Thursday, August 7, 2008

To vibrate, or not to vibrate - that is the question.

It's been debated on many different levels, and by musicologists and conductors who have much more authority on the subject than I do, but the question of "should we use vibrato" and other performance practice issues, particularly in the singing and playing of Bach always seems to come up in conversation, and everyone has an opinion on it.

Kenneth Woods over at "A view from the podium" delivers this interesting insight in the music of Edward Elgar - which to me can be easily transfered into the ranks of the playing of Bach through Mozart and the like.

I commented on that post already, but felt that a post of my own was warranted.

For a while now, the recordings of Bach which claim to be "Historically Accurate" have bothered me for some reason. I'm always left asking myself if it was worth it. To go through all that trouble to try to recreate a sound which no one can claim to be 100% accurate. In some cases the recordings to me come out calculated, and bland. There are some exceptions, but I won't go naming these recordings as that isn't the point of this exercise, but instead offer the following argument.

Is there a difference between "Historically Accurate" and "Historically Informed"? for example, can a choir of two hundred singers and an equally mammoth orchestra perform Handel's Messiah and call it "Historically Informed" considering they've taken the time to prepare the score with a sense of Baroque style, articulation, and nuance even though the performing forces are too large, and the instruments too "new"?

The question of vibrato, I think, is answered so well in Kenneth Woods' post:
I can’t help but feel that in all music the “non-vibrato sempre” method is a weak-minded cop-out, an easy way to avoid thinking about whether, when, why and how to vibrate, a process which demands an awareness of harmony, instrumentation, color and taste. It stops the process of thinking, listening, responding and contemplating sound dead in its tracks.

How can we expect modern players to remove vibrato without removing the soul of their performance? I'm not saying we should be adding "Bel Canto" vibrato or rubato into the music of Bach, but we should not be afraid to let the instruments sing.

There is also evidence that early keyboard players did not use their thumbs! Why don't we ask our organists and harpsichordists to do the same? Because it would probably take away from the musical ability of the performer - which to me is like removing the left-hand vibrato motion of the string player.


Anonymous said...



Richard said...

Hi John,

Very interesting, and Ken's post is great, too.

I just posted on this topic on my blog. A couple of excerpts:

During the time I was conducting The Bach Ensemble, Stanley Ritchie moved to Seattle as first violinist of the Philadelphia String Quartet (in residence at the University of Washington). Stanley also had a significant background as a baroque violinist and was in a duo with harpsichordist Elisabeth Wright. (Stanley has now for some time been in charge of the baroque orchestral program at Indiana University). He was also concertmaster of the New York City Opera and assistant concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera, so he's clearly an outstanding violinist in any style.

I worked with Stanley for a period of time to learn about baroque violin techniques and (at that time) how to adapt those techniques to the modern instrument and player. Here's where questions of period instruments really can begin to inform. For example, the baroque violinist didn't use a chin rest or shoulder rest. Without being able to hold the instrument between shoulder and chin, the left hand has to support the instrument more. That doesn't make vibrato impossible, but you can't vibrate all the time and with the same intensity that one can with a chin and shoulder rest. It also changes some fingerings, since the violinist has to "crawl" between positions part of the time.

Gut strings also make a difference in sound and how much one can dig into the string (at a certain level of pressure the string simply doesn't speak well). The bow itself, shorter and lighter at the tip, doesn't allow for as much pressure as one can make with a modern bow. That means that dynamics are created more by bow speed than pressure (Ken Woods makes the excellent point that in Elgar's time, playing into the string is a part of the style of the time).

These are just a few things that learning about period instruments tells us.

Briefly back to vibrato: in the opening movement of the Bach Johannespassion, the flutes and oboes play a series of suspensions. When I do it, I ask the winds to play senza vibrato, since that heightens the dissonance--and therefore, the expressivity of those passages. I think that "authenticity" doesn't have to mean bland--it's in how you approach it.

John mentioned earlier keyboard practices of playing without using thumbs. While this doesn't have to mean that a modern player can't use their thumbs, it does teach something about articulation and how notes would/could be grouped. I think the major point is to take this knowledge and use it to learn more about how the music was done and what it expressed (and how it expressed it).

Anyway, always an interesting topic!

classicalgeek said...

I was quite interested to see that someone else shares my thinking. I read not only all the early music journals but original letters and documents of various composers and those source documents have completely changed my thinking about the so-called "historically-informed performance."