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Vibrato in Classical String Technique



Few concert-goers probably realize that of all the instruments they hear in Beethoven's ninth symphony, for instance, the only ones whose sounds have not changed since the symphony was first performed in 1824 are the kettledrum, the triangle, and the trombone. All the others have been transformed, some more and some less, and even if the symphony is played with the same number of instruments and voices that were used in 1824, the resultant sound will be quite different in quality.

Violinist String-tone, for instance, has changed very much indeed, the factors chiefly responsible for the change being the use of wire strings for the topmost strings of a violin or a 'cello; the violin chin-rest and the 'cello spike; the modern large-sized viola; and the modern technique of the double-bass. The true gut-strung tone of a violin is now as obsolete as the tone of a crumhorn or a regal. The almost universal custom of using a chin-rest for the violin and a spike for the 'cello makes it possible for a player to produce, without tiring, a vibrato that is wider, quicker and used with far less discrimination than it was 150 years ago. The Joachim quartet is believed to be the first quartet that used the modern wide and unremitting vibrato in their playing, and by no means all the critics who heard them approved of the innovation. Paganini's own manuscript markings in a copy of the Caprices direct the pupil to use vibrato only at specific points, and not elsewhere.

Thurston Dart
The Interpretation of Music
Harper & Row, 1963
pp. 35-36

As in instrumental playing, vibrato was employed only as an occasional ornament in early vocal music. In the eighteenth century Geminiani, (1751) appears to have attempted to introduce a more pervasive style of vibrato into violin technique; it is interesting to note that this was resisted by his English publisher, who suppressed the relevant passage in the 1777 edition. It must, however, be stressed that any reference to vibrato prior to the late nineteenth century must be taken to indicate the subtle sense of the word; it was not until then, with the invention of the violin chin rest and 'cello spike, that the fingers of string players were able to perform a tireless twitch about the note.

David Wulstan
Tudor Music
U. of Iowa Press, 1986
p. 179

Vibrato, which is intended to imitate singing, is as old as string instruments themselves, being specifically documented as early as the 16th Century by Agricola. Later, Mersenne (1636), North (1695), and Leopold Mozart (1756) describe it repeatedly as something generally known. However, it was always regarded as a pure embellishment to be used only for certain passages and by no means universally applied. Leopold Mozart writes: "There are some players who tremble at every note, as if they had a chronic fever. One should use the tremolo (vibrato) only in those places where Nature herself would produce it."

Now let me give an example of this change in Weltanschauung pertaining to one facet of our art, the vibrato.

When the cellist A. F. Servais (1807-66), one of the founders—along with Ch. de Beriot—of the Belgian school of string playing, appeared in London, he was criticized (in the Athenæum) for the 'unusual manner of producing his tone' by 'that intense pressure of the fingers' which has since been better understood by the term "vibrato", and this was at once denounced to be 'spasmodic and a not altogether creditable trick'. And following this, Servais' playing was unfavourably compared to that of the English cellist Lindley, who 'brought out all his tone like the rolling notes of an organ' and whose tone 'being always smooth, there was no tremulousness whatever apparent in his playing'.

After these denunciations of our vibrato let us set down here a pondered description of this phenomenon by an acoustic scientist (who used to be an orchestral violinist). He calls it 'a rapid fluctuation of pitch at the same loudness' and adds that it 'contributes an unmistakable human and living quality to musical sound'.

These two descriptions (1835 and 1966) are of course extreme examples of the change tastes undergo. But whenever I let colleagues or pupils listen to recordings of Ysaÿe or Huberman, I warn them not to judge these by the standard prevalent today and to take into account certain idiosyncrasies rooted in the 'Zeitgeist'.

One of Eugène Ysaÿe's biographers (the other being his son Antoine) tells how Eugène's father Nicolas—who was his first teacher—admonished him at the age of five or six with a furious 'What! you already use vibrato? I forbid you to do so! You are all over the place like a bad tenor. Vibrato will come later, and you are not to deviate from the note. You'll speak through the violin.' This was in 1863 or 1864 approximately; and listening to the beautiful, chaste, close vibrato on his 1912 Columbia U.S.A. recording I feel that this paternal admonition bore fruit in Ysaÿe's unthrobbing lovely cantilena as I still remember it. Who knows how our universally praised recordings will sound to turn of the twenty-first century ears?

The Tremolo is an ornamentation which arises from Nature herself and which can be used charmingly on a long note, not only by good instrumentalists but also by clever singers. Nature herself is the instructress thereof. For if we strike a slack string or a bell sharply, we hear after the stroke a certain wave-like undulation (ondeggiamento) of the struck note. And this trembling after-sound is called tremolo, also tremulant [or tremoleto].

Take pains to imitate this natural quivering on the violin, when the finger is pressed strongly down on the string, and one makes a small movement with the whole hand; which however must not move sideways but forwards toward the bridge and backwards toward the scroll; of which some mention has already been made in Chapter V. For as, when the remaining trembling sound of a struck string or bell is not pure and continues to sound not on one note only but sways first too high, then too low, just so by the movement of the hand forward and backward must you endeavour to imitate exactly the swaying of these intermediate tones.

Now because the tremolo is not purely on one note but sounds undulating, so would it be an error if every note were played with the tremolo. Performers there are who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the palsy. The tremolo must only be used at places where nature herself would produce it; namely as if the note taken were the striking of an open string. For at the close of a piece, or even at the end of a passage which closes with a long note, that last note would inevitably, if struck for instance on a pianoforte, continue to hum for a considerable time afterwards. Therefore a closing note or any other sustained note may be decorated with a tremolo [tremoleto].

There is no place in baroque music for the perpetual string vibrato that ":graces" modern violin playing. The references to the vibrato which appear first in the lute instructions of Mersenne and Mace, and later in Merck's violin tutor, bear unequivocal proof that the vibrato was, like the crescendo, a special ornament, indicated by a symbol of its own and to be used with discretion only at the proper places. The manner of holding the violin against the chest precluded in itself extensive use of the vibrato. The idea of playing continually with vibrato would be as preposterous to baroque musicians as that of always pulling the tremulant stop on the organ. The bebung of the clavichord and the tremulant stop on the Baroque organ roughly correspond to the vibrato ornament and are likewise singular effects and refinements among many others. The production of an even tone was foremost in the minds of the instrumentalists (and singers), and the vibrato must be understood as a deliberate, but only occasional, abandonment of what would today be considered a "lifeless" tone. Being the regular way of producing a tone nowadays the vibrato has ceased to function as an ornament whereas the non-vibrato has in turn become a special ornament the composer must prescribe if he wishes it, as Bartók does in his Second Piano Concerto.


Classical virtuoso Leopold Auer discusses violin vibrato.

Go to the Vibrato Page.



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