When did singers begin to sing with continuous vibrato?

Edited: March 29, 2020, 5:40 PM · From what I have read, Kreisler was the first violinist to popularize continuous vibrato in violin playing, however nowadays continuous vibrato is often criticized for being old fashioned.

What I find interesting and in a way extremely hypocritical, are today's historically informed performances of Baroque and Classical opera. When we violinists play a Mozart concerto: expressive glissandi, playing in higher positions on lower strings to create different colors, and continuous vibrato from narrow to extremely wide will not get you a good mark in your school exam. And forget about winning an orchestra audition. However opera singers of period performance do all of these things. If you actually listen to an period opera singer's vibrato, it reaches much wider amplitudes and is not afraid to vibrato continuously.

So that leads me to ask, does anyone here know approximately when singers began to use continuous vibrato? Surely Fritz Kreisler was not the first musician in history to apply this concept to his performances? I find it really quite an interesting phenomenon, that singers are allowed to get away with so much that violinists are 'forbidden' to do, and very few people realize. I explained this phenomenon to many friends and colleagues and they all reply 'yes you're right, these period singers actually use far more expressive devices than string players and it somehow doesn't bother me when it's sung, but on the violin it sounds horribly dated'. Why? They don't know, they can't explain. Here is my hypothesis: the reason singers get away with glissandi, is because they literally HAVE to slide from note to note all the time when singing legato. Violinists on the other hand have a clean stop with each finger, so this means that every glissando you do will automatically be much more pronounced than a singer's, relatively speaking. As for changing the sound on a single note, a violinist can of course achieve this by altering the contact point/bowspeed/pressure applied to the string, but simply changing which string the note is on makes a tremendous difference to the quality of the sound. Singers are able to influence this much more easily and naturally; try singing a note on 'eee' and then switching to 'oooh'. It's like switching from the E string to the D string in an instant.

You see the dilemma right? Violinists automatically don't use expressive devices in Bach and Mozart abundantly because it is not 'necessary' in order to execute the markings on the page, whereas singers have no choice but to use these expressive devices. How many times have you heard the phrase from your violin teacher, 'Sing!'? Of course I know what you are thinking, 'you sing with the right hand!'. I completely agree, but this discussion is about the left hand, and don't tell me the left hand doesn't influence the singing quality of a phrase. I listen to old recordings like Grumiaux's Mozart piano and violin sonatas and I think, this is OBJECTIVELY much more singing than how everyone plays today. Mozart performances nowadays just sounds like they are playing the violin. In fact I can't stand listening to anything nowadays apart from old recordings. Maybe I was just born 75 years too late...?

Replies (23)

Edited: March 29, 2020, 6:43 PM · There was a text from the baroque era that seemed to indicate a preference for singers with a "naturally trembling voice". The interpretation is that they did mean vibrato. I saw this on a Youtube channel ("Early Music Sources" or something along those lines).

As for playing with style on the violin, there is a limit to what is tasteful. I'm all for playing with the music, changing the text, adding notes here, removing notes there... actually having fun, in other words. But after a while our little tricks (glissandi especially) may wear on the listener.

Edited: March 29, 2020, 6:46 PM · 'As for playing with style on the violin, there is a limit to what is tasteful.'

So do you think the taste limit is different for the violin than it is for the voice?

Thanks for the early music source about vibrato btw!

March 29, 2020, 7:56 PM · James I think what is tasteful varies instrument to instrument, the voice is no different in my opinion
Edited: March 29, 2020, 8:25 PM · It comes down, I think, to what the listener expects to hear. A constant glissando in a voice sounds natural, while sliding around on the violin sounds cheap, unclear, or like the player is "cheating".

Some people (my mom) absolutely hate operatic vibrato—she says some of those singers sound like manic goats! So, singers can overdo it, too.

March 30, 2020, 12:27 AM · Singers in some circles have been using some sort of continious vibrato atleast since Giovanni Battista Rubini in Donizettis time. But not on all passages or registers.
Many singers in the generation before Kreisler used full on cont. vibrato, just google for recordings by Fernando De Lucia for example.

Style between instruments differs enormously, as it should. Imagine any violinist playing any piece by Mozart as a soprano sings Queen of the night :O

March 30, 2020, 1:13 AM · Apparently uniformity is the name of the game. That’s why modern machine made violinists all sound the same. Something to look forward to for young violinists: you have to sound the same as the next guy, but technically better.

When I listen to great performers of the past, they all sound different. Some I do not agree with, but they do leave their own mark... why? Because they could in those days. Good luck if you do that today: there’s a million violinists that will land a job or win a competition because your personal quirk might not be “in line”.

March 30, 2020, 2:16 AM · James expressed the dilemma well. I think classical musicians could learn a huge amount from other genres, particularly when it comes to trying to achieve a natural "vocal" style. The notes don't all have to cemented together like bricks, the vibrato applied like paint. This week I'm channelling Frank Sinatra!
March 30, 2020, 2:43 AM · My band is making me play like singers sing. It's really hard to pull off.

When I play with pro violinists, they are bewildered by interpretations...

March 30, 2020, 4:48 AM · Tony - What violinists today sound the same? I can pick out most of the top violinists by ear.
March 30, 2020, 4:50 AM · Styles change over time, tastes change over time, personal interpretations change over time. Part of the curse of the invention of recordings has been that everybody tries to sound like their idols on the recordings, to which they can listen over and over again until they have memorized every nuance of what their idols played. Then they can spend countless hours in the practice room working to sound just like the recordings. And with the improvements in recording techniques and technology more and more nuances have found their way into the recordings. So since everybody can hear a great violinist's interpretation on recordings, they are quick to point out to a hapless musician who has decided to apply a personal interpretation "That's not how [fill in name of great violinist] plays that piece. You ought to listen to [fill in specific recording]." As if only the world-class artists are allowed their personal interpretations and woe to any of us lesser humans who might actually have some original thoughts. Everybody's a critic and is very willing to tell you where you went wrong.
March 30, 2020, 7:37 AM · I know a tenor and a soprano with attractive light voices and no vibrato - until the end of a note when the tonus diminishes. It's as if they were "holding" the voice steady. Some pop singers do something similar.

Playing HIP violin can be similar: with a transparent harpsichord accompaniment, the "straight" tone is never completely straight, even with zero vibrato.

But in a large hall, with a modern piano or orchestra, singing or bowing loudly with no vibrato is very ugly. Also vibrato helps the sound to detach itself from the accompaniment.
Also, the very early recordings required great power to physically engrave the wax masters, and even with electricity, the musician had to to cut through the surface noise of shellac discs. From ca 1950 onwards, better recording allowed more nuance and finesse, and a rise in HIP performance.

Why can some singers get away with wider vibratos than violinists? The voice has fewer very high overtones than the violin, and needs more vibrato to be heard in a complex texture.

That said, at least two thirds of oratorio and opera singers have a vibrato so extreme that one cannot tell what note they are singing without the "context" of the accompaniment!

March 30, 2020, 12:41 PM · Here's a question that might answer the first question:
When did singers start to perform in large venues, and with large orchestras?

As I recall, the first opera house opened in Venice in 16-something, right? And Monteverdi's orchestras were known to be big for their time.

Vibrato is very much related to distance and projection, and I think the likely scenario is that vibrato became wider and more continuous as a voice-saving measure. As singers, especially in opera, were gradually compelled to perform in these larger halls, and in front of larger, more powerful orchestras, those that had narrow, subtle vibrato failed to compete. Or simply injured and lost their voice.

Don't forget that instruments themselves, including violins and pianos, were gaining in volume by the 19th century. String players can't project over a large orchestra without a wide vibrato. And the corollary is that we instinctively tone it down in small venues. Why don't pop performers have wide vibrato? With electronic amplification, it hasn't been necessary. Many classically-trained singers, however, employ the same wide vibrato in recordings when it probably isn't necessary. It's simply ingrained at that point.

Yes, there are stylistic and institutional reasons, but I think vibrato development has generally followed the steadily increasing demands of performance.

Edited: March 30, 2020, 1:24 PM · @David Bailey,
When I was a young cellist learning the Bach cello suites my teacher essentially forbade me from listening to recordings by Casals and a few others (not many in those days - Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier, Janos Starker the few recording artists whom I remember) when I was learning them. The reason, he told me years later, was that he didn't want his pupils ending up sounding like ineffectual copies of Casals or whoever, but to learn to think the music for themselves He tempered his prohibition a little by saying it was OK to listen to a recording just the once, and only once, and of course to listen to live performances on the radio or, best of all, in the concert hall.
March 30, 2020, 2:00 PM · As a mariachi violinist and singer, I have had both voice and vocal lessons, and they complement each other. Vibrato for singers has probably been normal at least since the beginning of Opera and Bel Canto training. Vocal vibrato happens naturally when singing at full voice with proper breathing, and it takes a deliberate effort to turn it off, dropping the volume. It doesn't need to be taught, but can be modified, fixed. The Violin vibrato is not natural, needs to be trained. I have never had a student who had a natural, self-taught vibrato. Some of it is fashion or culture. Recordings from about 100 years ago show a faster, tighter vibrato for both violins and singers, pop and classical. The too tight vibrato sounds constricted, nervous. I really don't like the wide vibrato of the over-dubbed singers on Bollywood movies. We interpret the too wide and slow vibrato as a sign of age or physical weakness, a reason to retire from solo performance. As for Kreisler's "continuous" vibrato, I suspect that he was just using it more often than earlier soloists. Nobody should use vibrato all the time; on very fast notes; above about 6/second, the same speed or faster than the vibrato, the notes sound bent. A hard part about violin vibrato is to continue the vibrato between the notes, connecting the line. Instead, most stop the vibrato when changing notes. Singers don't have that problem. Glissando, portamento, slides are not needed by good singers. They can use it more often than modern violinists, for expression, and sometimes to change vocal registers; chest-head-falsetto. A lot of modern violinists play very cleanly, avoid glissando because they know that it is a good way to lose an orchestra audition. A Hypothesis; I wonder how much of late 19th century expressive, romantic, violin playing style, with slides and more vibrato, came from what the "Gypsy" fiddlers were doing in the cafes of Budapest ?
March 30, 2020, 8:20 PM · The first recordings were cylinders which were wobbly in pitch. The thing is the Edison company wanted to sell these devices and didn't want to sell them as anything less than producing perfect renditions of how something sounded. They would even go as far as to say that they were more accurate than the human ear. Sounds crazy today but they had no comparison back then. The Edison company would send out artists to perform alongside a recording of themselves to show there was no difference! If you think of how these recordings sounded - pinched and wobbly, then you can imagine that a singer would sing that way to sell some units. If you listen to very early recordings, even of violinists, you can hear that many did not have much or any vibrato. Later on they did. Were people imitating what they heard? Were performers intentionally adding vibrato to stand out in a weak recording? Were they told to do it to make the recording devices look better? I think recording technology and the way people heard things cannot be underestimated.
There is a cylinder archive if you want to do some research yourself. I certainly found early players without much vibrato. Even violinists.
http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu
March 30, 2020, 8:55 PM · http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/detail.php?query_type=mms_id&query=9948002449303776&r=5&of=5

Here is an interesting performance of Meditation. You can hear how the vibrato is mainly mechanical and this time is slow. Mostly the flutter sound is fast on cylinder recordings. If this was the only way you heard a certain performer back in these days, it would be hard to hear past the mechanical affectation on pitch.

March 31, 2020, 2:46 AM · That's an interesting theory and top players of this era certainly tended to use much less vibrato. However, to think that they would have been so seduced by the gadget that they wanted to imitate the recording rather than the real thing (Joe public might not have been able to tell the difference but I'm sure the players could) seems a bit far-fetched. And I think you mean to say "cannot be overestimated" or "should not be underestimated"!
March 31, 2020, 4:04 AM · @Mattias Eklund

Maybe I do not know what to listen to, but I can not discern style from - say Stefan Milenkovic and James Ehnes... They are both perfect in the same way.

I can immediately hear difference between Oistrakh and Menuhin for instance.

I am saying - in quest for perfect (on competition and audition level) personal / quirky is frowned upon and therefore discouraged for anyone aspiring to get anywhere.

March 31, 2020, 9:04 AM · Steve, I'm saying that players were specifically sent on the road to sell Edison cylinders. They were actually trying to sound like the recordings to make it seem like the sound of the recording was natural. I'm more saying that the recording technology influenced how people played than somebody hearing the mechanical interference, though not insignificant.

Reference: "How Music Works" by David Byrne.

We do hear that tight vibrato in early recordings. Certainly when you hear an instrument playing without vibrato on an early recording it is hard to hear which instrument is which. Vibrato does help the instrument cut through on those early recordings. Perhaps it was even and attempt to compensate for the mechanical flutter.

Okay, I say it cannot be underestimated - it's partly speculation, but early recording is certainly not talked about much as a historical influence (it is underestimated) in violin playing and, in my opinion, it must have been a huge new thing. Before this you could only hear somebody live to get your influence. I know that recordings have influenced how I play and it's almost hard to imagine life before recordings, we so take it for granted.

I was always told that big vibrato started in the Romantic period but there seems little evidence for this. I would like to suggest that before recordings it was not such a standard thing. Early recordings seems to show a variation in vibrato intensity but my guess is that it was more a 20th century thing to play with constant vibrato.

Edited: March 31, 2020, 7:36 PM · continued,- We also learn things from other instruments. Maybe violinists started doing vibrato at the very beginning of opera- 17th century, influenced by the singers, only about fifty years after the invention of the violin? Before then, the frets on the viols prevent a pitch vibrato. Another analogy; from what I mostly do, Mariachi. We work very closely with the singers, even more so than in opera. The trumpets have a distinctive vibrato. The trumpets were added rather recently, in the 1930's. One of the two first two trumpeters had a very tight and fast pitch vibrato. Were they copying the expressive left hand style of the violins, or the opera-style of the ranchera singers, or did they already have it? No one is sure.
April 25, 2020, 9:48 AM · According to an article entitled "Vibrato" by Greta Moens-Haenen in the 4 volume "New Grove Dictionary of Opera," (1996), " Continuous vibrato [in opera] is a 20th century phenomenon....". "Before 1800, [e]ven in the early experiments with theatrical music and sung recitative, vibrato could be employed as a means of expression. It is doubtful whether it was a regular component of singing technique. During the late Renaissance vibrato is occasionally mentioned as a vocal ornament...." which expanded in the 16th and early 17th centuries into uses "concerned with feminine notions of softness and sweetness, and then proceed to sleep and death", which expanded from the 17th century to the late 19th century to include more violent emotions. "Since 1800, [v]vibrato was not a part of the singer's normal tone in the 19th century...but was still used as an ornament....Only when orchestras became larger, and were thus better able to reinforce the strength of the singer's voice, did vibrato gradually and progressively establish itself. The way in which singing technique developed to cope with larger orchestras and concert halls resulted in more powerful singing , which in turn often produced a clearly audible and continuous vibrato. Today, a singing voice without vibrato is used at most as an ornament, for special effect, or as a particular feature in the performance of early music."
April 29, 2020, 3:33 PM · And how come clarinetists don't use any.
Edited: April 29, 2020, 3:45 PM · Indeed bassoons, clarinets and horns use little or no vibrato, at least in western Europe, while oboes and flutes use more.
Maybe the higher, brighter sounds, played loudly, seem "warmer" with vibrato, as well as "detaching" their sounds from the background. Lower, thicker tones have a more complex texture already?

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