By Laurie Niles
One of the most dazzling moments in violin repertoire occurs in the Felix Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, when the pyrotechnics of the first-movement cadenza turn into an accompanying figure, ushering the orchestra back in. The music sparkles so impressively due to a combination of violin techniques: bariolage (repeated string crossings), spiccato (off-the-string bow stroke), and chords across all four strings.
Mendelssohn’s E-minor concerto is one of the most frequently played concertos in the violin repertoire, a piece that many students play, and soloists frequently perform with professional ensembles. The piece has held up well—it premiered in 1845, played by the violinist Ferdinand David, to whom the work was dedicated. Mendelssohn wrote the work in close consultation with David, who had been a friend since their teenage years, and who was concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the time.
With its late-Classical, early-Romantic charm, the Mendelssohn concerto contains a lot of the challenges common to both genres.
Of course, the Mendelssohn concerto presents all kinds of technical difficulties throughout.
With its late-Classical, early-Romantic charm, the work contains a lot of the challenges common to both genres. The soaring opening melody requires the same kind of clean playing and perfect intonation as do the melodic lines in a Mozart concerto. But after these come passages of octaves, thirds, and other flashy tricks one might expect in a more Romantic work. In other words, a violinist needs a solid technical foundation before embarking on this piece. Traditionally, the cadenzas in a concerto are meant to be improvised by the soloist—one might even call the cadenza an opportunity to show off.
The first-movement cadenza for Mendelssohn’s concerto is somewhat unusual in that the composer wrote it himself, with some later adjustments made by David. It is nonetheless a virtuosic showcase, to be approached systematically. Here, specifically, is the spiccato bariolage passage that comes at the end of the cadenza (scroll down for music examples). A few things to keep in mind while approaching it:
You might think that getting the bow to bounce is the big trick—it’s not. The big trick is timing your string crossings; that is, making them perfectly even, rhythmically. Practice in rhythms to train your arm to move on command, rhythmically.
You’ve probably spent a lot of time cultivating wrist movement for strings crossings, and yet this is not the motion to use in this spot. Instead, for those string crossings, use the large muscles of your arm, all the way up to the shoulder joint. You’ll feel a little bit like a bird flapping its right wing!
Use the large muscles of your arm, all the way up to the shoulder joint. You’ll feel a little bit like a bird flapping its right wing.
Your left hand will not be playing these as separate notes—it will move from chord to chord. They start out pretty easy and get a little more difficult at the end of the cadenza. If you need to just practice the changes in the left hand, you can practice this as rolling chords, without the repetition.
To practice the spiccato, do all the things you normally need to do to use spiccato: Flatten the bow hair; find the proper spot where the bow “wants” to bounce, usually just below the middle; and keep the wrist and fingers flexible while still holding the bow firmly.
Here are some examples to help you master this pattern of crossing four strings (Ex. 1). Practice the string crossings on open strings. Turn on your metronome at about quarter note = 112. Synchronize the bottom G and the (second) top E with the metronome, and use your full arm, so that your string crossings are supported by large muscles. Make sure that you are hearing two Gs on the bottom and two Es on the top. Do this as evenly as you can.
Despite your efforts to make the notes even, chances are that your string crossings will start out somewhat uneven. It may be necessary to calibrate the large muscles of your bow arm, so that your bow can move from string to string exactly in time and as you command. To gain control over this, practice the open strings in various rhythms.
As your string crossings get more even, work with the rhythms in Ex. 2 and slowly increase the speed until your metronome reaches eighth note = 176. I’ve included four rhythms to practice, but you can make up others.
In general, the bowing is more difficult in this passage than the left hand, which changes from chord to chord, but stays still during each measure. To isolate the movement of the left hand, you can practice this as a series of rolling chords (see Ex. 3).
Roll the chords gently and take time in between; the idea here is to consistently check for perfect intonation. Once you have practiced these things separately, put them together and play the passage as written, but on the string with no spiccato.
To add the spiccato, you need to already have a good spiccato and ricochet in your technique (another article for another day!). This stroke is something in between.
Depending on your bow, if you place it properly, the motion of the string crossing might just allow it to bounce on its own, provided you place the bow, with hair flat, at that special spot (unique to each bow) where your bow wants to bounce. However, it may need a little help: You may need to give the bow a little spike at the start of the down-bow, to get things bouncing.
To help find the exact right spot on your bow where it will bounce for this passage, you can try this ricochet exercise (see Ex. 4). On the down-bow, drop the bow on the G string and cross all four strings, one bounce per string. Rest. On the up-bow, drop the bow on the E and cross all strings with one bounce per string.
Do this strictly as ricochet; you will not be controlling anything but the speed of the string crossing. Keep the bow relatively close to the string. You can do this on open strings, or with the fingerings.
Though the actual passage is in 16th notes, practice this in a triplet pattern so that the beat always falls on the open string. That helps emphasize the fact that you will play that note twice, in the end.
Laurie Niles has taught violin for more than 25 years and currently teaches privately and with Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena, California. She also is the editor and founder of Violinist.com and author of the book Violinist.com Interviews, Vol. 1.