The following letter was sent to Signora Maddalena Lombardini in answer to a query regarding violin technique
Padua, March 5, 1760
My very esteemed Signora Maddalena: Finding myself at length disengaged from the weighty business which has so long prevented me from performing my promise to you – a promise which was made with too much sincerity for my want of punctuality not to afflict me – I shall begin the instructions you wish from me by letter; and if I should not explain myself with sufficient clearness, I entreat you to tell me your doubts and difficulties in writing which I shall not fail to remove in a future letter.
Your principal practice and study should at present be confined to the use and power of the bow, in order to make yourself mistress in the execution and expression of whatever can be played or sung, within the compass and ability of your instrument.
Your first study, therefore, should be the true manner of holding, balancing and pressing the bow lightly, but steadily upon the strings, in such a manner as it shall seem to breathe the first tone it gives, which must proceed from friction of the string, and not from percussion as by a blow given by the hammer upon it. This depends on laying the bow lightly on the strings at the first contact, and on gently pressing it afterwards, which if done gradually can scarcely have too much force given it, because if tone is begun with delicacy there is little danger of rendering it afterwards either coarse or harsh. Of this first contact and delicate manner of beginning a tone, you should make yourself a perfect mistress in every situation and part of the bow, as well in the middle as at the extremities; and in moving it up as drawing it down.
To unite all these laborious particular into one lesson my advice is, that you first exercise yourself in a swell upon an open string; for example, upon the second string (A string) that you begin pianissimo and increase the tone by slow degrees to its fortissimo; and this study should be equally at least an hour every day, though at different times a little in the morning and a little in the evening; having constantly in mind that this is of all others the most difficult and the most essential to playing well on the violin. When you are perfect mistress of this part of a good performer, a swell will be very easy to you; beginning with the most minute softness increasing the tone to its loudest degree, and diminishing it to the same point of softness with which you began, and all this in the same stroke of the bow.
Every degree of pressure upon the string which the expression of a note or passage shall require will by this means be easy and certain and you will be able to execute with your bow whatever you please.
After this, in order to acquire that light pulsation and play of the wrist from whence velocity in bowing arises, it will be best for you to practise every day one of the Allegros of which there are three in Corelli solos, which entirely move in semiquavers. The first is in D, in playing which you should accelerate the motion a little each time, till you arrive at the greatest degree of swiftness possible; but two precautions are necessary in this exercise: the first is, that you play the notes staccato, that is, separate and detached, with little space between every two, for they should be played as if there was a rest after every note.
The second precaution is that you play with the point of the bow; and when that becomes easy to you, that you use that part of it which is between the point and middle; and when you are likewise mistress of this part of this part of the bow that you practise in the same manner in the middle of the bow; and above all, you must remember in these studies to begin the Allegros or flights sometimes with an up-bow, and sometimes with a down bow, carefully avoiding the habit of constantly one way. In order to acquire a greater facility of executing swift passages in a light and neat manner, it will be of great use to you if you accustom yourself to skip over a string between two quick notes in divisions. Of such divisions you may play extempore as many as possible and in every key, which will be both useful and necessary.
With regard to the finger board, or carriage of the left hand, I have one thing strongly to recommend to you which will suffice for all, and that is, taking a violin part, either the first or second, or a concerto, sonata or song, or anything will serve the purpose, and playing it upon the half-shift (second position), that is the first finger upon G on the first string (E), and constantly keeping upon this shift, playing the whole piece without moving the hand from this situation unless A on the fourth or G string be wanted; but in that case you should afterwards return again to the half shift, without ever moving the hand down to the natural position. This practice could be continued till you can execute everything upon the whole shift (third position) with as much ease as when the hand is in its natural situation; and when certain of this, advance to the double shift (fourth position) with the first finger on B on the first string; and when sure of that, pass to the next position, making C with the first finger upon the E string, and indeed, this is a scale in which, when you are firm, you may be said to be mistress of the finger-board. This study is so necessary that I most earnestly recommend it to your attention.
I now pass to the third essential part of a good performer on the violin, which is the making of a good shake (trill), and I would have you practise slow, moderately fast, and quick; that is, with the two notes succeeding each other in these three degrees – adagio, andante, and presto; and in practice you have great occasion for these different kinds of shakes, for the same shake will not serve with equal propriety for a slow movement as for a quick one; but to acquire both at once with the same trouble, begin with an open string – either the first or the second, it will be equally useful – sustain the note in a swell, and begin the shake very low, increasing in quickness, by insensible degrees, till it becomes rapid.
But you must not vigorously move immediately from semiquavers to demisemiquavers, from there to the next degree – that would be doubling the velocity of the shake all at once, which would be a skip, not a graduation; but you can imagine between a semiquaver and a demisemiquaver intermediate degrees of rapidity, quicker than the one and slower than the other of these characters; you are therefore to increase in velocity by the same degrees in practising the shake as in loudness when you make a swell.
You must attentively and assiduously preserve in the practise of this embellishment and begin at first with an open string upon which, if you are once able to make a good shake with the first finger, you will with greater facility acquire one with the second, the third and the fourth, or little finger, which you must practise in a particular manner, as more feeble than the rest of its brethren.
I shall at present propose no other studies to you application; what I have already said is more than sufficient if you zeal is equal to my wishes for your improvement. I hope you will sincerely inform me whether I have explained myself clearly thus far, and that you will accept of my respects, which I likewise beg of you to present to the Prioress, to Signora Teresa, and to Signora Chiara, for all of whom I have sincere regard, and believe me to be, with great affection,
Your obedient and most humble servant,
This article was first published in The Strad’s December 1891 issue.
Read French violinist-conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow’s thoughts on Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata in The Strad’s February 2015 issue, out now.