Find out more about some of the instruments played by our ensemble in our new series, Bach’s Band. Our second newsletter is by Jean Paterson on the violin!
What are the essential features and sound of the violin?
The essential features of a violin are realised through its physical beauty – the craftsmanship and artistry which has created its unique swells, curves and points, the glow of the wood grain, the tension of the gut strings over the delicate lace-like little bridge – combining with its spirit, its voice, when touched with a well-made bow. In its tonal quality it is thought to be the closest instrument to that most-valued sound, the human voice, but in the right hands it goes beyond even that in its virtuosity and range. The violin and its bow are a mysterious mixture of strength and fragility, capable of sounds from the most piercing and passionate to the most tender, from lyrical to percussive in a moment.
How has the violin evolved since the Baroque era?
I don’t think the violin itself has evolved much since the Baroque era. It had already found its ideal shape and size by the time Bach was born. The only changes since Bach’s time are minor adjustments to the angle of the neck, eventually moving away from pure gut strings in the mid-twentieth century, and the addition of comforts and supports for the players in the form of chinrests and shoulder rests. The major changes have been in the style of the bows used; in the Baroque era there was no standardised model, and much experimentation led eventually to the modern bow by about the mid-nineteenth century.
How did Bach write for the violin? And what are the biggest challenges when performing his repertoire?
Bach’s writing for the violin varies according to the context for which he is writing. In the cantatas, and in most of his orchestral music, most of what he writes is playable ‘on the day’ by an experienced professional player, without needing hours of preparation. It falls into shapes and patterns which fall naturally under the fingers, or it follows and supports a vocal line.
Occasionally he will spring a surprisingly difficult movement or two in the cantatas, probably reflecting the abilities of the people he was writing for at the time. There is, by contrast, a very different style of writing in the famous Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, which require a lifetime to assimilate. Their complex contrapuntal writing forces the violinist’s left and right hands into contortions, seeming often to defy nature, or at least to challenge it. How is one to make a nice, or even a bearable sound, whilst scraping the bow across four strings repeatedly, changing the hand-shape in every split second? It requires endless patience, but the rewards are great.
Some pieces flow, and make the violin sing as few other composers can – ‘Erbarme dich’ from the St Matthew Passion. Others make it scream – ‘Gebt mir’, from the same piece. Yet again, Bach can make the violin return to its origins as a dancer, in the many dance movements in the orchestral and solo repertoire. The challenge is to be ‘all things’ as a violinist playing Bach.
What’s your favourite part about being in an ensemble like OBS?
Being in an ensemble like OBS is a chance to explore the very best in music, in a context which really means something. It means working with trusted, respected and beloved colleaguesto the same end, which is to bring together an audience and a group of performers who are looking to share a pure and wholesome experience, and to share in our common language, which is Bach.