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Violin technique and the contrapuntal imagination in 17th-century German lands
Early Music  (IF),  Pub Date : 2021-07-20, DOI: 10.1093/em/caab031
Dorian Bandy

This article examines the interplay of performing technique and compositional structure in the works of four violinist-composers from late 17th-century German-speaking lands: Johann Jakob Walther, Johann Paul von Westhoff, Heinrich Biber and Johann Georg Pisendel. Focusing on these musicians’ complex polyphonic writing, the article argues that the physical techniques necessary to perform their works—specifically, those developed as a corrective to the challenges of pre-chinrest shifting—are associated with a particular way of conceptualizing and imagining counterpoint on the violin. The article goes on to trace the legacy of violinistic counterpoint in the music of later composers, including in Johann Sebastian Bach’s unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio, op.9 no.1. Along the way, the article speculates as to whether the musical imaginations of past composers, performers and listeners are accessible to modern-day enquiry. It concludes by arguing that a lack of explicit documentary evidence need not be an impediment in the investigation of historical practices, providing an alternative to the ‘positivistic’ approach often criticized in recent discussions of historically informed performance.