Vibrato, or Not To Vibrate?

A Reflection


2018-02-19 — Original posting

Introduction

In response to my earlier reflection posting “Authenticity and Originality — Antagonists in Music Interpretation?“, a commenter suggested an expansion in the area of vibrato. He mentioned that “Since learning your thoughts on the matter of vibrato I have listened to performances without it but have found it difficult to readjust to its absence or even to imagine audiences not missing it. Such is the effect of habit.” So, here we go:

I should start with stating that I’m not writing this from the point-of-view of a performer / artist (how could I?), but as an “active and attentive / conscious listener”. From my musical education, I do have a certain familiarity towards the violin, and singing lessons have given me some insights into the functioning of the human voice. Both these affinities shine through the text below. However, I mainly want to focus on the effect of vibrato on the listener.

The Violinist (LP cover, drawing by Joseph Resch; © EMI Electrola GmbH, Köln, 1972)
The Violinist (LP cover, drawing by Joseph Resch; © EMI Electrola GmbH, Köln, 1972)

History? Fashion?

I refuse to see view the amount / type / strength of vibrato as simply a matter of “fashion”. At least, I hope it’s more than that. Let me explain:

The (Late-)Romantic Tradition

At a first glance, it appears as if vibrato came “into fashion” in the late 19th / early 20th century. Exponents such as the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962) were indeed using vibrato throughout a performance. Vibrato served—and still serves—as a means of expressing emotion, warmth, intensity. As such, to our / current knowledge, it has been around for centuries. However, I suspect that only at the time of the late-romantic style (and hence with artists such as Kreisler), the ubiquitous use of vibrato simply seems to have been accepted as a given.

“HIP”

With the advent of historically informed performance (HIP) practice, exponents such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016), Sir Roger Norrington (*1934) and many others started questioning every aspect of performance in the late-romantic tradition, i.e., for the most part, the legacy of the first half of the 20th century, as documented in recordings and now omnipresent in CD collections, as well as on-line archives. HIP performances appear to revert that trend (“fashion”), to the point where under Norrington’s direction, vibrato in the orchestra was essentially forbidden.

Historic?

For reasons outlined below, vibrato must have been around for centuries, so it is not an invention of the 19th century. The real question is: where, and how much? I’m not a musicologist, and hence I have not done any real research on this. Rather, I’m “reading” performances from notable, trustworthy artists. In other words: people who I’m sure have been looking at the available sources, have “done their homework”. Also, I’m referring to statements that some of these artists, such as Sir Roger Norrington and Isabelle Faust (*1972), made in interviews.

Key statements in this context are that a) we have no means of knowing how much vibrato was used at baroque and classic times, as there are not only no recordings, but there was simply no way of measuring vibrato, i.e., we need to rely upon written descriptions. Statements made by Isabelle Faust indicate that apparently, the use of vibrato also varied between “schools”. For example, musicians in certain geographic areas, or working at a specific court / institution followed their local tradition in the use of vibrato. In the 18th century, there were areas where some vibrato was used, and others, where it was not (or less) in use.

Is it Natural?

That depends, of course. Instruments where the entire string is plucked (harpsichord, harp) simply don’t have the ability to produce vibrato. Percussive instruments such as pianos fall into the same class (unless they are out-of-tune). Among the traditional keyboard instruments, only the clavichord can produce a limited amount of vibrato. Some pipe organs have tremulant and Voix céleste stops that produce a vibrato-like effect (in the former by modulating the air pressure, the latter by using two distinct ranks of pipe at very slightly different tuning). The presence of such stops in baroque organs alone proves that vibrato is not an invention of the 19th century.

Sometimes it is…

At the other end of the scale, there’s the human voice, and many wind instruments where the flow of breathing air, such as the traverso (transverse flute) or the recorder, where some amount of vibrato is essentially inherent.

Singers (as well as artists playing these wind instruments) regulate the air flow by building pressure in the abdomen, and counter-balancing that pressure with tension on the diaphragm. With this, it takes a very conscious effort to maintain a totally steady air flow. If it is possible at all: with the right tension and elasticity of the diaphragm, vibrato is essentially inherent and does not require willful, periodic movement of any muscles. In fact, professional voices without any vibrato are a rare exception. Gundula Janowitz (*1937) was one of very few who could do this. If a singer’s (or a flautist’s) vibrato is very nervous, this typically indicates an excess of pressure or tension on the diaphragm (either from nervousness, or from bad technique).

I should add here that there is also voice vibrato that I regard unnatural. Namely if a singer intentionally modulates the pressure of the diaphragm or the tension of the vocal cords. This creates extreme (typically slow) variations / modulations of the pitch, which I consider unesthetic, awful. Especially if accompanied by a wagging chin, etc.

Sometimes it isn’t

With some reed instruments (especially double-reed instruments,  such as oboes), the tone is not controlled by air flow, but rather by air pressure. The mechanism for producing vibrato is similar to that of the wind instruments mentioned above, but requires more of a conscious effort. In the case of string instruments, the vibrato is entirely produced by willful, deliberate vibrations of fingers, a hand, or the entire forearm. It is up to the artist to determine the frequency and the strength of the vibrato.

The Violinist (LP cover, drawing by Joseph Resch; © EMI Electrola GmbH, Köln, 1972)
The Violinist (LP cover, drawing by Joseph Resch; © EMI Electrola GmbH, Köln, 1972)

What is it?

Vibrato has several components. An obvious one is the frequency, which one may see as “heavy”, “natural”, or “nervous”. The boundaries between these three, i.e., their perception, depends on the listener’s temperament. However, it is also governed by local / regional tradition, as well as to some degree by fashion / Zeitgeist. On instruments, one can see the category “natural” as related to  the degree of a tone’s resemblance to that of a (good singer’s) human voice.

The same frequency applies to modulations in pitch as well as in volume. In an ideal world, vibrato would consist of volume modulation only. A tremulant stop on a pipe organ may come close to that ideal, in most other cases, this is virtually impossible to achieve. A voice / wind instrument also alters the pitch when altering the air flow or pressure. String players can’t really produce vibrato by altering bow speed and pressure. They must vibrate through altering pressure / position of the finger(s) on the strings, i.e., they inherently (even primarily) modulate the pitch. In sum: vibrato is a (momentarily regular) periodic alteration (modulation) of pitch and/or volume of a tone.

What is it Good For?

One can see the (strength of) vibrato as a means of showing emphasis, expression, e.g., through putting emphasis on a specific note, by letting the note stand out from a melody, highlighting the climax of a phrase, by letting a tone “grow” through a carefully shaped vibrato. As such, it effectively is a means for shaping phrases / melodies. In other words: it is an ornament of sorts. Most people would agree with that.

There are other effects that one may see as questionable. A string player may “abuse” vibrato to “blur the pitch”. The suspected idea is that a tone with inherent variations in pitch may not (appear to) be that critical with respect to being accurate in pitch. In other words: hitting the exact position (down to fractions of a millimeter) on the flat / structureless fingerboard may appear to be less critical.

Indeed, major parts of a string player’s education / training goes into attaining security in positioning the fingers on the string. That said, even famous teaching authorities claimed that “there is no such thing as accurate (violin) playing. At best, there’s instantaneous correction of errors” (i.e., finger misplacements).

Are there Inherent Disadvantages?

The “vibrato community” may tend to ignore these, but here is what I see as disadvantages of vibrato, especially when it is ubiquitous (i.e., “vibrato sauce” spread everywhere):

  • In ensemble playing, vibrato inherently creates some degree of intonation blurring, i.e., even a voice playing in unison will inevitably be slightly “out of tune”. Even if one does not perceive it as such, this will affect the purity of intervals, of chords. It effectively precludes “100% pure intervals”.
  • An exception to this might be chamber music formations (string trios, quartets, etc.) which manage to vibrate synchronously. I have heard commenters calling this “horrible”. I could not agree more. This is the contrary to “natural”: it sounds “put on”, i.e., very unnatural / artificial. And: if anything, synchronous vibrating amplifies all negative aspects of vibrato.
  • Inherently, vibrato is periodic. On a long tone, the frequency may vary with the amplitude. Tuning the frequency of vibrato to the character of a tone, a melody is part of a musician’s mastership. However, some artists can’t resist vibrating even relatively fast passages. And there, it merely affects the purity of intonation, does not have any benefit at all. In the worst case, it may also affect the clarity of articulation.

Benefits of Non-Vibrato?

One can see ubiquitous vibrato as a sign for people’s insensitivity to intonation purity. That insensitivity may have emerged in the early 19th century, with the advent of equal-temperament tuning (see also my notes on instrument tuning). With this, all tonalities (e.g., all major tonalities) have the same purity, the same tonal character. In fact, they are all “impure to the same degree”.

People in general ignore that with string instruments, this is not really true. Not only are the strings tuned in pure intervals (fifths, fourths), but string players can and do (on occasion) still perform pure (Pythagorean) intervals. However, it is only in playing without vibrato where such pure intervals and chords really come to full bearing. The “vibrato blurring” essentially defeats attempts to play really clean, pure intervals and chords.

On the other hand, composers (also in baroque and classic music) often deliberately, consciously (often also provocatively) place / use dissonant intervals for specific expressions (such as pain). As it defeats purity, vibrato just as much precludes the “grinding” character of dissonant intervals, hereby “softening” the character of the music. Effectively it makes it sound more even, more equilibrated than intended—in fact, often boring. In other words: it may block some of the composer’s intended expressions!

The Violinist (LP cover, drawing by Joseph Resch; © EMI Electrola GmbH, Köln, 1972)
The Violinist (LP cover, drawing by Joseph Resch; © EMI Electrola GmbH, Köln, 1972)

My Personal Conclusions

My personal take on vibrato:

  • I have no problem with moderate use of vibrato, i.e., as long as it remains a “local ornament”.
  • If on the other hand, it is ubiquitous, this defeats the “ornament effect”. It just effectively blurs the music, unifies the sound.
  • As outlined above, it defeats both the purity, as well as dissonances in music.
  • I see vibrato as a selective means of expression. One should use it with caution, ideally on specific notes only. For the most part, it should be inconspicuous. As much as ornaments are not spread everywhere, vibrato should act like an ornament. Where it is noted, it should be a pleasant experience (if not a little surprise), e.g., at the highlight, the most intense, touching moment in a phrase.
  • As soon as vibrato becomes prevalent, strong and ubiquitous, this (to me) makes it a “feature”, unnecessary, usually even disturbing as such. At that point, it does not add any value to the music.

Risks

On many instruments, such as an oboe, playing without vibrato is very likely easier. It avoids the extra effort to vibrate. One might assume that the same is true for string players. True, vibrating on a string instrument requires an extra, conscious effort, and it may require intense training to make it sound “natural”. What stops many string players, chamber music formations, etc. from playing with little or no vibrato most of the time?

Yes, it enables the musician to expose the purity, as well as the dissonance in intervals and chords. However, to the same degree it becomes substantially more critical to hit the right spot on the fingerboard, to listen to the other musicians, constantly and meticulously to keep an attentive ear on the purity of intervals and chords. Playing without vibrato may be a real challenge, as it requires permanent attention and care. It may actually require guts, courage not to vibrate!

Some may take vibrato  as the “easy option”, hereby relinquishing parts of the effect that music can have on the listener. That’s really bad, especially where I feel that an artist has the full ability, the potential to perform well also with very limited (very controlled) vibrato. Yes, it may involve taking risks, but I have heard several notable, top-class artists state that music can only truly touch the listener’s heart if the musician is willing to take (substantial) risks. “Playing safe” doesn’t do anybody a service. Not the listener, not the composer, not the music—and not the musician, in the end.

Getting used to it?

My conclusion from the above is not that listeners should simply try “getting used to playing without vibrato“. Rather,

  • Where it is abundant / ubiquitous, try separating vibrato from the music. Try “looking underneath the vibrato“. You may want to listen to recordings without strong vibrato, or attending concerts of artists that use less vibrato.
  • In such performances, try looking for qualities such as the purity of (consonant or dissonant) intervals. Enjoy the radiance of pure intervals—as much as the grinding effect of a “clean dissonance”. Both are intended by the composer! Open your heart to the “direct” language of pure intonation!
  • Follow the course of musical phrases, and find out how selective vibrato is used to highlight / emphasize the dramatic or emotional arch in a phrase.
  • Share the joy of successful, clean intonation senza vibrato with the musicians!

In my personal view, performances with little / controlled vibrato have almost always been an enriching and refreshing experience!

Related Issues / Topics glissando / portamento

I could (but won’t) post a similar, almost identical note about the use of portamento or glissando. To clarify: glissando on a string instrument is the intentional, clearly sliding move from one note to another one. There is an explicit notation for this in a score, and my take is that glissando should only and exclusively be used where the composer explicitly asks for it.

Portamento (on string instruments) is a different issue. Rather than trying the impossible, to jump from one position on the fingerboard to a (vastly) different one, an artist may use a very short gliding action to move to the new position (with the same or a different finger). One may see this as a “crook” for moving between positions. However, if performed swiftly / inconspicuously, it can certainly have its own, esthetic aspect. It may sound natural, and it may even become an intrinsic component like an ornament, highlighting certain points in a phrase, a melody.

But here again: if one uses it too frequently and too predictably, it loses its ornament characteristic, turns into an often obnoxious feature that doesn’t help the music.


Epilogue

I’m not trying to criticize or promote specific artists with this note, nor do I mean describe views other than my own. In these views, I’m not trying to follow what happens to be en vogue, i.e., fashionable. Sure, my opinion is influenced by current trends in music industry. However, as far as I can see, these trends have emerged for a good reason: they are trying to get closer to what we (current musicological research) perceive(s) as the composer’s intent.

This my orientation has not come just by itself. I have grown up with “romantic views / performance practices”. In my youth in fact I liked—just to give some examples—string quartet performances by ensembles such as the Amadeus Quartet (1947 – 1987), or the Melos Quartett Stuttgart (1965 – 2005). However, I tried staying open for alternative views.

Artists such as Gustav Leonhardt (1928 – 2012) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016), as well as many others, have opened my ears for performances far away from the romantic tradition. Unnoticeably, my views changed, and by now, I often find it hard, if not impossible to enjoy performances that are “soaked in vibrato” (and other “features”).

Finally…

I don’t mean to contradict myself—but it goes without saying that the above does not apply to music composed at a time when ubiquitous, strong vibrato was the rule / common, general practice. Even this music, though, can profit from conscious, controlled use of vibrato.



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