You say “Tremolo,” I say “Tremolando”

After a multi-month hiatus from this blog, I return to bring you the first in a “non-sequential/whenever I have time for it” series pertaining to instrumental vibrato.

But before I begin to even approach such a hotly debated topic, a little background into what I have been up to lately which has kept me from this blog is in order.

The final research project for my recently completed Doctoral degree was comprised of creating a document titled “Instrumental Vibrato: An Annotated Bibliography of Historical Writings Before 1940.” As the title suggests, it is a collection of annotations about vibrato writings. The survey of documents included tutors/method books, dictionaries, newspapers and other primary and secondary source material from the period.

While the goal of creating a comprehensive guide covering all instruments is an ongoing task, my paper investigated 309 documents, finding that 258 contained clear references to instrumental vibrato. These occurred from the 1540’s through 1940. That’s 400 years of wavering tones for those of you following at home. The end result was the conclusion that at no time during this period was vibrato wholly acceptable or wholly unacceptable. So what does that mean for informed classical music performances? Well, that depends on who you talk to.

My paper has already begun circulating with leading conductors around the world interested in performance practice. Those include Christopher Hogwood, Sir Eliot Gardiner, Sir Colin Davis, and Sir Roger Norrington. Interestingly, I am currently engaged in a dialogue with Sir Roger about the findings of my work and about my understudying and informed use of vibrato in various periods of classical music based on these historical writings. Somehow I thought there would be more yelling, or at least, more typing in all caps during this conservation. But thankfully it has yet to happen. In the coming months I will be writing several articles intended for publication in music journals and other electronic resources about various aspects of historical vibrato usage.

Maybe Sir Roger would like to write the preface for one of these articles? I’ll have to ask him.

But before an enlightened discussion (or a series of enlightened discussions) about instrumental vibrato can occur, it is important to understand the issues regarding the word vibrato and its sibling terms. The easiest way to achieve this is through an extract from my recent paper.

Shameless self promotion you say? I am a conductor after all. They teach us more than just four-patterns and wooing donors these days.


Historical Terms and Discrepancies

Throughout history, vibrato has been referred to by many names. These names varied from region to region throughout the range of the study, and have included variations on spelling. A term meaning one idea in Paris could mean something completely different in London. The historical terms referencing vibrato include, but are not limited, to: balancement, battement, beben, bebend, bebung, bockstriller, bombo, chevroter, chevroterment, close shake, mezzo del ditto, ondeggiameto, ondeggiante, ondule, ondulieren, schwebung, shake, softening, sting, sweetening, trembling, tremente, tremolante, tremolo, tremando, tremulant, tremulieren, tremulis digitis, trillo, undulation, undulazione, vibrate and zittern.

This wide range of terminology and mixed use have often led to
multiple definitions, even within single given sources.
Occasionally, it also produced a chain of definitions/descriptions
that referred to eachother, even though they were attempting to express different points.

The following extract from William Ludden’s Pronouncing Musical Dictionary of 1875 illustrates this point:

The definition for vibratissimo indicates “extremely vibrating and tremulous,” but does not refer to vibrato directly. Vibrante adds a similar definition to vibratissimo, but cites resonance and tone, something in common with the definition of Vibrato. Vibrante also lists quivering as part of its definition, something also found under tremolo. Tremolo states it is a chord or note reiterated, but also the word tremulous is associated to it. That same association is found back in the definition of vibrante, which previously demonstrated links back to vibrato. But in this dictionary, vibrato and tremolo are expressed as two differing ideas. These related definitions help illustrate some of the discrepancies and mixed word usage found throughout history.


Next time we might look into the problem with the term “tremulous” which is widely used to describe vibrato. Or perhaps examine documented proof that the English (who currently figure prominently in the non-vibrato movement) used vibrato nearly all the time in the late 1800’s… including usage by “the brazen ophicleide.”

So stay tuned as we begin this voyage of rediscovery about the true history of instrumental vibrato.

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