HIP Enough for You? A Historian’s Approach to the Vivaldi G Minor Violin Concerto

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi

Recently, as a result of a casual mention in conversation, I found myself thinking about the Vivaldi G Minor violin concerto (Opus 12, no. 1; RV 317).1 My violinist readers may recall that this concerto is found in Suzuki Book 5. I learned it in high school, from the Suzuki book, and even used it as an audition piece for a summer music camp. 2 When it came up in conversation, I remembered that I had enjoyed playing it back when I was a teenager and decided I would take it up again. I realized, however, that I was hearing it in my head the way I remembered playing it, the way I was taught to play it—in a rather Romantic style, very legato. It occurred to me that this didn’t sound particularly Baroque; it is not what would now be considered a Historically-Informed Performance, or “HIP.” Wanting to test my hypothesis, I went on to youtube to hear some examples.

Photo of Mischa Elman
Mischa Elman in 1916

I found that the recordings show a surprising amount of variation, in both tempo and character. For the most part, the older recordings are more like the way I remember learning it—slow and smooth. This makes sense, since my violin teacher, Mr. Gordon, was an older man who would himself have learned a Romantic style of playing. The oldest youtube recording I found was by Mischa Elman.

Advance the recording to 1:52. Hear that slide from the low note to the higher one? That’s called a “portamento,” and it’s very characteristic of late 19th– and early 20th-century violin playing; Elman was especially known for his portamento. But that’s probably not the way Vivaldi taught the concerto to his students at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice.3

Photo of Tivadar Nachéz
Tivadar Nachéz

If you look on the International Music Score Library Project (usually referred to as “imslp”) for the music to the Vivaldi G minor, you will find an edition by Tivadar Nachèz, first published in 1912 and still available for purchase.4 Nachèz (1859-1930) was a Hungarian violinist, composer, and arranger. His own compositions (also available on imslp) include two violin concertos and a set of Gypsy Dances, but he is more well-known today as an arranger of Baroque works, including several by Vivaldi. The Nachèz edition of the G minor concerto is dedicated to Mischa Elman, and this is the version that he recorded. Nachèz also did an edition of the Vivaldi A minor concerto (Opus 3, no. 6; RV 356).

Photo of Shinichi Suzuki
Shinichi Suzuki

The Nachèz editions of these two Vivaldi concertos, A minor and G minor, are the ones included in the Suzuki repertoire (A minor in Book 4, G minor in Book 5). Suzuki and Elman were near contemporaries (Elman was born in 1891; Suzuki in 1898), so I suspect that it was the Elmanesque style of playing that got transmitted in Suzuki pedagogy. Furthermore, Suzuki’s biography claims that he was inspired to learn the violin as an adult after hearing a recording of Elman playing the Schubert Ave Maria.

In addition to Elman’s performance, another Romantic-sounding interpretation of the Vivaldi G minor concerto is that of Itzhak Perlman. I even found a fairly recent example of this style, by Boris Kuschnir. But for the most part, newer recordings are fast and crisp, such as this one by Sarah Chang. Finally, here is a period-instrument performance by violinist Julien Chauvin with the Concert de la Loge.

We could say that these latter two recordings have a more Baroque character—that they are more HIP. As I listened to them, however, I discovered that Sarah Chang and the musicians of the Concert de la Loge weren’t just playing in a different style than the earlier recordings; they were sometimes playing different notes. Nachèz rewrote some passages in his edition to make them more virtuosic—taking some phrases up an octave, for example. Laurie Niles has written about how much more virtuosic (and therefore difficult to learn) the Nachèz edition of the A minor concerto is than Vivaldi’s original and how she uses these differences in her teaching. Jian Yang, on the faculty of the Shanghai Conservatory, uses the Vivaldi A minor as a case study to explore the pedagogical implications of using the Nachèz edition rather than an original edition.

It turns out that Nachèz was quite open about his revisions. Not only did he not claim to have produced a faithful edition; he explicitly stated that he had created something new. On the back cover of the Nachèz edition of the G minor concerto (published by Schott in 1912) is a statement of originality in three languages; here is the English version:

This Concerto is freely treated from old Manuscripts and constitutes an original work. Any kind of rearrangement of this Edition will therefore constitute an infringement of Copyright. When played in public, Nachèz’s name must be mentioned in the programme. [underlining in the original]

A similar statement (in more idiomatic English with less-Germanic capitalization) was included in a newer American reprint of the Schott publication of the A minor concerto:

NOTICE: This edition is freely derived from original manuscripts and constitutes an original work. Programs for public performance of this Concerto must include the name of Tivadar Nachèz.

Nachèz was participating in a centuries-old custom of re-imagining classic works for present-day purposes, going at least all the way back to Vergil’s reworking of Homer. In Nachèz’s time, flashy virtuoso technique was expected and valued, so when he didn’t find enough of it in Vivaldi’s works he put it in. Disturbingly, Suzuki books 4 and 5 did not include any attribution to Tivadar Nachèz until 2008 (the composer is now identified as A. Vivaldi/T. Nachèz). That means that before 2008, Suzuki students and their teachers, like me and Mr. Gordon, were not informed of the history behind this work and could not therefore make historically-informed choices regarding their performances.

What would be really helpful would be an Urtext edition of the concerto to compare to the Nachèz edition. “Urtext” refers to a scholarly edition of a musical composition based on original manuscripts (if available) and early printed editions, aiming to recreate as closely as possible what the composer actually wrote. Curiously, the only one I could find for the Vivaldi G minor was a Ricordi edition from 1968; I assume Vivaldi scholarship has advanced since then.5 The Ricordi version is the one that the HIP performers are using.

So which edition am I using as I try to re-learn this concerto? Am I using the familiar Suzuki/Nachèz edition that I played in high school, or the one presumably closer to what Vivaldi actually wrote? Which interpretation am I modeling my playing on—the Elman-era Romantic approach that I was originally taught, or the more recent attempt to recreate an authentic Baroque style? As a historian, I am naturally attracted to the idea of Historically-Informed Performance (as I frequently tell my children, I’m a HIP mom). I always consult an Urtext edition if one is available and make an effort to use my technique to recreate the style of the period in which a piece was composed. But does that mean that I reject other interpretations and consider Elman, Perlman, and Kuschnir to be playing it wrong? I do not.

I like to make an analogy to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays can be performed in period costume in a replica of the Globe Theatre, or they can be performed in modern dress in a black-box theatre, or any other configuration that a director dreams up. They’re all Shakespeare. What counts is not how historically accurate the production is or isn’t; what matters is how good the performance is, how successful it is on its own terms.

I think we should approach musical performance the same way. The world is enriched, not diminished, by allowing space for multiple interpretations, for Elman as well as Chang, modern instruments as well as gut strings and Baroque bows. The advantage of a HIP approach is that it need not be confined to the performance practice of only one moment in history–the moment of the piece’s original composition. If I choose to play the Nachèz version of RV 356, my Historical knowledge of the early twentieth century can Inform my Performance. And I’ll try to become sufficiently skilled that I can choose either approach to the G minor concerto and produce a beautiful result.


Proud to be a Dilettante

What the heck is a scholarly dilettante? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Not really. Allow me to explain.

I’ve been playing the violin since I was seven. When I was 15, I switched to a new teacher, Mr Gordon. I overheard my mother talking on the phone making the arrangements with him. He must have asked, “Is she a serious musician?” because my mother’s answer was, “No, she’s a dilettante.” My first reaction was indignation—“who’s she calling a dilettante?” But immediately I realized that she was in fact correct—I was a dilettante. I didn’t intend to make music my career; I wasn’t planning to be a music major in college; I didn’t practice for hours every day; I just did it for fun. Definitely a dilettante. I guess Mr Gordon didn’t care; I studied with him for several years; I continue to play the violin and viola to this day.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the exchange I overheard between my mother and Mr Gordon, and I’ve come to realize not just that I am a dilettante, but that I should not be ashamed of it. In fact, I should be proud of it. Because the original meaning of the word “dilettante” isn’t someone who’s unserious or untalented or superficial or a dabbler. “Dilettante” comes from the Italian verb dilettare, which means “to take delight in.” That attitude describes not just the way I approach my violin playing but also many other activities, including my professional life.

It may sound strange to hear a professional historian describe herself as a dilettante, especially since a related word, “amateur,” is often taken as the opposite of professional. But just as the etymology of “dilettante” is “delight,” the etymology of “amateur,” from French this time, is “lover”—an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. So while I’m definitely a professional historian—I have a PhD; I am a tenured full professor at a university, which pays me; I give papers at academic conferences and publish articles in peer-reviewed journals;—I love what I do and take delight in it. (Well, maybe except for grading. And meetings.)

Furthermore, being a dilettante doesn’t only mean you can take delight in what you do for a living, your profession. It also means you can take seriously what you do for fun, as an amateur. I’m an amateur musician, but I took a year of music theory at our local community college. Every summer for about the last ten years I’ve attended a weeklong workshop on violin technique. Several years ago I began taking piano lessons, also at the community college. I take them for college credit, partly because it’s slightly cheaper than the non-credit option but mostly because it is more demanding. As a requirement for the course I have to attend performance classes where the other college students and I play for each other and get feedback from a faculty member; I’m also required to play before a jury of faculty every semester. I don’t need the credits; I don’t care about the grade (although I do have a 4.0). I do it this way because it’s a greater opportunity for learning.

I plan to use this blog to explore in a scholarly way the things I take delight in. That will include historical topics, of course, especially from the eras I teach (ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages primarily, but also modern Europe), as well as musical ones and any others that take my fancy. I would be delighted for you to join me in these explorations.

Playing 2nd violin in my mother’s orchestra, age 8.
Playing with my mother, age 21.
Taking delight in a violin lesson, summer 2019.