Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Violinist on Vibrato

Written by Joe Peterson

According to Leopold Auer, the OG of the Russian school of violin playing, "The vibrato is primarily a means to heighten effect, to embellish and beautify a singing passage or tone. Unfortunately ... players of stringed instruments frequently abuse this effect ... by doing so, they have called into being a plague of the most inartistic nature." The Black Death of stringed instrument playing!  Oddly, any student of his off the top of my head, let's say Heifetz, Zimbalist, or Elman, had a constant vibrato. But I believe he did have a point, as a phrase cannot have a proper shape when there is something static about it. Leopold Mozart has a similar comparison as Auer's to a physical illness: As he delicately puts it,
"There are performers who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the permanent fever." 

Professor Auer


Papa Mozart


"String players tend to play more in tune today than they did in the early decades of the 20th century,"
 according to Stephen Hough's article "Quaver or not ... should orchestras use vibrato?" Listen to any old recording of Fritz Kreisler playing, and you'll know what he means. Because of this, an early 20th century violin section simulates a vibrato by means of beats, from the variations of pitches, so even though the section did not vibrate constantly, there was always a shimmery quality to it, as heard here, in an early recording with Sir Edward Elgar conducting. 

Sir Edward Elgar

During the time of Elgar, the string choice of most players was gut. Given their irregularity that occurs naturally, they have a wobble built into them, which creates a more full and alive sound, sans vibrato, than steel strings. Steel strings need vibrato to keep them from sounding dead or empty. Nowadays, a good number of us string players use synthetic strings, as they provide a good amount of the wobble in gut strings, keeping the sound sans vibrato alive, without the instability. 

The liveliness that vibrato provides will be present for most of the time, anyway, so a constant vibrato shouldn't be a problem, as demonstrated beautifully by the likes of Heifetz, Zimbalist, and Elman. But the presence of a constant vibrato is not the problem, as it is the presence of a mindless vibrato that prevents the note or phrase from breathing. This is a conclusion I reached through reading Auer and Mozart.  When one isn't aware of their left hand, it loses the humanity that makes the music beautiful. Violinists must heed their left hand to achieve maximum beauty in their playing.





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