Frequently Asked Questions II
About Vanessa-Mae's Music
How good a violinist is she, really?
Opinions vary all the way from "The world's greatest violinist" to "truly awful". But the extreme opinions
are probably influenced by her image and looks, either by people that idolize her or people that want to
demonize her. Even some harsh critics who hate her image concede that she has talent. She was a child
prodigy but today she seldom has time to practice and study and develop her classical repertoire because
of her very busy schedule. Her concert tours are quite different from guest performances by conventional
classical virtuosos, so she has been performing the classical music that is on her albums plus a few more
pieces, rather than needing to develop a very large classical repertoire. She can play very fast, especially
on her own songs. Some critics say that making a fair judgement of her musical technique is very difficult
because of her pop star image. Anyway, making detailed comparisons of whom is the world's best
violinist is rather pointless, because violin playing is not a competitive sport.
The best way to evaluate her technical ability is to compare her early recordings with those of other
artists; see my section TCHAIKOVSKY & BEETHOVEN VIOLIN CONCERTOS.
What violins does she use?
(Additional info provided by Glenn Cooke.)
Most of her music is performed on either her antique
Guadagnini violin or her white Zeta electric violin.
Occasionally she uses other violins, such as a red, white,
and blue electric violin, and at least twice she has donated
these violins to be auctioned for charity.
For the acoustics, her primary violin is an Guadagnini,
fabricated in Italy in 1761. Her parents bought it for her at
auction for £150000 (but more recently valued at £200K and
higher). That was when she was 10, long before she became
famous; so she since that age she hasn't done performance
with a child-size violin as some other child prodigies have.
Vanessa-Mae also owns an 1860 Hill violin (value approx. £6000). Both of these violins were stolen from
her home in January 1995. The Guadagnini (and maybe the Hill too, I'm not sure) was recovered by the
police in March 1995. Vanessa-Mae also fell off the stage hours before a performance and broke into
pieces her Gaudagnini violin. It was off for repairs for many weeks and evidently came back in perfect
tone. Vanessa-Mae's pet name for her Guadagnini is "Gizmo".
For her electric violin, Vanessa-Mae uses a White Quartet Series Jazz Electric/MIDI 4-string Violin, model
JV-204 priced at $2900 (US). It is a light, semi-hollow body violin made from light weight basswood, with
an ebony fingerboard and tuners, with a lower string action. She has 2 of these (at least), one is plain
white, the other (also white) has the stars & stripes of the American flag printed diagonally across the
lower third of the violins body. The electric violin was developed a few decades ago but only now starting
to become popular. It was pioneered by jazzman Jean-Luc Ponte. The electric violin has been occasionally
used for background music in rock music; for example you can hear electric violin played by guest
musicians on U2's WAR (listen closely to "Sunday Bloody Sunday") and Yes's BIG GENERATOR. So far
there has never been a really famous purely rock violinist. On the web site Bowed Electricity you can learn
about electric violins and violinists who play them for jazz, rock, fusion, and new age music.
Is she a composer?
Vanessa-Mae is innovative and creative with new musical ideas, but most of her work to date has been in
collaboration with other songwriters. In general, her songs have been her own concepts and she wrote
the music for her own violin while others have done the detailed arrangements for the other instruments.
Electronics plays a big part in much of her techno-acoustic fusion music; Vanessa-Mae is involved in the
composition of that but not all the programming.
"Violin Fantasy on Pucchini's Turandot" (on CHINA GIRL) and "I'm A-Doun for Lack O'Johnnie" are the
only piece where she is listed with sole credit for composition. Vanessa-Mae's "Fantasy on Turandot" is
based on Pucchini's classic opera, which of course is much longer and for voice not for violin, just as
Sarasate's "Fantasy on Carmen" is based on Bizet's opera. "I'm a Doun for Lack O'Johnnie" is based on a
traditional Scottish ballad which was also the source for Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy 3rd movement.
Her music can be considered in four categories:
- Straightforward performances of existing music as the composer wrote it or as music scholars think the
composer wrote it; for example much of the music in CLASSICAL ALBUM 1.
- Existing pieces of music but with some interpretation, additions, and changes; for example "Butterfly
Lovers' Concerto", the version of "Classical Gas" on THE VIOLIN PLAYER, and also a cadenza for a
Mozart violin concerto on her first album recorded when she was 12.
- Existing music or melodies arranged into something completely different. This is the biggest category of
Vanessa-Mae's work, where she has shown a kind of genius. For example, "Tocata & Fugue in D Minor",
"Fantasy on Turandot", "I'm a-Doun for Lack O'Johnnie", "Bach Street Prelude" based on Bach's Partita
in E; "Cotton-Eye Joe", the reggae version of "Classical Gas", and more. The title track of STORM is
based on "Summer" of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. All of her latest album THE ORIGINAL FOUR SEASONS is
new versions of existing works. Also, the "Carmen Fantasy" that she did on the LIVE AT BERLIN video is
not Sarasate's original, but rather has several movements of her own, based on Bizet's opera, added to the
movements of Sarasate's work. Also she has made several very different versions of some of her own
work, such as rock, live-mix electronic, and symphonic versions of "Red Hot".
- Completely original pieces, sometimes very different from any music ever done before; for example
"Happy Valley" and "Red Hot".
Several collaborators have worked with Vanessa-Mae. Most of THE VIOLIN PLAYER's composition
credits were actually to Mike Batt, not to Vanessa-Mae, though VM had the concepts and developed her
violin parts. "Red Hot" was more by Vanessa-Mae herself, but Ian Wherry helped with the guitar parts.
"Aurora" was also Vanessa-Mae with Ian Wherry. Andy Hill worked with Vanessa-Mae for "Happy
Valley: 1997 Re-unification Overture", and most of the songs on STORM.
How do we know that the songs were really composed by her?
Some pop stars are only performers, not songwriters. They get their names on songs as co-writers without
really having much creative input for them, just for marketing reasons. Although marketing certainly has
played a big role for Vanessa-Mae, probably her ability as a songwriter is real not just slick marketing:
- She was already composing music before she was a pop star being promoted by record
companies; she composed a cadenza for a Mozart concerto at age 11 and did several original
arrangements of violin parts on her second album KIDS CLASSICS.
- Some of her songs are credited solely to Vanessa-Mae, not just co-written by her. These are songs
which are mostly her violin, which is consistent with her explanations. If somebody else
completely wrote the pieces, probably he or she wouldn't want to be completely uncredited, nor
would people stand for blatant lies in the liner notes.
- Vanessa-Mae songs co-written with Mike Batt, Ian Wherry, Andy Hill, and songs credited solely
to her all sound like Vanessa-Mae songs.