nonetheless, Flesch believes that Ševčík’s exercises, “because they limit themselves entirely to the mechanism of motions . . . provide the most secure foundation for developing a good technique, in the most time-saving manner.” Stressing the importance of an informed approach, he dismisses any objections to Ševčík’s work as being “based on a lack of understanding of how best to study them.”
Granat agrees. “He was an excellent teacher, but you need an expert to teach it. I find the exercises phenomenal if you do it right.” Granat explains that Ševčík’s exercises are designed for both students and older players wishing to keep in shape. He advises that students start with Op. 1, Vol. 1 once first position has been securely established, then take up Vol. 2 as other positions are being learned, and detour to Opp. 8 and 9 before embarking on Vols. 3 and 4. Along these lines, Granat has co-edited a distillation of Opp. 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9, published as The Essential Ševčík. He has also shepherded into publication several opus numbers of what may be Ševčík’s most interesting work: repertoire-specific exercises devoted, one volume each, to the major concertos. Addressing every technical challenge, dynamic gradation, and tempo subtlety, these capture the great pedagogue’s meticulousness when it came to not only exercises but also performance.
Ševčík’s exercises take patience. (He himself declared that “without patience you may as well go and hang yourself, for all the good you will be.”) But the pain can lead to gain. “If you have grown up with the Ševčík method,” says Granat, “you look at a piece, and just by looking at it, you know where your problems are. And you’re clearing out your problem measures, or your problem shifts, problem string crossings. And once you have done that, then little by little, you include that into the piece. So by the time you start practicing the piece proper, you have eliminated all the technical problems. That was his greatness; that’s the essence of Ševčík’s teaching.”