Baroque Vibrato

Edited: June 24, 2019, 3:59 AM · How much vibrato is generally used in Baroque pieces? As we know, vibrato saw an enormous change in it's type, as the genres progressed into the modern era.

I have noticed players using various kinds of vibratos, while some haven't really used it at all in the baroque pieces. As I understand, it depends on the interpretation of the players on the pieces, but I wonder how the use of vibratos would have been, in the earlier days!

Replies (21)

June 24, 2019, 7:45 AM · The common wisdom is that vibrato was not much used in the Baroque era. To what extent that common wisdom was fact-based, I am not clear. As with many things related to that period, there may be significant regional variation. However, I am not an expert on that period and defer to others on this.
June 24, 2019, 9:17 AM · My chamber orchestra has a concert coming up at the end of this week in which two of the works in the programme are specifically Baroque (Purcell and Marcello). Our conductor requires us not to use any vibrato in those two pieces, but to use the bow instead of the left hand for expressive purposes. We're happy to go along with that.

My understanding of vibrato in Baroque is that it was used only as an ornament, which strongly suggests that its continuous use was not considered a good idea.

An occasion when vibrato would be used in Baroque music is when rounding off a phrase, usually in a slow movement.

Not using vibrato concentrates one's sense of intonation wonderfully.

June 24, 2019, 9:24 AM · I'm not an expert neither, a violinist that's really into baroque and Renaissance music could tell us more specific about this topic. I believe you don't even have to be a violinist. If you think about it, all instruments should swim in the same direction, so it wouldn't make any sense if violins were not doing vibrato but for viol or cellos were totally fine.

I can tell you that I've observed many times the Double Bach concerto being ruined by vibratos, specially with kids or young people.

June 24, 2019, 9:29 AM · None of us was alive during the Baroque. However, we have treatises written by musicians and observers from the era, and these vary.
June 24, 2019, 11:30 AM · Hi,

In an attempt to answer this question, is that it depends where the music is from. Bows, styles and use of vibrato varied greatly depending on region. Italian violinists used more vibrato (if we read the writings of Veracini and Geminiani correctly), while the Northern countries (like Germany) didn't use vibrato at all. Baroque music was regional.

In today's HIP movement, they tend to generalize things into "one" baroque style, but historically, accounts don't validate this. Even the very lifted bow style is actually Italian, but the Germans and English played on the string and lifting the bow was frowned upon (and this til after Spohr). Italians held their bows away from the frog, whereas the Germans and Austrians held them at the frog. So, it depends. The music should be your guide.


June 24, 2019, 1:30 PM · I would only add to Christian's excellent post that what was considered 'vibrato' then seems to have been rather subtler than the modern variety, again at least in some regions. Judy Tarling's excellent book "Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners" collects a lot of sources and is a great resource on issues like this.
Edited: June 24, 2019, 2:24 PM · Christian - I believe your analysis is mostly correct but would argue that the "HIP movement" (if it can really be referred to as a single entity) is far more diverse and sophisticated than you give it credit for. For one thing, HIP isn't just applied to the baroque period, which itself developed enormously from, say, Monteverdi to Bach.

HIP is an area offering significant employment opportunities that did not exist 40 years ago, and as such it is taken very seriously in the music conservatories. London's Royal Academy of Music has assembled a collection of British instruments (strings, wind and percussion) from the baroque and classical periods which can be borrowed by performance groups with the object of exploring how designs changed over this epoch and how this is likely to have influenced and/or followed performance practices.

June 24, 2019, 4:41 PM · I would only add to all the wisdom of previous posters the words of my teacher: "A composer like Telemann or Bach would never have objected to any technique that would have made their music sound beautiful, whether or not it was used at the time."

@Steve - we can only be happy that the HIP area is offering opportunity. Whenever I attend a period performance concert I say afterwards, "thank you Wanda" to thank my relative, Wanda Landowska, whose advocacy of the harpsichord and period performance popularized it so that period performance and use of period instruments would not remain some cult in a few universities.

June 24, 2019, 6:52 PM · These discussions always remind me of the question of whether pianists, when playing baroque music, should use any pedal. Again, my own feeling is that if Bach had a modern piano at his disposal he would avail himself of all its features. It's true that the best harpsichordists don't seem to need it, but then, what they're doing is extremely difficult.
June 24, 2019, 11:35 PM · In addition, as far as I know, the dyanmics were not extensively used on the Violin as like the successive post Baroque periods.

However, it's true for the instruments like Harpsichord, I understand, for the limitation of the instruments. But is it also true for violin and other string instruments?

June 25, 2019, 1:55 AM · I have only practiced on
a) a viola d'amore with 7 playing strings tuned to a triad, plus 7 wire strings for resonance; and
b) my viola, tuned A=415, (9% less tension..) with a fake "baroque" bridge.

In both cases, the resonances of the open, slacker strings was "killed" by vibrato, as I only touched on the corresponding pitches intermittently, especially with a "over&under" vibrato. Below-the-note vibrato fared better.
Also, the lower tension encouraged more subtle bowing, as well as a crackling detaché.

June 25, 2019, 5:17 AM · Steve, Bristol Violin Shop, who service my instruments, in particular recently bringing my old violin back close to its original 18th century setup, make string instruments for Early Music and Baroque ensembles. See this link:
June 25, 2019, 5:56 AM · Thanks Trevor, not too far from us but I decided I'll never be the HIP priest (sorry, favourite Fall song). I went as far as buying a "baroque" bow, stringing a Chinese violin with gut and taking off the chin rest, but couldn't master the art of shifting down without dropping the thing.
Edited: June 25, 2019, 12:13 PM · You are allowed to use your chin. We see chin stains on pretty much every surviving violin from that era.
Don't waste gut on a cheapo, though...

I heard somewhere that vibrato was unaffectionately called "palsy" in the baroque period.

June 25, 2019, 10:08 AM · Vivaldi Cello Sonatas has plenty of vibrato
Edited: June 25, 2019, 10:18 AM · About the palsy: that comes from Leopold Mozart, who complained about players who applied vibrato too liberally and said they made themselves appear as if they had a palsy. On the other hand Geminiani recommended a liberal use of vibrato. So already back then there were two schools.
June 25, 2019, 11:26 AM · Scott and and Christian's remarks are head on.

There are however some statements floating around that are only somewhat accurate, and some just very strange, that makes me think we can do better to tease out the finer points that reflect the diverse tastes of performance practice in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On Geminiani, let's actually read what he wrote.

The Art of Playing on the Violin, 1751
(Page 8) No. 14. On the Close shake.

... To perform it, you must press the Finger strongly upon the String of the Instrument, and move the Wrist in and out slowly and equally, when it is long continued swelling the Sound by Degrees, drawing the Bow nearer to the Bridge, and ending it very strongly it may express Majesty, Dignity, &c. But making it shorter, lower, and softer, it may denote Affliction, Fear, &c. and when it is made on short notes, it only contributes to make their Sound more agreeable and for this Reason it should be made use of as often as possible.

My reading is that Geminiani's close shake (i.e. vibrato) works in tandem to the expression of the bow. For sure this isn't our modern continuous vibrato. Use it "as often as possible" means, hey this is such a lovely effect, use it whenever you can, not vibrate continuously.

Let's also read Leopold Mozart.

Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing, 1755. (Eng. tran.)

Chapter 11, Of the Tremolo, Mordent, and some other improvised Embellishment

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 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 instances 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].

Mozart continues with musical examples of when and how to apply this effect. The fact he was so annoyed at people who use it too much means that to make fun of them as having the "palsy" meant there were people who used vibrato not to his taste. And of course we will never know for sure how it sounded, but we have some interesting clues.

On chin-off:

"You are allowed to use your chin. We see chin stains on pretty every surviving violin from that era."

Yes, although although it's clear in iconography and treatises that for much of the 17th century, the fiddle rested on the arm (hence da braccio, if you ever wondered), or on the chest just under the collarbone. Remember the chin rest did not become popular until the 19th century. People like to float around the 1830s date of Sphor inventing the chin rest and assume everyone en masse went to the shop to buy one. If you look at photos, especially of provincial areas, even into the early 20th century, violinists were still photographed without a chin rest. As Scott said, we weren't alive then, and we cannot determine when the chin stain occured from chin on playing. I suspect many of them happened in the 19th century.

"Vivaldi Cello Sonatas has plenty of vibrato"

Um, sure, if you mean the vibrato as embellishment as discussed by the sources. Not sure why you singled out Vivaldi and specifically his cello sonatas.

"...if Bach had a modern piano at his disposal he would avail himself of all its features. It's true that the best harpsichordists don't seem to need it [pedal], but then, what they're doing is extremely difficult."

It is indeed difficult to use a sustaining pedal on the harpsichord...because it has none.

June 25, 2019, 3:09 PM · The assertion that old composers would have used new methods of expression if they were available relies on an assumption that musical standards of beauty or communication are intrinsic and thereby universal. This is demonstrably not true. The most interesting aspect of HIP is how different the conception of musical expression was in past periods from now.

About dynamics--I don't think there is evidence that the dynamic range was restricted throughout the baroque as any sort of convention or intention. Use of dynamics as an aspect of musical expression is mentioned in several tutorials IIRC, and at some times some Italians were famous for the extremes to which they would push both dynamic changes and variations in speed.

June 25, 2019, 3:21 PM · Hi,

@Steve Jones: There are so many wonderful things that the HIP movement does and yes, there is much variety. I didn't word things very well at all. Of course, amazing players like Manze, Podger, Jeanne Lemon, etc. all do stunning and different things! But for a while, there were also certain things that became sort of a HIP generalized modern tradition in many corners in the music making that doesn't seem to correspond with great variances of various countries that one finds in research. I hope this rephrasing makes a little more sense.

@Andres Sender: my experience with period bows of many periods and regions and work for violin and keyboards also of all periods is that composers wrote perfectly for what they had. We may have to do compensations for differences in equipment if we choose different things (like bows for example), but composers absolutely knew exactly what they were doing. The cool thing about using different bows and setups and learning from them, is that if you let the equipment and music guide you, it actually all makes perfect sense.


Edited: June 25, 2019, 5:53 PM · Steve, I suggest the problem you seem to be having with shifting when playing CR-less may be to do with posture. It happened with me at one time and the solution I found that worked was to make sure the violin is held horizontally on the collar bone (I'm assuming there's no SR) during the period the shift is being executed, especially if it's a down-shift from a higher position. If this isn't done and the violin is being held in the very common position in which the scroll is slightly lower than horizontal then gravity will take over and try to slide the violin off the collar bone. The immediate natural reaction is panic which tightens the left hand and thereby stops the shift, and the player will try to recover the situation by jamming the chin down somewhere on the violin. This will have the knock-on effect of causing unwanted tightness in the shoulder area, making a relaxed hold (or rather support) of the violin that more difficult. Muscle tightness in the shoulder region will further have an adverse effect on bowing.

Holding the violin horizontal as I've suggested will stabilize the situation, the violin remaining supported by the collar bone and the left being nice and relaxed. The violin may be further stabilized by the downward pressure of the bow during playing - not a lot of pressure, but sufficient to help hold the violin in place on the collar bone.

And where does the chin come into the picture? If a relaxed left hand is shifting up and down the neck then all the pressure required of the chin is that which is sufficient to overcome the sliding friction of the left hand as it moves along the neck, and that won't be much, probably none at all in many upward shifts. The downward pressure of the bow on the strings will also help, as I've said.

I'd practice the shifting initially without bow, so as to get used to the freedom of a relaxed left hand moving up and down the neck when the violin is supported horizontally by the collar-bone. Experiment to see how little pressure from the chin is required. Remember that a relaxed left hand is a prerequisite for a decent vibrato - I've mentioned that because of the title of this thread ;)

Some players have their chin touch the tailpiece rather than the body of the violin. Either is ok - the tone isn't going to be noticeably effected by light touching of the chin on the violin body or the tailpiece for the short period of the shift.

If you examine orchestral violin scores from the Baroque period up to about the end of the 18th century you'll find that if the composer knows his stuff (and they usually did because most of them could play the violin) then he will provided little "escape routes" for coming down from high positions. The ones I've noticed include an open string, a short rest, or the opportunity to play across the strings in a high position until there is a rest or open string available for the down-shift.

Edited: June 26, 2019, 2:10 AM · Thanks again Trevor - I should certainly give it a proper go, maybe with the early English violin I bought yesterday (sight unseen) from Bromptons. Datewise it would perhaps be best suited to the early classical period, but unfortunately as far as I can tell from the pictures it doesn't seem to have its original neck

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