Hats off, it’s August Wilhelmj!

6 Jan 2017

No one had guessed the name of a violinist recorded on an ancient Edison wax cylinder I presented in my last post. This question was not an easy one. The consensus was leaning towards either a well-trained violin student, or some player of a local orchestra hired by Edison to participate in his sound recording experiments.


However, the person on this record is August Wilhelmj, one of the most brilliant virtuosos of his time and one of the most famous names in the violin history. He is also known as a teacher, and an author of transcriptions that stayed popular for the entire XX century and until our time. Suffice to say that Jascha Heifetz, who performed Paganini concerto No 1 thirty one times throughout his life, played it exactly in Wilhelmj transcription.


This is the correct answer. The next question is, why did we assume that the famous artist of the past was a student or a random violinist?


Obviously because we don’t take into account that musicians' proficiency level evolved over time, and has made a spectacular progress since 1900 when Wilhelmj was recorded. As a result, a wide gap appeared between a state of artistic perfection of today and that of the time of Wilhelmj (1845-1908). Which was actually an era of high romanticism.


To see it clearly, let’s take the fragment of Paganini concerto by Wlhelmj I posted last time and put it next to the same fragment played by Mrs. Midori and by Ivry Gitlis.



Rather eloquent difference, isn’t it? Midori is more perfect than Wilhelmj in everything concerning intonation, dynamic accuracy and speed. Gitlis is even more speedy than Midori and more than twice as speedy as Wilhelmj. He also seems more energized and expressive. Both of them perform the original version of the concerto, not simplified by Wihelmj.


What does it mean in the end?


On one hand, that our beleifs of the past are highly mythologised.  The best virtuoso of old times were not as technically perfect as we think of them.


More to that, they were not as technically perfect as an advanced student of our days. There were times when the original version of the Paganini concerto was considered unplayable. From the mid XX century, this piece became routine at conservatories and musical universities. Thousands of students all over the world need to study this “unplayable” piece according to their ordinary training program. Many of them, as can be verified at the numerous musical competitions, play Paganini concerto with not much less technical perfection than Midori and respectively much better than Wilhelmj.


It looks like a big progress, and definitely is a progress, until the mid XX century or a bit later. In the digital age, the situation appears to be diametrically opposite. Musician’s proficiency is increasing - the need in classical music is decreasing. While the academic standards for the quality of playing are becoming more and more strict, people’s interest in classical music is steadily falling. And continues to fall.


So, on the other hand, is it really an advantage to be more proficient than Wilhelmj and other greats of the past? What do we need it for? Are we to strive for even higher levels of perfection than we presently have? Can it attract people and improve the situation with classical music?


No, it can’t. Average level of perfection in the industry is unprecedentedly high at the moment, but it doesn’t work (see my posts on this subject here and here). We live in a time when every conceivable level of perfection is not a solution to the problem.  Solution lies in another direction.


Photo: August Wilhelmj

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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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© Yevgeny Chepovetsky 2015-2017