To understand thoroughly the difficulty attached to the study of Stringed Instruments played with the Bow, their action must be taken into account; for it is as complicated in reality as it is simple in appearance. In this each hand has an absolutely distinct employment, which is not the case in any other class of instruments.
The left hand supports the instrument ; and, at the same time, by the pressure of its fingers upon the strings, the vibrations of which it shortens (or cuts off into sections for harmonic notes), it determines the absolute pitch of the tones ; it is then upon the left hand alone that accuracy depends, and we can form an idea of the precision that it must acquire, when we realize that placing the finger a tenth of a milli-metre (.03937 inch) out, and sometimes even less in the highest treble, will produce a note off the pitch. This is not in the least an exaggeration, and explains why artists who play with rigorously pure intonation are so rare ; moreover, this pressure has to be made with a certain force, without which the tones lack cleanness; and as the stringed instruments are very often called upon to furnish passages of extreme rapidity, a very great agility is indispensable to it in addition. The qualities required of the left hand therefore are strength, precision, cleverness and agility.
The right hand holds the bow : upon it principally depends all that belongs to expression, the greater or less intensity of the tones, the most energetic as well as the most tender, or most passionate nuances, the most subtle inflections or accents, as delicate as and even more varied than those of the Amman voice, brilliancy and dash, heat, warmth and breadth ; it also assists largely in the rapid action.
” The instruments of the bow, particularly the violin and the violoncello, are not limited, as are the wind instruments, to a small number of sound-characteristics ; their timbre has an infinite variety of shadings,” according as the point, the middle or the nut of the bow is used, according as it is held level or inclined more or less to the side, according as the string is attacked near the bridge or the fingerboard, even over the fingerboard, according to the various kinds of bowing, whether up or down, the principal of which in French are called by the following names : lié or coulé, the grand détaché, the détaché sec, or martelé, the sautillé, the jeté, the staccato, etc. The use of the bow is a whole art by itself. We must therefore demand of the right hand incomparable suppleness, accompanied by extreme lightness and the greatest vigour.
The two hands, each on its own account and by different means, join in producing beauty and variety of tone, that constant preoccupation of every virtuoso. Their perfect agreement produces the balance of the whole and the perfection of the execution, the difficulty of which is so great that no one would dare to attempt it, as it seems almost unattainable when we analyze it closely, unless he had as an encouraging example a considerable number of instrumentalists who have been able to vanquish it by obstinate labour. This execution is also very soon aided by a peculiar instinct, thanks to which the pupil is no longer conscious of the prodigies of skill that he performs every moment.
Contrary to the keyboard instruments, the prodigiously complicated mechanism of which is the work of the manufacturer, stringed instruments possess absolutely none : a wooden box, four strings of sheep’s entrails and a few strands of horsehair,this is all that the artist holds in his hands to produce the most varied emotions. If the result obtained be compared with the simplicity of the means employed, it will be acknowledged that it is amazing and phenomenal; nothing is truer, however, and this total absence of mechanical transmission, which leaves man’s hand in direct and intimate contact with the vibrating string, is exactly what produces that impression of vitality and penetrating warmth which is the chief characteristic of these instruments and constitutes their remarkable beauty. The man and the instrument grow to be but one individual, or more exactly, the instrument is nothing but an extra organ added to the natural organs, that we come so to identify it with ourselves, that we set it in action, like the other organs, under the simple influence of our will only, without further troubling about the means employed, and without even dreaming of analyzing them. This be-comes instinctive, as a new vital function would be; we play as naturally as we should sing, and it is by this sign, this complete oblivion of all preoccupations of a material order, that the artist can most surely recognize that he has at last become the master of his instrument. Up to this point, he is nothing but a simple apprentice.
Outside of his studies, that are far more engaging than arduous, the normal programme of which we are about to outline, it is also well for the pupil to ac-custom himself early, not only to tune his instrument, but to clean it and keep it in good condition, and him-self to make certain little ordinary repairs that will keep it in perpetual order, such as replacing secundum artem, a broken string, setting up in its exact place the bridge that has been accidentally moved, and assuring the good working of the pegs, matters which do not call for the intervention of the violin-repairer, and which one learns to do much better for oneself and more in accordance with one’s own ideas.
Later, he should teach himself to recognize and appreciate the artistic, if not the commercial, value of a good instrument, to distinguish the schools and great violin-makers otherwise than by the label, very often fallacious, lying at the bottom of the sound-box distinguish an old instrument from a clever imitation, in fact, to act as an expert, if only for his own profit, so that he shall not be duped on that day, when, as the reward for his labours, he wants to make himself a present of a valuable instrument, a battle horse, the supreme and legitimate desideratum of every great artist.