Bowing with swing

At the Academy of Music in Malmö, Peter Spissky from Czechoslovakia found an opportunity to develop his interest in baroque music – a genre that didn’t suit the political system in his homeland. Through his research on how gestures taken from speech, acting and dance can be compressed into the movement of the bow, he hopes to come closer to the lively, vibrant playing that is at the heart of the genre.

Peter Spissky 1

Peter Spissky plays Bach.

Behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, it was unthinkable for violinists to play baroque music on historical instruments at music schools. Such untraditional activities belonged to the alternative intellectual environment. They served to secretly mark oneself out from tradition, and thus from the monolithic political system. This awakened Peter Spissky’s interest and formed the first step towards a long career in baroque music.

Nowadays, he is a lecturer in baroque violin at the Academy of Music in Malmö, serves as leader of the orchestra Concerto Copenhagen – an orchestra that is ranked as one of Europe’s leading ensembles in early music – and gives masterclasses across Scandinavia.

He began to play the violin at the age of five or six at home in the former Czechoslovakia. His parents played folk music, as did Peter Spissky before he became interested in classical music and began to train on the violin.

“There, it was unthinkable to play baroque music in the historical manner, which began to be established in Western Europe during the 1980s. In Czechoslovakia, the only thing of interest was the great Russian violin tradition. I played baroque music on a baroque violin in secret. It was like an underground movement”, recalls Peter Spissky.

Playing in a baroque orchestra with authentic instruments was not forbidden, but it was not something of which the establishment approved. Any deviation from official tradition was seen as dangerous and destabilising. However, the regime did not have any grounds on which to intervene: the music was part of their cultural heritage, old music with a connection to Czechoslovakia.

“Just doing something other than what the system wanted felt good. One of my first impulses in playing baroque music was to do something of my own, something personal, rather than just repeating what official culture represented”, he says.

As soon as possible after the fall of the Wall, Peter Spissky travelled abroad. He ended up at the Academy of Music in Malmö, where he trained and took his soloist diploma in 1995. Since then he has worked as a teacher of baroque violin.

Since the 1970s, baroque music has become more and more popular in European musical culture, thanks in particular to the authentic early music movement, which tried to get back to how the music was played when it was written, including by reconstructing true baroque instruments.

However, it is not historical reconstruction that primarily interests Peter Spissky. Instead, he searches for rhythmic swing and musical expression rather than a historically correct sound. Baroque music is based on dance and rhetorical speech, but he doesn’t think there is any point using wigs and incomprehensible authentic baroque movements. That’s just the surface. It is primarily a matter of finding gestures and musical expression that are relevant today.

Nonetheless, one has to ask if there isn’t a risk of moving even further from Bach’s world than a traditional symphony orchestra does?

“I’m keen to take that risk. My problem with traditional symphony orchestra performances of baroque music in the 1980s was not that they played differently from how Bach would have, but rather that they had got stuck in their romanticising expression for over 100 years. We have to move forward! Make the music new, here and now! In the same way that I refuse to put on a wig and a stylised baroque costume, I would never play dressed in tails ­– an unnatural old-fashioned uniform from the 19th century. My interest is in the musicality, the desire to make music freely in the moment, rather than to use clothes, historical instruments or historical information”, says Peter Spissky.

In 2010, he started a research project that will result in a doctoral thesis linked to this, in which he investigates the impact of gestures on bowing. This can in turn affect how baroque music is taught, in contrast to, or as a complement to, traditional teaching, in which a lot of focus is placed on the perfect tone and technique.

How it works in practice is that Peter Spissky films both his own concerts and his teaching and then analyses the video material to investigate how gestures originating from speech, acting and dance can be transferred to the movements of the bow and thus the musical expression.

“When I give a lesson, the pupils expect me to tell them exactly how I want it to sound and how they can produce the ‘right’ sound. But I don’t care about that. I’m looking for how they use their body in playing to make the music more vibrant, so that it represents what the music is actually about: dance and gesture.”

He mentions the example of a piece about Don Quixote, and how a musical figure can be used to represent how Sancho Panza is tossed up into the air and then falls down. The player has to transfer the story from their body to the instrument via the movement of the bow. The violin playing has to become more than just playing notes in a perfect manner. The musicians have to find their own way of using their bodies to find the swing, rather than following a template of how it is expected to sound. With the latter method, all players end up sounding the same.

Peter Spissky uses two terms: soundism and gesturism. Put simply, a soundist tries to reproduce the expected sound of baroque music, whereas a gesturist bases his or her playing on physical movements inspired by dance and rhetoric. They do not know exactly what it will sound like when performed. This makes the concert vibrant and exciting. He is a decided gesturist, who starts with the gestures and gets the sound as a result.

It is not only a question of expressing oneself visually. It is also a matter of finding channels to transfer this to the instrument. Through various projects with dancers, actors and singers, he is studying connections in the use of the body in performance. Peter Spissky explains that he has conducted blind tests, in which audiences have listened to different performances without seeing the person playing.

“It was easy for them to point out which pieces were played using the gesture method. Music becomes more vibrant if the sound and the timing are influenced by the physical energy of the body. You can dance or tell stories with a violin”, says Peter Spissky.

Text: Jonas Andersson

Photo: Gunnar Menander


Name: Peter Spissky

Lives: In Copenhagen

Works: Teacher of baroque violin at the Academy of Music in Malmö and the Royal Danish Academy of Music, leader of the orchestra Concerto Copenhagen (CoCo), which is ranked as one of Europe’s leading ensembles in early music. He undertakes regular concert tours with CoCo. He is also guest leader of the orchestra/conductor for the ensembles Camerata Øresund, Barokkanerne in Oslo, Camerata Darammatica in Reykjavik and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra. He is often invited to lead and instruct modern Scandinavian chamber orchestras. As well as CoCo, Peter is a member of the group The Baroque Fever, who tour in Europe.

Research: Writing a doctoral thesis entitled “Ups and Downs, Violin Bowing as Gesture”