Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communications

School of Music


Physical parameters of 19th and early 20th-century violin playing - Clive Brown

Updated 21 Oct. 2016

For most of the 19th century there seems to have been a broad consensus about the way violinists should stand, about the positions in which the violin and bow should be held, and about the way in which the left arm and hand should function. These principles, almost universally accepted, with minor differences, from at least as early as 1830 until the end of the century, were closely related to the practices of the late 18th- and early 19th-century school of playing that was identified at the time with the interchangeable terms 'Viotti', 'Paris' or 'French' School. On the basis of 18th-century descriptions and depictions of violinists' posture, it seems clear that these principles represented a significant break with many aspects of previous practice, among the most important underlying reason for which was the changing repertoire of the violinist and the demands this made upon technique; they are also very substantially different from the techniques of the modern violinist, having been to a large extent actively rejected by early 20th-century pedagogues, who wanted to make a break with what they apparently saw as the fossilised and misguided orthodoxy of the past. This rejection of established tradition was not, of course confined to violin playing, but was a general characteristic of late 19th and early 20th-century intellectual life that led directly to the birth of 'modernism'. Whether or not the quasi-scientific arguments that were advanced to validate claims about the greater physical efficiency of changes that occurred at that time were sound is questionable; the changes seem more likely to have been the product of changing aesthetic attitudes. 


The basic posture of the violinist was evidently a matter of fundamental importance to 19th-century pedagogues and there was broad agreement about the way in which violinists should stand and distribute their weight. The stance that, with minor variations, became orthodox during the 19th century, evidently stemmed from the practices espoused by Viotti's disciples and was given authoritative status by detailed descriptions and illustrations in the three most important and influential violin treatises of the first half of the 19th-century: The  Méthode de Violon par MMrs. Baillot, Rode et Kreutzer Membres du Conservatoire de Musique. Rédigée par Baillot. Adoptée par le Conservatoire pour servir a l'etude dans cet établissement. (Paris: Imbault [1803]), Spohr's Violinschule (1833) and Baillot's L'art du violon (1835). The Méthode has brief, though precise explanations, but no illustrations;  Spohr's treatise provides several clear illustrations and summary instructions, yet lacks the very detailed drawings and explanatory text provided in Baillot's L'art du violon. All three treatises describe essentially the same principles and practices from slightly different viewpoints. 

These may be summarised as follows. The weight of the body is to be distributed primarily on the left side, with the right leg resting very lightly on the ground; as the Méthode of 1803 describes it: 'the body straight and supported by the left side so that the right side is left unconstrained and the arm can act with greater freedom without giving any motion to the body' ('le corps d'aplomb et soutenu par le côté gauche afin que le côté droite soit dégagé et que le bras puisse agir avec le plus grande liberté sans donner aucun mouvement au reste du corps', p. 8).  In L'art du violon Baillot gives the same instructions in a slightly different form and clearly shows this posture in his illustrations. Spohr's illustration accords closely with Baillot's in this respect too. Neither the Méthode nor Spohr refer in their text to the position of the feet, but this is described and illustrated in detail by Baillot (see below Fig. 1) who states that the feet are to be placed with the right foot turned outwards and the heels fairly close together (he specifies about 5 inches/12-13 cm (4.5-5 pouces) apart).

Fig. 1: Baillot L'art du violon plate Ic 

Spohr's illustration (Fig. 2): depicts basically the same positioning, although it shows the right foot pointing at approximately an 80 degree angle to the left foot, whereas Baillot shows an angle of about 45 degrees. 

Fig. 2: Spohr Violinschule plate 2

Another small difference between Spohr's and Baillot's instructions is that Spohr requires the player to 'turn the face towards the music stand so that the view falls onto the music over the bridge and the left hand' ('Das Gesicht wende man so dem Notenpult zu, dass der Blick über den Steg und die linke Hand auf das Notenblatt fällt', op. cit., p. 25), while Baillot depicts the player facing straight ahead at the music (see Fig. 5).

The extent to which Baillot's posture was insisted on in the Paris Conservatoire tradition is suggested by a Camilla Urso's account of lessons with Lambert Massart there around 1850. First she recounted Massart's strictness about the position of the feet: 

the master walked up and down the room with a long slender stick in his hand. [...] One stupid boy did not take the proper position. Massart told him how to stand and the boy put his feet in the right place. Presently he changed one foot and down came the stick with a snap on the boy’s legs. “Oh! M. Massart that hurt” cried the boy. “I meant it should,[”] said he. [“]Do it right next time.”  [Charles Barnard, Camilla: A Tale of a Violin. Being the Artist Life of Camilla Urso (Boston, 1874), p. 40. The preface makes clear that the book was based on first-hand information from Camilla Urso and her family.] 

Then she told the author how she had been schooled to distribute her weight to the left side: 

When we see Madam Urso play to-day we think her steadiness of posture and grace of playing very easy. None can count the days months and years of trial and labor she spent to obtain such skill and grace. In playing it may be noticed that she stands very firm and erect on her left foot, with the right slightly advanced in front. Even so simple a matter as this cost weeks of painful effort and many a bitter tear. They put her right foot into a china saucer in such a way that the slightest weight upon it would crush it. She broke several before she fully acquired the proper position. It cost tears and china ware at first. Now it is as nothing [pp. 58-9]. 

The changing position of the violin in the 18th and 19th centuries 

Illustrations in treatises such as Leopold Mozart's Versuch einer gründlichen Volinschule of 1756 show the violinist, even where the instrument was placed under the chin (whether to the right or left of the tailpiece), adopting a markedly sloping position downwards between chin and scroll (Fig. 3). Mozart writes that the chin should touch the instrument on 'the side on which the E string lies' (ch. 2 §3).

Fig. 3: Leopold Mozart op. cit. Fig. II

Later 18th-century practice, at least in north Germany, seems to have been to rest the left upper arm against the side of the body, as specified by Johann Simon Löhlein, in his Anweisung zum Violinspielen (Leipzig and Zülichau, 1774), who instructed that 'the elbow of the arm that holds the violin is turned in towards the body' (Der Ellbogen von dem Arme, der die Violine hält, wird einwärts, nach dem Leibe zu gedrehet); he also stated that 'one should lie the elbow perfectly relaxed against the side of the body, but without pressing so firmly or anxiously that it looks as if one had stomach ache' (man lege also den Ellbogen an die Seite des Körpers ganz ruhig, ohne ihn jedoch so fest oder ängstlich anzudrücken, dass es aussähe, als hätte man Bauchgrimmen).  In addition, however, he remarked that 'it is a mistake, if many violinists lift it [the elbow] up, which, apart from its disagreeable appearance, also has the disadvantage that it is uncommonly tiring.' (es ist ein Fehler, wenn viele Violin-Spieler ihn in die Höhe heben, welches, ausser dem üblen Anstande, noch diese Unbequemlichkeit hat, dass es ungemein ermüdet. p. 13 §19). This suggests that the more elevated position of the arm, typical of 19th-century violin playing, was already gaining currency. 

A late example of the 'relaxed' position advocated by Löhlein occurs in Campagnoli's Nouvelle Méthode de la méchanique progressive du jeu de violon (Leipzig, 1824), although in contrast to the earlier position Campagnoli's elbow is turned much more towards the breastbone in the manner of the Paris School (Fig. 4). 

Fig. 4: Campagnoli, op. cit. Plate 1

Spohr, however, particularly warns against adopting the position depicted in Campagnoli's Méthode position, observing: 'One draws the elbow of the left arm inwards until it is under the middle of the violin; but one does not lean it against the body, because then the violin would slope too much towards its neck' (pp. 24-5). As shown by the comment on Campagnoli in Spohr's diary from 1804, when he heard him play a Kreutzer concerto in Leipzig, his technique seemed old-fashioned to a player modelling himself on Rode, for Spohr observed that 'his method is, it is true, of the old school, but his play is pure and finished' (Spohr's Autobiography, Eng. Trans. London, 1865, p. 72). Treatises throughout the 19th century almost universally depict the instrument in a horizontal position (Schröder, see Fig. 7 below, is an exception) and many continue to warn against resting the upper arm against the body.

The origins of this change seem likely to have been in northern Italy. Viotti will almost certainly have played in this manner, since he was so widely seen as the originator of the school of playing that was promulgated by his pupil Pierre Rode and disciples Pierre Baillot and Rudolf Kreutzer. Holding the instrument in a more or less horizontal position may also have been characteristic of Viotti's teacher Pugnani, although no reliable images of either violinist in playing position exist to substantiate this. Whether or not this is the case, there can be no doubt that it was through the European celebrity of the Viotti School (or Paris School as it was perhaps more widely known at the time) that a horizontal position for the violin became accepted as orthodox during the early years of the 19th century. The earliest text known to me in which this position is explicitly required is Giuseppe Maria Cambini's Nouvelle Methode Theorique et Pratique pour le Violon (Paris, c. 1795), which states in the 'Introduction. On the manner of holding the violin and bow' (Introduction. de [sic] la maniere de tenir le Violon, et l'Archet): 

§.1. There is only one good way of holding the violin. All the others are bad. Experience and the lessons of good masters have adequately demonstrated this. The back of the instrument must be positioned on the collar bone so that the chin can be pressed on it opposite the fourth [G] string, because changing the position of the hand, or, if you like, shifting, requires that the violin should be supported firmly. (§.1. Il n'y a qu'une seule manière de bien tenir le violon. toutes les autres sont vicieuses. l'experience, et les leçons des bon maîtres, l'ont suffisamment démontrée. il faut poser le bas de l'instrument sur le clavicule, de manière à pouvoir y appuyer le menton vis-à-vis le quatrieme corde, lorsque les changements de position de la main, ou si, [sic] l'on veut les démanchements, éxige que le violon soit soutenu avec plus de fermeté.)
§.2. The scroll of the violin ought to describe a horizontal line at the height of the mouth: higher or lower the instrument would not have the necessary balance and immobility for the hand that directs the bow may always find a fixed height to cross the strings more easily, whether one wishes to attack them together or separately. (§.2. La tête du violon doit décrire une ligne horizontale à la hauteur de la bouche: plus haute, ou plus bas, l'instrument n'auroit plus cet aplomb, et cet immobilité qui lui est nécessaire, pour que la main quir conduit l'archet puisse toujours trouver une hauteur déterminée a fin de parcourir les cordes avec plus de facilité, soit qu'on veuille les attaquer ensemble, ou séparement.) [op. cit., p. 2] 

This description, which probably reflects the practice of leading violinists active in Paris at the time, corresponds closely with the carefully drawn illustrations in Baillot's L'art du violon (Fig. 5) and Spohr's Violinschule (Fig. 2 above).

Fig. 5: Baillot op. cit. plate Ia 

The placement of the chin

Although Cambini instructs that the chin should be positioned on the left-hand side of the tail-piece, this placement of the chin was by no means universal at that date. Another Parisian treatise, Michel Woldemar's Grande Méthode ou Etude Elementaire pour le Violon (Paris, c.1800), states that 'it is a matter of indifference whether the chin is placed on the right or left side of the violin' ('il est indifferent de poser le menton sur la partie droite ou sur la gauche du violin') and states that Tartini, Frantzel [sic] and Cramer adopted the former and Locatelli, Jarnovick and Viotti the latter. But Woldemar concludes that the latter 'is the most usual' ('est la plus générale.', p. 2). By the third decade of the century it seems clear that very few, if any, professional violinists would still have been playing with their chin to the right of the tail-piece. Some players, however, continued to place the chin more centrally. This position had been specifically recommended in the Nouvelle méthode de violon et de musique (Paris, [1786], 3rd edn. 1799, p. 5) by Bornet (l'aîné), and  Spohr's 1833 Violinschule states that if the player does not adopt his 'violin holder' (Geigenhalter), a chin rest that was placed centrally above the tail-piece (Fig. 4), 'the chin will be laid partly on the belly to the left of the tail-piece and partly on the tail-piece itself' ('so wird das Kinn theils auf die Decke zur linke des Saitenhalters, theils auf diesen selbst gelegt', p. 24). Despite the potential for this position to affect the tuning of the strings by pressure on the tail-piece, the same instruction is repeated much later by Hermann Schröder in his Preisviolinschule (Leipzig 1879, revised 1894) and repeated in the 1894 revised edition, which instructs that one 'lies the chin on the left, half on the tail-piece and half on the belly of the violin' ('[man] lege das Kinn links, halb auf den Saitenhalter und halb auf die Decke der Violine'.)   Schröder's treatise is also the only one from the later 19th century known to me to illustrate a downward sloping position for the violin. His illustration may be somewhat suspect, for it seems more extreme than his instruction: 'The scroll of the violin ought only to slope down and be turned to the left very little,so that looking straight ahead at the music-stand both pages can be read without hindrance.' ('Der Kopf der Violine darf nur sehr wenig gesenkt und nach links hinüber gebeugt werden, so das beim geraden Blick auf das Notenpult beide Blätter unbehindert zu lesen sind.' p. 14) (Fig. 6).  

The adoption of a chin-rest to the left of the tail-piece, rather than in the position advocated by Spohr, seems to have become increasingly usual during the second half of the century, but even by the 1870s it was by no means universal, perhaps not even common, for players to use any kind of chin-rest. William C. Honeyman, author of the anonymously published The Violin: How to Master it (Edinburgh, 1881), seems to have known about only two designs of chin-rest fixed to the left of the tail-piece. The first was 'a clumsy thing covered in green velvet, and having a thick pad behind [i.e. under] the violin as well as above', and he objected to this shoulder pad, considering it 'an objectionable feature, as the violin is already thick enough to be grasped with ease.' The second 'known as the Joachim - and the latest invention of the kind, is an oval plate of ebony about two inches broad and three inches long, somewhat hollowed in the face, which is fixed with two metal screws'. A chin rest of this design can indeed be seen clearly on a photograph of Joachim from 1890 (Fig. 7a), although G. F. Watts' 1866 painting appears to show Joachim (before he grew his beard) without a chin rest and with his chin on the tail-piece as suggested by Spohr (Fig. 7b). 

Fig. 7a: Piatti, Reinecke, and Joachim 1890                    Fig. 7b Joachim by G. F. Watts 1866

Honeyman also proposed and illustrated a new design of his own 'which, however, I have never got made or tested, as I do not use a holder myself' (p. 37). He concluded: 'I may state that Madam Neruda uses no fiddle-holder; and would advise the student not to adopt one, until he is quite certain that he cannot master the instrument without its aid.' [p. 39] Other leading players continued to play without chin rest at that time as demonstrated by a photograph of J. C. Lauterbach's Dresden string quartet,  where neither violinists nor violist seem to have chin rests (Fig. 8), and Ole Bull (Fig. 9).

By the middle of the 1880s, however, chin-rests of different types were proliferating and in Hints to Violin Players (Edinburgh, c. 1886), the sequel to his previous book, Honeyman illustrated and discussed a range of different designs of chin-rests that were coming onto the market, although he found serious fault with most of them. His principal concern seems to have been the instrument sliding to the right rather than being pulled away from the chin.

The lateral angle of the instrument

Another important characteristic of the 19th-century positioning of the violin, which differs significantly from the predominant position adopted by modern violinists, is that, when viewed from directly in front of the player, the end of the left sleeve, according to Baillot's instruction, should be 'in direct line with the middle of the left shoulder' (en ligne directe du milieu de l'epaule gauche) and the left elbow is brought forward 'under the middle of the violin' (sous le milieu du Violon) (p. 11). In all essentials, Baillot's instructions and illustrations (Fig. 10) accord with Spohr's  (Fig. 11) in this respect, the extent to which the elbow is drawn in towards the centre of the body being partly determined by which string the fingers are on. Spohr also states that the angle of the violin results directly from the position of the left shoulder, which he says, 'should be a little pushed forward to support the underside of the violin' (zur Unterstützung des unteren Theils der Geige ein wenig vorgeschoben pt. 2 §2). From his illustrations it seems clear that he refers here to the change in the position of the collar bone that is produced by advancing the shoulder. Baillot links the forward movement of the shoulder (which he describes as the shoulder 'placing itself to support the instrument conveniently'), which can clearly be seen in his illustration (Fig. 10) with the leftwards movement of the left elbow, but explicitly warns against raising the shoulder, which would 'interfere with the chest' (ch. 5 §2, 7).  

Fig. 10 Baillot op. cit. plate Ia, Fig. 3                       Fig. 11: Spohr op. cit. plate 3

That this position was indeed adopted by leading players in the middle of the 19th century is demonstrated clearly by a photograph from about 1850 of the virtuoso violinist Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, who like Joachim and Singer was a pupil of Joseph Boehm, who in turn had studied with Rode (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12: Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst c. 1850

Most later 19th- and early 20th-century treatises repeat the injunction to bring the left arm well to the right and to position the violin on the collar bone without touching the shoulder, and many of them illustrate the position of the instrument in a very similar manner to Baillot and Spohr, sometimes with photographs or engravings copied from photographs. In fact, the major Francophone treatises of Alard (École du violon, 1844) and Bériot (Méthode de Violon 1858) reproduced Baillot's illustrations almost exactly (see Fig. 5 above), only updating the clothes of the violinist (Fig. 13a & b)though Alard did not include the view from the front, which Bériot retained. Photographs of Heinrich Dessauer from his revised edition of Hohmann's Violinschule demonstrate fundamentally the same position, although with Spohr's more angled right foot, perhaps representing a distinctively German tradition (Fig. 13c), while other treatise illustrations show the violin positioned somewhat further to the left.


Fig. 13a: Jean Delphin Alard op cit. Fig. 13b Charles be Bériot op. cit. Fig. 13c: Dessauer op. cit. between pp. 4-5

With regard to the slope of the instrument from left to right Spohr and Baillot disagree. Baillot (Fig. 10) recommends and illustrates an angle of 45 degrees (L'art du violon ch. 5, §2), while Spohr, perhaps partly determined by his chin-rest, specifies an angle of 25 to 30 degrees (Violinschule Pt. 2 §2)

Some later methods as well as photograph, including that of Ernst, accord more with Baillot than Spohr, while some, such as  the photograph of Dessauer above, are closer to Spohr. Many illustrations or photographs, such as Ferdinand David's Violinschule from 1864 (Fig. 14, probably based on photographs of Wilhelmj), indicate an angle somewhere between the two. The Joachim and Moser Violinschule (Fig. 15), despite specifying a slope of about 45 degrees in the text (vol. 1, p. 12), does not illustrate this angle in the demonstration photographs; and photographs and drawings of Joachim suggest that he too did not hold the instrument at such an acute angle as his Violinschule instructs (Fig. 16).

Fig. 14: op. cit. facing Vorwort. 

Fig. 15: op. cit. facing p. 32.                                  Fig. 16: Joseph Joachim, c. 1900 

Many photographs of late 19th- early 20th-century violinists, for instance Hubermann and  Kubelik (Fig 17 a & b), adopt an angle less acute than Baillot's. It is notable, however, that both these players, together with an increasing number of younger violinists at the time, were already holding the instrument further to the left than older violinists; a change that is discussed further below. Even in the middle of the 20th century, however, Baillot's more acute angle and forward positioning seems to have been retained by some older players, as demonstrated by late action photographs of Kreisler (Fig. 17c), who was trained at the Paris Conservatoire by Rudolf Kreutzer's pupil Lambert Massart (1811-92). Perhaps Massart, the master  who had imposed such strict physical requirements on Camilla Urso, inculcating a posture that remained throughout her career, continued to exert a similar powerful influence in this respect on  Kreisler. 

Fig 17a : Bronislaw Huberman                    Fig. 17b: Jan Kubelik                                        Fig. 17c Fritz Kreisler c. 1950

The standard 19th-century bow hold

Spohr (Violinschule Pt. 2 §2 ) and Baillot (L'art du violon   ch. 5, § 4 ) advocate essentially the same bow-hold, which is significantly different from modern practice. They describe and illustrate a grip in which the fingers are placed lightly together. Spohr instructs that the index finger should touch the stick at the first joint, while Baillot specifies that it should touch in the middle of the second phalanx; but in reality, because of the pronation of the hand, the finger may be described as touching in both places, and Spohr's and Baillot's carefully drawn illustrations show an apparently identical position (Figs. 5, 10, 11).  Both authors instruct that the thumb must be placed directly against the frog. Spohr describes it as opposite the middle finger; Baillot, more precisely, that the middle of its tip should be opposite the line between the second and middle finger, and he also writes that the tip of the thumb should project very slightly beyond the stick (which Spohr's illustration confirms, although his text refers to the tip (Spitze) of the thumb as touching the stick). They describe the hand as being 'elegantly' (schn) or 'naturally' rounded. Spohr remarks that the third and little finger are laid loosely on the stick, but Baillot does not specifically mention these in his description of the bow hold, though he later refers to the little finger supporting the weight of the bow towards the heel, while having no influence on bowing near the tip, where in 'certain arpeggios' it may actually leave the stick temporarily. Their illustrations indicate that they expected the middle of its first phalanx to rest on the stick (see Figs. 10 and 11 above), and the same projection of the end of the little finger over the stick is shown by Ferdinand David (Fig. 14). None of these authors refers to the tip of the little finger pressing on the stick, which was identified as the most efficient way to exert pressure by later writers, who criticised this aspect of the bow-hold taught by these authorities.

Drawings can of course be misleading, but in the photograph of Ernst (Fig. 12), where his bow is positioned halfway between the heel and the middle, the position of the right-hand fingers tallies remarkably closely with the one shown in Baillot's illustration of the violinist playing at the heel in (Fig. 5) and the middle (Fig. 10). In fact, therefore, bow-hold of this type, with flat little finger, later described misleadingly as German (because it persisted longer in the German tradition), seems  to have been standard among players of the early 19th-century Paris School as well and to have remained predominant in European violin playing until at least the third quarter of the century. It is still illustrated by Flesch in essentially the form it appears in Baillot's and Spohr's treatises (see below).

Only towards the end of the 19th century does documentation suggest a substantial change of attitudes towards the bow-hold among professional players and teachers. In one respect however - the position of the little finger - some 19th-century sources already suggest that the tip of the finger, rather than the pad of the first phalanx, should be placed on the bow. Honeyman, commenting on the illustration in Spohr's Violinschule (Fig. 11: Spohr's Plate 3, Fig. IV) remarks that it 'shows the little finger drooping over the stick of the bow, which is most certainly and fatally wrong, as it would be quite impossible for that finger in such a position to act as the sole balancing member' (The Violin: How to Master it, 5th edition, 1882, p. 96). The reason for this change seems most likely to have been to facilitate springing bowstrokes in the middle and lower half of the bow, which rapidly became an indispensable part of the violinists technical apparatus during the second half of the century. Changing attitudes in this respect are illustrated by Henry Holmes's inclusion of supplementary exercises for spiccato in his 1878 revision of Spohr's Violinschule, where springing bowstrokes, which Spohr regarded as 'frivolous' (windbeutelig), were entirely ignored.

The position and action of the bow arm in the post-Viotti tradition

Throughout the 19th century, there is close consensus about the positioning and action of the right arm when playing at the point, middle, and heel of the bow, and for the position of the arm when playing on each of the four strings. Baillot's detailed illustrations served as the model for later French violin methods by Alard (1844), whose illustrations show the violinist in exactly the same pose, but differently clothed, and Charles de Bériot's  illustrations (1857), which seem to be direct reproductions of Baillot's, also with the violinist's clothes updated (Figs NN). In Germany Ferdinand David's  illustrations in his Violinschule (1863) show his own pupil August Wilhelmj (Fig. 13) in the same posture as that illustrated by Spohr. 

These illustrations correspond closely with photographic evidence, ranging from the photograph of Ernst (Fig. 12) to pictures in pedagogical material by Dessauer (Hohmanns Violinschule) and other late 19th-century treatises (Fig. 18a & b). The distinctive features of this arm position are a low right elbow with the upper arm resting lightly against the side of the body when playing on the E-string, a highly arched wrist at the heel and a very depressed wrist at the point, with the elbow remaining low. As much immobility of the upper arm as possible was insisted upon in the first half of the century. The Paris Conservatoire Méthode gives the instruction 'Take care not to raise or lower the elbow: the wrist and forearm raise themselves a little higher to reach the bass strings, that is to say the lowest notes, and reurn to the more natural position when one plays on the E-string' ('avoir soin de ne point lever ni baisser le coude: le poignet st l'avant bras se porteront d'eux memes un peu plus haute pour atteindre les cordes basses, c'est a dire les sons les plus graves, et se remettront dans la position la plus naturelle lorsqu'on jouera sur la chantrelle.' p. 6). Baillot's illustration, viewed from the front, of the position of the arm when playing at the point of the bow on the middle strings is strikingly different from anything seen in modern violin playing. Insistence on the low right elbow is illustrated nicely by the picture in Campagnoli's Method (above) where he depicts a string attaching the upper arm to a button of his coat. Even in the middle of the 19th-century, the same strategy continued to be suggested; in Wilhem Volkmar's Violinschule zum Gebrauch in Schulerseminaren und Seminarpräparandenschulen (Wolfenbutel, 1841, revised 2nd ed. 1858) p. 3, the student is instructed to tie the upper right arm to the body. As late as the mid 20th century some teachers seem still to have employed the method of making students practice with a book held under the right arm (anecdotes related to the author by old violinists). For much of the 19th-century, even when playing on the D- and G-strings, the low upper arm was maintained as far as possible. This is particularly well illustrated in a woodcut in Henry Holmes's revision of Spohr's Violin School (London: Boosey [1878]), p. 16, supplementing the original illustrations (Fig. 19).

Fig. 18a & b Dessauer op.cit.  

Fig. 19 Spohr's Violin School revised Henry Holmes p. 16

Change and divergence

In the first decades of the 19th century, certainly up to the 1850s, written sources indicate that the playing of advanced violinists who saw themselves as the heirs of Viotti, Rode and Kreutzer, corresponded quite closely with respect to the position of the left and right arms, how the violin was positioned, and the way the bow was handled. Details of right arm action, as well as that of the right wrist and fingers, will undoubtedly have differed somewhat from player to player according to training and the particular types of bowstroke employed, but documentary evidence rarely provides a sufficient level of detail to understand such distinctions fully. As in almost all aspects of violin playing there will have been an expectation that students would understand the desired effects and the means to achieve them through familiarity with the playing of their teacher and other more advanced violinists.  As Ferdinand David observed in the Preface to his Violinschule 'It is a difficult thing to learn a foreign language merely from a Grammar - but it is quite impossible, that anybody should master the complicated mechanism of Violin-playing without the help of a teacher. The assistance of the teacher will therefore be needed, wherever the Instruction-book does not suffice.' During the later 19th and early 20th century, however, a growing gulf appears to have developed between German players (especially those trained in the Leipzig Conservatory and the Berlin Hochschule) and Franco-Belgian violinists. The former, inspired by Ferdinand David and Joseph Joachim, adopted the wider range of bowstrokes that had been developed in the wake of Paganini's impact, but sought consciously though cautiously to integrate these innovations into the Classical traditions of the early 19th-century Viotti school as it had been codified by Spohr. The latter, under the influence of players such as Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski and Ysaÿe, seem to have felt less constrained by the weight of tradition, or were actively concerned to challenge it, and had fewer inhibitions about forging a new path, both aesthetically and technically. (See my article 'Marie Soldat and the Twilight of the German School of Violin Playing' in Anklaenge. Wiener Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft, forthcoming.)  It is difficult to identify developments of this kind in detail, for it is only when pedagogues begin, usually retrospectively, to codify changes of technique, or when contemporaries comment approvingly or disapprovingly on unfamiliar practices that the historian can confidently identify the nature of such developments and their origins. This goes as much for aesthetic as for technical matters, which are in any case inextricably linked.  A characteristic illustration of this phenomenon is the displacement of the type of ornamental vibrato described in 19th-century violin methods by a much more continuous use of the device as a basic aspect of the violinists tone production that is encountered in early 20th-century recordings of all but a very few players. Late 19th-century writings contain hardly any hints of this widespread fundamental change, and it is not until 1910 that a treatise (Siegfried Eberhardt's Das beseelte Violinton) advocating more extensive employment of vibrato as a means of beautifying the violinist's sound was published.Already in the last decades of the 19th-century, however, it is clear that contemporaries were conscious of distinct differences between identifiable schools or traditions of playing. One portamento practice - sliding up to a note with the finger that is to stop the target note rather than that which stops the previous note - is, for instance, referred to disapprovingly in Herrman Schröder's Die Kunst des Violinspiels in 1884, as a French practice [English source?]. The extent of the perceived gulf between German and Franco-Belgian practice is most starkly documented at the beginning of the 20th century in a vehement diatribe in the Joachim and Moser Violinschule of 1905. The text refers specifically to 'Franco-Belgian' violinists, who are castigated for the ‘peculiar aspect’ (fremdartige Aussehen), which they are perceived to give to the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. The stated reason for this is that 'although these virtuosos may possess an astonishing left-hand technique', they have ‘not only completely forgotten that healthy and natural method of singing and phrasing, that is based on the bel canto of the old Italians [...] but have continuously offended against it' (jene gesunde, natürliche Art des Singens etc.). After further criticism of their bowing and tone production ‘which aim merely at sensuousness of sound’ (hat nur das rein Sinnliche etc.) and fail to achieve the ‘characteristic qualities of different bowstrokes’ (Charakteristik der Stricharten, vol 3, p. 32), they are condemned outright because ‘they do not bring out the spirit of the art-work they imagine they are playing, but merely exhibit faults and mannerisms that result from deficient bowing, hand in hand with those bad habits of singing, which fail to take account of the most elementary demands of natural melody’ ('Sie geben nicht den Geist...' etc., p. 33). 

Although these criticisms are general and stylistic, it seems clear that there were technical considerations behind them. At the time the Joachim and Moser Violinschul was published, Franco-Belgian practices and techniques were being adopted and advocated by an ever increasing number of European violinists and were becoming the basis of a new style of playing, which soon gained such dominance that it almost certainly contributed to the decline of the careers of the few players who, like Joachim's pupils Marie Soldat and Karl Klinger, failed to embrace the new aesthetic and technical parameters. The strength and rapidity of change at that time is potently illustrated by the fact that all of Leopold Auer's younger St Petersburg students who went on to become dominant figures in 20th-century violin playing, such as Heifetz,  Elman, and Zimbalist posessed a style of playing that was radically different from that of their master.

To regard the changes that occurred in late 19th-century violin playing simply as the displacement of one school of playing by another would, of course, be simplistic; there were many cross currents, not the least of which was the need of a younger generation of violinists, in an age when the cutural norms of the past were being increasingly questioned, to rebel against what were felt to be the constricting fetters of outmoded orthodoxy. To some extent it seems that Joachim's immense personal authority may have inhibited German violin pedagogues from questioning his precepts in print during his lifetime, for while it is difficult to find even a hint of challenges in publications issued before his death in 1907, these appeared quickly threafter. In the Francophone sphere of influence, practice was more important than theory and there were no major violin treatises between Bériot's Méthode de violon (1858) and Lucien Capet's La technique supérieur de l'archet (1916).

The rejection of established orthodoxy at the turn of the century was manifest not only in a gradual rejection of the old style of playing, but also in changes to the violinist's physical handling of the instrument. This was paralleled by a growing interest in the physiological basis of violin playing, which reflected contemporaneous trends in the scientific investigation of how the human body worked. Thus in the period around 1900 appeared Amadeo von der Hoya's Die Grundlagen der Technik des Violinspieles (Leipzig [1898]), the highly influential Die Physiologie der Bogenführung (Leipzig, 1902) by Dr F. A. Steinahusen, physician and amateur violinist, Meistertechnik des Violinspiels[:] Neue Methode auf anatomisch-physiologischer Grundlagen (Leipzig [1910]) by Franz Ondřiček and Dr S. Mittelmann, Arthur Jahn's Die Grundlagen der natürlichen Bogenführung auf der Violine (Leipzig, 1913). The focus on physiology and mechanics continued in English with Samuel B. Grimson's and Cecil Forsyth's Modern violin-playing (New York, 1920). All these treatises, to a considerable extent, start from the point of view that the old violin methods, because they did not describe and justify their principles in the exhaustive physiological and mechanical detail that is employed in these modern treatises, their methods could not have been founded upon a proper understanding of the most efficient movement required to achieve the desired results. As Grimson and Forsyth put it: 'even in the best-known and most commonly used Violin Schools the instructions are, in the main, false and misleading [... they] are primarily a collection of musical matters arranged in order of increasing complexity and difficulty. The literary text, containing the instructions, is an afterthought, a mere record of the most obvious methods of dealing with the musical text.' (pp. 3-4). In all of these attempts to put violin playing on, as they thought, firmer physiological foundations, they ignored the oral teaching traditions, of which the violin schools were a necessarily imperfect reflection.

The violinist's posture in the 20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century the Joachim and Moser Violinschule had maintained the essentials of the posture specified by Spohr and Baillot. It states that 'The pupil must stand in such a way that with the heels brought together the feet form a right angle. He must then let the weight of the body rest on the left foot and move the right leg about a hand's breadth from its original position so that the knee is bent slightly outwards. This should produce a free unconstrained posture of the body.' In only one small respect does it depart from the old teaching, perhaps reflecting the growing interest in supposedly scientific physiology with the suggestion that 'young growing girls on health grounds, should allow the weight of the body to rest on both feet' (vol. 1, p. 12).  A more fundamental questioning of the old orthodoxy on the grounds of 'modern science' occurs less than a decade later in August Leopold Sass's Zum Problem der Violintechnik (Leipzig, 1913). Sass, discussing the best way for the violinist to stand, does not want to take anything for granted, observing:

If we look at old and new Violin Schools in this matter, we almost always find the instruction: "Right foot placed sideways at approximately a right angle to the position of the left foot". By this means the whole weight of the upper body is displaced to the left side, and this posture is simply justified on the grounds that the body should have a point of support to the left for security of technique. (Sehen wir uns alte und neue Violinschulen in diesem Sinne an, so werden wir fast immer die Anweisung finden: „Rechter Fuss ungefähr in rechten Winkel zur Stellung des linken Fusses seitwärts vorgestellt“. Hierdurch wird das ganze Gewicht des Oberkörpers auf die linke Seite verlegt und diese Stellung wird kurz damit motiviert, dass der Körper links einen Ruhepunkt haben soll, zur Sicherheit des Technik.)
Yes - but why only left then - must the right side not stand at least just as securely so that it also offers the right arm support in bowing? That the arm must nevertheless be developed independently and that it ought not to be influenced by unintentional tension in the body is obvious.  (Ja – aber warum denn nur links – muss die rechte Seite nicht mindestens ebenso sicher stehen, um beim Strich auch dem rechten Arm eine Stütze zu bieten? Dass der Arm trotzdem unabhängig ausgebildet werden muss und nicht durch irgend eine unwillkürliche Spannung des Körpers beeinflusst werden darf, ist sebstverständlich.)
The main argument against the old posture is as follows. If one lets the weight of the body rest only on the left foot and holds the violin properly, with the elbow turned inwards, it is impossible to avoid the pulling in of the left hip. (Der Hauptgrund der gegen die alte Stellung spricht, ist folgender. Lässt man das Gewicht des Körpers nur auf dem linken Fusse ruhen und hält man die Violine korrekt, den Elbogen nach innen gedreht, so wird sich das Hereinnehmen der linken Hüfte nicht vermeiden lassen.) [p. 10]

He goes on to warn that the old method can lead to a deformation of the spine, which only becomes apparent to violinists when they are 'made them aware of this slow alteration of their bodily formthrough their tailor, whose ruler never lies,  - often, unfortunately, too late' (durch ihren Schneider, dessen Zentimetermass nicht trügt, auf diese langsame Veränderung ihrer Körperform aufmerksam gemacht werden - leider oft zu spät). Why, he asks is the old position still prescribed even in modern methods, and answers himself with 

the celebrated word "Tradition" occurs to me [...] but why accept what is handed down without questioning it if the times teach us something better? Novelty judges itself in all cases in which it does not stand the test. (so fällt mir das berühmte Wort "Tradition" ein. [...] Warum aber Ueberleiferungen ohne Kritik hinnehmen, wenn die Zeit uns Besseres lehrte? Das Neue richtet sich in allen Fällen selbst, in dennen es sich nicht bewährt.) 

Sass then proposes:

As far as the position for playing is concerned, I consider the following more secure, healthier and less strenuous than the old one. I get the player to put the feet left and right at the same angle sideways as in gymnastics and each time before taking up the instrument to stand on tip-toes. (Was nun die Stellung beim Spielen anbelangt, so halte ich die im folgenden beschriebene für sicherer, gesunder und weniger anstrengend als die alte. Ich lasse den Spieler die Füsse links und recht gleichmässig seitwärts stellen, wie beim Turnen und vor jedesmaligem Aufnehmen des Instruments "Fersen hebt" machen.) [p. 11] 

To what extent Sass's recommendations codified an already widespread change of practice is difficult to determine, but it seems that within another ten years, the old position was largely discredited. Carl Flesch in his The Art of Violin Playing (New York: Carl Fischer, 1924) states that the 'Spread or Straddling Leg-Position [...] has been accepted by nearly all the concert artists during the last decade, as though by a mute agreement among themselves, because it offers the body a broad foundation and the necessary stability and unhampered freedom in movement.' He conceded, however, that 'Aesthetically, perhaps, it is not free from censure, especially when exaggerated, yet it comprises so many practical advantages in itself that the visually more graceful "dance" position is willingly abandoned for it.' His pedagogical conviction thus took precedence over concern for gracefulness, but his sense of propriety still came into play with regard to women violinists, for he suggests in a footnote that 'Women players using this position may, for aesthetic reasons, rather stay sideways than directly opposite the public' (p. 14). The possibility that the playing position advocated in the 19th century was determined largely by concern for elegance rather than for technical and physiological efficacy cannot be discounted; but, equally, the idea that the new position that gradually displaced it in the 20th century was in every respect physiologically and technically more beneficial cannot be accepted without question. It seems likely that the 19th-century violinist's posture was integral to an overall concept of technique, which also involved the position of the violin and the management of the bow. New ideas about the physical handling of the instrument occur in tandem with the modification or rejection of other aspects of violin playing during the late 19th and early 20th century and may plausibly be seen as motivated similarly by changing fashion and cultural attitudes rather than by genuine practical utility. 

The position of the violin

Among the new approaches that is evident in photographic evidence even before it begins to be mentioned in documentary sources is a gradual leftwards migration of the scroll of the violin and the left arm, which is one of the most noticable changes that has occurred in violin playing during the 20th century. At the beginning of the 21st century there is great diversity in the way violinists position the violin relative to the body, but the vast majority of players hold the instrument much further to the left than was the norm in the 19th century and some players hold it almost as far left as is physically possible. A difference in the position of the violin is already apparent in late 19th-and early 20th-century photographs, for instance of Ysaÿe (Fig. 20), and this position is typical of the posture of younger artists, such as Huberman, Kubelick (Fig. 17a & b), and many of Auer's pupils. Auer himself retained something closer to the old practice (Fig. 21a), closer to the position specified in Spohr's and Baillot's descriptions and illustrations, though the instrument seems to be positioned further to the left in another photograph (Fig. 21b). Perhaps significantly, Auer is using the bow in the second picture. The changed position of the violin may be intimately connected with changing attitudes towards the bow-hold (of which Auer was an advocate) and the position of the left arm in bowing (see below: Changing approaches to bowing).

Fig. 20: Eugene Ysaÿe  

Figs. 21a & b: Leopold Auer A Graded Course of Violin Lessons (New York, Fischer, 1925)

Chin-rests in the late 19th- and 20th-century

The gradual adoption of the chin rest to the left of the tail-piece in the late 19th and early 20th century, and then the widespread adoption of shoulder rests, almost universal in modern violin playing, may also have played their part in changing the position of the instrument. The elevated position of the scroll that was typical of the post-Viotti position of the instrument, holding the violin simply between collar bone and chin, seems already to have posed some problems for 19th-century violinists, who could not maintain the horizontal position of the instrument without the support of the left hand, thus imposing constraints on the free movement of the forearm in position changing. And there seem also to have been problems with the violin sliding to the right; Honeyman referred to this in The violin:how to master it (c. 1880) commenting that 'with a skilled player who can use the wrist in shifting down the hand, there is not so much danger of the instrument slipping forward with the hand as of it sliding imperceptibly from under the chin towards the right hand; and very good players who use no chin-rest may be seen perpetually shifting it back to its right position' (p. 39). The Joachim and Moser Violinschule advises the pupil to use a chin rest by either Becker or Darbey. The Becker chin-rest came with an attached pad under the violin as illustrated in Emil Kross's pamphlet The Study of Paganini's Twenty-four Caprices (New York: Carl Fischer, 1908). Other authorities recommended various kinds of chin-rest and also of the use of a cushion between the violin and shoulder. Among the 19th-century authorities who recommended some sort of cushion were Baillot, who considered it appropriate for children and women to use a thick cloth or cushion [L'art p. ], and David (he did not mention his master, Spohr's, chin-rest), who felt that a 'cloth or small cushion between the violin and the left shoulder' was appropriate for anyone because 'the modern way of playing the violin, requires frequent changes of position [which] necessitates the violin being firmly held'. [p. 5 ] Not until the last three decades of the century does the chin rest get regular mention in pedagogical works. Carl Courvoisier advised the player to use both, observing that 'the use of the chin-rest and cushion obviates the need of raising the left shoulder, which is very tiresome' (The Technics of Violin Playing ed. & trans. H. E. Krehbiel, (Cincinnati, 1880), p. 9 ).  In  Zum Problem der Violintechnik A. L. Sass recommended a Prague chin-rest, 3 centimeters high togehter with a 'the use of soft flat cushion' ('mit Benutzungs eines weichen flachen Kissens'). [p. 22]. Leopold Aur in 1924 advised the use of a chin rest 'exacty adapted to the height of the player's neck so as to enable him to hold the instrument at the proper level without strain [....] For a long neck the highest chin-rest is advisable and an appropriately lower one for a shorter neck.'  Auer was adamant that no sort of cushion should be used under the violin, on the grounds that it damped the sound of the instrument, reducing it's volume of sound. [Graded Course p. 10] Flesch, at about the same time, reluctantly sanctioned a cushion, judging this to be less injurious than 'drawing up the shoulder'; he disliked the 'raised chin-rest (the so-called "Prague" chin-rest)', to which he could not accustom himself, and felt that 'the spring cushions so frequently used by ladies' had failed to justify their use.  [The Art, p.15] The chin-rest he regarded as 'a necessary evil', although he admitted that by preventing the chin from resting directly on the violin 'every instrument sounds considerably more powerful with a chin-rest.' [The Art, p.16]. Among prominent later 19th-century violinists who did not use either a chin rest or cushion was Wilma Norman Neruda (Lady Hallé), according to her occasional quartet partner Alfred Gibson (A Musician's Life; Alfred GIbson, by his son John Carrington Gibson (London, 1956) p. 50) A number of prominent early 20th-century violinists, however, continued to play without a chin rest, including Hubay (Fig. 22a) and Capet (Fig. 22b). 

Fig. 22a: Jeno Hubay                            Fig. 22b The Capet Quartet 1921-28

To what extent the use of chin rests and cushions affected the positioning of the violin is unclear, but it is evident that the earlier orthodoxy was already being challenged, at least in practice, before the end of the 19th century.  Eugene Ysaÿe, who used a chin-rest, held the violin noticeably further to the left than in the illustrations from Baillot to Alard, despite his Paris Conservatoire training. Without either the support of a chin-rest or cushion the player is almost inevitably obliged to position the instrument as in the earlier illustrations in order to support it effectively during position changes. With additional support, however, a position further leftwards becomes more feasible.

Early advocacy of a more leftwards position

Sass's Zum Problem der Violintechnik, which provides an early example of changing pedagogy in several respects, recommends not only a change in posture, but also holding the violin rather more to the left than had been taught before. In his chapter on the position of the arms (Die Haltung der Arme) he begins: 

The rule given in many methods for the position of the left arm, which states that the scroll of the violin should be in as straight a line as possible from the point of the nose, ought also to be rejected. For quite apart from the fact that the conduct of the bow will be influenced by this constrained position of the left arm, it is already objectionable on health grounds alone. Particularly with short arms and compact build the left side of the chest and the heart will be cramped and constricted, whereby under certain conditions the action of the heart and lungs can be disturbed. Through a turning of the scroll to the left this constriction of the chest can very well be avoided, without damaging technique. This also allows the bowstroke, particularly in drawing out the sound, to be used and controlled better than when, as occurs with a constricted inwards positioning, the bow has to be taken far backwards in order that it may remain parallel to the bridge in down-bow. [p. 24]

A photograph of Sass (Fig. 23), included in his treatise to demonstrate the bow hold at the heel, also shows him holding the violin somewhat further to the left than in the Baillot and Spohr illustrations as well as many early 20th-century illustrations and photographs of German school players such as those of Franz Ondřiček in his 1910 Meistertechnik (Fig. 24a & b).

Fig. 23: August Leopold Sass, op. cit. p. 29 

Figs. 24a & b: Franz Ondřiček, op. cit. opposite p. 98   As discussed above, a similar position is demonstrated from several angles in Leopold Auer's Graded Course of Violin Playing , although where he demonstrates the violin hold without the bow, he appears to place the instrument more in the Spohr/Baillot position (Figs. 21a & b). Few treatises that referred to the position of the violin made any attempt to provide a rationale and many seem to have been quite vague about it. Grimson and Forsyth in 1920, for instance, simply suggested 'Do not hold the violin too far to the side or in front. A middle position is more comfortable and better looking.' (Modern Violin Playing p. 54). Carl Flesch's instructions in his Art of Violin Playing, published shortly afterwards are uncharacteristically imprecise. In contrast with his discussion of the bow hold, where he distinguishes between several practices, he makes no comparison between older and newer methods and is quite unclear about the direction in which he expects the scroll to point. While warning against holding the instrument 'too far to the left' (p. 15), he refers to a photograph of the 'correct position' both without and with a cushion, in which the violin is held further to the left than the 19th-century norm and in which the left elbow is positioned particularly far to the left (Fig. 25a & b).  

Figs. 25a & b Carl Flesch op. cit

Continuing change and diversity in the position of the violin

In recent years most violinists position the instrument some 20 to 40 degrees further to the left than their 19th-century predecessors. This position has now been made more or less inevitable by the almost universal adoption of the shoulder rest, which began to be widely used from the 1950s onwards, which is clearly designed to support the violin in a more leftwards position than was typical at an earlier stage. Until the 1950s, however, it was still possible to see many older violinists not using a shoulder rest of any kind and holding the instrument in a fundamentally 19th-century manner. Kreisler retained the old position to the end of his career (Fig. 17c) and a similar position can be observed particularly clearly in, for instance, a photograph of the Vienna Philharmonic rehearsing under Bruno Walter in 1954 (Fig. 26). 

Fig. 26: Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1954 

Nowadays, however, anything approaching the 19th- or even early 20th-century position is increasingly uncommon. Illustrations from the internet claiming to demonstrate the correct position of the violin are all distinctly far to the left (Fig. 27 a & b). For Fig. b and other views of the same player the caption on the website says: 'Here are some pictures of what a violin player should look like when holding their instrument correctly (using a shoulder rest is essential for correct posture). Note the wrist/right-hand position and horizontal angle of violin on her left shoulder.'

Fig. 27a                                                                     Fig. 27b

Among the very few surviving advocates of a basically 19th-century posture is the veteran player and teacher Aaron Rosand (b. 1927), as demonstrated on his 2010 DVD Aaron Rosand Teacher. He remains opposed to the use of a shoulder rest and teaches the traditional placing of the violin between chin and collar bone, with a much more forward position of the instrument than demonstrated in Fig. 27, though not quite as forward as in many 19th-century illustrations.

Changing approaches to bowing

As suggested above, the changing position of the violin seems to have occurred in parallel with changing approaches to the handling of the bow. The movement to the left is combined with a much more highly raised right elbow and a more forward position of the right upper arm. Some changes appear to be directly connected with the newer position of the arms while others are less obviously related. Among the latter is the bow grip. Throughout the 19th century there had been virtual unanimity on the correct bow-hold; none of the major methods up to and including Bériot's Méthode de violon in 1858, questioned the rules advanced by Spohr and Baillot. During the second half of the century there was some discussion of the role of the little finger (see above), but the only author to suggest a significant change of grip was Karl Courvoisier  (The Technics of Violin Playing,  pp. 24-9. trans. H. E. Krehbiel from Die Grundlage der Violin-Technik (1873), who prescribed a much more rigid bow-hold than earlier writers, which was criticised by Moser as the 'immobile grip' (unbewegliche Griffe) in his Geschichte des Violinspiels (1923). In 1920 Grimson and Forsyth (Modern violin-playing) instructed that the second phalanx of the index finger, between the first and second joints, should be placed on the stick, thus describing what became know as the Franco-Belgian bow-hold; and they dismissed 'the oft-repeated advice that the fingers should be kept close together' on the dubious grounds that it 'probably originated with a violinist who had very thick fingers.' (p. 37). By that stage, the older orthodox method of holding the bow was advocated mainly by German teachers, hence its designation the 'German bow hold' in Carl Flesch's Art of Violin Playing (Fig. 28a & b), where he describes it as follows:

The index finger presses upon the stick with its lower surface, on an approximate level with the knuckle between the first and second joints; whereby the remaining fingers are brought into the position thus determined, the thumb lying opposite the middle finger. All the fingers are pressed closely together, and the bow-hair is moderately tensed.

And he illustrated it with the following photographs, showing the point of contact between finger and stick with a white square.


Figs. 28a & b: Flesch op. cit.

Of the 'newer (Franco-Belgian) manner (Fig. 29a& b), Flesch observed:

The index finger comes into contact with the stick at the extreme end of its second joint, which is hereby thrust further forward to a noticeable degree. There is an intervening space between index and middle fingers, with the thumb opposite to the middle finger; the bow-hair being at an excessive tension and the stick in an inclined position.

He provided the following illustrations.


Figs. 29a & b: Flesch op. cit.

The designation for the 'newest (Russian) manner' (Fig. 30a & b) he explained in a footnote as follows:

I have chosen this designation for the reason that Leopold Auer, formerly active in Petrograd, seems to have been the first teacher who taught this manner of holding the bow. Thus far I have found it impossible to make sure whether other masters have taught according to the same principle. A tradition, however, is warrant for this statement that Wieniawski held his bow in this way.

He described this bow hold in the following terms:

The index finger touches the stick at the line separating the second from the third joint, and in addition embraces with its fist and second joints. There is a very small interval between index and middle finger. The index finger assumes the guidance of the bow, and the little finger only touches it at its lower half while playing. The bow hairs being slack, the stick held straight.

His photographs of all these positions clearly demonstrate the differences. 


Figs. 30a & b: Flesch op. cit.

In Flesch's opinion this Russian bow hold was superior to the others because with this hold 'the greatest tonal results are attainable with a minimum development of strength', but he conceded that 'my opinion as yet is not generally shared'.  He observed that the 'German' bow hold meant that the lower arm was held horizontally 'approximately as when playing the piano', that with the 'Franco-Belgian' there is a pronation of the lower arm outwards at about a 25 degree angle and that with the 'Russian' the lower arm was more markedly pronated to an angle of 45 degrees. This, he believed, was the reason for its superiority and urged that players who used the other finger positions should 'resaddle'. His arguments call upon the kind of physiological justifications employed by Steinhausen (to whom he refers) and others earlier in the century. During the course of his discussion he entirely rejects the older notion (which Urso's account shows was essential in Massart's teaching) that the little finger should remain on the stick, commenting that 'the majority of contemporary violinists have already turned their backs upon it, so that it has been regarded as overcome, and before long merely will possess an historical value'.  In conclusion he confidently states: 'The newer Franco-Belgian, as well as the Russian manner of holding the bow already control the field absolutely and incontestably, and it is between them that the battle for supremacy will henceforth have to be waged.' (The Art, trans. Martens, pp. 51-5.) It should be noted that Flesch   was already described in the second edition of Ferdinand Küchler's Praktische Violinschule: mit Verwendung von Uebungsstücken älterer berühmter Pädagogen (1912) as ' Carl Flesch, the excellent pedagogue of the Franco-Belgian school' (p. 5). In fact, there is nowadays considerable diversity in the way the bow is held, but the majority of players seem to have adopted something closer to the type described by Flesch as Franco-Belgian rather than his Russian grip. 

While the position of the violin in 20th-century violin playing has been affected by several factors, it seems clear that modification of the bow-hold together with associated changes in bowing technique were among the factors that most strongly encouraged a radically different playing position. If the wrist is not moved, the further the index finger extends round the stick of the bow, the more the point of the bow is directed towards the body. This change of direction means that when the violin is held in the position specified by Spohr and Baillot the bow can no longer be drawn parallel to the bridge without contorting the wrist or drawing the elbow far back. If, however, the violin is moved to the left and the upper right arm advanced forward away from the body the position of the bow in relation to the bridge can be restored. The further the little finger is advanced over the bow stick, the further the elbow must be pushed forwards and the violin shifted to the left. A much higher position of the upper arm and the greater use of the upper arm in bowing, partly it seems in the search for more powerful tone, may also have been contributory factors.

At the beginning of the 20th century Joachim and Moser recognised clearly that developing practices in the use of the bow had significant musical consequences, which were causing major changes in the sound and style of late 19th- and early 20th-century violinists, and they roundly criticised what they identified specifically as 'Franco-Belgian' practice in this respect. But the traditional approach that was by that time widely seen as specifically German practice (although Joachim and Moser forcibly argued that they, as opposed to Franco-Belgian violinists of the period, represented the true Viotti or Paris School tradition) was also a subject of controversy. Even German writers at the beginning of the 20th century were beginning to adopt and develop 'Franco-Belgian' practices, because by that date it was players such as Ysaÿe and Kreisler, with their modern sound, coloured by more or less continuous vibrato, who were the darlings of the younger concert-going public, and the careers of players who resisted the newer style, such as many of Joachim's pupils did not prosper after their respected master's death (see my article 'Marie Soldat and the Twilight of the German School of Violin Playing'). 

The adherents of the traditional German school were even criticised for practices they did not espouse. Joachim, for instance, was notorious for his supposed cultivation of an impractically low right elbow, but in fact, in their Violinschule, Joachim and Moser condemned the 'rule that is found in almost all German Violin Schools concerning the low position of the elbow and upper arm in playing on all four strings', which they describe as 'based on a thoughtless reiteration of a misunderstood instruction that has been handed down from generation to generation.' They attribute it to the perpetuation of a rule, justified in Leopold Mozart's time, but no longer valid. They state that

The reaction was inevitable, but this led to a leap from the frying pan into the fire. While the German School clung narrow-mindedly to the low arm position, the fault of a too high elbow led to very stiff bowing among modern Franco-Belgian violinists. 

Their recommendation was to hold 'the upper arm freely and unrestrained in the shoulder joint, even when bowing on the lower strings, but take care that the elbow is never higher than the wrist'. Bowing on the E string 'should result in the upper arm coming softly into contact with the body; an elevation of the same to an angle of some 45 degrees is necessary when the G string is used.' [Violinschule vol. 1, p. 13f.] 

Joachim was also criticised for the teaching he was supposed to have promulgated about a sideways movement of the right wrist in bowing, but as with many aspects of these controversies it seems that his own practice was distorted by the misunderstanding of some of his followers and pupils (for Joachim was notoriously uninterested in conveying anything about mere technique). In fact, Grimson and Forsyth, who explicitly stated that their teaching on bowing was 'largely based on his playing', mounted a vigorous defence of his practice, and spent several paragraphs 'dispelling some of the clouds which have gathered round that illustrious subject' (p. 38), arguing that what Joachim actually did was based on a perfectly proper up and down motion of the wrist. They stated that: 

if the tilt of the hand is taken into consideration, the matter becomes quite simple. For the hand, while moving ever so little side- ways, is also raised or lowered (according as the movement is towards or away from the body), and then flexibly restored to its old position. It was this subtle accommodating action of the hand which escaped the observation of many of Joachiin's pupils, though the master himself always made it. [p. 39]

A detailed history of changing 20th-century approaches to posture and the handling to the instrument and bow is beyond the scope of this article. It may be argued, however, that in their forthright rejection of what were seen as outmoded practices, newer generations 'threw out the baby with the bath water', encouraging change for its own sake on the basis of questionable physiological grounds. Modern ways of playing the violin seems to have been achieved at a high price, for few players today seem to escape physical problems that are often acute, but I have as yet found no reference to such problems in 19th-century documentary evidence.

A personal note

Carrying out practice-led research as part of this project has had unexpected and extraordinarily gratifying results for me. During more than half a century playing the violin, I experienced a range of physical problems. From an early stage I suffered with a very sore patch on my neck from pressure of the violin. I tried various designs of chin rest and shoulder rest, before abandoning the latter entirely some thirty years ago. None of this helped much, although I gradually learned to release the pressure of my chin sufficiently to ameliorate the soreness somewhat and only suffered significantly when doing intensive practice. I often experienced severe pain in the left shoulder after playing for more than about half an hour. Latterly, I had increasing strain in both shoulders and thought that I might have to give up playing. For about twenty-five years, I have been experimenting with attempting to recreate a 19th-century style of playing as part of my research, but I have tried to do so using the techniques I had acquired from a variety of teachers, including Maurice Clare (a Flesch pupil) and Manoug Parikian. At the beginning of 2012, for academic rather than physical reasons, I felt that I really ought to experiment systematically not only with 19th-century playing style, but also with the technique they employed to achieve it. Over a period of four or five months I have retrained myself on the basis of Spohr's and Baillot's instructions, holding the violin in a much more forward position than before and cultivating a much lower right elbow, particularly when playing on the lower strings. The unexpected result of this change has been entirely to banish the physical problems I previously suffered. I am currently practising daily for one or two hours (far more than my regular playing time in recent years), using a small and shallow late 19th-century chin rest, with only a thin piece of sponge to prevent bruising to my collar bone when playing without a jacket, but I now have no more reddening or soreness of the skin of my neck and no pain whatever in the shoulders when I play (although I still have some problems with my right shoulder when digging the garden or doing other physical tasks!). Perhaps it is too early to say how this will go on in the longer term, but it does suggest to me that our ancestors may have had a better understanding of how to play the violin in a way that is physically efficient as well as musically satisfying. A single case is, of course, insufficient evidence on which to base sound conclusions, so the matter remains open for further research.