The Chicken or the Egg: Who used Vibrato first?

The genesis of vibrato in instrumental performance has long been thought (and taught) to have made it’s way across the great divide originating in the vocal world. Indeed, this is what many sources today state. Possible points of origin include early Italian opera (which seems to have been the first adopter of the trembling voice) or possibly the from French in the same sector. But with little more than incomplete evidence, stretched theories and snippets of quotations taken from their original context, (not to mention the historically non-compatible cross relation of the terms tremolo and vibrato between the two worlds) the true history lies lost in the fog. But who could blame anyone for embracing this teaching? What cold and mechanical instrumentalist wouldn’t want to sound like a great singer, vibrating away in a cantabile manner full of life and warmth?

Well, maybe singers didn’t think of it first.

That is what Henry Fisher in his book Psychology for Music Teachers (pub. 1907) believes. Instead of just pulling out one or two sentences, I’m going to reproduce almost two complete pages below. Mr. Fisher discusses what he calls “a great fascination for vocalists (vibrato)” and how most singers during his day are quite bad at producing a pleasing vibrato. He continues to comment on how Violinists have much better ears than singers, and then momentarily touches on about his idea about the origin of vibrato in singing.

And while only making the mere mention of a different possible origin of vibrato (one sentence to be exact) the statement does have merit.

In “Musica instrumentalis deudsch,” a treatise of musical instruments from 1529/1545, Martin Agricola writes: “One also produces vibrato freely to make the melody sweeter.”

Melly Olde England (or is it Jolly Olde England, I can never remember) in the year 1665 saw the publishing of a an instrumental performance treatise for Violin and Violone by Christopher Simpson in which a table of graces, or grace notes, shows not only regular trills (shakes) of half step and whole step intervals, but also a type of trill (shake) which is less than a half step.

Note carefully that the pitches in the Close Shake explanation never leave their space and do not make it up to the next line in the staff. The graces directly following it both show pitches which move up to the next line or space. This example is no misprint either. This and similar musical explanations can be found within a fifty year or so period, laid out in different printings but all showing the same idea; a close shake being a pitch variation without achieving the next scale-wise tone. In other words EUREKA! I mean VIBRATO! Furthermore, Simpson advocates that the close shake be made on any note where any other grace is not applicable.

Approximately one hundred years later, the Italian Violinist Francesco Geminiani championed in his treatise on playing the Violin (which was translated and also published in England) that the close shake (vibrato) is so nice that it should be made on every note possible, just like smothering the notes in guacamole or some other tasty condiment.

The late adoption of expanded vibrato use by vocalists in England and America can be viewed around the turn of the twentieth century in the newspapers, books and musical digests which detest singers who use/overuse vibrato.

The Musical Times, March 1, pub London, Novello, Ewer and co. 1893.

The New Music Review and Church Music Review, Volume 14, pub Novello, Ewer & co. 1906.

The Musical Times, No. 940 pub London & New York Novello, Ewer and co. June 1, 1921.

Walker, Francis. Letters of a Baritone. New York: Scribner, 1895.

These few examples don’t even begin to represent the tip of the iceberg on the numerous writings containing criticism of vocalists using vibrato during the turn of the century. But, all of this doesn’t come close to providing definitive proof one way or the other as to which group of performers employed it first, the singers or the instrumentalists. Who wanted to be more like who… or whom….. either way, history still seems pretty scrambled(rimshot!) on the truth.

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