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I grew up in one of the most beautiful places in the world: Dunedin, New Zealand. Surrounded by music in a family that loved and supported the arts, I began violin lessons at the age of 5 and soon knew that music would be my passion in life. After completing a Bachelor of Music at the University of Otago, I spent a wonderful year playing with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra before completing a Master of Music at the University of Oregon. Soon after a return to New Zealand, I formed with three friends the Tasman String Quartet, with which I had the great fortune of travelling to the University of Colorado to study with one of the all-time greats; the Takács Quartet. For many years I had been drawn towards what I consider to be the extraordinary beauty of historically informed performance. Following my string quartet studies, I began a second Master's degree in Early Music at Indiana University. I am now living in Bloomington, enjoying the chance to play early music with wonderful groups in the area. Photo: © Steve Riskind

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Stage, Part I

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!!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Behind the Scenes, Part V

This is the fifth and final post in a series that features the general principles important to those in the world of Early Music. Upcoming posts will talk about the finer details of actual performance that have shaped the current ideals of the Early Music sound world.

5. The use of temperament

While doing some reading on temperament for this post, I came across an article that warped my fragile little mind. The article, written in 1991, is basically an interview with six American composers, about the tuning systems that they use in their compositions. One of the composers was microtonalist Joel Mandelbaum. In response to the question "What tuning systems do you use?", he said:

Friday, October 21, 2011

Behind the Scenes, Part IV

This is the fourth post in a series that discusses the general principles important in the world of Early Music.

4. The use of appropriate pitch

Compare the following three performances of the Marche pour la cérémonie des Turcs, from the Molière/Lully comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, first performed in 1670. The piece is notated in G minor.


In each of these recordings, the music is being played in the same key, but at a different pitch. In the first recording the instruments are tuned to the low pitch of A-392, in the second at the slightly higher A-415 and in the third just below A-440. Which one is historically correct? Does it even matter?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Behind the Scenes, Part III

The third in a series of posts that discuss the general principles important to those in the world of Early Music.

3. The adoption of original performing forces

There is arguably nothing in the world of historically informed performance that has had such a dramatically audible effect on the sound of familiar music than the return to historically appropriate performing forces. This idea almost always involves a reduction of forces, tying in with the overall tendency of the early music movement to strip away the Romantic excesses of traditional performance. It's the same tendency that has seen continuous vibrato vacuumed out of string players' fingers, the sustained sound of legato replaced with a more articulate musical language, and powerful modern instruments pushed aside to reveal the (relatively) more intimate and subtle versions of the past. In short, the turn towards historical performing forces is one of the most significant aspects of the overall quest to downsize modern performance.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Behind the Scenes, Part II

Continuing on from the previous post, this is the second in a series of posts that discuss the general principles important to those in the world of Early Music.

2. Use of autograph manuscripts or first editions

What would a Harry Potter fanatic not give for the original handwritten pages, created in an Edinburgh café, of J. K. Rowling's first novel! To see the process by which she turned her ideas into the finished product that made her a squintillionaire, to feel that closer connection to the author's thoughts. Or to have in one's hands a copy of the first edition just so you can open it and have the satisfaction of seeing "10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1" on the inside page...ahh, bliss.  

When it comes to music, having access to either the original autograph score in the composer's own handwriting or the first edition can mean much more than just collector's excitement at owning something rare. In many cases, studying the original manuscript (or at least a facsimile of it) is the only way of knowing for sure what the composer wrote. This can be a significant issue if one compares an autograph manuscript with all the subsequent printed editions. It can also be a liberating experience to see editorial articulations, changes and suggestions stripped away to reveal the original notes and markings.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Behind the Scenes, Part I

If the early music movement had to fight its way to recognition by way of some basic clichéd principles such as the banning of vibrato and the fussing over correct ornamentation, then where are we now, more than half a century later? This post will be the first in a series of posts that discuss what are generally considered the guiding principles of good music making in today's early music world.

To begin with, I will focus on the "behind-the-scenes" elements to early music making; the elements which we believe are important to consider before even playing a single note. Later posts will feature more specific elements of performance (such as the use of vibrato) that make a significant difference in the actual playing of the music itself.

1. Use of appropriate instruments and materials

Central to historically inspired performance is the belief that the most ideal instruments to use for any particular piece of music are those instruments that existed and were used at the time of composition.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Orders, which must be obeyed!

As I mentioned in my first post, it was a quote from Quantz's 1751 treatise "On Playing the Flute" that inspired me to write this blog. In his preface, he wrote that as long as you have conviction and good taste, you are free to try the opposite of anything he has said and to choose what seems best to you.

Treatises in general have been regarded by Early Musicians as the musical bibles of times past. We open them up in order to receive The Word. This makes us feel like we're being historical and authentic. The Word is applied as literally as possible and if we hear someone 'modern' at a concert doing something totally different, we either grimace in disbelief or chuckle with satisfaction, reflecting on how the performer has not been granted The Word.