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Boring bowing, boring Haydn.

April 21, 2010 at 4:46 AM


well, I’ve posed the question rhetorically before but a blog gives me he right to be as boring as I wish so I am going to wonder abut it again for my own amusement...
Why is it that when we ask who the great composers are the usual answers will probably include Beethoven, Mozart, Bach et al. with Haydn only being mentioned as an afterthought , if at all?   I don’t have an answer to this question and it may just be personal taste as much as anything,  but I find in Haydn’s music as many beautiful melodies, extraordinary explorations and imaginative experiments as in the other greats.   Sometimes I think it is easy to forget that he was alive and kicking in Beethoven’s time and must have both influenced and been influenced by him.  One of Haydn’s most glorious symphonies is no. 99. If you don’t know it it is well worth spending listening time on as well as throwing up some interesting technical problems.  Playing this kind of work really puts some very subtle demands on an orchestra that is guaranteed to pull their standard up. It’s interesting that Mehta spend a great deal of time on Haydn symphonies while building up the Israel Philharmonic which has one of the best string sounds in the world.
The other day I was coaching a youth orchestra in this work and was very struck by some of the issues being raised.  While rehearsing the Minuet and trio I was as surprised as ever by how little attention is paid to identifying the essential character of a particular passage or phrase hereb in the music training of Japan.  If it sounds more or less in tune and together at roughly the tempo of the latest recording then that’s `good.`   Actually it was quite badly out of tune in just one aspect but that seemingly unimportant detail was robbing the whole first section of its drama.  Both Haydn and Mozart often create dramatic moments by contrasting the same notes with different accidentals in close proximity. (This is a strong feature of Mozart concerto no.4). These notes must be well in tune to make the point and it is surpassing the difficulty people often have in changing the shape of the end of the finger to the degree necessary in expressing these kind of contrasts.  In a broader sense it was clear to me that the Minuet had a rather serious, official perhps even militaristic quality and that the Trio segued into the major requiring great lightness and elegance.  It’s as though there is a rather stuffy ball in which the local officers club is standing up to dance first and then some elegant and ethereal ladies try to tease them into being more light footed and joyous.   Rather like a Viennese Waltz versus a musical parade ground. If this contrast can be established the humble Minuet and Trio which is so typically given short shrift even by professional orchestras/conducters who neglect to get beneath the surface, then a major musical statement is created.   Unfortunately the youth orchestra in question understood the point but were unable to get what was being asked for.
The reason for this was simple and one of my great bug bears of my  life other than prune shortages.   There has been a tremendous trend over the last half of the twentieth century to equate `good bowing` with evenness.   This is itself not true (Casals pointed out that there is a down bow and an up bow and they have different musical functions) and has also promoted a kind of bowing which I call `hooked` in which the bow is stopped and then restarted so that two notes are played in one stroke with a space in between.  This supposedly eliminated the problem of a long note one a down bow followed by a short up which necessitates a faster lighter bow stroke to get back for the next long note.   
The first problem I have with this is that tonally there is a some difference between the upper and lower part of the bow. It is a slight but important difference in timbre. Secondly it has led to the neglect of a fundamental bowing skill (getting back to the start point on a shorter note) which used to be widely and skillfully practiced by older players.  Indeed, if one checks out the Doflein method one can find this exercise taught very early on which is a wonderful thing. In his way they play interview Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet recommended practicing scales with one long down and a fast up striving for no accent. Such work build up a very skillful bow arm. But not only is there a tremendous elegance and musicality in this kind of bowing , there is also a whole slew of possibilities for retaking in the air which are missing.  These are outside the purview of today’s playing much of the time which strives for `even` rather banal  playing which looks sort of cool as the bow speed is kept constant, divided neatly into three parts or whatever and the easy way out is used to move serenely from one end of the bow to the other.  With such `modern` playing the Haydn Minuet mentioned above and similar music is doomed to flat sounding performances without character or lift.
This may be one of the reasons why the full potential of Haydn’s joyous music is not realized and its failure to be viewed with as much interest as it should be.

From Drew Lecher
Posted on April 21, 2010 at 2:31 PM

So well written and refreshing to read, Buri. (I haven't been around much of late.)

Haydn is incredible and his music contains so much elegance, brilliance, passion and fire. 

In Bach, the bows are constantly being hooked which can be so banal. I know there are times to use this technique and it can be accomplished with wonderful character and even panache, but the overly even strokes become a monotone drone that numbs the mind—elevator music.

I like to tell my students that Bach, Haydn & Mozart are not boring—it is the performer:-)


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 21, 2010 at 9:11 PM

I agree so much! 


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on April 21, 2010 at 10:10 PM


Thanks Drew. Glad you are still around.

<I know there are times to use this technique and it can be accomplished with wonderful character and even panache, 

Yes. Oistrakh springs to mind.  Unfortunately it is the inner self rather than the technique which makes or breaks a bowing and most of us are not Oistrakh. Except weight wise ......



From Drew Lecher
Posted on April 22, 2010 at 12:41 AM

 Too few prunes and no more biking………? I have been long gone.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 22, 2010 at 1:20 AM

"Too few prunes and no more biking………? I have been long gone."   

Buri, beleive me... violin"wise" it's not better with a feather weight arm and always stiff iceberg freezing when other ones aren't !  ; )     Pros and cons in everything I suppose!

Have a nice day,


From Charlie Caldwell
Posted on April 22, 2010 at 7:03 AM

Thanks for the blog, Buri. I think Haydn may have written too much music. It is easy for me to listen to one symphony by Haydn and assume the rest sound the same, and then all sorts of generalizations form in my mind. Also, you got me thinking about bowings. The hooked bowing I "commonly" use (down -up-up-) is just formed out of habit and laziness. This sort of laziness doesn't just exist in my playing of Haydn's music. It has spread throughout most of my orchestra playing.

Haydn wrote lots of good music and it is too bad most people including myself just glance through it without giving it the time it deserves to be studied.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on April 23, 2010 at 5:57 PM

Haydn is so interesting.  Born before Bach or Handel died, he overlapped Beethoven too.  The Tourte bow was developed when Haydn was in his 50's, so most of his music was written to be played with what we think of as the Baroque bow, not in the more modern style Buri refers to.

He did write a lot of music.  "Too much" is a matter of opinion.  For decades, his job was to have something new for the Esterhazy's upcoming soiree.  Who knows what he would have deemed worthy of keeping and what was just a throw-away for that night's dinner party.  I've heard performances of Haydn that were breathtaking, others that seemed interminable.

Tonight, the orchestra I play in will perform Haydn's oratorio The Creation.  It will be in the downtown cathedral basilica as part of the celebration of the city's 400th anniversary.  At the dress rehearsal last night the sound was glorious in the gorgeous old church, full of statuary, paintings gilt and stained glass.  The piece, one of Haydn's last, is a masterpiece- strongly romantic in places, very classical in others.  I hope we do it justice, and that no one is bored.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 25, 2010 at 9:06 PM

 I love Haydn.  It is very joyful, which feeling seems to have been lost as music approaches the present.  And I really appreciated your thoughts on getting back on a short note.  We have way too many arguments about hooked vs. non-hooked bowings in orchestra, and I'd like to have something intelligent to add to those discussions.

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