Leopold Auer on Style

 

Buffon once said : Le style est 'homme mÍme ( Style is the man or One's style is one's person ). I believe that style in literature is the author, and certainly in music it is the musician himself. In fact, where is the musician deserving of the name who does not possess the instinct for style in music ? What sort of violinist would he be who played all the masters, all the various kinds of music, in the same way ? In dramatic art style is essentially the element of declamation. Music also calls for declamation - interpretation - based on a thorough understanding and grasp of the character of a composition. All the composer's indications serve this one purpose - they exist to make possible a rendering of the composition which shall be in keeping with its character. Whether that character be lyric or dramatic, heroic or passionate, gay and care-free, its proper delineation always requires a variety of accents, energetic stresses or tender, delicate touches
.

To understand and to cause to be understood - this is the aim to which the performing artist must aspire. The music-loving public in general is very sensitive and is readily impressed by genuine art, if art be presented in such wise that its beauties can be grasped.

The innumerable music-festivals and concerts throughout the land attest this fact. What a mixed public these festivals attract, yet the majority of works performed at them are works of solid artistic value. And when the great artists - as they now so generally do - play a piece of music by Bach or Beethoven, presenting it absolutely in character, the crowd is impressed and reacts even more frankly and more gladly to its beauties than does the so-called musical connoisseur or professional musician, who has his own well-established ideas regarding the works of the great masters, and is usually convinced that his conception is the only true and right one. The performer, however, may be said to have reached the apogee of his art when he is able to give an ancient or modern composition its true character in his performance, lend it the colour with which its composer has endowed it. If, in addition, he is capable of merging in his own temperament the author's original thought, if he can react himself to the beauty of the work or phrase, he need have no doubt of his capacity to play the composition in a way that will impress others. For the violinist whose technique is assured, and who possesses that peculiar magnetism which exerts irresistible and convincing charm, is able to sway the greatest audience with compelling power - like the Hebrew prophets and the great masters of the plastic arts, like the great poets of ancient and of modern days, the public speakers of all ages - in a word, like all other artists whose appeal is addressed to the multitude.

Style in music, as in the other arts, is the mode or method of presenting the art in question in a distinctive and intrinsically appropriate way. The word style is used freely in discussing both literature and music, and it is often used carelessly. The old Romans used a stylus, an instrument of wood, metal or ivory, to engrave their thoughts on tablets of wax. And when they spoke of " turning the stylus " , they meant to imply that they had modified what they had written with the sharp end of the stylus by erasing with the blunt end. In music the violinist " turns the stylus " when he applies blunt judicious self criticism and correction to his playing ; when he realizes that it can be improved - and acts upon his conviction. In the old days everyone who used a stylus wrote in a different and individual manner, and his writing gave as clear an indication of his temperament and character as the playing of the violinist expresses his own individuality - from his every interpretation of a musical work, to the way in which he picks up his instrument, or lets his fingers fall upon the strings. Just as you could see the Roman scribe's character revealed by the lines drawn with his stylus in the wax, so the temperament, the distinctive features which make up the musical character of the violinist, are disclosed by his musical stylus, the bow, as he draws it across the strings. This is the essential meaning, then, of Buffon's phrase " Style is the man " when it is applied to music.

I have referred to the individual magnetism which the violinist must possess if he is to sway his listeners. This quality of personal appeal based on individual power or charm has always seemed to me to be the real foundation of all style in violin playing. There is no one definitely established way of playing a given work by a master, for there is no absolute standard of beauty by which the presentation of a violinistic art-work can be judged. A type of playing extravagantly admired and cultivated in one age may be altogether rejected in another. The general aesthetic sense and sensibility of the period in which we ourselves live, our own contemporary feeling for what is true and acceptable in musical style is the only standard of judgment to which we can refer the artist's interpretation. If the violinist satisfies this aesthetic taste of ours " for there is no absolute standard of beauty " and if he moves us, if he convinces us, if he makes us feel that he is revealing to us beauty's true soul - then his interpretation is justified, his style is faultless. The great leading violinists can wake the overtones of our heart-strings today : Tartini similarly moved the listeners of his time, and the style, the interpretation of each is and was true to the aesthetic demands of their contemporaries. It is impossible to make any adequate comparison of the playing of these artists. For one thing, no man still living is in a position to describe Tartini's playing from actual hearing. Yet, wonderful as his playing must have been, if we are to judge by the accounts of it which have come down to us - he was popularly supposed to have sold his soul to the devil in order to become the greatest violinist in the world - it is a question whether, were Tartini himself to appear in recital today, a 20th century audience would be enthusiastic over his playing. The gap between the aesthetic concepts, the musical concepts, the critical values of his time and our own is too great to be easily bridged. But Tartini - like his pupil Nardini, and like Viotti, who " drew a bow of cotton across the string with the arm of a Hercules " - was justified in his individual style by the aesthetic judgment of the music lovers of the time in which he lived, and in the absence of any absolute standard this verdict must be accepted for the past, just as we accept the aesthetic sense of our own time as competent to pass the merits of the artists of the present day.

I have always found it impossible to regard style in music as a matter of historical development, however. Beauty and not tradition is the touchstone of all style. And what may be beauty in style during the 18th century is not necessarily that in the 20th. I have no respect for that much abused word " tradition " in the sense in which it is largely used. If respect for tradition were carried to its logical conclusion, we should still be living in the stone age, doing as our forefathers had done before us. Tradition in music, as in all else, is the antithesis of progress, it is the letter which kills the living spirit. The truth of one age is bound to be modified by the events of another, for truth is progressive. The aesthetic truth of on period - the interpretative truth of one generation - may be accounted a falsehood by the tenets of the next. For each age sets its own standards, forms its own judgments. There is no doubt but that Tartini stood for the truest expression of the beauty of violin playing, for the best example of style, in the broadest sense of the word, of his epoch. And if he could play for us today whatever there were in his art, in his interpretation, in his style that appeared to us as beautiful would still be beautiful after a lapse of some 300 years. But that which we could not accept would be faulty - though it might have been beautiful for his own times.

Tradition in reality weighs down the living spirit of the present with the dead formalism of the past. For all the hard and fast ideas regarding the interpretation of older classic works, their tempi, their nuances, their expression, have become formalisms, because the men whose individuality gave them a living meaning have disappeared. The violinists of today are rightly just as individual, each in his own way, as were those of the past. Let them play as they honestly feel they must, let them give us beauty as they - and we - understand it. Let them express themselves, and not fetter their playing with rules that have lost their meaning. Let them not hamper that most precious individual quality the artist has - his style - with the dust precepts handed down from times gone by. Beauty we must have, tradition we can dispense with. How is a violinist to conceive the meaning of an older work which he may be studying if his own musical instinct, his freedom of conception, are obfuscated by the dictum : " This must be played in such and such a manner, because so and so played it that way 200 years ago ? ".

One tradition only do I recognize - that it is the function of the artist to enter into the spirit of a composition, and reveal to us the intentions of its composer.

The musical message of the composer, the true spirit of his inspiration, the soul of his music - that is what we are interested in. Though no 2 great artists now playing before the public interpret the Bach Chaconne, let us say, in exactly the same manner - yet hearing either the one or the other, at different times, we may nevertheless feel that the true inwardness of Bach's music has been presented to us in each case. And what more can we ask ? Are we to deny the beauty of their interpretation, which we hear, by which we are moved, because someone who has never heard Spohr himself play the same work, but who has carefully collected statistical evidence to establish his " traditional " rendering, explains that Spohr's interpretation must be considered the only vital one, being " traditional " ?

If the artist has entered fully in to the spirit of the composition he is playing, and if we accept his reading of its spirit, if as it sounds from his strings, we feel its truth, it beauty, its poetry, then it has been read aright, and we ask no more. And the artist who accomplishes this has solved the question of musical style.

 

 

Send mail to leonid@globalnet.co.uk with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 2000 Westbury Park Strings
Last modified: February 06, 2000