Violin Pedagogy: How Did They Learn?

Violin Tutors for Amateurs

by Dr. Robin Kay Deverich

Towards the end of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth century, numerous violin instruction books were published. These violin tutors were designed for amateurs, not professional violinists:

In the professional tradition of the violin, instruction was given orally from master to pupil, and when violin methods first appeared in the 17th century they were aimed primarily at the amateur, not the professional violinist. Methods for advanced players hardly appeared before 1750. [24]

Boyden commented on the popularity of these early violin method books:

The first violin tutors were essentially 'do-it-yourself' books. Often regarded as a modern phenomenon, such books flourished during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not only in music but in many other fields as well, and they furnish a vivid social commentary on the times. Perhaps more important, the appearance and continuing publication of these elementary manuals show that the violin had ceased to be the sole property and concern of professional violinists and that it had begun to appeal to a far broader social group among players.[25]

Between 1658 and 1731, over thirty amateur violin instruction books were published.[26]Some of the more notable publications include John Lenton's The Gentleman's Diversion (1693); John Playford's A Brief Introducion to the Skill of Musick, second revised edition (1658), which contains a section entitled "Playing on the Treble Violin;" Nolens Volens or You shall learn to Play on the Violin whether you will or no (1695, author anonymous) and The Self-Instructor on the Violin (1695, author anonymous).

A minimal amount of technical advice was found in these early instruction books, and most simply contained fingerboard directions and a few simple pieces. Many of these publications appear to have been published solely to satisfy public demand for new violin music:

The latter[violin tutors], printed in considerable numbers in the last years of the seventeenth century and first quarter of the eighteenth century, point to the rise of a potent number of amateur violinists and to the voracious appetite for violin music. Each violin tutor and each subsequent edition of the same tutor used entirely different pieces of music-obviously to satisfy the demand for new, if easy, music.[27]

The rising amateur market apparently led composers to begin composing instrumental music specifically for amateurs. Historian Michael Talbot observed that composers began simplifying their music to make it more appropriate for the amateur market:

Italian composers began to write music with the partly amateur northern European market in mind. The result was an increased sensitivity to fashion, a certain cosmopolitanism, a restraint in matters of instrumental technique and an avoidance of those elements of bizzarria (deliberate strangeness) which might captivate an Italian connoisseur but would be found freakish and unnatural by a Dutch or English gentleman. There were also commercial consequences: it became profitable for the publisher actually to pay the composer for his works-provided, of course, that he kept for himself the receipts from sales.[28]

An example of music composed and published with amateurs in mind, is the following excerpt from Vivaldi's Op. 5 Violin Sonatas, published in 1716 by the Amsterdam publisher Estienne Roger.

Some composers, such as violinist Nicolo Matteis, wrote music that contained clear pedagogical benefits for amateurs. Peter Walls commented on the didatic nature of Matteis's violin music:

Matteis has a very special claim to having taught the English the Italian style. There is a didactic strain running through the Ayres which makes it possible to regard them almost as an advanced tutor, or at least as a set of graded etudes. . . . Thinking of the third and fourth parts of the Ayres almost as a tutorial manual and comparing this with the naive instruction books of Playford and even Lenton, it seems that Matteis more than deserves his reputation for showing the English a new way.[29]

Although amateur violinists had no impact upon technical advances in early violin performance practices, some scholars claim amateur musicians helped elevate the social status of violin playing.

The phenomenon of the amateur violinist is of no importance in the technical advance of the violin in the eighteenth century, but the increasing number of amateur violinists-literally, 'lovers' of the violin-has an important effect in raising the social status of the violin to a position it had not enjoyed when solely in the hands of professionals.[30]