Leila Schayegh

Leila Schayegh: Every note counts

The Baroque violinist immerses herself in the past – with a very modern idea.

When Leila Schayegh plays, she seems to be holding an intense personal dialogue with her violin. Time after time she casts her eyes over the instrument, and her facial expression seems to imitate the nuance of sound that she wants to hear next. This communication without words works excellently: a gossamer whisper, delicate vibrato, powerful melodic lines – Schayegh entices an endless stream of richly modulated sounds from her violin, shimmering in all facets.

Yet what makes such a light and playful impression in the hands of the Swiss artist is actually the product of precise musicianship. It is often tiny details that make the decisive difference: the pressure of the bow on the strings, the bowing tempo, minimal changes in the position of the instrument. For Schayegh doesn’t play a »normal« violin, but a Baroque violin with gut strings. And this instrument not only calls for a very different playing technique from its modern successor, which affects the way the player holds his arms and the bow, as well as his posture. Basically, an entire musical philosophy underlies this choice of instrument, the philosophy of historic performing practice.

Leila Schayegh
Leila Schayegh © Marco Borggreve

A revelation :Historic performing practice

The central question that historic performing practice poses is how the music of earlier periods sounded at the time it was written. This is a question that affects every area of music-making in the end, from instrument making through tuning systems and playing styles to notation, performance venues and even the arrangement of the musicians in the room. Towards the end of her classical violin studies, Leila Schayegh began to be fascinated by the subject, which prompted her to enrol in a master course given by Baroque violinist John Holloway. He untiringly asked questions, probing and digging deeper – and thus laid the foundation stone for Schayegh’s musical thinking: »For the first time I grasped the fact that music is not just about what I like, but that you need to know the entire historic context in order to find answers that yield a plausible whole.«


»I was totally captivated by his way of thinking.«


She found herself exposed to an even more biting breeze with Sigiswald Kuijken, one of the pioneers of historic performing practice, who pulled Schayegh’s playing apart at a course held in public. »Years later I found out that the audience really felt sorry for me,« she recalls. But Schayegh herself saw the situation quite differently at the time: »I was totally captivated by his way of thinking.«

The encounters with Holloway and Kuijken were to be important moments in Schayegh’s career. After her first degree in modern violin, she went on without a break to study the Baroque violin with Chiara Banchini, violinist and conductor of the highly respected Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, where she learnt two things. Firstly, she got accustomed to the tricky art of playing the Baroque violin: »You need a lot of sensitivity and intuition to make a gut string vibrate with the right mixture of weight and bow speed.« But the scope to form the music is also immense: »As the gut strings respond to changes in pressure and weight much faster than wire strings, the player can bring out the details of the music a lot more precisely. And that is entirely desirable from a stylistic point of view: every note should be individually formed and embellished, with attention being paid more to small-scale details than to the big lines. Every harmony has its task to perform in the melodic sequence, it has its place in the hierarchy and its colour.«

Leila Schayegh plays Jean-Marie Leclair

Diving into the past

The second focal point of historic performing practice is the need to immerse oneself in a distant and completely different world – not only in terms of playing technique, but also much more generally. How did people live in past eras? On what occasions was music played? What do specific harmonies and melodic figures mean? In Baroque music in particular, sounds that seem harmonious and accessible on the surface often conceal a rich network of associations, quotations and musical rhetoric. This cannot simply be deduced from the notes on the page: it requires solid background knowledge to decipher the many layers of meaning. Schayegh loves exploring this far-off world – especially as a literally endless number of musical treasures awaits rediscovery here.

One of the Baroque gems already rediscovered is the music of French composer Jean-Marie Leclair (1697–1764), to whom Leila Schayegh has also devoted a series of CDs in the last few years. The biography alone of this son of a Lyon basket weaver would suffice to fill a whole novel: in a meteoric career, he rose to the position of Director of Music at the court of Louis XV, only to end his days in a dangerous neighbourhood of Paris, where he was found stabbed to death by an unknown assassin in the entrance to his house. But his work enjoyed an international reputation well after his death.


»There is hint of vulgarity about virtuosity for its own sake.«


Schayegh particularly likes the complexity of Leclair’s compositions: »On the other hand they show great delight in virtuosity, though not too obviously – there is hint of vulgarity about virtuosity for its own sake. But at the same time there is also depth of sentiment, which only becomes evident if the listener or performer is really willing to get involved with the music.« In her latest concert programme, Leila Schayegh combines works by Leclair and by Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713). Unlike his French colleague, who was a generation younger, the Italian Corelli was much admired and well-off up to the end of his life. But there was one thing that linked the two Baroque composers. As Schayegh says, »They both exercised a strong influence on the style of their respective country, and advanced the violin technique of their time to a new level«.

Jean-Marie Leclair: Kupferstich von J. Ch. François, 1741
Jean-Marie Leclair: Copper engraving by J. Ch. François, 1741 © Digitaler Portraitindex

One question remains: does Schayegh think it is still in keeping with the times to study works and playing techniques from hundreds of years ago? Her answer is a clear yes: »So-called historic performing practice may have seemed very backward-looking at the outset, but it has long since shown that it actually embodies progressive thinking in classical music, and makes a significant contribution to changing and broadening our taste.

It is exactly this that appeals to Schayegh day after day – not only as an interpreter, but also as a teacher. She has been passing on her knowledge to the next generation as a professor of Baroque violin since 2010. And in this context, she attaches importance above all to one central and thoroughly modern idea: »Research and dig deeper as much as you like – but don’t forget the music itself and its real aim, which is to touch today’s listeners«.


Text: Juliane Weigel-Krämer, last updated: 14 Dec 2022
English translation: Clive Williams

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