A response to Beverly Jerold’s article 'Did early string players use continuous vibrato?' by Kevin Class


The February 20, 2015 reprinting of Beverly Jerold’s article, entitled Did early string players use continuous vibrato? does a very fine job at asserting an aspect of violin performance by making good use of a variety of sources including the writings and treatises of Johann Reichardt, Leopold Mozart, Geminiani and Quantz. However, the article seems to want to serve a particular justification in informing the way we perform this music today while failing to account for a number of overriding factors, both period and contemporary. While the citations and quotes from period sources are accurate, it can be very misleading to contemporary musicians and modern aesthetics who might wish to use this information to forward a misconception of the use and color of vibrato itself.

In performing literature on modern instruments, one must always be aware that compromises and modifications must be made in view of differences between today’s instruments and their predecessors. Jerold’s article makes no attempt to account for the fact that period bows, strings and length of fingerboards were very different than those in common usage today, and that these elements change the quality of sound and texture in highly significant ways. Without acknowledging fundamentally different sounds to which 18th century ears were accustomed, any suggestion about performance practice runs the risk of becoming misguided.

The discussion of the types and qualities of vibrato endorsed by Leopold Mozart, Geminiani and Quantz are enlightening to read. However, one must take into consideration the qualities of sound to which these gentlemen were likely referring. Keep in mind that the authors of these treatises were not writing for Strad readers in 2015, but rather were assuming that their intended readers (namely their students) shared a common knowledge and understanding of sound, traditions and their contemporary performance practices. In particular, the fact that all treatises cite the use of a 'light vibrato' to imitate the natural vibrato of the human voice is, in itself, lacking in necessary explanation. What many modern musicians (including singers) consider to be a 'normal, natural' vocal tone likely has little to do with the tone and vibrato about which Mozart, Geminiani and Quantz were writing.

The use of the term 'straight tone' is one that strikes terror into most musicians, especially singers. This is because the 19th/20th century practice, stemming from the powerful practices of the Verismo tradition, and others, has led vocal training and aesthetics to a belief that any tone that does not contain a discernible wobble is somehow inappropriate and unpleasant. As fashions of vocal performance tend to influence trends in instrumental performance, changes in singing style in the 19th century had a significant mark on the ways in which instrumentalists conceived of sound and texture. Requesting 'no vibrato' or 'straight tone' today tends to cause many musicians to retreat into a defensive posture. As a result, coaches and conductors have had to become very resourceful in finding other terminology and techniques to achieve a stylistically appropriate sound without using these 'dirty' words.

To be fair, the sound to which the treatise authors were likely, favorably referring was that which was used and favored by quality singers of their time.  The natural, focused tone of the human voice is one that has what we (those of us who work with singers) refer to as 'spin'.  That spin is a core to the sound, supported healthily by the breath.  As ALL sound is, by definition, a transmission of vibrations, there is an inherent 'vibrato' even in what we today refer to as 'straight tone'. The spin is the forward manipulation of these light, beautifying vibrations that keeps the tone beautiful, even and moving forward through notes and phrases.  Spin is thus unrelated to the  overtly perceptible microtonal (and in worst cases semi-tonal!) oscillations that have become the norm in most vocal performances.  It is this measured wavering back and forth between points within a pitch that Mozart and the others were referring to as 'ornamental' vibrato, and one that should be used sparingly and in a deliberate, self-conscious way.  Therefore, the technique of the 'light vibrato' described in the Strad article might be misleading if its proportions and intended effect is not more fully understood.

Another point to consider, when examining the resources consulted in the article, is that both performance trends, aesthetics and teachings were extremely localized in the 17th and 18th centuries (unlike today’s globalized schools of thought).  While Reichardt’s writings are an important and valuable contribution to literature of the period, he also held particular opinions, and his assertions are sometimes undermined by documentary evidence, including those observations on the bowing practices of some orchestras. There was a reasonable expectation that the size, quality, makeup and performance styles of orchestras should vary considerably from one city to the next. Not only would it be expected to encounter completely different concepts of vibrato in the orchestras of London, Paris, Dresden and Milan, but also in their uniformity (or complete lack thereof) on bowings, articulations and even intonation.

In the end, Beverly Jerold makes a fair use of her sources, probably the most famous and widely read of period treatises on string playing. The author deserves credit too for not relying too heavily on Geminiani, who has always been considered a bit of a rogue. The points made are valid and clear, but must be offered with some mention of the context in which the statements of earlier Masters were made.

Kevin Class presently serves as Music Director/Conductor of Opera Theatre, and Associate Professor of Collaborative Piano, at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, USA.  He has performed complete cycles of sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, and has a repertoire of more than 50 operas and numerous orchestral works.  He is active in the training of young pianists, conductors and singers in the United States, Asia and Europe.

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