Tag Archives: Violin

On Virtuosity

Nicolò Paganini (image taken from Wikipedia.org)

Niccolò Paganini (1819), by Ingres – image taken from Wikipedia.org

Attaining virtuoso status is elusive and exclusive; a virtuoso is someone who has achieved the highest level of technical skill on their instrument, while also attaining the height of musicality. Showmanship, charisma and innate ability factor in as well.

Nicolò (or Niccolò) Paganini (1782-1840), is considered by many to be the greatest violinist of all time. He was so amazing that his audiences thought he was demonic. It was rumored in his day that when he was six, his mother made a pact with the devil to trade his soul for a career as the greatest violinist in the world. He was once forced to publish letters from his mother to prove he had human parents. He would pull off stunts to show his astonishing ability, like severing strings on his violin so that they would break during a performance, then continuing to play on the remaining strings.

The Music Department at CLP – Main has a few different editions of the music score to one of his most famous compositions, a notoriously difficult series of pieces to play: 24 Caprices for Violin Solo, Op. 1, composed between 1805 to 1809. The Music Department routinely obtains various editions of music scores with different editors who have diverse takes on how to play the pieces. Below are examples of Caprice No.5 in A minor (Agitato). The little numbers above the notes are the fingers you are supposed to use. Other marks denote accents and other technical aspects of how it is to be played. Look closely and you can see each has subtle but distinct differences.

24 Caprices for Violin Solo, Opus 1. International edition 1973, edited by Ivan Galamian.

2-int ed

From the International edition

Twenty-four Caprices for the Violin. : [Op. 1] – G. Schirmer edition 1941, edited by Harold Berkley.

3 - schir

From the G. Schirmer edition

Just for reference, here is the same piece in Paganini’s own hand. He supposedly was able to play this using just one string.

24 [i.e. Ventiquattro] Capricci Op. 1 : per Violino : Facsimile Dell’autografo.

1 fac

From the facsimile edition

Now listen to them! One of the music streaming services that CLP offers is the “Classical Music Library” from Alexander Street Press. Follow the links for remote access here: http://carnegielibrary.org/eCLP/music/. There are 10 different recordings of the full 24 for solo violin. You can open each one in a different tab to compare and contrast the individual performances.

Who played it best? First of all, bravo on being able to play these at all, and being good enough to record them. Who am I to judge you? Just an active listener who knows what she likes. I am looking for artistry, tone, technical prowess and that je ne sais quoi.

Here are my three favorite:

Itzhak Perlman (Warner Music, 2005) recorded in 1972, Massimo Quarta (Chandos, 2005) recorded in 2002, and Marco Rogliano (Tactus, 2004) recorded in 2000.

Do you have aspirations to become a virtuoso on the violin? You have to start somewhere. Practice, practice, practice!



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Have Your Cake and Concert, Too!

“Have You Tried the Music Library?”

In 1938, a group of musically prominent Pittsburgh citizens approached the director of Carnegie Library [of Pittsburgh] requesting that he consider the establishment of a music collection. He agreed and selected a thirty-year-old library assistant to be its initial organizer. Irene Millen gathered together the music materials scattered throughout the library system and made them accessible to the public. When it became clear that the acquisitions budget for music would not meet the demands of the enthusiastic public, Irene harnessed that enthusiasm to found the Friends of the Music Library, with an administrative board comprised of representatives from every Pittsburgh musical organization. The Friends served both as fundraiser and as public relations resource for the music collection. “Have you tried the library?” was something she taught the board to ask their constituencies whenever they had a music need or problem.

Ida Reed, the Music Department manager who succeeded Irene Millen, wrote this description of the establishment of the department. In my role as the current manager, I also like to ask the “Have you tried the Music Library?” question. Users, supporters and friends all know—there’s no better resource in Pittsburgh for the serious musician, as well as anyone with a casual interest in music, including, in the words of Irene Millen, “parents whose children are studying music, program annotators, and non-practicing music lovers.”

1938 — 2013

Next month the Music Department will celebrate 75 years of service to music fanciers in Pittsburgh and beyond. Cue the trumpets! Our new concert series heralds a coming season of celebration.

Sounds Upstairs: Hear the Library’s Music Department Collection Come to Life!

Sounds Upstairs intends to lead listeners of all ages up the welcoming marble staircase to the second floor of the Main Library in Oakland, to hear acoustic presentations of music drawn from our collection. The thousands of books, scores, and recordings that fill our department leave no room for concertizing, so our series will be held down the hall, in the International Poetry Room. 

Sunday, September 8, our inaugural concert presents violinist Sandro Leal-Santiesteban and cellist Hannah Whitehead performing both solo and duo pieces in a program ranging from Bach to Gershwin with recent compositions by Mark Summer and Pittsburgher Sean Neukom.

Sandro Leal-Santiesteban

Sandro Leal-Santiesteban

Hannah Whitehead

Hannah Whitehead

Sunday, September 8
3:30 — 4:30 PM
CLP – Main, International Poetry Room (second floor)

Before the concert, join us for a birthday cake reception hosted by the Friends of the Music Library, beginning at 2:30, in the Music Department.

After you try the library, please spread the word!



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Not a Devil to Read and Not a Violin Nightmare

Last time around, I gave you a listening list of horn music in preparation for our Pittsburgh Symphony Book Club discussion of Jasper Rees’ A Devil to Play: One Man’s Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument.  Well, I’m pleased to report that the book was a delight and not a devil to read.  Rees warms a librarian’s heart by doing so much in-depth investigation of both the ancient and recent history of the horn.  Then he shows off his storytelling skills by deftly weaving the threads of teenage remembrance, present-day experience, and historical research throughout each chapter.  Also impressive is how the struggling amateur Rees ingratiated himself to the community of elite horn players.  Finally, he grew even further in our book club’s estimation by talking to us via Skype even though it was past midnight in the UK.  Consider us charmed.

Next up for the club is Arnold Steinhardt’s Violin Dreams, also a captivating read.  Steinhardt is first violinist of the esteemed Guarneri Quartet.  Unlike Rees, he is a professional musician who studied for decades with the greatest masters and mentors of his instrument.  But like Rees, his book also weaves together memories with research into the premier players and their instruments.  Steinhardt also includes vivid descriptions of his sometimes anxious dreams.  Finally, the most significant piece of music that threads its way through the book is J. S. Bach’s Chaconne (the final movement of his Partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004), the crown jewel and one of the mightier challenges of the violinist’s repertoire.  The book comes with a CD with two recordings of Steinhardt performing the piece, in 1966 and forty years later.

We hope to see you on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 6:00 p.m. in the Music Department for another great book discussion with your fellow readers, library staff, Jim Cunningham from WQED-FM, and Pittsburgh Symphony Associate Concert Master Mark Huggins.

— Tim

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“Your Dark Dust Will Know”: Leonora Speyer

I know that there are lots of people who suspect that folks who work in the library have some of the best jobs in the world.  Frequently, people will inquire to that effect and, sometimes, I simply demur with a knowing smile and at other times, I’m ebullient.

Be forewarned: this is one of the latter times.

When you are surrounded by over 3 million items, it is a rare day, indeed, when something entirely new doesn’t present itself for your inspection and approval.  If you don’t allow yourself to glaze over and you pay close attention, you can learn more by osmosis in a week than you might in a month of concentrated study in your field of choice.

About a week ago, a book came my way, as do many of its mates, because of its poor condition.  When this happens, a decision needs to be  made and a number of factors considered to arrive at a satisfactory outcome.   Is the item of any value, is it of interest, is it outdated, is it readily available elsewhere, particularly locally?  If it has no intrinsic value and/or is of no interest or is outdated (i.e. bad medical info, superseded legal info etc.), it’s sayonara.  Often, however, a little legwork needs to be done to determine if any of these factors apply.  An item may, in fact, be either valuable, relevant, timeless, or unavailable anywhere, particularly locally.

The book that presented itself to me that particular morning was a slim volume of poetry from the 1920s entitled Fiddler’s Farewell, by Leonora SpeyerI had heard of neither the book nor the author.  That’s not particularly surprising; though I’ve been in the book business, in one form or another, for well over 30 years, and poetry is my specialty, my base of knowledge is not nearly as overwhelming as it might be.  See 3 million items above.

Did I mention that librarianship can be a very humbling profession?

The very first bit of information I found on Leonora Speyer set me back on my heels mightily.  It was a painting:

Lady Speyer by John Singer Sargent

After I caught my breath, I quickly began to read that Leonora Speyer was a renowned violinist (hence the John Singer Sargent portrait) who studied music in Europe, attended the Brussels Conservatory (where she won first prize at the young age of 16) and debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1890, later appearing as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic.

Oh, and in 1926, she won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for that slim little volume entitled Fiddler’s Farewell.

It is appropriate that this forgotten book should resurface, particularly during the month we celebrate Women’s History.   It is difficult to imagine some of the obstacles she must have encountered in the late 19th century worlds of music and literature.  Though a woman of independent means, still, the challenges must have been formidable and the battles, it would seem, hard fought.

I looked to the poetry to see if it still spoke to the modern reader; after all, today’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry doesn’t much resemble your great-grandmother’s Pulitzer Prize.  And though it is decidedly tougher to measure relevance in art as one does in medical and legal subjects, still, I wondered, would there be any relevance at all?

Indeed, there is; here’s a glimpse at the poet and the woman and, if you listen closely, the musician: Leonora Speyer.

Lordly amid the rotting houses of the street,
It lifts a marble scorn, while at its carven feet
They crowd in ancient filth. It does not look at them,
These crumbling beggars catching at its stone hem.

Here, the poet captures a moment in contrast: she sees and highlights what many a tourist chooses to ignore. In fact the famed Palace of Naples itself, in the poem, chooses not to look upon beggars clutching at “its stone hem.”

Next is a poem of transcendence:

Of Mountains
. . . Then I rose up
And swept the dust of planets from my eyes,
And wandered shouting down that shouting hour,
Pausing to pluck a mountain like a flower
That grew against the skies.

This reminded me of something very modern, indeed.  Such a cosmic perspective certainly was not an everyday occurrence in early 20th century poetry, particularly early women’s 20th century poetry.

And here is one final poem, which also seems very modern in tone and approach:

I’ll be your Epitaph
Over your dear dead heart I’ll lift
As blithely as a bough,
Saying, “Here lies the cruel song,
Cruelly quiet now.”

I’ll say, “Here lies the lying sword,
Still dripping with my truth;
Here lies the woven sheath I made,
Embroidered with my youth.”

I’ll sing, “Here lies, here lies, here lies-”
Ah, rust in peace below!
Passers will wonder at my words,
But your dark dust will know.

The modern book I thought of was the first book of poetry I remember ever buying for myself, the book that started me on a 40 year pursuit of lyrical truth. Here is the title poem and foreword from that volume, ever so sweetly entitled Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch (selections from which may be found in this book).

It would seem that sisters, over the span of half a century, are like-minded, indeed.

– Don


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