Orchestral bowings

“In musical circles it is customary to judge the accuracy of an orchestra by the ensemble playing of the strings. It is considered to be especially worthy of admiration if the bowing of all the violins is effected with such precision, that one might almost think it proceeded from some hidden piece of mechanism. It must be at once admitted that uniformity of bowing is not only agreeable to look at, but it in many cases is helpful to the tone of the orchestra, especially in detached passages. For instance, should the uniform bowing indicated in the ripieno parts either by the conductor or the leader, extend only to the simultaneous up and down bow-strokes and to the change of bowing when it co-incides with the beginning or end of a musical phrase, then such a practice deserves nothing but praise. But if it is taken to such an extent that a simultaneous bowing is required from the strings at passages which the composer has written with long sustained notes, connected phrases, or long-drawn melodies, the proceeding is to be at once condemned. In such cases the conductor must rather leave it to each player to make the change of bow-stroke as imperceptibly as possible, at the place which appears to him most favourable. Experience teaches us that every violin-player has his individual habits and tendencies, and that the beautiful illusion of a united legato is best effected by allowing a certain license in regard to the bowing of the more delicate points. For outward accuracy does not always coincide with the inward solution of a difficulty.” -Joseph Joachim and Andreas Moser, Violinschule [English version – will put the German version below]

There is an ongoing research project at Oxford that is trying to uncover what exactly happened in 19c rehearsals, especially of orchestras. I am very excited to read the results when they are published, but the word so far is that even though some orchestras had pencils sitting on the stands as early as the 1830s, there are almost no markings of bowings in surviving orchestral parts until the 1880s. This could explain why a turn-of-the-century treatise like Joachim’s could still assess the merits of matched bowings as though they are something of a novelty.

I would love to get back to the notion of matched bowings as a means to an end, rather than an unquestioned feature of musical professionalism. I would even suggest that we wean ourselves off of them entirely for a while in order to rediscover their powers as an artistic tool. As daunting as that sounds, it is exactly what the historical performance movement has already done with vibrato, and we are reaping the rewards now. Having learned how to make a beautiful sound without vibrato, many performers are now able to breathe new life into long-extinct species of vibrato, giving that tired old ornament its true range of expressive meanings. Why not do the same with matched bowings? Throw out our pencils for a couple of decades and see what comes of it?

For Joachim and Moser at least, matched bowings were useful for sculpting motives and phrase endings, but less helpful for long phrases, or phrases that are joined together  with that wonderful liquid legato we can hear in the old recordings. You can hear both kinds of phrasing in this recording of Beethoven 5 (from 1910 – even earlier than the famous Arthur Nikisch one!) As the phrases lengthen in the second theme, I start to lose track of where the bowstrokes begin and end, which turns the music into a giant wave.


German version:

“In musikliebenden Kreisen pflegt man die Präzision eines Orchesters hauptsächlich an dem Zusammenspiel des Streicherchors zu messen. Man findet es vor allem bewundernswert, wenn der Strichwechsel von sämtlichen Geigern so exakt bewerkstelligt wird, als ob ein verborgener Mechanismus dahinter stünde. Es sei ohne weiteres zuzugeben, daß die Einheitlichkeit der Bogenführung nicht nur das Auge angenehm berührt, sondern in zahlreichen Fällen auch dem Klang des Orchesters, besonders in detachierten Passagen, sehr zu statten kommt. Erstreckt sich beispielsweise die einheitliche Bezeichnung der Ripienstimmen seitens des Dirigenten order Konzertmeisters nur auf die gleichzeitigen Ab- oder Aufstriche und auf den Bogenwechsel da, wo er mit dem Anfang oder Ende einer musikalischen Phrase zusammenfällt, so kann einer derartigen Praxis nur das Wort geredet werden. Geht sie aber so weit, den gleichzeitigen Bogenwechsel von den Streichern auch an solchen Stellen zu verlangen, die vom Komponisten als ausgehaltene Note, zusammengehörige Phrase oder langatmige Melodie gedacht sind, dann ist sie unter allen Umständen zu verwerfen. In solchen Fällen muß vielmehr der Dirigent es dem einzelnen Geiger überlassen, den Strichwechsel so unauffällig als möglich an einer ihm günstig dünkenden Stelle vorzunehmen. Da erfahrungsmäßig in diesem Punkte jeder Streicher individuelle Neigungen und Gewohnheiten hat, so bewirkt diese Verteilung zarter Pflichten die Illusion eines Gesamt-legato, wie es schöner gar nicht zu denken ist. Die äußerliche Präzision deckt sich nicht immer mit der geistigen Lösung einer Aufgabe.”

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