The Technic of Bowing
Hans Letz, the gifted Alsatian violinist, is well fitted to talk on any phase of his Art. A pupil of Joachim (he came to this country in 1908), he was for three years concertmaster of the Thomas orchestra, appearing as a solo artist in most of our large cities, and was not only one of the Kneisels (he joined that organization in 1912), but the leader of a quartet of his own. As a teacher, too, he is active in giving others an opportunity to apply the lessons of his own experience.
When asked for his definition of the term, Mr. Letz said: "There can be no such thing as an _absolute_ mastery of the violin. Mastery is a relative term. The artist is first of all more or less dependent on circumstances which he cannot control--his mood, the weather, strings, a thousand and one incidentals. And then, the nearer he gets to his ideal, the more apt his ideal is to escape him. Yet, discounting all objections, I should say that a master should be able to express perfectly the composer's idea, reflected by his own sensitive soul.
The Key to Interpretation
"The bow is the key to this mastery in expression, in interpretation: in a lesser degree the left hand. The average pupil does not realize this
but believes that mere finger facility is the whole gist of technic. Yet
the richest color, the most delicate _nuance_, is mainly a matter of
bowing. In the left hand, of course, the _vibrato_ gives a certain
amount of color effect, the intense, dramatic tone quality of the rapid
_vibrato_ is comparable on the violin to the _tremulando_ of the singer.
At the same time the _vibrato_ used to excess is quite as bad as an
excessive _tremulando_ in the voice. But control of the bow is the key
to the gates of the great field of declamation, it is the means of
articulation and accent, it gives character, comprising the entire scale
of the emotions. In fact, declamation with the violin bow is very much
like declamation in dramatic art. And the attack of the bow on the
string should be as incisive as the utterance of the first accented
syllable of a spoken word. The bow is emphatically the means of
expression, but only the advanced pupil can develop its finer, more
delicate expressional possibilities.
THE TECHNIC OF BOWING
"Genius does many things by instinct. And it sometimes happens that very
great performers, trying to explain some technical function, do not know
how to make their meaning clear. With regard to bowing, I remember that
Joachim (a master colorist with the bow) used to tell his students to
play largely with the wrist. What he really meant was with an
elbow-joint movement, that is, moving the bow, which should always be
connected with a movement of the forearm by means of the elbow-joint.
The ideal bow stroke results from keeping the joints of the right arm
loose, and at the same time firm enough to control each motion made. A
difficult thing for the student is to learn to draw the bow across the
strings _at a right angle_, the only way to produce a good tone. I find
it helps my pupils to tell them not to think of the position of the
bow-arm while drawing the bow across the strings, but merely to follow
with the tips of the fingers of the right hand an imaginary line running
at a right angle across the strings. The whole bow then moves as it
should, and the arm motions unconsciously adjust themselves.
RHYTHM AND COLOR
"Rhythm is the foundation of all music--not rhythm in its metronomic
sense, but in the broader sense of proportion. I lay the greatest stress
on the development of rhythmic sensibility in the student. Rhythm gives
life to every musical phrase." Mr. Letz had a Brahms' quartet open on
his music stand. Playing the following passage, he said:
[Illustration: Musical Notation]
"In order to give this phrase its proper rhythmic value, to express it
clearly, plastically, there must be a very slight separation between the
sixteenths and the eighth-note following them. This--the bow picked up a
trifle from the strings--throws the sixteenths into relief. As I have
already said, tone color is for the main part controlled by the bow. If
I draw the bow above the fingerboard instead of keeping it near the
bridge, I have a decided contrast in color. This color contrast may
always be established: playing near the bridge results in a clear and
sharp tone, playing near the fingerboard in a veiled and velvety one.
SUGGESTIONS IN TEACHING
"I find that, aside from the personal illustration absolutely necessary
when teaching, that an appeal to the pupil's imagination usually bears
fruit. In developing tone-quality, let us say, I tell the pupil his
phrases should have a golden, mellow color, the tonal equivalent of the
hues of the sunrise. I vary my pictures according to the circumstances
and the pupil, in most cases, reacts to them. In fast bowings, for
instance, I make three color distinctions or rather sound distinctions.
There is the 'color of rain,' when a fast bow is pushed gently over the
strings, while not allowed to jump; the 'color of snowflakes' produced
when the hairs of the bow always touch the strings, and the wood dances;
and 'the color of hail' (which seldom occurs in the classics), when in
the real characteristic _spiccato_ the whole bow leaves the string."
THE ART AND THE SCHOOLS
In reply to another question, Mr. Letz added: "Great violin playing is
great violin playing, irrespective of school or nationality. Of course
the Belgians and French have notable elegance, polish, finish in detail.
The French lay stress on sensuous beauty of tone. The German temperament
is perhaps broader, neglecting sensuous beauty for beauty of idea,
developing the scholarly side. Sarasate, the Spaniard, is a unique
national figure. The Slavs seem to have a natural gift for the
violin--perhaps because of centuries of repression--and are passionately
temperamental. In their playing we find that melancholy, combined with
an intense craving for joy, which runs through all Slavonic music and
literature. Yet, all said and done, Art is and remains first of all
international, and the great violinist is a great artist, no matter what
his native land."