Edith Robinson, a string quartet pioneer and violin professor, gave her stylistic thoughts on performing Haydn string quartets in the April 1933 issue of The Strad

Edith Robinson

Photo: Manchester Digital Music Archive

Edith Robinson 

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In our January 2024 issue, Tully Potter profiles pioneering all-female string quartets of the 19th and 20th century, including Edith Robinson (1867–1940). Robinson held prominence in the north of England from 1905 with her quartet, originally with Isabel and Mary McCullagh (second violin and cello) and Edith Craven (viola), who were the first female players to perform a Beethoven cycle.

The Edith Robinson Quartet was known for Brahms, Franck, Ravel, Debussy, as well as performances by contemporaneous composers. In April 1933, Robinson contributed the following article to The Strad, calling for a return to a pure style of playing them, without exaggerated tempos or dynamics, with less vibrato and with bow strokes that would have been known to Haydn. She stressed that Haydn’s music was not dainty or graceful, but witty. 

Read an excerpt of the article below:

These remarks are somewhat in are offered by an old quartet player, who, in her youth, in Leipzig, from 1884 to 1894, came into contact with some of the finest musicians of that time, some of whom themselves reached back to much nearer the time and tradi­tion of Haydn than anyone now living can do. Especially do I feel impelled to make them because, of late years, I have often been struck by an increas­ing tendency among many of our younger quartet organisations, to lose sight of what used to be looked upon as his salient characteristics. It has always seemed to me that to modernise an old composer is to deprive him of his personality, and the listener of a wider and more varied experience and enjoyment. This tendency usually takes the form of exaggerated tempi (both quick and slow) and dynamics, and of types of bowing better suited to more superficial music, also of a too insis­tent use of vibrato. After all, Haydn was much nearer to Handel than to Debussy, or even to de Beriot! We ought not to forget that in his day such a thing as springing bow was unknown, and, though it may be argued that had he known it· he would have used it, the fact remains that none of his works can have been thought for that effect. Though I would certainly not say it should never be used, it would, surely, be wise to use it sparingly and with discretion.

Especially does it seem to me that the first movements in general should be treated with much greater solidarity of tone, sturdiness and breadth than is often the case.

To look upon Haydn as a merely dainty, graceful composer is to fall far short of his true size and scope. His stride takes in the whole space from Handel to Beethoven. I yield to no one in my love and admiration for Mozart, but, in daring and wit, Haydn far out­does him, though not in sheer beauty.

The craze for speed, which is apt to be the last resort of the destitute in imagination, often makes it impos­sible to savour the real wit and point of many of Haydn’s movements. His­ minuets, in particular, are often entirely robbed of their rhythm by being played too quickly. This mistake is made through his having marked some of them ‘Presto.’ But it should not be forgotten that such words are always relative, and if he puts ’Menuetto Presto,’ he merely means a quick minuet, not a 6/8 rondo. The trio is often enough to correct such errors, or should be so, but I have heard quartets play a minuet at such an absurd speed as to necessitate dropping to half speed in the trio in order to get in the notes, and even then they were too quick to admit of any freedom of interpretation, to say nothing of the fact that no change of tempo was marked. The particular one I have in mind, at the moment, is that in the favourite quartet in G, Op.76, No. 1, in the Jockisch edition. It is often played so quickly that the whole humour of the four reiterated quavers, as well as the amusing octave leaps in the cello, are entirely lost, and the wonderful trio which gives such scope for imaginative treatment and freedom (.albeit, of course without spoilling the rhythm) loses all relation to its minuet through the compulsory, though unauthorised, violent change in tempo, which even then is not slow enough to allow of its subtle points being made.

The last movement of this same quartet is, also, often badly sinned against by being taken much too quickly. After all, ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ is not a very quick tempo, and in Haydn’s day was probably a very moderate speed; at all events the dainty grace and piquancy of the coda is entirely spoiled by being raced, and the mezzo forte triplets, which sound so jolly if crisply springing, become a jumble and lose all true vitality. It should never be forgotten that clear, crisp enunciation will always convey more real sense of life than mere speed, which, beyond a certain point, cannot be taken in by the listener, even if the notes are really played.

I am sure that the words used to indicate the speed are often badly misunderstood and thought of too rigidly. Andante seems often to be thought of as a very slow speed, whereas it implies movement, being the present participle of the verb ’Andare,’ to go. Similarly, ‘Vivace’ only means ‘vivaciously,’ or ‘with life,’ and ‘Presto’ means ’quick.’ They are, of course, all only relative terms and mean different speeds according to the character of the music, therefore a minuet marked Presto merely means a quick minuet, and not the speed of a tarantelle or a 6/8 rondo.

Now, as a true minuet tempo is somewhere about M.M. 74 to the crotchet (think of the minuet from Don Giovanni, which is typical), M.M.160 to the crotchet, which is more than double, would be a very quick minuet and would fully justify the word ‘Presto.’ But many modern players take the so quickly that it is sometimes impossible to feel a three rhythm at all; instead, you feel on beat for each bar, which results in a two rhythm as in 6/8 time.

Mendelssohn maintained, I believe, that, to a really musical mind, speed marks should be unnecessary, as the character of the music would indicate the right speed. This does not necessarily imply that ‘the right speed’ is a rigidly metronomic one, exactly the same for everyone, but it does mean that individual differences should only be slight and should not alter the whole character of a movement.

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