Friday, March 23, 2007

David Hurwitz Article on Vibrato

I posted this 110 page article on the sidebar to the right because I want to read it carefully and often. Hurwitz raises some very good points that are worth considering when contemplating the "authenticity" of HIP performance practice.

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Thomas D said...

Why doesn't Hurwitz refer to any historical music recordings from the early 20th century?

They would have showed, indeed they do show, quite audibly, how very little vibrato WAS regularly used by orchestral players in many cases.

Of course, they used a lot *more* portamento tham modern players... showing how within only a few decades the ideal of string playing totally changed. And yet here we have you and Hurwitz trying to argue that what Leopold Mozart wanted could have been pretty much like what is counted as good modern-day string playing!!

Hurwitz' essay is also generally useless because it doesn't refer to any previous historical study of vibrato. Amazingly enough, there has been an ongoing and lively debate among historically informed performers for a long time, with articles being published in scholarly journals. Hurwitz refers to none of them - has he read any? The only thing he quotes is one CD booklet note by Roger Norrington - which he uses to tar the whole idea of historically informed performance as a 'lunatic fringe'.

This is not reasonable, not scholarly, and totally discredits the piece - which in any case is mainly a hundred pages of assault on a straw man.

You'd only find it worth dealing with if your picture of historically informed performance were an absurdly crude caricature.

Anyway, why don't you actually try reading some scholarly articles on vibrato? For example, a very short one by Norrington himself, from which I quote:

"My impression is that 90 per cent of historically informed players, and of course 100 per cent of modern executants, have no notion of what can be so simply revealed in a good gramophone collection: that no German orchestra played with vibrato until the 1930s."

Published in Early Music 2004.

Elaine Fine said...

I don't agree with Hurwitz on some points, but I think that they are interesting points to raise and think about.

David Hurwitz said...

In fact, historical recordings do NOT show anything useful about the degree of vibrato employed, and anyone who claims otherwise is hallucinating. That is why I do not use them, and I'm very clear about my reasoning. What is clear is that the scores themselve clearly presuppose the presence of vibrato, and plenty of it. This is a fact, and if someone wishes to contend that performers ignored the composer's clear intent because some treatise told them to, fine and good. Prove it. I do not maintain the use of vibrato has been the same since time immemorial; merely that different degrees are more suited to different styles, and that musicians have always recognized this fact and played accordingly. There is no historical justification for the exaggerated ugliness of many HIP influences performances; and using "less" doesn't mean to use "none." In my view, the degree that this has become an issue has everything to so with the desire of certain performers to find an excuse to sound "different," and little if anything to do with idiomatic style or the evidence of the historical record.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you David.

Your are right in mentioning that the use of vibrato has changed over time. It is especially true for violin and viola players because of the addition of the chinrest (it was invented by Spohr in the mid 19th century), and for cellists, who before the invention of the endpin, held their cellos between their legs.

It is far easier to vibrate continuously when the instrument can be held securely between the chin and the shoulder, or made secure with an endpin stuck in the floor.

Though it is not really possible to vibrate continuously (in the modern fashion) on a baroque instrument, it is still possible to vibrate one note at a time, or sometimes two or three in a phrase on a comfortable place on the instrument. Using it generally improves the sound and the projection.

I imagine that fiddle players saw the addition of a chinrest a real plus for making it easier to vibrate. Why they would refrain from doing so when it really improves collective intonation and blend in an orchestra seems kind of crazy. It would be like insisting on using the outhouse because the indoor plumbing was not part of the house's original design.

David Hurwitz said...

Thank you for taking the time and trouble to read and mention the essay. I think your points are very well taken. There are technical reasons that facilitated the use of additional vibrato, and there are the markings in the scores themselves. The two go hand in hand, and once again, the point I am trying to make is that "less" does not equal "none," and the differences in actual sound should be subtle, not glaring, and not exaggerated to the point of caricature.

scottishcellist said...

Hurwitz ignores the extremely wide ranges of meaning for the term vibrato, which are explored extensively, and undogmatically, in Clive Brown's work. There's also a tendency to transfer the burden of proof. His attitude towards recordings is incomprehensible. Elgar's orchestra obviously used it; many earlier orchestras on record equally obviously didn't. I actually agree with some of his fundamental points, but his reslotely unscholarly approach is why, in a nutshell, nobody's listening.

David Hurwitz said...

Greetings All:

I thought I'd check in and give you all an update. Since this discussion I have taken down the articles on, not because they were wrong, but because I was encouraged to revise and submit them in more formal form to academic journals that could publish them for the wider musical community. Since then, I have written four articles, all four of which have been, or will be published in peer-reviewed journals or collections of symposium "proceedings," including Music & Letters and 19th Century Music Review.

I have also participated in several symposia at which I have presented my findings. Anyone curious may investigate those papers, which unearth a great deal of extra material all of which supports the contention that vibrato was indeed a "continuous" (meaning frequent) presence in orchestral playing from the classical period onward, and that the differences between modern and earlier technique in this respect were very likely quite minor. There is a link to the Music & Letters essay on, for those who are interested (click on the "Books and Articles by Writers" link on the home page.

Thank you for your attention.

Dave Hurwitz

Anonymous said...

The film is from Berlin 1932. Simply observe the cellos when they enter or the violins a minute later. Vibrato is used, in various ways to color and to bring out the character of certain notes or parts of phrases. Based on the technical level of the players, you can also see that some even try to vibrate the moving notes. In the later part of the 20th century, we simply became better technical players and were able to employ vibrato more widely. Can it become too much at times? Of course. Did it often become mechanical and unrelated to the music being played? Without a doubt. Are these Berliners using vibrato sparingly? Yes, most definitely. But it's clear that vibrato was used and it is most certainly one of the many tools in these orchestral string players' tool box. So at the very least, THIS orchestra in Germany did use vibrato but whether due to the style of blending the sound within the section or the limitation of the recording technology, one doesn't hear the vibrato very prominently.

As for Norrington, it is clear to any genuine musician that he is covering his complete lack of musicianship (where to even begin!) with a fraudulent, friar/guru-like appearance combined with a apocryphal singular rule that he applies to everything as his trademark. His wildly unsupported argument for no vibrato is a mere musical gimmick that gives him a small marketing advantage to sound different and excuses his abysmal level of musicality. He needed a reason to justify why a H.I.P. practitioner would venture into the larger romantic repertoire. When it comes out sounding different, people call it a revelation, yet a soulful musician would immediately note the dearth of musical essence and spirit, phrasing, continuity, organic ensemble, unity of music thought and architecture; this is but a short list of the elements missing in his performances (the same goes for his classical era performances as well, of course). In short, Norrington is an amateur who managed to bamboozle the music business by selling an easy to understand, dumbed down version of the historically informed performance movement.