“We should play the violin like a good singer sings” – interview with George Pauk

Related articles

“We should play the violin like a good singer sings” – interview with George Pauk

It is no exaggeration to say that violinist György Pauk, retired professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, is a living legend. The musician, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday, spoke about learning and teaching music with a vivacity and verve that belies his age.


– Do you remember your first violin experience?


– We lived on the corner of Sziget Street in Bratislava and my mother was a pianist who played a lot of chamber music, played with a lot of violinists as a piano teacher. And I grew up listening to music all the time. I was about four or five years old when I thought that I really liked it… And it just so happened that in the house where we lived on Sziget Street, there lived Olga Neumann, one of the most famous violin teachers of the time. So my parents, my mother, took me to her when I was about five or six years old, and I really liked playing the violin. And those first years are terribly important: how to hold the violin, how to hold the bow. If a teacher explains that to a little child, they learn it for life. And that’s what happened with me. I have a photograph of myself at maybe 6, 7 years old, standing with the violin, holding the violin and the bow – it’s perfect. So nowadays, in my teaching, a lot of times, young violinists get the violin wrong, the bow wrong – it’s much harder to explain and change it then than it was when they were little kids. I was lucky enough to learn at a young age how to hold the violin, how to hold the bow and how to coordinate the two.


– What determines whether a child prodigy will eventually become an artist or not?


– Unfortunately, most child prodigies disappear. They turn up when they’re young and everyone’s fascinated, they play the violin beautifully, but it’s not enough. Although I can think of a few great violinists who started out like that, Menuhin being the clearest example – you need maturity to be an artist. Life teaches you what you develop into. So I actually had a very difficult childhood, if only because I was born at the wrong time and unfortunately lost my parents during the war years. My father was a conscript, I last saw him in 1942, and he died in 1944 – my mother in 1944, when she was taken away during the Arrow Cross. I was left there alone at the age of 7 or 8 with a grandmother. Somehow, with the help of grandmother and Aunt Olga, I was discovered by Zathureczky very early, at the age of 13. At that time it was not fashionable to admit children of that age to the Academy of Music, and especially not Zathureczky. He was only at least 18-19 years old, but he took a liking to me and I played for him and he took me into his class. So that’s basically how I grew up: on the one hand, with his help, and on the other hand, I was surrounded by a bunch of 18-20 year old students, who were all grown up for me at the time, and from whom I learned a lot as a person. So these two things, musical talent and human development, are completely linked.


My teacher, Zathureczky, played with Bartók, so he had the experience of how Bartók imagined his music – as a 15-16-17 year old child, he taught me Bartók, which of course has accompanied me throughout my life. Now, of course, this was not enough for me to be able to use what I had learned from Zathureczky when I started teaching years later. I started to think. Fiddling is difficult, but logical. Once you figure out how to hold the violin, how to lay the bow, how to coordinate the two together, it’s a matter of logic. And I’ve made a theory of how all these things are connected, and I can not only show that, which is very important, but I can explain it. There are not many famous violinists who can explain it. They say: look here, I’ll show you, but that’s not enough. You have to be able to explain that you have to use gravity – that you have much more power when you let gravity take over. The most important thing is that every part of your body, your arms, your wrists, should always be fully released and let gravity take over. And this applies not only to the violin, but also to the piano, you don’t have to hit the piano, you have to use gravity. I think that’s the point 


– What should a student focus on, their strengths or weaknesses? 


– I’m a bit old-fashioned in my thinking – I was taught that as the student develops in age and knowledge, he should be prescribed pieces that are technically very difficult, musically less so. Violin concertos like the Lalo Symphonic Concertante, or the Paganini Violin Concerto. These pieces are not so difficult musically, but are technically very important. So I prefer to give a young person the Glazunov Violin Concerto as a first task, which is very difficult technically, but musically you don’t have to think about it in the same way as you think about Brahms’ Violin Concerto. But I see it very often, and I find it very inappropriate, when 13-14 year old children who played the violin very well start playing Bach’s Chaconne and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, or even Brahms’ Violin Concerto or Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. The Sibelius Violin Concerto is an extremely complicated, difficult piece, and of course everybody loves it because it’s beautiful. But it takes a technique that someone has the talent to produce a big sound with ease! And for that, you have to learn the technique first. Therefore, you have to choose pieces that are technically demanding and difficult, but musically less difficult.

How much has violin playing changed in the last decades?


The way of playing the violin has changed. I would say that we used to play romantically, we used to slide a lot. If you listen to a very old violinist, say Szigeti, or the way Zathureczky played, they have a lot of sliding. Today’s violin playing is much more direct: the change, the change of bow and the change of position is much more direct. So you have to produce a clearer sound. I am extremely influenced by the baroque. I felt that we should learn from that. Somehow we have to find a way to play a modern instrument in a baroque way. I’ll give you a very interesting example, tempo. In my time, when you saw that in Zathureczky and Weiner, when it was written out, Adagio Largo, it was very slow. And we didn’t notice what is nowadays very wonderful. We didn’t notice that Bach had written it as a quarter. Everybody played it in half tempo, so Adam Johnson has to be played slowly. And another thing that we also didn’t notice, that our teachers didn’t take into account, was that Bach’s music, for example, is extremely dance-like. His scores, his cantatas are all dance-like. And then I try to explain to the students to imagine how people danced in the 17th, 18th century, slowly but gracefully. We didn’t have that in our time. It’s one of the Baroque, this is the one you’re interested in. The other one I was always interested in, maybe from Bartók onwards, I was always interested in 20th century music. Modern music, good music of the 20th century, because that’s what we have. That came out very well for me in London in the ’60s, in the ’60s and ’70s the greatest composers of the time all lived in England, and I had the opportunity to meet them all personally. Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Britten, Michael Tippet, Michael David, Peter Maxwell Davis. 


When I met these composers, I was often asked to play their pieces and I looked at the scores – I was very interested. This gave me an insight into the world of 20th century composers and I also got to hear a lot of important concerts. The premiere of Lutoslawski’s Violin Concerto in England, Penderecki in America, Japan and Germany – where the composer himself conducted.


When I was a child, when I was a music academy student, we were allowed to go to the opera whenever we wanted to listen to performances. And I was always very interested in opera. And then I realised that opera and violin playing were completely related. We have to play the violin like a good singer has to sing. To find the beauty of the voice – the other is breathing. That when you sing or speak, you take breath when you need to. And you have to put that into the music somewhere – but so many young people don’t know how to breathe. You have to learn that from the way you sing. And when you sing, you breathe when you need to.