String Mastery

Huberman was interviewed in New York on 27 November 1922 by Frederick H. Martens for his book String Mastery published by Frederick A. Stokes Co., New York, 1923.

After discussing various technical problems relating to violin playing, Huberman describes his idea of violin mastery as the perfected expression of truth, rather than mere beauty. Shouldn't this be the goal of all musicians? I certainly wish it was.

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Bronislav Huberman, who played Spohr’s Second Violin Concerto at the age of seven, is one of the rare examples of an infant prodigy whose artistic maturity has kept every earlier promise. He is essentially one of the greater violinists of our time, and not alone because of his extraordinary technique and the breadth and richness of his tone, but because of a sureness of mastery which lends perfection to every detail of his interpretation. Bronislav Huberman is no more given to commonplaces in his thoughts anent his art than in his art itself; and the ideas which he developed in conversation with the writer, in an upper chamber of his manager’s offices in New York, should prove highly stimulating and suggestive to every serious and ambitious violinist.

“To which school do I belong?” said Mr. Huberman, echoing a question. “I wish I knew myself. As a boy of ten I spent eight months with Joachim; but as he was absent from Berlin most of the time, and I was not quite satisfied with the assistant teacher who represented him, I studied secretly with Charles Gregorovitch, Wieniawski’s best pupil, a gifted teacher and virtuoso, but too nervous to play in public. Leaving Gregorovitch, I played new repertoire works for six weeks with Hugo Heerman and, at the age of eleven, had three weeks’ hearings with Marsick. After that I became my own teacher, working, studying and developing my playing along individual lines and also by hearing other artists, especially singers.


“I might truthfully say that I am as much a pupil, or more, of Jean de Reszké or Caruso as I am of Joachim. Take Caruso, for instance. He pointed one great lesson which every violinist might follow. In spite of being none too economical in using his voice, in producing his tone, he had developed a great reserve of strength, a natural reservoir of power and expression, and showed wonderful ability in building up an aria to its natural climax. This ability I have made it my business to develop with regard to my own instrument. Violinists in general, even those who play most expressively, are often at a loss when a great, vibrating crescendo is demanded of them in the culminating passages of a composition, when the latter are not on the G string or within the fifth position, but somewhere on the E string and between the seventh and twelfth positions. Then they make the best of a bad bargain and play piano, as though this had been the composer’s intention, even when a forte is indicated. As far as this technical ability to maintain the power of the dynamics and phrasing in the high positions on the E string is concerned, it cannot be acquired without years of work. Most violinists are quite ready to spend hours in polishing some purely bravura passage, but shrink from giving time to cultivating a larger tone in high E string positions where it is required.


“As regards virtuoso violin playing, two great technical factors are required: a colossal reserve of tonal and technical power and strength, built up by endurance study; and absolute purity of intonation. I expect to develop my ideas and discoveries respecting intonation at length in a new book on which I am working, but will take this opportunity of giving you some of my ideas regarding endurance study, which, in my opinion, is too much neglected.

“The violinist should have, in reality, twice as much technical power and strength at his disposal in order to play a given composition as he thinks necessary. And this he can only get by endurance study, the true key to violin virtuosity. Before Nansen undertook his Polar expeditions he trained himself to sleep in the open under conditions as nearly as possible approaching those he was to encounter. The violinist should train for the conditions of the concert platform, and too many are not willing to do this. For instance, most violinists cannot play, clearly and distinctly, the stretto of the first movement of the Tschaikovsky Concerto wince, owing to the amount of passage-work preceding it, their hand is exhausted when the stretto is reached. The only way to insure their doing justice to the stretto when they reach it is to practice it together with the preceding passages, again and again and again, building up a colossal reserve of finger-power. A violinist’s technique may be said to have reached the virtuoso point when he is able to play every difficult passage of a difficult work, not only separately, but together with all that precedes and succeeds it, in tempo, with proper observance of all details of shading, phrasing and interpretation. Some of the passages in Paganini’s “Les Clochettes,” for example, are so supremely difficult for every violinist, that when he comes to them in the middle of the composition, his hand is already so fatigued that he cannot do justice to them.

“Now, in order to bring his technique to the point that he is able to play ‘Les Clochettes’ just once on the concert platform, the violinist must be able to play it through twenty times without interruption at home! Of course, the major difficulties vary with individual compositions; sometimes it may be a double trill, a series of fingered octaves or tenths – there are so many technical forms – but the endurance study which builds up the technical reserve, it rightly carried out, will take care of them all.


“As to daily mechanical exercises, I do not believe very much in them. For what might be called daily ‘technical baths’ I think the scales in thirds are excellent, especially for endurance. But the best thing to do is to pick out entire difficult sections and practice them, whether you think you need them or not. I do this myself because endurance training in the highest sense can only be developed by innumerable repetitions of difficult passages at a rapid tempo. Such material may be found, for instance, before the very end of the fioriture passages in Sarasate’s ‘Carmen’ Fantasy, where there are broken chords, for either détaché or legato bowing. There is a general idea that the purely mechanical exercise prepares and makes less difficult any particular passage or passages. I do not believe this, since every advanced violinist discovers, sooner or later, that the technical passages in a new work have new difficulties of their own. The violin is a subtle instrument, and the greater works written for it do not offer a mere repetition of technical formulas. The change of a tone, or of the vibrato in even a familiar passage, introduces a new difficulty. Therefore I do not think it advisable for the mature artist or advanced student to give much time to the purely mechanical exercise. Nor do I hold greatly by etudes. They are good to lay a foundation, to supply the elementary ground for the higher virtuoso technique. But from the standpoint of virtuoso playing the spiccato, the vibrato, etc., can never be acquired by the study of etudes.

“It is possible on the piano, perhaps, in such etudes as those by Chopin and others, to develop finish, but not on the violin. To get the final polish of brilliancy on the strings, the player must rely on his imagination, his artistic vision. The purely theoretical way in which the étude deals with these matters cannot arouse the imagination of the artist.


“I have developed a special technique of power and endurance in the high registers on long notes. Why? Because, as I have already mentioned, violinists usually fall short of the fullness of tone and power needed when a climaxing phrase or a climaxing melody occurs in a high position. I admit that it is difficult to gain lyric breadth and fullness of tone high up on the E string, but it can be done. Caruso made his high climaxing notes gloriously powerful: the violinist can do the same. In the case of some singers, some sopranos, let us say, there is more excuse if their voice does not obey them; they actually may not have the tones they need in their registers. But the tones are there in the violin; it is only a matter of bringing them out, of cultivating them from the standpoint of endurance study. There are certain climaxing tones in famous compositions where, if it were not so difficult, ninety-five per cent of the violinists would make the vibrato they ought to make. As it is, they do not observe the vibrato. And in general, if the tone calling for the vibrato happens to be in a high position on the E string, it is ignored. From the standpoint of true art and true artistic effect it is worthy while giving hours, days, months of work, if necessary, to developing a genuine crescendo under these conditions, or a genuine vibrato, or making a forte a true forte. But, unfortunately, no one is willing, as a rule, to spend the time necessary to give two individual tones a more brilliant and beautiful forte quality. I work more on this than I do on Paganini octaves. Take, in the Brahms Concerto, the first movement, the melodic passages, it would be impossible to play them as written, with a beautiful, rounded vibrato tenuto, without three to four years’ hard work. Any number of professional players, however, think nothing of giving up ten years to acquiring Ernst or Paganini brilliancies; but when it comes to working at high speed on the E string, between the fifth and seventh position, for the sake of artistic completeness, they are not willing to make the sacrifice.


“The vibrato, to begin with, is one of the greatest of violinistic effects; but most violinists use it as Rembrandt does his dark yellow backgrounds. I look on it as an accessory of expression, which has to be carefully graduated in its use, like the crescendo, forte or accelerando. There is a dramatic and lyric vibrato, each differing in its amount of speed and varying in degree of amplitude and the length of its stroke, like the pendulum of a clock. At times a very rapid vibrato gives just the right touch to human and dramatic expression, as in Lalo’s ‘Symphonie Espagnole’; at others the slower lyric vibrator, as in the Beethoven Concerto, is most expressive. It is best to think of the vibrato as a graduating means of expression. Then its occasional use for contrast is very effective, and much to be preferred to the terrible continuous vibrato which irritates the nerves.


“Which is the most difficult bowing? To judge by the number of times I have seen it missing in other violinists I should say the spiccato. Ninety-five out of a hundred violinists – and I do not exclude the greatest – instead of a rounded, springing spiccato, use a species of nebulous détaché. The spiccato is another variety of bowing which must be developed by endurance study.

“As to the hours of practice? Well, for a violinist studying with a master, or a professional violinist, at least four hours a day, and not more than six are necessary. I should not want an artist pupil studying with me to practice more than five hours a day. As to the virtuoso, he should never look at a watch. One or two hours a day, according to the amount of reserve technique he has acquired by working during his youth, should suffice. On an average, before starting on a season’s tour, I work from four to six hours a day for four or six weeks, more or less. It all depends on my repertoire. I may work night and day on a new concerto and get it in shape in three weeks. On tour I practice regularly on the train in my stateroom. I know that some violinists do not believe in daily work while on tour. But listen to their playing, especially toward the end of their season! I feel that this daily promenade on the fingerboard is necessary and so I do not neglect it.


“Truth, rather than mere beauty, and its perfected expression in playing is my idea of violin mastery. And the truth cannot be expressed without a perfected technical base. The dynamics must be worked out; even the details of lyric expression must be worked out technically, while the artistic vision is developed out of the artist’s own inspiration, and his reflex of the analysis of the composer’s thought and mood. And, above all, to do justice to violin playing in its highest and noblest aspects, the artistic sense of truth must not concede anything to the difficulties of the higher positions, which can be overcome by the proper training in endurance.

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Bronislav Huberman