dec 23

Was Grumiaux cheating?

I’ve long admired the playing of Arthur Grumiaux. His J.S. Bach in particular is incredible, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s his playing that’s etched on that golden record embedded in the Voyager space probe.

What makes Grumiaux stand apart is his clean playing. This clean playing, which of course is just another way to say impeccable intonation is truly unparalleled. So, how does he achieve such fantastic intonation?

Well, it may be scandalous to say it, but Grumiaux relies on tight leading tones, which for anyone trying to be in tune, is a bit like cheating.

It’s cheating in the sense that one doesn’t have to place leading tones to the finest decimal place to be correct. Rather, they can be placed anywhere, and still sound in tune.

But since playing in tune is so damn hard on the violin, can we honestly take any pity on anyone who utilized a shortcut?

However scandalous it may be, it’s an artistic decision which yields the most attractive relationship between the notes. And wouldn’t you know it, I’d submit this tactic mollifies some of the stress of playing in tune.


String instruments can emulate the human voice when it comes to intonation. Unlike fretted instruments, or percussive ones like the keyboard, we have access to all the tones between our notes. So why do we violinists try to learn to play in tune à la keyboard? Why do we emulate a pitch system which, sure, is more correct, but less attractive to the ear?

Grumiaux is like no other when it comes to bending the pitch for a pleasing effect. Instead of being in tune, he goes the other direction: he emulates the human voice instead of the keyboard.

Let’s look at a concrete example. In any given major scale, the important leading tones, the third and the seventh, are pitched sharp and yield an out of tune pitch, by any measure. But the effect is one of resolution on the arrival notes (the fourth & the tonic in this example).

This has the pleasing effect not unlike how appoggiaturas function: the tension and resolution makes for deliciously pleasing music.

How much Grumiaux bends the pitch is dictated by the passage, and some leading tones are much more dramatic than others in the pathos they produce. Of course, Grumiaux’s good judgment is unmatched in this regard.

A hidden shortcut

It’s tremendously easier to place the leading tones somewhere between the actual pitch and the next pitch, than finding the true pitch if you think about it. However, this shifts the burden from finger-placement perfection, to identifying all the leading tones. To develop this sleuth sense probably takes years of practice, though in the end, the side-effect is a more pleasing presentation.

Incredibly, what gave Arthur Grumiaux such a golden sound was a hack. By bending certain notes out of tune, he achieved both ease of technique and uncommon expressivity.