Talking about…

…Johann Sebastian Bach

« Bach is a God in his own right »
Henryk Szeryng

Extracts from interviews from 1982 and 1987

Johann Sebastian Bach's work is a Bible. Bach is the ultimate goal, this is where everything starts and everything ends. His music brings you closer to your own spirit, even to analyzing your own spirit and soul. It has an incredible serenity. If people think that a choral or an Adagio, a Cantilena produces this miracle, I would say that even fast movements, a Presto or a quick Allegro, can make you feel more cheerful, more secure, more optimistic.
A quiet force emanates from his very personality and makes you feel safe. You do not have to look for Bach, Bach finds you.
Bach represents a very large, wide range of human beings, pure human beings, in humility before God and the creation.
A Bach fugue is the road to an enchanted world with many different voices, with much trickery. It is the main subject, which always emerges safe and sound in spite of conflicts or - more often than not - even dissonant sounds. Bach's harmonies are incredibly courageous, very much ahead of his time.
Bach's music can also serve as a didactic element.
A Bach treatment is very useful for artists, musicians, performers and for everybody.
When I don't feel like playing scales, the fact of playing, maybe in a slower tempo, a Bach Allegro or a Fugue, or even a Presto, gives my fingers the strength, the flexibility and the firmness that is required, and it gives my bow the flexibility. If you play a Bach Allegro slowly, you have all the chances in the world that your muscles get warm and then you are in a better position to perform anything.
Every two or three years I am coming back to Bach, trying to rethink and restudy his works and to find out whether what I think is right or wrong.
The Urtext is the basic of everything I am doing while playing works by Bach. The question is to find out which way you get closer to the truth and yet, you must take into consideration that the instrument you are playing is not entirely the same as those played at Bach's time. Nowadays, the strings are thicker, the bow hair much stronger, the bridge much higher. And you perform not only in a small chapel, but in concert halls where you might play Bach's Solo Sonatas and Partitas for 3,000 people. Therefore, you have to adjust.
In 1968, the publisher Schott & Söhne, Mainz asked me to do an edition of Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. I should put in writing bowings and fingerings just the way, I actually play. It was not that simple, because I wanted to get as close as possible to the original which is not always reliable. Sometimes, one has to compromise, but if it is done in the service of music, it is all right. One has to count in limits of stretches that your left hand can perform, chords in 4 voices, which you can hardly play simultaneously with the modern bow. You may get very close to it, if your right hand technique is sufficiently developed. Normally, you feel like having achieved a great deal if you play three notes on three different strings together properly, that is without producing unpleasant noise to your ears.

Since I play as closely as I can, as closely as humanly possible to the manuscript, I rethought my interpretation before writing down whatever I was actually doing. I wanted to justify certain very extravagant fingerings and bowings because I thought that the readers, the young students were entitled to an explanation.

I thought that in two years I would be ready. It took me almost seven years, until 1985 to set all the proofs.

…Carl Flesch

Extracts from an interview by Paul Treuthardt, 1987

H.S.I studied with Carl Flesch for 4 years, between 1928 and 1932. During autumn, winter and spring he taught in Berlin, whilst during summer he held classes in Baden-Baden, where he had a residence. Also studying with Carl Flesch at that time were, among others, Arrigo Pellicia from Italy, Roman Totenberg from Poland, Henri Temianka, Josef Wolfsthal (he became later first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic and professor at the Hochschule Berlin), Max Rostal, Ginette Neveu, Ida Haendel and Ricardo Odnoposoff. To study with such an eminent teacher has a great impact on a young student. Not only can you get so much advice from him, but you can also enrich your knowledge by listening to his truly brilliant students.
Classes were held in a very peculiar way, which was characteristic of Flesch. Be it at the Hochschule in Berlin, or in Baden-Baden, we never had private classes. We, that is all the students who wanted to study with him, had to submit ourselves to the presence of at least 20 fellow students. That already created the atmosphere of practically a concert hall. Even tackling a new piece where you had barely put on your bowings and fingerings caused a tremendous feeling of responsibility and nervousness.
Flesch had a tremendous sense of humour, especially at the expense of the students. I do not think he really appreciated when somebody else's sense of humour would involve his person. I tried it a couple of times, but was prudent enough (in time) to avoid major clashes. Although I must say that occasionally, we did not see eye to eye…
You could ask me, how dare you not to agree with a master who was at that time in his late fifties and I was in my early teens. The reason being that, when I was terribly young, I was also terribly outspoken. I said openly when I did not like a fingering suggested by the teacher and asked if we could not do something else, something different. This is where Flesch got actually in conflict with himself. On one hand, he said he wanted his students when they study new works, to try first their own fingerings. Later he would provide them with his. Also if they would feel different about nuances or tempi, they would not have to consider his. This was all very good and very promising, until it came to the hour of truth. When in the end, on the other hand, he did not take very well to students shunning his fingerings or bowings, or his way of playing. Yet, I think he meant well.
He went to great lengths in order to explain how the teacher should not influence the student, how he should safeguard the total freedom of his personality. The teacher should eradicate shortcomings or faulty aspects, but be very careful, not to go too far and take away the student's personality. I think that these were beautiful ideas and concepts and I agree now totally with them. The only thing was that he did not entirely respect his own ideas… It was always touch-and-go.

P.T.What was it that made him such a great teacher then?

H.S.First, he was - I think- the first one who took all the good things from Leopold Mozart, Schradieck, Sevcik and Kreutzer. He took the very best in exercises, in technical studies, in everything that had a definite purpose of developing for instance the fingers of the left hand, giving them speed and yet the independence of the fingerings, the shifting and reaching the highest positions. For the right hand, he also probably took was what already available and added some very valuable exercises in order to develop the right arm. The right arm is the violinist's pedal and lungs. The bow makes us breath, sing and do the phrasing.
Flesch also was the first one not to rely on approximate notions about violin technique. He analyzed it in such a thorough, meticulous way that there was nothing left to chance. His "Art of Violin Playing" in two thick volumes, is definitely a masterwork and a milestone. It is so exhaustive that there is none comparable.
I don't believe that one has ever been confronted with a work of violin playing bearing such a weight, such a knowledge, such an analytical aspect. A literary aspect also, discussing styles and composers and very, very useful advice and tips on how to avoid having a neighbour complaining about your violin playing; or what to drink after a concert in order to have a nice sleep without getting intoxicated by alcohol. His speciality was a mixture of mineral water and white wine. This again, is very individual.

P.T.Was he in fact a great violinist himself?

H.S.He was also a great violinist. His playing was excellent, secure, perfect. Each time he took his instrument and played a work for a student to explain his remarks on the student's performance, you would have said that he must have been practicing at least for a week or a fortnight. This was part of his greatness.
But… he had a slow vibrato and recommended a fast one. He was very much against an excess of slide, but when he played, he used it. Flesch's personality was highly interesting, because it was made of complexes. When he made his big career in the early years of this century and during World War I, his was a rather very virtuoso playing, almost gipsy, according to eye and ear witnesses. His repertoire included the concerto by Ernst, the f-sharp minor by Wieniawski and of course, Paganini's first concerto. Gipsy airs by Sarasate, this sort of highly flamboyant repertoire, also Hungarian music (Flesch was originally Hungarian). His virtuoso playing was highly effective and brilliant.
It became clear only when he decided to develop more time to his teaching duties that his great love and devotion belonged to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

P.T.When you say you are not following exactly every fingering, is there something overall about them?

H.S.Absolutely. Flesch was very concerned about the violin and the proper functioning of the left and the right hand. His logic was irrefutable; with his very cultured mind, he had a special tendency towards solving mathematically and logically the problems of fingerings.

P.T.Was that new, or had this been done before?

H.S.No, this was definitely new. You see, we do not know which fingerings Paganini used; they must have been sensational, because of the results. I would not even dare question the excellence of his fingerings. But then, for so many decades people were using comfortable fingerings, avoiding the semi-position or the second and fourth position. The comfort was in the first and third position, as a rule. Flesch did away with this. I feel that he put the wisdom and the science of fingerings at the service of music.

P.T.This mathematical approach, is it something that other people have followed?

H.S.Absolutely, I think we are all following it. In many aspects, Flesch was a great innovator.
His main concept was that a student should play at least a movement of a work, sonata or concerto, a big chunk of music, in a row. He did not believe in distracting the student, he definitely didn't aim at making him or her more nervous than he already was. He thought that for the continuity, for the overall meaning of the work, it was better not to interrupt. This was very pleasant.
While the student was playing, he was making notes, very quickly in his own signs; almost shorthand, but very easy to explain, very logical - here again! Then he analyzed with the student what he had to criticize in front of all the fellow students.
This was the usual procedure: had he heard an excellent performance, he would say well, I think that this was an excellent performance. Then, he would ruin the praise by mentioning the shortcomings. But in all truth I must confess that he was fair. There were students, he liked better, others best. He was human, after all. I would not hesitate in saying that he was one of the greatest pedagogues of all times. Whenever an analytical thinking is in order, I feel you could not have done better than Flesch.
We respected him, we were slightly scared of him, but not one of us would question the mastery of his teaching.
From Flesch I learned the trade of being a violinist, of how to develop a clear way of conveying my ideas through technique.

…His relation with the violin

Extracts from interviews from 1982 and 1987

The gentleness of treating the violin includes elegance.
The violin should not sound like a trumpet, it should sound like a violin. It is necessary to have a great deal of volume but it should never alter the beauty. If I had to choose between a smaller sound full of quality and a bigger sound, rather coarse, I would definitely forgo the bigger sound.
A big sound is very good, but never at the expense of quality. Quality is sensitivity, that's what it is all about. You may have played the notes in a nice way - but then if you don't convey to the listeners pleasure, emotion, different sorts of emotion, then probably you have not been the missionary of "Frau Musica".
It's not a question of converting somebody who loves Beethoven into loving Bach more. It's just a question of communicating warmth and true human passions, feeling to the very listener who is watching you, who is listening to you.
To be a good listener doesn't necessarily mean to be a musician or a musicologist, or a great connoisseur. An open heart, an open spirit, that's all you require.
More often than not, especially in a very large hall, I can feel exactly the very minute when even several thousands of listeners are really with me. That's the moment when you feel that you are not airborne, but that you are music borne - it's a wonderful sensation.
String instruments don't always respond, not even to a very fine player. They are very much subject to capricious fits. I already mentioned how dependent we are on hygrometry and temperature, pressure of the air and on weather in general.
You must have experienced that a correctly handled violin doesn't respond, or certain notes are not clear, or you feel that the player has not hit the note. Maybe he didn't press the finger of his left hand hard enough. Sometimes the failure concerns the right hand and I would think the player didn't hit the string at the right place, he didn't find the correct spot of contact, because there is lots of room - lots of room! - between the fingerboard and the bridge. Depending upon the speed of the bowing and whether you want to play piano or forte, whether the notes are long or quick, you have to determine which part of the string is the adequate part.
Sometimes the string just doesn't respond without any shortcoming of the player. It could be the quality of the string, or a thousand other reasons.
A violin is like a woman, it doesn't want to be shared, and it likes to be played often.
The violin is like a very wonderful lady and stands comparison from the tonal, the esthetic and from the ethical point of view. It has to be treated appropriately. All sorts of affection and affectionate consequences are permitted, even very strong embraces. When I refer to embracing a violin, I mostly refer to playing in a high position where the pressure of the left hand must be considerable. Once if you reach very high positions, it is as if you were embracing a woman from the purely visual point of view. To make a long story short: I think that everything is permitted, except ravishing the violin.
The violin is a very jealous mistress. I would prefer to call the mistress "spouse", because there is such a sacred companionship about the violin and the violinist that I feel it is rather a marriage. Look at myself: I have been playing my Guarnerius del Gesù made in Cremona 1743 called Leduc for more than 25 years now. I have seen so many beautiful Guarneri violins in the hands of dealers and distinguished colleagues and I really can't say that it ever occurred to me to think that I might be able to play better or to produce a more beautiful sound with another violin than mine.
Sometimes when I find that the violin is not quite in order and that I should take it to a violin maker, but when nobody is near or available, I make a beautiful experience: by just working on the violin, things which may be considered as conducive to finding the violin out of order slowly disappear. How many times did I play a concert without having been able to take the violin to a specialist to glue an unglued piece or to fix the slightly displaced bridge - only because I practiced.
It doesn't matter whether you practice more or less, but you mustn't abandon your instrument. The violin is jealous and its affection is exclusive. The violin hates to be left alone, not to be played. The only comparison, I could come up with is: it's like loving a very dear person. You can't love it "on and off"