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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Concert reviews, violins, cellos on 'eBay'
and mathematical problems for schoolchildren,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

To Alice:

Fascinating comment about the worth and purpose of concert reviews. It is indeed strange ... I reckon the artists and composers like a review because (apart from the publicity) it fixes the concert in people's memories as something permanent that really happened, rather than a lot of sound that just blew out of the window and vanished forever.

Looking carefully at the concert reviews in your magazine, I wonder if each reviewer doesn't have his or her own (probably unstated) reason for reviewing a particular live event? Are they really impartial, these reviews? Why does a writer review a particular concert? Have they been invited by a concert agent? Are they trying to help their composer and performer friends with a bit of free (and usually, suspiciously, 100% positive) publicity? Or am I missing the point?

I thought critics were there to keep up the standard of live performance? So is reviewing a policing function, a documenting function, or both? The word 'review' just means to look back at something (not necessarily critically). Maybe we should be talking about 'concert critiques'?

Perhaps we could hear from some of Music and Vision's 'critics' about what they think they're achieving when they get (presumably free) press tickets to a concert and then feel honor-bound to write about the event? If none of them reply, may I assume that these creations are written purely for the benefit and glorification of their authors?

S Leventsen, Sweden

Dear Mr Leventsen,

Fascinating question, and I look forward to reams of indignant responses from Music & Vision's (and, everybody else's) reviewers.
(At least, I THINK I do ...)

Ask Alice

You mentioned in one of your columns that the violin is harder than the cello. I'm just learning the cello, but it seems having to shift a larger fingerboard and also using thumb position would make much more difficult to play the same pieces. What do you think?


Dear dilemma,

Sorry, I can offer you no such consolation!!!! As a Grade 8 fiddler and professional cellist, I am in the position of being able to compare them better, probably, than anyone else in the world. These are, in short, the reasons why the violin is so much harder:

  1. The space between the notes is too titchy. On the cello, a nice wide vibrato will fetch you back on pitch, should you overshoot. A nice wide vibrato on the violin will almost certainly compound your error by sending you a couple of semitones off your target.
  2. You can't (really) see what you're up to. In common with many professional cellists, I have had a lifetime of marking sneaky little pencil markings on very high targets. You go cross-eyed trying to do this on the violin. As you get higher on the cello, you get farther away. As you get higher on the violin you can reach out and scratch an itch on your nose (this sounds like an advantage, but isn't!)
  3. The position is quite simply sadistic. Sitting at the cello, with a good, relaxed back position, you can swing the bow all day long. Now try -- but not for long, I beg -- to sit with your left elbow buckled in towards your breast and your hand twisted around as if you were playing a violin. Now lift the bow high enough so that your right wrist is (more or less in line with your nose, with the elbow held at the same level. Is it any wonder that most fiddle players get back and neck problems?????
  4. The bow hold is much less robust, leading to more nervous tension. Violinists barely hold the blessed thing, with delicate little tippy tips of their elegant long fingers. We cellists get a nice gravitational solidity, with the bow much more securely grasped.

Now it is true that you do not, on the violin, have to press down the fingers with as much pressure in order to produce a note, thus making passage-work somewhat easier than on the cello. BUT (and this is the killer) every composer since the 1700s has sussed this out, so there is MUCH MUCH MUCH more passagework!!!!!!!!! (even for second violins). As for the first violins, their AVERAGE orchestral part is as difficult (or possibly more difficult) in terms of higher positions than the hardest cello orchestral repertoire.

As for thumb position, yes, well, it IS probably the hardest part of being a cellist, especially very high thumb position. But why is that?? Because the notes get as close to each other as they ALWAYS are on the violin!!!!!!!!!!! Plus, violinists have to master THREE kinds of vibrato (finger, wrist and arm vibrato) whereas you can get by quite nicely on the cello with just, er, one kind of vibrato.

No, there are really only two advantages of the violin over the cello, and neither has got anything to do with technique. A violin by the same maker (whoever it might be) will generally cost about half as much as an equivalent cello. And violins are, of course, hugely easier to carry around, get on planes, etc etc.

Yours cellistically,

Ask Alice

Hello Alice. I read with great interest you play a Szepessy Bela cello and, to your knowledge, there were only four such cellos made. You expressed an interest to hear any news on the other three. Have a look on eBay -- item number 7392464965. There's a cello labelled Szepessy Bella for sale. I can feel you quiver with horror (!) however the German seller has impressive eBay credentials so I'd be very interested to hear you opinion.


Dear Jon,
Fascinating!!!! Thanks so much for telling me about it!!!!

But however; I'm sure it's rubbish. For a start, it has dull, dark brown varnish, and mine (and most people's) is a rich and glowing golden red. Also the scroll shape is wrong. Also, I'm not even sure he was alive then. Also, the label is all different. It has a double-cross (correct) but without the seal and coronet underneath it -- looks way too plain -- and mine is unnumbered and unsigned, except on the wood, on the inside of the front, where he tended to sign them. And the signature isn't much like that one either.

Besides, it'd be idiotic to list a proper, named cello on ebay. I paid 19,000 pounds for mine, at Guivier's, back in 1988. You'd never get real money like that on ebay. So, if anybody out there is thinking about bidding, don't even think about it ...


Ask Alice

For: 'Ask Alice':

I'm a bit behind with your columns, but just in case anyone is concerned about the math problems for modern students being unrealistic, the following, from Elements of Hill's Algebra (by Major Daniel H Hill, eventually Major General, Confederate States of America) might provide a sense of perspective:

A Yankee mixes a certain number of wooden nutmegs, which cost him 1/4 cent apiece, with a quantity of real nutmegs, worth 4 cents apiece, and sells the whole assortment for $44; and gains $3.75 by the fraud. How many wooden nutmegs were there?

In the year 1692, the people of Massachusetts executed, imprisoned, or privately persecuted 469 persons, of both sexes, and all ages, for alleged crime of witchcraft. Of these, twice as many were privately persecuted as were imprisoned, and 7 17/19 times as many more were imprisoned than were executed. Required the number of sufferers of each kind?

In the year 1637, all the Pequod Indians that survived the slaughter on the Mystic River were either banished from Connecticut, or sold into slavery. The square root of twice the number of survivors is equal to 1/10 that number. What was the number?


Dear anon,

Golly I hate people who are clever enough to imagine -- let alone solve! -- problems like these!!!!!!!!!!!! But they ARE interesting, and prove that maths questions don't have to be as boring as my daughter's always are.


Copyright © 3 March 2006 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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