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Jacques be nimble, Jacques be quick

Luis Dias


One of my violin students has just begun to work on the famous Mazas studies for the instrument, and is quite excited about it.

Many students and teachers of the violin will be familiar with these studies. A closer look at the author of these etudes would be worthwhile.

Jacques Féréol Mazas (1782-1849) was a French composer, conductor, violinist and pedagogue. He is remembered in history for his technique-building studies, etudes and duets for young string players of all abilities that constitute methods for both violin and viola.

Further information about him is rather sketchy, but one gets a fair idea of his ‘musical tree’, by which one is able to trace his pedagogical lineage all the way to Corelli and before; his music is therefore the distillation of the French school of violin playing and teaching.

To elaborate this lineage: Mazas was the pupil at the Paris Conservatoire of French violinist-composer Pierre Marie François de Sales Baillot (1771-1842), contemporary of two other great French violinist-composers Jacques Pierre Joseph Rode (1774-1830) and Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831), also professors at the Conservatoire de Paris; the etudes of Kreutzer are just as familiar and revered to advanced violinists and deserve examination in their own right in another column. All of these three were in turn taught by Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824), influential Italian violin virtuoso, teacher and composer whose twenty-nine violin concertos were an influence on Beethoven. Beethoven was in personal contact with all three of Viotti’s famous pupils Baillot, Rode and Kreutzer, which acquainted him with the high standard of violin virtuosity of the French school, and with the style of the so-called French Violin Concerto.

Baillot was one of a handful of violinists who played Beethoven’s violin concerto publicly before its revival by Joseph Joachim.

Beethoven dedicated one of his violin sonatas (no 9, opus 47) to Kreutzer, who haughtily expressed a dislike of the work and refused to perform it. Yet ironically, if posterity remembers Kreutzer at all (apart from the violin fraternity for the afore-mentioned studies), it is because of the nickname “Kreutzer” that has still stuck to this Beethoven violin sonata, a formidable work. Some of you will remember it played here some years ago by the excellent violinist Hadar Rimon.

But to continue with the pedagogical lineage: Viotti was the pupil of Italian violinist-composer Giulio Gaetano Gerolamo Pugnani (1731-1798) and toured Europe with him. Viotti was one of the first great violinists to begin usage of the newly-designed Tourte bow, which obviously had an impact on the type of sound he produced from his instrument and the compositional style that resulted from it. The Tourte family was in the bow-making profession, among whom François Xavier Tourte le jeune (1747-1835) has often been referred to as the ‘Stradivari’ of the bow for his significant contribution to the development of the modern bow, not just for the violin but for all bowed stringed instruments of the orchestra. In particular the concave stick now allowed more expressive bowing by making it easier to control dynamics and execute a wider variety of bow strokes, especially “off the string” bowings. We find all manner of these bowings in the Mazas etudes.

Pugnani in turn was taught by Italian Baroque violinist-composer Giovanni Battista Somis (1686-1763), himself the founder of the Piedmontese school of violin playing. Somis also taught other famous violinist-pedagogues, among them Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764), considered by many the founder of the French violin school. Somis is thus seen as the connecting link between the classical schools of Italy and France.

And Somis was the pupil of Italian Baroque violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), a key figure in the development of the sonata and concerto as we know them today and in the development of violin technique, even though his works never ranged beyond the third position.

It is possible to trace the lineage back even further, to Corelli’s teacher the Italian composer, organist and violinist Giovanni Battista Bassani (c. 1650-1716). His two sets of violin sonatas, though rarely played, are admired for their dignity of style and “excellent musical basis”.

Bassani was the pupil of Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690), one of the most influential composers of his time in Venice. Here the pedagogical trail gets a little blurry, although it is thought that Bassani was taught at home by his father, a professional violinist.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate how much history is embedded in even a book of violin etudes and instill a sense of awe in everyday practice.

Such a huge debt is owed to this “French School” of violin playing. The Franco-Belgian School of Belgian violinist-composers Charles-Auguste de Beriot (1802-1870) and later Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881) is an offshoot of the French School—indeed even the Russian School is related to the French School, as both Rode and Baillot spent years in Russia, Rode from 1804 to 1808 and Baillot from 1805 to 1808.

Sadly, although the violinist-composers of the French School wrote so much music, especially concertos, posterity has not been kind to them: scores of their music are relatively hard to acquire, and their concertos seldom receive public performances or recordings, with the possible exception of Viotti’s Concerto no 22 in A minor, even though so many of his other concertos have equal, if not more, merit.

Playing etudes or studies are vital to the development and maintenance of technique. Too few violin students or even those more advanced devote much attention to them, sadly.

Mazas opus 36 consists of 75 progressive studies divided into three parts. The first part (special studies) includes 30 studies suitable for the intermediate students. The second (brilliant studies) and third (artists’ studies) parts get progressively harder and resemble the concert etudes for advanced violinists.

As the preface to the first part, written by German violinist and conductor Walther Davisson explains, “The fundamentals and technical requirements of violin technique have been handled with distinct musical charm and sense of melodic shape. The study of these pieces will be found to be of immense benefit in matters of tone and technique; power and impetus of bowing should develop side-by-side with ease and grace of performance.”

My trusty personal copy of Mazas is well-worn from decades of use, and I still dip into it “to stay in shape.” Just as at the gym, one should undertake weight training with a clear idea of which muscle group(s) you wish to develop, these studies can help tone up areas of violin playing and technique, and “ease and grace of performance” to fit one’s current requirement. May the study of the studies never ever stop!

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