This post begins a series that discusses more specific elements of early music that are fundamental to the performance of the music itself.
1. Use of Vibrato, or "Expression rescued from its Expressors"
In 1950, in a letter to the editor describing current trends in violin playing, violinist Adila Fachiri reminisced about the time before "unremitting, nauseating vibrato" permanently entered the string player's technique. Fachiri, the sister of Jelly d'Aranyi - to whom Ravel dedicated his famous Tzigane - related the story of when her great-uncle, the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, took her to see a recital given by Czech violinist Jan Kubelik. After hearing him, Joachim exclaimed "But he plays beautifully! That clear, flute-like tone! That truly musical phrasing!"
One of Joachim's most famous students, Leopold Auer, clearly inherited his teacher's love of that clear, unvibrated violin sound. In his 1921 book Violin Playing as I Teach it, he wrote of continuous vibrato:
"...those who are convinced that an eternal vibrato is the secret of soulful playing, of piquancy in performance are pitifully misguided in their belief...I cannot otherwise account for certain pupils of mine, who in spite of their earnest determination to the contrary, and innumerable corrections on my part, have been unable to rid themselves of this vicious habit, and have continued to vibrate on every note, long or short, playing even the driest scale passages and exercises in constant vibrato."
These quotes don't demonstrate anything about the use of vibrato in the Baroque period, or any period other than the early twentieth century for that matter. What they do show, however, is the opinions of some who were there when a new wave of violinists changed the course of string playing and pedagogy for the next century. Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler, David Oistrakh, Mischa Elman etc - these masters of the Golden Age of violin altered the fundamental perception of what made good string tone. Since then, constant vibrato has been a basic ingredient of sound production on string instruments, in every context; solo, chamber music and orchestral. It has been important to the extent that string sound without vibrato is not even considered sound.
Like Auer, not everyone was happy with this shift. Probably the most entertaining tirade against constant vibrato was made in 1944 by Georges Barrère, a French flautist who played in the première performance of Debussy's L'après-midi d'un faune. For him, constant vibrato was akin to exaggerated expressions of love. Here are some of his best quotes:
"'Expression' - abused word! Just as overworked as 'Love' ... the world seems compelled to fall in love, as by order or decree ... everyone is a victim of Love."
"It being settled that expression in music must be a love message, music has to be performed with a quiver in the tone ... a tremolo, a quiver, nowadays is unavoidable in music, inasmuch as it is the business of music to deliver love messages ..."
"Vibrato". Vibrato! Vibrato!! ... No vibrato, no expression; no expression, no love; no love - then what is the use of music?"
"Business will go to the largest producer of - Expression. The waviest vibrato shall triumph!"
If Barrère were still alive today, he would have declared a winner in Anna Karkowska:
As dry and cynical as Barrère's comments are, he hit the nail on the head by linking continuous vibrato with expression and love. Vibrato is considered the most important technique to continually express this heart-on-the-sleeve love of music. Not just the music, but every single note that makes up the music. I have had so many teachers and conductors demand of me or the string section to vibrate every note! Especially the small ones! You have to love every note! In other words, not vibrating means that you don't love the music.
Clearly, however, there was a time before constant vibrato, a time when musicians no less loved music and no less wanted it to be expressive. A trend that emerges time and time again with respect to vibrato usage in the past is that it is to be used sparingly and as a tool to enhance particularly expressive notes in a melody or to characterize specific affects inherent in the music such as fear or anxiety. In other words, vibrato can serve the expression when necessary, but it should not in its essence be expression.
Occasionally, lovers of constant vibrato point out historical indications implying a liberal use of vibrato. For example, Martin Agricola in 1529, said: "One also produces vibrato freely to make the melody sound sweeter." Francesco Geminiani said in 1751: "...when it is made on short notes, it only contributes to make their sound more agreable and for this reason it should be made use of as often as possible." However, comments like these have to be considered in their context. Geminiani, for example, also tells us that the violin must be "rested just below the collar-bone, turning the right-hand side of the violin a little downwards..." I challenge any violinist to follow these instructions (removing the chin-rest and shoulder-rest, of course) and attempt to vibrate "as often as possible" throughout even the simplest melody. Comments like those of Agricola and Geminiani do indeed imply the use of vibrato as an improver of the sound, but given that they were in a pre-chin-rest, pre-shoulder-rest era, with relatively unstable violin holds, the possibility that they could actually produce a vibrato even remotely close to today's liberal, luscious kind is wishful thinking.
Returning however to the aesthetics of constant vibrato and expression, the geniuses at Pixar said it best. In their superhero movie The Incredibles, the villain Syndrome, after capturing Mr. Incredible and his family, finally reveals his dastardly plan to spread his superhero technology around the world:
The same is true of constant vibrato. When every note is expressive ...(dramatic pause) ... NO note is expressive. Mmmmmmmwaahahahahahahahahaaaa!!