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Handwritten annotations in printed editions - a key to what? Ernest Bloch’s annotated copy of Viotti’s Violin Concerto no. 19 in G minor – Robin Stowell

Printed editions of string music annotated with fingerings, bowings and other performance markings furnish invaluable information about how various celebrated performer-editors approached the interpretation of selected works in their repertoire. Equally enlightening are handwritten annotations in printed copies, particularly when the hand at work can be formally identified. Indeed, such annotations can sometimes offer an intriguing additional layer of implications for performance techniques and practices which may extend their pertinence much further back in history. Such is the case with a violin/piano edition of Viotti’s Violin Concerto no. 19 in G minor (see below Fig. 1), which reached my attention in photographic form via a colleague who thought it might prove a valuable research resource. Although the handwritten annotations therein are confined only to about one hundred bars of the concerto’s first movement, the name of a former owner of the copy, the American composer and teacher of Swiss origin Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), inscribed in the top right-hand corner of the title page of the violin part (see below Fig. 2), together with a date and location ‘Juin ’97 – Bruxelles’ (‘June [18]97 – Brussels’) prompted further investigation of their background history and origin.

Bloch first studied the violin in Geneva under Albert Goss and Louis-Etienne-Reyer, but he moved to Brussels in 1896 to study composition with François Rasse and violin with Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931); the latter was then at the height of his virtuoso career and was idolized by the younger generation of ascendant solo violinists. The annotations in the copy may, of course, be in Bloch’s hand, completely uninfluenced by Ysaÿe, or they may be in another mentor’s hand – perhaps that of Franz Schörg, with whom Bloch studied the violin and chamber music and with whom he resided during his three-year sojourn in Brussels. However, the distinct and most intriguing possibility is that the annotations in Bloch’s copy directly reflect Ysaÿe’s interpretation of the first movement of Viotti’s concerto. Preliminary graphological studies seem to confirm this eventuality over the possible solutions suggested above. One example of Ysaÿe’s mature handwriting (1929) has similarities with that on Bloch’s Viotti copy (see below Fig. 3), especially in the formation of the word ‘Bruxelles’; and it does seem reasonable to suggest that the annotations in Bloch’s copy reflect his studies with Ysaÿe, even if examples of a ‘perfect match’ of Ysaÿe’s handwriting with that on the copy have yet to be discovered.


Fig. 1: Title-page of an edition of Viotti’s Violin Concerto no. 19 in G minor, published by Richault et Cie, Paris, Boulevard des Italiens, c.1880 and owned by Ernest Bloch

Fig. 2: Close-up of Ernest Bloch’s signature (with date and location) on the title page of the copy

Viotti’s concertos had long been considered pedagogical material for conservatoire students in Paris and Brussels. With the single exception of the year 1845, a violin concerto by the Italian violinist remained obligatory in the Paris Conservatoire’s annual competitions from its establishment until 1853 (Boris Schwarz, Great Masters of the Violin, London: Robert Hale Ltd, 1984, p. 152). Viotti’s last six ‘Paris’ concertos (nos. 14-19 inclusive) featured prominently, not least because they are among his most dramatic and lyrical. Leaving aside the unusual history of Viotti’s 19th Violin Concerto, especially whether or not it was originally conceived as a keyboard concerto (see Chappell White, ‘Did Viotti write any original piano concertos?’, Journal of the American Musicological Society XXII (1969), pp. 275-84; Idem, ‘Viotti’s revision of his Concerto in G minor’, in Robert L. Weaver (ed.), Essays on J. S. Bach and Other Divers Matters: A Tribute to Gerhard Herz, Louisville, KY: University of Louisville Press, 1981, pp. 223-34), the parts of the Naderman edition, compiled into a modern score by Remo Giazotto (published in Anitca musica strumentale italiana, Milan, Ricordi, 1964), offer a convenient benchmark musical text.

Fig. 3: An extract from a letter from Ysaÿe to the Italian violinist and composer Pier Adolfo Tirindelli, 16 October 1929, reproduced in Lev Ginsburg, Ysaÿe, ed. Herbert R. Axelrod, Eng. trans. X. M. Danko, Neptune City, NJ: Paganiniana Publications, 1980, p. 462.

Viotti’s 19th Violin Concerto demonstrates his transformation of the genre from the galant style to the cusp of Romanticism; it is easy to understand how Ysaÿe, whose performances synthesized ’technical perfection and the greatest intensity of expression’ (Carl Flesch, The Memoirs of Carl Flesch, trans. and ed. Hans Keller, London: Rockliff, 1957, p. 79), will have embraced it both as repertory and as a pedagogical tool. The Belgian violinist belonged to a generation which considered textual fidelity secondary to interpretative sweep and expressive eloquence. While he readily subscribed to ‘observing the markings’, Ysaÿe also insisted that ‘one must do it well. And sometimes one should even disregard them’ (in Ginsburg, Ysaÿe, p. 271). Such flexibility of approach is amply demonstrated in some of his recordings – twelve sides of acoustic 78rpm records (1912-19) and two known test-pressings survive – notably in his 1912 recording of Wilhelmj’s paraphrase of Walther’s ‘Prize Song’ (from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) with pianist Camille de Creus. In it he makes various cuts, presumably in order to accommodate the recording process of the time, but also introduces some of his own interpretative ideas rather than simply comply with Wilhelmj’s annotations (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taDwfkKkc2c last accessed 19 November 2012). Similarly, in Bloch’s Viotti copy there are several examples of what seems blatant disregard for the printed page; for Ysaÿe consistently left an individual artistic stamp on the works he played, acknowledging the creative artist as ‘the lifeline of music’ with the freedom to interpret the music as he himself felt and understood it (Antoine Ysaÿe and Bertram Ratcliffe, Ysaÿe: His Life, Work, and Influence, London: W. Heinemann, 1947, pp. 382-3). Further, according to his pupil and second wife Jeanette Dincin-Ysaÿe, the thrust of his teaching at the Brussels Conservatoire (1886-98) was also weighted largely towards artistic matters (see Ginsburg, Ysaÿe, p. 471).

Unsurprisingly, most of the handwritten annotations in Bloch’s Viotti copy concern matters of expression, whether these involve fingerings, additional ornaments or embellishments, dynamic shadings, melodic intensifications, or style descriptors in keeping with the tastes of the time. Several suggest Ysaÿe’s influence. At bar 104 (see Fig. 4) the descriptor ‘avec beaucoup d’expansion, et bien soutenu’ is added to Viotti’s ‘piano espressivo’ marking; the annotated fingerings require a sul d timbre, with some potential for portamento; some notes have been changed (see, for example, bars 107 and 108 and 110), as, indeed, have some rhythms (see, for example, bars 106, 111). In keeping with Ysaÿe’s performance ethos, these modifications seem to have been made in order to accord with the music’s spirit and to extract maximum expressiveness (Henry Roth (Violin Virtuosos from Paganini to the 21st Century, Los Angeles, CA: California Classics Books, 1997, pp. 24-5) provides numerous examples of Ysaÿe’s interpretative freedom in other repertoire).

Fig. 4: Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19, 1st movement, bars 104-15 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

Annotations relating to the principal theme recall an example in Pierre Baillot’s L’art du violon which offers insights into Viotti’s vibrato usage. They suggest that Bloch’s mentor held similar views as Baillot regarding the introduction of vibrato – on long notes, often accompanied by swells (Pierre Baillot, L’art du violon, ed. and trans. Louise Goldberg, Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1991, p. 241; see Fig. 5), although, of course, the mechanics of his implementation of the expressive device are not revealed. Flesch confirms that Ysaÿe’s ‘vibrato was the spontaneous expression of his feelings’, and reports that it comprised an ‘incidental, thin-flowing quiver “only on expressive notes”’ (Flesch, Memoirs, p. 79). However, recordings suggest that Ysaÿe’s individual use of vibrato amounted to something rather more sensuously expressive than that; and Dorottya Fabian maintains that Ysaÿe’s tone was warmer and richer than Joachim’s, her computer software analyses demonstrating that Ysaÿe’s vibrato is more audible and constant than that of his German contemporary (Dorottya Fabian, ‘The recordings of Joachim, Ysaÿe and Sarasate in light of their reception by nineteenth-century British critics’, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 37 (2006) 2, pp. 189-211).

Nevertheless, Ysaÿe encouraged accuracy of intonation and kept his vibrato usage within bounds; he never used the device continuously, as his celebrated recording of Walther’s ‘Prize Song’ clearly testifies, and he warned against altering accurate tuning ‘by a nauseating vibrato that is to the violinist what the quaver (chevrotement) is to the singer.’ (Ysaÿe and Ratcliffe, Ysaÿe, p. 431). He was doubtless influenced in his approach by his studies with Massart and Wieniawski, both of whom were in the vanguard of vibrato developments in the nineteenth century, as Kreisler and others have confirmed (see Louis P. Lochner, Fritz Kreisler, New York: Macmillan, 1950, p. 21).

Fig. 5 Baillot, L’art du violon, ed. and trans. Gruenberg, pp. 240-1

We learn from Joseph Lambert Massart, among others, that Viotti himself added extempore ornamentation to the solo part in his own concerto performances, particularly in slow movements. Baillot, whose relationship with Viotti was close, confirms this and reproduces in his L’art du violon variants for several passages in Viotti’s violin concertos. He particularly emphasises that ‘the final notes are written in a manner that requires a more florid ending’ (Baillot, L’art du violon, ed. and trans. Goldberg, pp. 283-4), an expressive notion that is amply fulfilled, for example, in the annotated cadential flourishes in bars 110 and 126 of Bloch’s Viotti copy (see Figs. 6 and 7).


Fig. 6: Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19, 1st movement, bars 110-11 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

The counter-melody from bar 112 (see Fig. 7), annotated ‘vigoroso’ in Bloch’s copy, is taken sul g in true Viottian style and includes the handwritten prompt ‘martial’ to indicate a character change (bar 115) and a comma at the end of bar 118 to signify the end of a section and possibly to highlight the more animated solo passage-work to come.

Fig. 7: Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19: 1st movement, bars 116-27 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

Accents are frequently added for emphasis in Bloch’s copy, for example to delineate the progress of a melodic line within a phrase of semiquavers (bar 119), accompanied by the descriptor allongé (‘lengthened’, ‘stretched out’) to indicate character change after the comma; tempo primo is regained following an accelerando in bar 123 (see Fig. 7).

Although Massart himself abstained from the practice on grounds of taste, he reports that ‘when [the same] passage appeared several times, Viotti varied the bowing and even the notes’ (Joseph Lambert Massart, Viotti: Collection complète des concertos, Paris, Cotelle, c.1850, preface). Baillot, too, claims, in respect of the Adagio of Viotti’s Third Violin Concerto, that ‘it is generally natural and necessary to add some embellishment to a passage which is played twice’ and that ‘there is even more reason to vary one whose rhythm is repeated six times in succession’ (Baillot, L’art du violon, ed. and trans. Goldberg, p. 281). The handwritten annotations in Bloch’s copy in bar 116 comply with this spirit, as do also those at bars 119-20 (note again the addition of accents) and 121-2, where different bowings and the addition of trills make the desired contrast, the indication ‘pointe et talon’ showing that both ends of the bow are to be exploited.

<span style="Verdana","sans-serif"">A few bars later, at bars 125-6 (and similarly at bars 129-30; see Fig. 8), the trills are purposefully marked with accents, beginning with some emphasis on the note below as well as including the composer’s indicated termination.

Fig. 8: Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19: 1st movement, bars 123-37 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

The two similar passages at different pitches at bars 127-8 and 131-2 (see Fig. 8) are also contrasted by modifications to the bowing. Note also the recommended slurring across the bar-line/strong beats of the bar, presumably to achieve the optimum seamlessness. The second of these passages (from bars 131-2) introduces, una corda on the a’ string, a quirky fingering in bar 134, incorporating a swift slide with the second finger and a puzzling use of an open e’’ string, not least because the fingering being advocated thereafter is unclear. Is the open string intended to facilitate a shift or is string crossing introduced for convenience? The answer is probably the latter, given that a second finger on c’’ is indicated on the tenth semiquaver of that bar.

Fig. 9 Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19: 1st movement, bars 135-42 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

At the end of bar 136 in Bloch’s Viotti copy (see Fig. 9), the handwritten annotations extend the octave passagework into the next bar, adding trill terminations in bar 137. On repetition, that two-bar passage is raised by an octave, involving 1-3 octave fingerings (with 2-4 at the summit) and decoration of the cadential bar with a flourish.  Again, melodic long notes are often accompanied by swells (and presumably vibrato).



Fig. 10 Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19: 1st movement, bars 138-57 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

Another sonorous passage between bars 141-55 (see Fig. 10) is indicated cantabile and taken on the g string, with various fingerings involving potential slides (for example, bars 141 (2-2), 145 (4-4), 146, 148 (1-1) and 149), and with swells (presumably incorporating vibrato) annotated on most of the long notes. One interesting fingering at bar 148 involves a slide with the second finger to a natural harmonic, allowing a convenient shift and providing timbral variety. Fingerings in bars 147-8 are open to speculation. Playing the trill on the c’ with a turn and starting on the implied first finger is possible but challenging! The consecutive use of the first finger where indicated in bar 148 is not altogether surprising, but it is not clear how the first finger on the b flat is arrived at in the first place!

Towards the end of the long sul g melody Bloch’s copy indicates more bow strokes than the printed edition (bars 153-4), introduces a same-finger descending portamento (bar 153), changes Viotti’s original rhythm and bowings and marks the end of the section with a pause on the trill. Expressive downward portamentos were certainly used by Ysaÿe, normally with a pronounced slide, and even in reasonably fast passages. It was an aspect of his style to which Flesch fervently objected, even though he described the Belgian’s portamentos generally as ‘novel and entrancing’ (Flesch, Memoirs, p. 79).

Fig. 11 Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19: 1st movement, bars 153-73 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

One suspects from the performance annotations in Bloch’s Viotti copy (‘vivo’ and ‘avec énergie et de la pointe‘) that he was instructed to play the section of solo passage-work from bar 156 to bar 169 (see Fig. 11) at a faster tempo; the indication ‘cédez un peu’ at the end of the section (bar 169) supports such a theory. This section also includes several interesting handwritten annotations which very likely stem from Ysaÿe’s instruction, notably: modifications to the printed articulations (bars 156 and 157), either for greater convenience or variety; swift second-finger shifts with potential slides (in bar 158); a dive across the string to seventh position between bars 159 and 160 in order to negotiate the half-bar sequential pattern in the time-honoured fashion with identical fingering; accents to emphasise the chromaticism (and probably the paired slurs) in bar 162; and the use of contrasting bowing for two similar phrases in bars 167 and 168.

Flesch described Ysaÿe’s style of interpretation as betraying ‘the impulsive romantic who was concerned not so much with the printed note-values, the dead letter, as with the spirit that cannot be reproduced graphically. He was the master of the imaginative rubato’ (Flesch, Memoirs, p. 79). Ysaÿe used rubato on two levels: within small units such as the bar, giving length and expressive emphasis to appropriate notes and hurrying the rest to compensate; and over more extended passages, with the tempo in constant flux, dictated by the music’s expressive character. One of Ysaÿe’s performing partners, pianist Emile Jaques Dalcroze, eloquently described the demands that Ysaÿe’s independent rubato placed on him to ‘accompany in strict time…represent order…[and] counter-balance’ the Belgian violinist’s fantasy. (Emile Jaques Dalcroze, ‘Eugène Ysaÿe. Quelques notes et souvenirs,’ La Revue Musicale, no.188 (1939), pp. 30-1). Within a concerto context conductor Sir Henry Wood marvelled at Ysaÿe’s clear musical intentions in rubato, commenting that ‘If he borrowed’, he faithfully paid back within four bars. It was an absolute inspiration to accompany him’ (Henry J. Wood, My Life of Music, London, Victor Gollancz, 1938, p. 128).

A syncopated passage in the first movement of Viotti’s 19th Concerto, annotated ‘dolce con dolore e tempo di rubato’ in Bloch’s copy, provides a likely example of the influence of Ysaÿe, the impulsive romantic who was concerned not so much with the printed note-values, the dead letter, as with the spirit that cannot be reproduced graphically’ (Flesch, Memoirs, p. 79). Between bars 170 and 184 (see Fig. 12) one can imagine Bloch being instructed to underline the rhythmic shape of the line and sway either side of the beat in a flexible, yet disciplined manner.



Fig. 12 Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19: 1st movement, bars 169-85 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

An asterisk refers to a further annotation at the bottom of the page, purporting to reproduce J. B. Charles Dancla’s interpretative view on playing this syncopated passage: ‘avec abandon , douleur, agitation et imprévu et en communiquant à chaque note le sentiment vrai, l’accent, l’émotion qui lui conviennent’ (‘with abandon, grief, agitation and the unexpected and giving each note the true feeling, accent, emotion appropriate to it’). Further clues as to how an equivalent passage from later in the same movement (bars 384-99) was traditionally performed are provided by Baillot in his L’art du violon in his discussion of ‘tempo rubato or disturbato, temps dérobé or troublé’ (See Fig. 13; Baillot, L’art du violon, ed. and trans. Goldberg, p. 237).

Fig. 13: Baillot, L’art du violon, ed. and trans. Goldberg, p. 238

Baillot equates rubato with ‘uneasiness and agitation’, claiming that ‘a confusion well presented is often an artistic effect’ (Ibid., p. 237). He stresses that the player must keep ‘within the limits of the passage’ and revert to the exact beat ‘at the proper time.’ He takes a stab at notating this effect but warns that ‘as with all passionate expression, it loses much of its effect if executed literally’ (Ibid.). He fails to verify whether Viotti actually performed the passage in a similar manner; however, it seems unlikely that he would have included the example if it were not indicative of Viotti’s interpretation. Interestingly, the annotations in Bloch’s copy of Viotti’s concerto include similar accents to articulate the syncopation, even though the notes are not separated but slurred up to four notes per bow.

Another hallmark of Ysaÿe’s performing style, the successive use of one and the same finger to create a B-portamento with audible intermediate notes, is illustrated in Bloch’s Viotti copy by the annotation for the second finger at bars 172-3 (see Fig. 12). Other characteristic examples of portamento appear, too, in bars 171, 176 and 179, and the changed rhythm in bar 184 (see Fig. 14) also seems typical of the Belgian’s flexibility of interpretation. Such variation is also evident in the bowing indicated for the return of the passage-work of bars 156-69 at bars 185-98, with some additional Viottian sextuplets at bars 189-90 (the indication ‘comme avant’ (‘as before’) in bar 197 probably refers to the fingering matching that in b.168, not least because the bowing differs).


Fig 14: Viotti: Violin Concerto no.19: 1st movement, bars 181-206 of Bloch’s annotated violin part

The deletion of Viotti’s slur in favour of separate ‘risoluto’ bow-strokes in bar 199 also smacks of Ysaÿe’s bold style, as do also the continuation of the passage with a variety of slurred and separate bowings contrary to the printed copy, the addition and/or modification of various notes en route and in bar 203, and the additional performing descriptor ‘avec élan, enthousiasme, et bien allongé’ (‘with vitality, enthusiasm and well lengthened’). From bar 202 onwards the annotator appears to be anticipating the tutti section from bar 206. His descriptor is reflected in his annotation of the trill execution in bars 203 and 205 and the separate bows for Viotti’s slurred scale figure on the dominant in bar 205.

Admittedly, not all the characteristic features of Ysaÿe’s performing style are reflected in the small number of handwritten annotations in Bloch’s copy of Viotti’s concerto. Among those barely in evidence are: Ysaÿe’s claim that, because of the slightly bent third finger of his left hand, he used mostly his first and second fingers (in Ginsburg, Eugène Ysaÿe, p. 471; Ginsburg observes that the ‘fingered’ editions prepared by Ysaÿe generally offer strong corroboration of this approach); Jeannette Ysaye’s observation that her husband used open strings whenever possible, not so much for technical convenience as to expand his range of tone colour (in Ibid., p. 473); and Alfred Megerlin’s opinion that Ysaÿe favoured ‘playing as many notes of a passage as possible on the E-string’, also has little factual grounding here (Roth, Violin Virtuosos, p. 24). Further, Ysaÿe’s mastery of a wide variety of bowings is only partially evident – for example, neither the ‘whipped’ bowing learnt, it is thought, from Wieniawski nor the so-called ‘replenish the bow’ technique is included within those pages incorporating annotations (Roth, Ibid., pp. 24-5). Nevertheless, the facts remain that Bloch was taught by Ysaÿe in Brussels in c.1897 and the interpretative annotations on his copy of Viotti’s 19th Violin Concerto reflect closely the style characteristics of Ysaÿe’s performance practices, as evidenced both by his recordings and by critiques of his playing.

Ysaÿe compared the creative artist with ‘a sculptor whose work may well become permanent, for once a character has been created and has been brought into being by a model interpretation, it becomes a tradition…an example to be followed’ (in Ginsburg, Eugène Ysaÿe, p. 275). This annotated movement would appear to be one such example of relative permanency, whether it represents Ysaÿe’s own interpretation or Bloch’s response to Ysaÿe’s artistic instruction. Furthermore, many of its annotations reflect a tradition of performance stemming from much further back in history, some deriving from Baillot and some even from Viotti himself.