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Szigeti as teacher: Frances Kramer

Monday, 24 September 2012
To Mr. Szigeti, even the simplest scale must be musical

In the October 2013 issue, violinist Arnold Steinhardt recalls how he spent the summer of 1962 studying with Joseph Szigeti at his home in Switzerland. Just three years after Steinhardt's year with the great musician (pictured), violinist Frances Kramer wrote this account, published in the November 1965 edition, of Szigeti's teaching methods and style:


The Challenge of Perfection

High on a hill overlooking beautiful Lake Leman in Switzerland lives one of the greatest musical artists of our day, the violinist Joseph Szigeti. It would be difficult to measure the contribution this man has made though the years to the musical world. It is certain, however, that this contribution is marked not only by virtuosity which is unexcelled, but by great musical knowledge and integrity. Never has this man allowed music to suffer at the hands of virtuosity. We are indeed fortunate today to have large numbers of recordings he has made of great musical works. Standing out among these, almost as a collector's item are his Six Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, by J.S. Bach. In these is clearly seen what is foremost in this man's mind – "Always you must make music". With such a guiding purpose, and the unfaltering perfection of his fingers, he has made these Sonatas pulsate with life and beauty, so that even the unlearned ear can reopen to the beauty of the music.

Although Szigeti's artistry is there for the world to enjoy, only a few have known him in another role, that of a teacher. This role is not too often filled well by a performing artist, perhaps partly because of the great demands performance places upon him. Many have experienced the disappointment of study with some such artist, and have come away from the experience feeling it would really have been more enjoyable and less tiring to hear a recital from a comfortable seat behind the footlights. Mr. Szigeti as a teacher concerns himself completely with the student, and from the first moment of contact works intensely with him. There is so much given to be absorbed, that long before he wearies, the student longs to pause and take a breath. Although Mr. Szigeti suffers from a physical limitation brought on by years of playing, he is a man of tremendous vitality and mental keenness. His unique ability to draw a mental picture of what he wants makes the most difficult problem seem simple in its solution.

One soon learns when in contact with Mr. Szigeti, that it is not by chance he is such an artist. The very things he stresses in teaching indicate the guiding principles in his own work. It would perhaps be possible to sum up these in a limited way under four headings:

1. Always meet a problem – never change bowing or fingering to simplify.
2. Use of dissonances and open strings in a constant vigilance on intonation.
3. Relate everything – similar difficulties in other works or studies.
4. Practice musically.

Few who read this article will not be guilty of breaking the first rule, that of avoiding meeting the technical problem by changing a fingering or bowing. Practically speaking, in working with students of varying degrees of talent and application, it is sometimes difficult. If this, however, is the underlying principle always in your approach to recognizing flaws in technique and focusing the teacher and student's attention on overcoming the particular technical problem. It will also contribute a great deal to understanding and accuracy in interpretation.

Mr. Szigeti stands out among the artists of our day as one almost flawless in his intonation. Working on the principle that we respond emotionally to dissonance, he uses this constantly to quicken the ear, and to feel an emotional satisfaction at its resolution. A dissonance in tune has a certain satisfaction, but one out of tune, then in tune, and the student soon experiences this for himself. Constantly Mr. Szigeti uses open strings to rest intonation, not just those that are obvious but those in the harmonies underlying the note. One soon sees that accurate intonation use of the harmonies involved in a passage. Most effectively the awareness and use of them for testing contributes to improved intonation.

Mr. Szigeti in his insistence on relating everything strikes at one of the great educational problems of today. Students are not encouraged enough to relate the thing they are learning to a greater whole. The opening chord of the Vitali Chaconne with its particular bowing problem is the same as the opening chord in the first Bach unaccompanied Sonata, and many other compositions. A student is kept mentally alert by not just practising the chord in the particular work he is studying, but wherever else he might find it. This principle constantly carried out, enhances the student's practice as well as his understanding and knowledge of all the literature. This too contributes most effectively to a constant mental attitude of relating knowledge, so the student is not hanging on desperately to a collection of little isolated facts, with no understanding of where his little piece of knowledge fits into a greater whole. In its application more particularly to the violinist, this method of practice does away with the unspoken idea of many students that if he goes over the passage often enough, he will eventually perfect it. In the constant repetition he loses mental alertness often and becomes purely mechanical in his practice. Mr. Szigeti in his teaching allows for no mental lapses, but demands constant intensive application of the mind to the problem at hand. Today in a hundred conservatories students are practicing Dont, Kreutzer, Sevcik, Mazas, and countless other études and scales. One could walk past the practice rooms in any one of these schools and hear the endless droning of unmusical sounds. But Mr. Szigeti would have none of that – to him, even the simplest scale must be musical. One soon sees how right he is, for how can a student really make a piece of music beautiful if all his preliminary work has been done unmusically. Many teachers today were themselves taught very carefully to practise scales and études with a straight tone. This unfortunately in being carried out has contributed to an unconscious idea that there is no obligation to think of these as music. But where then, if these are for the development of left and right hand technique does the student receive training in thinking musically? Contrary to many, Mr. Szigeti insists on the use of vibrato in everything. To some who would say this tend to cover up poor intonation, he would insist it contributes to good intonation, and his own performance would bear that out. To him it must become second nature to make musical sounds from the first drawing of the bow across the strings to the last. Perhaps it is this dedication that makes Mr. Szigeti stand apart in his ability to breathe life and beauty into any work he performs.

At the end of the intensive two hour study, Mr. Szigeti, concerned that even the lesson might be a satisfying musical experience, instinctively picks up his Guarnerius and brings into a musical whole the application of all he has taught in playing of the music that was begin studied. To the mediocre teacher who reads, the response would be, but Mr. Szigeti gives us nothing new. But to the teacher who aspires to greater effectiveness there is a renewed challenge of application, for certainly he has before him a picture of a man who has reached the pinnacle of near perfection. And Mr. Szigeti would be the first to say it is the constant application of these principles that makes the stepping stones to better teaching and better trained students.

Read Andrew Watkinson's memories of his year learning with Szigeti, and download the October issue to read Arnold Steinhardt's thoughts on being taught by the great violinist.

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Photo: Bain News Service, Library of Congress

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