Congress Torchiara 2019



Courtesy of Gabriela Drasarova, her report on OTAKAR ŠEVČÍK, presented at the International Congress of Torchiara 2019 and the International Congress of Porto 2020.

OTAKAR ŠEVČÍK (1852-1934)
A timeless myth

1. Biography

Ševčík was born in 1852 in Horaždovice which is a small town in the west of Bohemia. His father was an organist who had also studied the violin according to the Spohr school. He was the choir director in the village church. He had 7 children of which Otakar was the only boy. The girls at the time had no chance to study and so the father shifted all his attention to the son. He made him sing in the choir and the boy already

at 5 he showed he had an extraordinary talent. He had a voice that enchanted everyone and amazed at the impeccable intonation. The solo parts were entrusted to him. At 6 he began studying the piano and at 7 he also received the violin. The father was a very strict teacher, in the musical education of his son he focused everything on diligence and perseverance.  These were the values that Ševčík jealously carried with him throughout his life.

At the age of 10, in 1862, he left home to go to study at the Prague academic gymnasium. The family made many sacrifices to support it.

The boy had to be content with very little, and so, to earn some extra money, he went to sing solo in the choir of 2 important churches. And there, for his angelic voice he was noticed by Ferdinand Flammiger, a wealthy patron who was impressed to the point of deciding to bear all the expenses for the musical training of the boy. When I heard him play the violin, he persuaded his parents to remove their son from the gymnasium and enroll him in the conservatory. Ševčík passed the entrance exam brilliantly and went directly to the 2nd course. At Flammiger's suggestion he also began to study languages. Throughout his life he came to talk about 5 fluently.

At 13, in 1865, he gave his first public concert and received the

his first review in a national newspaper that spoke of a new promise. It was a great motivation for the boy who decided to do his best. And so he did, at the age of 15 he completed all 24 of Paganini's whims along with the 1st concert in D major. He studied in the class of Antonín Bennewitz who was a well-known concertist and expert in the virtuoso repertoire.

Ševčík graduated with the Beethoven concert in 1870 at the age of 18. He immediately went to the Mozarteum in Salzburg in the role of shoulder and as a teacher. There he stayed for 3 years and continued to perform solo with great success playing the concerts of Paganini, Ernst and Vieuxtemps. He also founded his string quartet which was compared to the well-known Florentine Quartet.  Now imagine, we are in 1872, Ševčík is just 20 years old and the reviews predict a great concert career. But despite all the success, he was not happy with himself, he saw himself imperfect.  He decided to re-study all the conservatory material but the results did not satisfy him. He began to think about how to get more precision and security. It was there that the idea of the new method was born. But at that point, Ševčík wanted to improve himself, he still wasn't thinking about a method for others.

Meanwhile, he gave 2 other important concerts making himself known to the public in Prague and Vienna. His fame grew and brought with him the proposals for the shoulder in the prestigious orchestras of these two cities. Ševčík went to the Prague Opera House and the following season he moved to the Vienna Opera. When that failed, Ševčík accepted a proposal for a tour in Rus-sia. Traveling around different cities, he arrived for a recital in Moscow and received it there  a proposal from the Kiev Conservatory to take over the leadership of the new main violin class. It was 1875, he was 23 years old. Suddenly, his pedagogical vocation made its way and pushed him to accept. And it was a great turning point in Ševčík's life. He remained in Kiev for 17 long years, transforming himself from a promising virtuoso into an esteemed pedagogue. In this long period from his 23 to 40 years, he began to realize his project for a new method that would have engaged him throughout his life but this time it was addressed to others. He created op.1 in 4 volumes for the left hand and op.2 in 6 volumes. These 2 opus represent a singular phenomenon in the pedagogical literature. Previously, the function of the left and right hand has never been examined separately in this amplitude and with such material so systematically elaborated. No one before or after had managed to create a similar work that contained all the elements of the violin study.

The first results of the method tested at the Kiev Conservatory were so positive that Ševčík gained a position of such importance and respect that he was authorized to reorganize the institution. He had chamber music, orchestra and wind classes introduced. As an acknowledgment he received the prestigious St. Stanislaus prize and was offered the post of director of the conservatory, but he refused because he would have to convert to the Orthodox faith. Meanwhile he formed his Kiev String Quartet which was again compared to the famous Florentine Quartet. He also decided to publish Op.1 at his own expense.  His method began to spread on Russian territory. At that point, the Russian school, dominated by Leopold Auer in St. Petersburg, underwent a strong influence which  brought the antagonism between the two giants.     

Ševčík left Kiev in 1892 when he was 40, when he was appointed professor at the Prague conservatory. Following the appointment, as was customary, he introduced himself to the public playing the 1st concert of Vieux-temps with the orchestra. The concert was a great success. But probably the most significant consensus, Ševčík received it the following year in 1893 at his highly anticipated concert in the Bösendorf hall in Vienna performing Bach's Chaconne, Paganini's 1. concert and Ernst's Fantasia on Otello. The famous critic Eduard Hanslik sat in the audience, known and feared for his severity with the interpreters. And Hanslik wrote a review full of praise. He focused in particular on technical perfection which was a very rare phenomenon. And we must explain this fact even if we release a little: at the time, the technical level of executions was not very high, except of course very few big names, which represent the exception to the rule. In performances, personal interpretation, personal sound and the ability to improvise mattered above all. With Ševčík and with the subsequent arrival of the recordings in 1903 everything changed as Ševčík raised expectations a lot and the recordings were another step towards perfection. The first recorded violinist was Joachim in 1903. And from there to today we have arrived  to the digital technique that allows all possible corrections, the final product is delivered practically without defects. Unfortunately, the attention to perfection, both from the performers and from the sound masters in the recording studios, caused that the search for personal sound went into the background until it was almost completely lost. And with this we have lost an irreplaceable value. In the past, the sound of Heifetz, Kreisler, Elman, Rabin, Hassid was immediately recognizable. Today we have technically perfect recordings, but with a few exceptions, we no longer distinguish who plays and we feel a lot of nostalgia for the past.

Returning to Ševčík, we know that he performed until 1898 when he reached 46 years old. Then he retired from the scene devoting himself entirely to teaching and working on other volumes of the method. After Op. 1 and 2 he published Op. 3 or 40 variations, where the function of the left hand is combined with the right one. Opus 4 and 5 belong to a later period and we will describe them later. Only for an editorial error the progressive numbering does not follow a temporal criterion. Then, after op.3 follows op.6 or basic school, op.7 trills, op.8 changes of positions and op.9 preparation for double strings. Work 10 which concludes the Russian period, includes 7 pieces in the Paganinian style. Here we discover Ševčík as an excellent composer. In a letter to a friend, Ševčík revealed that it was the longing for the homeland that inspired the Dances on the motifs of Czech folk songs. It is a pity that this repertoire is little known, that it is rarely performed and that only this proof of Ševčík's creative talent remains.

In 1900, London-based publisher Bosworth purchased the rights to publish the method. From this moment its diffusion started all over the world. As a result, numerous students of all ages began to flock to Prague from all parts of the world. To satisfy the request, Ševčík in 1906 decided to take the leave of the conservatory and created his private school called The colony of foreigners. After various vicissitudes with neighbors who complained about too much music made from morning to evening, he moved to Písek, a town in southern Bohemia finding a small hotel where he lived in one room and taught in another for 10 hours per day. Furthermore, in 1909 he accepted another prestigious assignment at the Vienna Academy of Music, an institution comparable to today's Chigiana Academy. He worked tirelessly by reconciling both activities. During the week he followed his students and the weekend he moved to teach in Vienna. This went on until World War 1. when the turnout of foreign students decreased and Ševčík devoted himself entirely to work on the method. He finished op.4 aimed at extending the fingers of his left hand and op.5 or Preparation for the 24 whims of Dont (op.35).

Immediately after the end of the war, Ševčík was again appointed professor

at the Prague conservatory. He returned full of plans but found a hostile environment. He had to defend himself from attacks by some colleagues who questioned the effectiveness of his method. Ševčík held on for just 2 years, and then, bitterly, he decided to move away from Prague. He accepted an assignment in America. In 1921 he spent a year at the Ithaca Conservatory and another one at the Chicago Conservatory. There he wrote op.11 School of intonation and prepared the material to be published for opus 12 to 15 which we will explain later.

Returning to Prague in 1923, his health began to cause concern, so he had to refuse other important proposals from the Royal Academy of London, from the Moscow and Munich conservatory. In the last years of his life he completed the method with opus from 16 to 26 which represent the last creative phase which are the analytical studies for the great concerts of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Paganini and Wieniawski.

Now imagine, at that point in his life, Ševčík was a man famous throughout the musical world, but he lived a withdrawn life staying away from worldly events. He kept all the money from lessons and publications becoming a millionaire but he didn't give himself anything. His only amusement was long walks often 20 kilometers per day. He woke up early, went out for two hours in nature and did the same after finishing the lessons in the afternoon. Only sometimes did he spend the evening discussing a group of students at the restaurant. In 1931 he recovered a little and went for the third time to America alternating a week in New York with one in Boston. The same year he made a will leaving a large part of the patrimony to the institution created by him to support poor students. At 81 he went against the advice of doctors in England for a 3-month masterclass. Back home he fell into a state of depression from which he never recovered. He died in 1934 at the age of 82. For the curious: he had never married. He had 2 important relationships, one in Prague which ended with his departure for Russia and the second in Kiev with a certain Alessandra, from whom he took an adopted son Viktor to Prague. Nothing was known about the lady ...

3. Method

Ševčík's method is based on scientific principles. Every step is accurate-

thought and the exercise system resembles a computer program with thousands of combinations. The idea of a certain principle came to Ševčík when he remembered a mnemonic help learned as a child in school. It consisted of dividing a small sentence into segments. It started with the first word repeated 3 times, so with the second and third. Then he would start from the end by joining two words and he would start again by repeating the whole sentence 3 times.

Example: "The die is cast". So: the dice, the dice, the dice; is, is, is; stretch, stretch, stretch; it is drawn, it is drawn, it is drawn; the die is cast, the die is cast, the die is cast. Ševčík mathematically described it as 1 + 1 = 2, 2 + 1 = 3 and 3 + 1 = 4. He decided to base his method on this principle by developing it through numerous variations. In fact, the 6 volumes of Op.2 contain 4000 variations of all the archery hits.

This, however, was only the technical side of the method to which we must now add the psychological side, or the psychological condition of its creator. Ševčík, from the age of 19, suffered from a pathology in his left eye that caused him excruciating pain. He could only distract himself by mentally engaging himself and took refuge in intense work as the only way to make up for it to physical suffering. He underwent two operations to no avail and in 1894, at 42 he faced the removal of the eye. And just out of curiosity, we also know that he was a big smoker, in the Russian period he smoked 100 cigarettes a day.

Returning to the method, we can see that its birth was not at all random, but a result of several factors that came together. Let's remember them by recapitulating: first of all there was a great violinistic talent brought to the maximum possible levels, then we have the education towards diligence and perseverance, the methodical and self-critical character, a lot of curiosity and the courage to look for unconventional solutions. Combining the health problem with these characteristics, we have an almost complete picture of the situation that pushed the big business. I said almost complete, because we still lack the worldwide violinistic scenario of the moment. Before Ševčík, as we had already told, there were few big names like Paganini, Wieniawski, Joachim and Ernst. These achieved fame thanks to exceptional talent, refined taste and excellent musical intuition. A great turning point occurred with Ševčík. The method made it possible to reach unexpected technical levels even for mid-range violinists. So, orchestras improved and a new generation of violinists more aware of the way of studying grew. But above all, the technique became a means instead of the purpose. For Šev-čík, going beyond the technical side perfectly meant achieving absolute freedom in interpretation. His goal was not only to improve the technique but to reach the final synthesis through it. So, the method, in addition to giving us a reliable technique, teaches us a path where the solid foundations must be patiently built, then the structure of the piece must be understood by analyzing it and in the end you are free to play with expression. And respecting this path, we found ourselves with a baggage of reliable technique that leads to self-confidence during the performance and allows us to focus only on expression. And here is the secret of the success of the method which lies in the happy union of the technical factor with the psycho-logical one that merge into one.

4. Supporters and opponents, accusation

Like many innovators, Ševčík also faced some fierce opponents. The criticisms often concerned the large amount of exercises that took a long time in the study and also spoke of an alleged monotony. As for this, Ševčík did not tolerate it, he always invited to look for the musical direction even in one bar both in op.2 and in op.8. As for the time spent, Ševčík catteries were known to study 6 to 10 hours a day. But they studied not so much for the master's imposition but for the enthusiasm of finally seeing themselves progress quickly and also for the seriousness that Ševčík conveyed to everyone. And then, there were no mobile phones or the Internet or social media. Everyone was in the same hotel with the same motivation, he felt studying left and right, there was no desire for distractions ... But in the viewers of opponents, in addition to the many hours of study, there was also the fact that the method, presumably , shifted the focus only to the technique. The criticisms were the result of the not understood complexity of the method but also of the lack of ability to apply it individually. Ševčík had a great intuition in quickly identifying the students' shortcomings and in choosing the specific exercises to overcome the defect from the vast material. No student studied all the volumes, it would be impossible. And then, in addition to making an accurate choice of the exercises, Ševčík carefully built the students' autonomy in the study in inviting them to a healthy self-criticism that led to being able to evaluate themselves constructively and to have confidence in themselves. Once the lessons with the teacher were over, you would go home and be able to solve the problems yourself.

From historical archives it can be learned that the growing success of the method at the time brought envy to the Prague conservatory. Ševčík was accused of choosing the best students who would have made the way even without his method. But the strongest accusation saw Ševčík as a "robot violinist maker". This was a low blow, even if it meant that the method had been recognized on a technical level, which was already a great success, but this was not Ševčík's goal.  Embittered, he decided to go to America. Meanwhile, the heated discussions at the Prague conservatory have caused a great delay in the inclusion of the method in the basic program. This only happened in 1902 at the behest of Antonín Dvořák, who became the new general manager, while the method had been used for several years in other European conservatories.

Ševčík's greatest opponents were Henri Marteau, the supporter of the Joachim school and Leopold Auer who taught in Russia. Henri Marteau, then over the years changed his mind and admitted publicly that he was wrong about Ševčík's method. Auer did not change his position but his best students, going to international competitions, wrote in their curricula that they had studied in the class from Ševčík materials. Some of them continued their studies after graduating with Ševčík himself, for example Efrem Zimbalist. It was even the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Alexander Glazunov, who prayed to Ševčík in a personal letter to take Zimbalist as a pupil.

Renowned supporters include Carl Flesch, D. Oistrach and S. Accardo.

Carl Flesch dedicated a large part of his book "Die Kunst des Violinspieles", or The Art of the Violin, to Ševčík. In a personal letter to Ševčík

He wrote: "Dear master, in my book I have dedicated a lot of space to it because I wanted to silence the rumors forever about the lack of effectiveness of your method which I consider an epochal work. I also published an article in Allgemeine Zeitung where I declare that a possible failure of the method is due only to its incorrect application and not to the work itself. Distinguished teacher, I assure you, as long as I am alive, I will strive to increase the popularity of your method, since it, applied in the right way, led to improve myself like all my students. " Signed: Your indirect student.

David Oistrach left a comment about Ševčík's analytical studies op.19 for the Čajkovski concert. In the introduction to his revision of the concert he mentions Op.19 saying that Ševčík's version did not only serve to overcome the technical difficulties but led to the final expression. 

We conclude this chapter with Salvatore Accardo who declared in an interview that he is grateful to Ševčík's method because he allowed him to build a bag necessary to win the Paganini competition.

5. Students

As we have already said, the spread of the method brought a wave

of students who flowed from Ševčík from all parts of the world. An assistant was appointed to write down the names, provenance, number of lessons and the current year. The final register contains 1199 names.

Erika Morini, Wolfgang Schnei-derhan, Efrem Zimbalist and David Hochstein emerged from the Viennese class of Ševčík. In Prague there was Jan Kubelík, Jaroslav Kocian, Marie Hall, Henrietta Wieniawska (Wieniawski's daughter). In Russia we find Pyotr Stolyarsky, the future teacher of David Oistrach and Nathan Milstein. Jacques Thibaud also knocked at some point on Ševčík's door but no agreement was reached and the details of why are not known. But the letter of request for the lessons was kept in the archive edited by the assistant.

Ševčík also left his students with an important moral legacy which consisted in the invitation not to leave anything to chance, to study in a way aimed at obtaining full mastery of the instrument and trusting

themselves. The students took home a real and ideal baggage and in turn transferred it to their students. The method continues to be passed down in the same way to this day. I would add that its strength   perhaps it also consists in the modus operandi that Ševčík had managed to transmit and with which the method has continued to be handed down for more than 120 years.

6. Works

The work on the method took place in 3 creative periods.

The first and second represent the construction of the technical bases, while the third is concentrated on the final synthesis. The first period, so-called Russian, ends by 1900. It includes the opus from 1 to 3 and from

6 to 9, the period ends with Op.10, the fruit of Ševčík's compositional phase, The 7 dances on the popular motifs of Czech songs.

The second period runs from 1912 to 1923 and includes op. 4 which are the exercises for the extension of the fingers of the left hand, op.5 which are the preparatory studies for the 24 whims of Dont (op.35) and the opus from 11 to 15. Op. 11 call The school of intonation goes beyond the technical factor, it also develops the harmonic perception. Opus 12 to 15 were never published due to a personal decision by the publisher Harms. The only manuscript lay in the archive for years and when the firm was taken up in 1929 by New York's Warner Bros, it was never found again.  Ševčik was paid but never saw this publicly made work. Opus were called The school of virtuosity. Opera 12 dealt with the double strings, op.13 were the arpeggios the modulations, op.14 was the school of chords and op.15 the school of flageoletti and pizzicato.

The third period goes from 1923 onwards and includes opus 16 to 26. Op.16 is The school of interpretation, Op.17 are the analytical studies for the 2. concert by Wieniawski, Op. 18 for the Brahms concert,

op.19 for the Tchaikovsky concert, op.20 for the 1. Paganini concert and op.21 for the Mendelssohn concert.

The op.22  deal with position changes with double strings and op.23 is

Chromatic in all positions. Of these 2 opus only the hand-written exist.

Work 24 was published in 2005, includes exercises for the pizzicato of the left hand joined to the arch of the right.

Opera 25 is Joachim's studies for the cadence for the Brahms concert.

The last work 26 is an analysis of 42 Kreutzer studies with the appropriate exercises.

The progression of the volumes could be compared to a mosaic that is gradually composed with a mathematical perfection, gradually increasing the difficulty until reaching a complete picture of everything. In fact, the 26 volumes contain all the elements of the violin study.

At this point we can again see that the criticisms of the method started from those who had only partial knowledge or vision of it, ignoring its complexity.

7. Influence on other schools

Leafing through the register of Ševčík students, we can see that they are there

the representatives of both Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and of course Europe. From this we can easily deduce that the method had spread widely throughout the world and that there has been an impact with other schools. The greatest influence has been in Russia for Ševčík's long 17 years.

Here ends our journey into the world of Ševčík. Without his method the history of the violin would not be complete ...


Author: Gabriela Drasarova, speaker at the ESTA 2019 national conference in Torchiara

Bibliography: Dr. Vladimír Šefl: Otakar Ševčík, Sborník statí e vzpomínek

Státní nakladatelství krásné literatury Praha 1953

Copyright  2020 Gabriela Drasarova. All Rights Reserved.