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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Friday October 06 2017

Gerald Elias, in this piece linked to from Arts & Letters Daily, demolishes the claim that the use of vibrato by classical string players is only a recent thing.

The evidence against this idea is so overwhelming that the question is, why do anti-vibrato fanatics like Sir Roger Norrington get the time of day from orchestras?  Probably because, just as Leopold (father of Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart apparently grumbled back in his time, string players now tend to use vibrato rather too much.  (As do opera singers now, in my opinion).  So, hearing some symphonic warhorse without any vibrato at all can yield otherwise unhearable felicities, however absurdly inauthentic such a performance as a whole clearly is.

But enough of vibrato.  Elias is right, and although he chooses not to name any of these fools, the likes of Norrington are wrong, and that’s that.  At which point in his piece Elias says something else that strikes me as far more interesting, if only because, unlike all the stuff about vibrato, the thought had never occurred to me before:

Sorry to go on ad nauseum about vibrato. Time to move on to a different thought. How many of you have traveled through a hilly country like England or Italy? Have you noticed the change in people’s spoken accent when you wend your way from one village to another? Hell, you go from Brooklyn to the Bronx and it’s like another language. Now, go back two or three hundred years, when the sole possible means of verbal communication was person-to-person and most people rarely left the confines of their natal valley. Just imagine how much that linguistic phenomenon would be magnified! Don’t forget, it wasn’t until Italy’s unification in 1870 that they started thinking about a national language.

My point is, do you really think that there was only one way to play music in that day and age? Do you really think no one (or everyone) played with vibrato? My guess is that the variety of techniques and interpretations was much more vibrant, colorful, and creative than it is now, when easy international travel and instantaneous mass media give us a thoroughly homogenized concept of what well-played music is “supposed” to sound like. So much for the orthodoxy of the Historically (Mis)Informed.

Good point.  You often hear critics complaining about how orchestras now all sound the same.  Well, why would we believe that this process of performance style convergence is only a very recent one?  (Any more than we would believe that vibrato is only recent?)