Accessibility statement

Vibrato as expressive ornament:
translation of summary chapter from
Das Vibrato in der Musik des Barock (1988)

Greta Moens-Haenen
Translated by Frederick K. Gable (1992, revised 2009)

Translator’s introduction 

The world of early music has finally received a long overdue and much-needed investigation of performance practices: Das Vibrato in der Musik des Barock: Ein Handbuch zur Aufführungspraxis für Vokalisten und Instrumentalisten by Greta Moens-Haenen (Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1988). In my opinion, the use of vocal and instrumental vibrato, both solo and ensemble, is the most controversial and also at the same time the most important aspect of sound production in the whole field of early music. The extent to which vibrato is used and its size and speed can so obscure other elements of a performance that our whole perception of a work can change simply on the basis of vibrato. Thus, this exhaustive study of original sources on vibrato by Greta Moens-Haenen should be greeted with sighs of relief and cheers of congratulations. Finally, the issue of vibrato can be ‘straightened out’.

Moens-Haenen’s monumental study began as a three-volume doctoral dissertation at the Katholieke Universitat Leuven, Belgium, completed in 1983. The published version appears in a fully revised and shortened form (279 pages of main text). This exhaustive and detailed treatment of the vexing topic quotes from, evaluates, and interprets all the most important Baroque sources that mention vibrato (and related musical terms) and makes them available under one cover for any scholar or performer of Baroque music. It should be stressed that a sizable number of previously unexamined sources on vibrato receive due consideration. All quotations are given in the original language and in German translation, complete with a facsimile reproduction of musical examples and other symbols. Even if you disagree with Moens-Haenen’s interpretation, the original is there for you to interpret yourself.

The study is not organized chronologically but is divided into two main parts: the techniques of vibrato (how vibrato was or is produced) and the interpretative use of vibrato. In Part I the production of vibrato is treated in separate chapters on the voice, plucked instruments, viols, violin, woodwinds, brass instruments, and the clavichord. Complementing the quotations from original sources, Moens-Haenen includes notation examples, charts of signs and symbols, and fingering tables for wind-instrument vibratos. This part ends with an important discussion of the relation between vibrato and tremolo.

Part II begins with comments on types of vibrato and the ways each type can be used to express certain Baroque feelings, moods, or affects. Then the specifically notated uses of vibrato in music from Italy, England, Germany, and France are each treated in generally chronological order, with separate chapters on French viola da gamba vibrato and the vibrato usage of guitarists and lutenists. Special chapters also are devoted to vibrato in the music of J. S. Bach, ensemble vibrato, and the tremolo, both vocal and instrumental.

The Appendix (Anhang) contains a list of all symbols for vibrato with their sources; a lengthy glossary of the myriad terms that designate vibrato, citing sources and cross-references to synonyms; and an extensive bibliography of all sources consulted: treatises, prefaces, and manuscripts, as well as modern books, articles, and music editions up to 1983. Usefully detailed indexes of persons and topics complete the volume. Throughout the work the author helps the reader comprehend the whole picture of vibrato usage in the Baroque by providing concise summaries and, in the last nine pages of text, her Concluding Results {Schlußfolgerungen}.

Because the results of this enormous undertaking need to reach a wider audience, I have prepared an English translation of the author’s Concluding Results, pp. 271–9, for performers and interested readers. Since a definition of vibrato is central to any discussion and is part of the controversy surrounding it, the section from her introduction, Working Definitions, pp. 10–12, precedes the main translation. For full documentation of all information and statements in the summary, Moens-Haenen’s complete text will have to be consulted. Only identification of sources specifically mentioned and brief comments of my own have been added to the author’s footnotes. In addition, following the translation appears an updated Selected Additional Bibliography on Vibrato containing a few studies and sources not listed by Moens-Haenen, as well as those published since 1983.

I have tried to closely translate the German, neither the author’s nor the translator’s native language, into readable English without interpreting or modifying the original thought or meaning. Since the selection is a summary chapter, it reads like an outline rather than a cohesive essay. In the translation, words in parentheses are part of the original text and my own insertions appear in closed brackets [  ]; the author’s original German words, where thought necessary, are inserted in curly brackets {  }. Some important and problematical words have usually been translated as follows: vibrieren = to use vibrato, not simply to vibrate; Vibririen (as a noun) = use of vibrato; Schwingung = oscillation, wavering, fluctuation; Klang = sound, tone; Affekt = emotion, emotional state, expressive mood; Affektentheorie = doctrine of affections; Effekt = effect, power; Wirkung = effect, result, influence; Rhetorik = rhetoric; Regung = impulse, motion, motivation; Ästhetik = aesthetics; Koloratur = ornamental singing; Belebung = enhancement, enlivening.

Thanks are due to Greta Moens-Haenen for allowing this translation to be brought to a wider public. For invaluable help in preparing the translation, I would like to acknowledge the help of my wife, Barbara, and my oldest son, Jonathan, of Hamburg, Germany; they are the real linguists in the family.

Vibrato in Baroque music: a handbook of performance practice for singers and instrumentalists

1. Working definitions 

Even before beginning this study, it is clear that it is impossible to talk about ‘the’ Baroque vibrato. For a better overview, therefore, I have attempted to specify some basic characteristics of vibrato types.

The measurable defining elements of vibrato are fluctuation and speed. There are different kinds of oscillation or fluctuation which can occur alone and in combination: frequency (pitch), loudness (intensity), and/or timbre (tone quality). The speed can be fairly constant or possibly accelerating or slowing down.

It is hard to clearly define a regular oscillation since there are gradual transitions {fließende Übergänge} from vibrato to a trill and also to pitch repetition. A trill is essentially an alternation of two clearly distinct pitches a fixed interval apart. With vibrato, though, we have a smaller interval of oscillation, along with its unbroken fluctuation.1 However, between these are borderline cases that today would perhaps not be considered vibrato: for example, a two-finger vibrato on high-pitched string instruments [a second finger lightly touching the string above the stopping finger]. Also, the point at which vibrato becomes pitch repetition is difficult to determine: in rapid fluctuations there is a problem of separating the vocal repeated-note trillo from the instrumental concitato. Technically, they are distinguished by either legato or staccato production, but they often sound similar because of reverberation.2 In addition, a slow intensity vibrato cannot always be distinguished from a multiple messa di voce, which existed at least as a technical exercise for vocal training and probably also as ornamentation.

Finally, we must also agree about what is understood by a non-vibrato tone. For this, a definition of a vibrato-free sound is necessary. In instrumental music, we can talk about a vibrato-free sound if the player does not intervene, that is, if the violinist does not vibrate with the left hand and does not pulsate with the right hand on the bow. But it still remains an open question when the sound can be designated as vibrato-free viewed from the physical standpoint: with instruments one can notice a vibrating sound which comes from the instrument itself (e.g., from the richness of overtones). This kind of slightly oscillating tone I regard in this study as vibrato-free. A few such instances are nevertheless mentioned in Baroque treatises as reference points for a definition of vibrato: the sound of low harpsichord strings or the sound of bells – here the oscillation is even more clearly audible. Whereas today a plucked harpsichord string is considered as vibratoless, in the Baroque it was occasionally associated with vibrato.3

The question to what extent does a singing voice vibrate naturally is much more difficult to answer. One must allow for a possible natural vibrato – even if very small. However, since this cannot be discussed without reference to singing technique, see the pertinent chapter (pages 15ff.).4 What degree of vocal vibrato is considered audible depends greatly on the aesthetics of the time and also differs from person to person. I regard modern statistical and psychological investigations in this field to be irrelevant; I am concerned with an earlier time, and we can surely assume that the perception of vibrato has changed greatly since then.5

Defining vibrato is easier for us if we begin with the manner of sound production, making it easier to draw the line between vibrato and other ornamentation. In this sense, one could call it a vibrato if the musician produces it as such.6 Admittedly, this does not solve the problem of the Baroque musician not recognizing the concept of vibrato nor of using a variety of names for ornaments similar to vibrato. The fluctuation produced by the singer or player was not always advocated by the aesthetics of the time, but the historical and aesthetic controversies can under certain circumstances be very instructive (among other things, for distinguishing different types of vibrato). We must remember, though, that the Baroque aesthetic offers no reference point for certain modern opinions, for example, the view that there is one ideal vibrato. Such concepts will therefore be irrelevant for this study.7

Altogether, one can say that vibrato is not a clearly definable concept but a complex of topics whose meaning has changed often over time. Thus, an exact, limited definition is impossible. Rather, I intend to establish an open working definition, limited by the field of study, using the above-named elements. This definition is flexible according to the topic, and some types of vibrato will be excluded, even if they were included by the old writers, for example, the almost inaudible wavering of a harpsichord string. In principle, however, all types that are designated in the sources by a term related to vibrato or that are described as vibrato will be considered. At the same time, we must bear in mind that the earlier terminology was much more flexible than today’s.

Therefore, the fixed elements of this working definition are the following: vibrato is a regular fluctuation produced by the musician, which wavers varies either in pitch, loudness, or timbre, or in several of these factors at the same time.

2. Concluding results

1. The value of vibrato in musical thought and its development.
The technical assumptions. The non-vibrato tone. Naturalness.

The concepts of vibrato have fundamentally changed in the last centuries. A noticeable, continuous vibrato that serves only to create or enhance the tone first became established after 1900.8 In the Baroque period, this type of vibrato is almost always rejected. However, that does not exclude in any way the use of vibrato as ornamentation, even if this should occur frequently. A clearly audible, continuous vibrato intentionally produced by the musician is widely considered today as normal, especially among string players and singers. A vibratoless tone is often rejected as unnatural, above all by singers. Consequently, a relatively strong vibrato is assumed a priori to be a part of the tone quality. Among violinists this means a movement of the left hand or left arm. At least since Seashore’s publications on these topics [in the 1930s], a tone without vibrato is considered simply unmusical. On the other hand, a tone whose vibrato varies as little as possible from the norm is highly valued. Seashore’s conclusion that an intentionally employed vibrato cannot contribute essentially to variety of expression in a musical piece is only too understandable in this light [that is, the vibrato merely indicates that we feel genuinely; it does not reveal the degree of feeling or the kind of feeling].9

That a musical tone without vibrato must be considered unnatural is a categorical statement which should not be identified with the Baroque, for the modern idea of naturalness was not the ideal of Baroque musicians. Rather, with great artistry {Künstlichkeit} they wanted to create an imitation of nature or her hierarchical order. Present-day ideas of naturalness do not include this way of thinking. The question of a possible natural vibrato (audible or inaudible) appears to be relatively unimportant for the period dealt with in this study, if we exclude a few exceptions discussed below. A larger, more audible and intentional vibrato was grouped with the ornaments. Therefore, the normal sound was intended to be vibratoless. If the question of natural vibrato is dealt with by Baroque authors, it is treated from a physical rather than from a musical standpoint. It was apparently insignificant for the majority of writers. If the musician had a natural vibrato, that was fine; if he did not have one, nothing was said about it. A possible natural vibrato was really not considered vibrato, always assuming that it involved no movement of the left hand by string players or no pulsation of the breath by wind players.10 A modern continuous vibrato would be too large to be considered free of vibrato and was definitely rejected as a part of normal sound production (that is, as something constantly present).

The question of vibrato in the Baroque is primarily a question of techniques for producing vibrato. Many Baroque vibrato techniques clearly rule out continuous use of vibrato, such as the finger vibrato on the woodwinds or the two-finger vibrato on the viola da gamba, since both require an additional finger on the instrument. It follows that there was probably no continuous breath vibrato among wind players because many of these finger vibratos are very narrow so that they would be obscured by a larger breath vibrato. In addition, not one wind-instrument instruction book published in the timespan studied talks about a continuous breath vibrato, although in one instance it is spoken of in an extremely negative way.11 Whenever the breath vibrato is mentioned, it is considered an ornament: for instance, in De Lusse’s statements about imitation of the organ tremulant (his second type of tremblement flexible)12 and in Tromlitz as a way of increasing the effect along with finger vibrato.13 He most strongly rejects a continuous breath vibrato. From this we can conclude that players with a continuous breath vibrato must have always existed, but it also confirms that it was never considered beautiful. It is perhaps noteworthy that statements against a continuous vibrato – for example, by W. A. Mozart about the oboist Fischer – almost all come from the second half of the eighteenth century. Garnier’s frénissement des lèvres [trembling of the lips]14 could technically perhaps be performed continuously, but he describes it as a type of articulation, not as vibrato!

Only with stringed instruments (except for the viol) and singers does technique not automatically exclude a constant vibrato. However, in no way did Baroque violin technique allow the left arm the freedom it now has. So even though continuous vibrato was not impossible, it was less logical, especially if we consider that the violin would very probably have been the only instrument played with permanent vibrato.

Vocal technique constitutes the last problem. Here also the ideal situation is a tone without vibrato, in which vibratoless is again understood to be free from an intentional, trained vibrato. Occasional, natural fluctuations are not excluded here if they are small enough and do not cover up a possible ornamental vibrato. Tartini states that not all voices have a natural vibrato.15 For Dodart,16 on the other hand, this small wavering is precisely the distinctive characteristic of the singing voice in contrast to the speaking voice. However, in addition to this natural fluctuation, an ornamental vibrato, which is not always exceptionally large, is also described.

In the description of tone quality [by Baroque writers], vibrato plays no important or predominant role. However, here one must definitely stress that there is a great difference between Baroque and modern tone production. The vibrato-free alternative is therefore not an absolute uniform sound, but a sound which already has an inner life of its own, an individual dynamic which is inherent. In addition, the overtone spectrum of Baroque instruments in many cases creates an intrinsic vibrato {Eigenvibrato} of the instrument. This type of sound – also described by Tartini and L. Mozart,17 among others – I regard as vibrato-free. Moreover, I would like to emphasize once again that the so-called vibratoless sound in the Baroque contained a large amount of tone enhancement, which in itself already implied a certain degree of fluctuation without the musician needing to add anything to it.

We can now ask whether there were exceptions to this rule, cases in which a consciously produced continuous vibrato is praised. In the Baroque there are appeals for a (natural) vibrato that is basic in sound production, but they are rare, as for example in Germany during the first half of the seventeenth century (for choirboys).18 We do not know how large this vibrato was and, because nothing was written about the ornamental vibrato, there is no point of reference here. Perhaps these sources only describe what Mozart also tries to explain and what Dodart mentions in his treatise.19 However, we can hardly see this wish for a natural vibrato as an exception to the first conclusion given above.

Other reports of excessive use of vibrato are almost without exception related to a frequent ornamental vibrato, and a mostly constant vibrato is nearly always rejected, if it is mentioned at all. Almost all the sources which argue against a conscious, continuous vibrato come from the second half of the eighteenth century; previously the problem did not exist – with a few exceptions which are related directly to singing, all found in Italian sources from around 1600. From them, it follows that without a doubt there existed a conscious and audible continuous vibrato among singers. Zacconi saw it as a positive quality, for it was especially suited for beginning to sing ornamentally – very important for his aesthetics. Otherwise, however, it is always described as a bad habit. I assume that in the ideal case an existing natural vibrato was supposed to be very small, but that in reality there certainly were considerable deviations, especially in the vocal realm. However, the theorists attribute hardly any importance to these, as long as the vibrato does not ‘go beyond the limits’.

We should recognize here that, for the Baroque, vibrato was not considered an important component of tone formation. The conscious use of vibrato belonged to ornamentation and not to basic tone production. The tremolo of old age does not belong in the group of natural vibratos; it was a mistake or a vice {vitium}, arising as it does from lack of control.

2. Vibrato as ornamentation. Tone enhancement and ornamentation.
Borderline cases. Frequency of use. Rhetorical value.

The ornamental vibrato in the Baroque was subject to the standard rules for the performance and use of ornaments. Consequently, it could be used as an expressively effective component of performance style. With vibrato used only for expressive effect, its very frequent use is aesthetically not permissible. That it occurred too often anyway, according to theoretical ideals, may well have led to vibrato being separated relatively quickly from the strict rhetorical rules and also somewhat from the conventions which governed the ornaments in general, so that soon it only represented a general sweetness {Lieblichkeit}. This sweetness was also allied closely to quality of tone; however, vibrato was never viewed exclusively as an enhancement of tone quality, and it still remained primarily an ornament, according to Hébert20 and also to Geminiani as his third type of vibrato.21 By this time, however, these descriptions are almost borderline cases leading to a genuine tone-enhancing vibrato. At least from the second half of the eighteenth century, here and there somewhat earlier, the view exists that long notes could be enhanced by means of vibrato; but even in these cases, it is always seen as ornamentation! The quality of tone is therefore not considered dependent on vibrato.

a) Vibrato and the messa di voce

An important dazzling Baroque effect on long notes was the messa di voce. Even quite early in the Baroque it was accompanied by vibrato. In fact, Roger North later views vibrato as an inseparable element of the messa di voce.22 After the climax of the messa di voce comes an added slow vibrato along with a tapering off of the sound. Also among French viol players, one finds the combination vibrato–messa di voce, and theorists regularly cite it as an instance for the possible use of vibrato. However, North’s exclusive usage is not followed by other authors: messa di voce does not exist only with vibrato nor vibrato only with messa di voce. According to the Tartini school, furthermore, the combination of both ornaments was absolutely not allowed because of an insistence on pure harmonic intervals.23 Tartini is referring to singers, who are never permitted to use vibrato on a messa di voce; apparently even a possible natural vibrato should be suppressed. Other sources view vibrato and secure intonation as not such an irreconcilable contradiction. It is hard to say to what extent Tartini was guided by Italian traditions since the sources are lacking. In any case, the vibrato meant by Tartini is not the uncontrolled wobbling on long notes warned against in every vocal treatise.

Wholesale recommendations for the use of vibrato, for example, ‘on long notes’, are found especially from the second half of the eighteenth century; earlier this advice existed only in instruction books used by novices, beginning amateurs, or school children, sources with little authority. However, as long as vibrato is considered clearly as ornamentation in a theoretical system influenced by expression, it is governed by general rules for ornaments. Without exception this is true for the first two vibrato types of Geminiani;24 for his third type of vibrato, this rule applies only within limits, but it is not completely inapplicable.

Therefore, expressive mood and rhetoric remain important basic reasons for the use of ornamental vibrato, and practical techniques of performance are thus defined by the rules of rhetoric. Vibrato is part of pronunciatio [delivery] and is governed by its rules. It has a definable function and a definable character, and its function results from the character and expressive mood of the composition. A too-frequent use would weaken the dramatic effect of the ornament, and its use in an inappropriate mood would be wrong because it would not produce the intended effect.

A correctly employed vibrato creates emphasis, and it has a clear and relatively strong expressive value. I would now like to try to briefly clarify when vibrato was considered meaningful or effective.

b) Rhetorically dependent areas for use of ornamental vibrato

The character of vibrato belongs in general to the mild emotional moods. There are a few exceptions, mostly in the realms of rage (rarely) and fear. In both of these cases, one can clearly see a relationship to the expressive value of the tremolo and also the concitato to a certain extent. If vibrato is grouped with the gentle moods, it designates emotions like sorrow or weakness, but sometimes it is more pleasing and mild. It is not charming, for that would indeed be too superficial.

A first and important use of vibrato is for emphase (emphasis). This can be harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic, and thus vibrato is frequently applied at the beginning of a piece or on the first strong note. It can accentuate a change in rhythm or simply bring out the rhythm of a movement. Vibrato is often used also at a resting point within a movement, above all before or after a leap. Not infrequently, vibrato is applied to the highest long note.

In the same way, an expressive, effective figure can be brought out or prepared for by vibrato. However, one should always be aware of the expressive mood; a highly dramatic vibrato is clearly different in performance style from a more pleasing one.

Many times vibrato is introduced where one would expect a trill, for instance on sharped notes or after an appoggiatura from above. Here the expressive content supersedes the usual grammatical rule of musical practice. Vibrato in such places arises from an inner logic, making it clear from the musical context that, rhetorically speaking, a trill would be inappropriate. The rule that sharped notes are to be trilled receives here an important corollary based on musical sense.

To the types of emphasis determined by rhetoric certainly belong such figures as gradatio [increasing to a climax], anadiplosis [a type of repetition], and similar figures. We notice, however, that not every emphasis should be brought out with vibrato; vibrato is one of the possibilities. The expressive mood of the piece is decisive in this instance. One can also employ vibrato at a resting point, for instance, after a melisma, at the end of a cadence formula or (sometimes) on the closing note of a piece.

In addition, vibrato can be a vehicle for hypotyposis [imitations of actions]. Appropriately, one will employ a different kind of vibrato for the representation of shaking or trembling depending on the intensity of the action. In a corresponding way, this is true for the representation of anxiety and of coldness. For a literal representation of trembling or its cause, the composer also frequently notates a tremolo, especially if an ongoing situation is portrayed.

In pieces of gentle, ‘feminine’, or sad character, vibrato obviously appears more frequently than in music of opposite character. Complaints about too-frequent use of vibrato are therefore often directed toward a vibrato that does not suit the character of the piece or else toward its use in pieces whose emotional content is not designed for vibrato, without containing a change of expressive mood.

c) Different types of ornamental vibrato

A closer association with expressive mood also implies various possibilities of performing vibrato. Usually this matching of the performance style to the mood is only suggested by the theorists without further details. Some better treatises mention that one should vary the speed of the vibrato according to the expressive mood. We also see similar statements about the use of tremolos. Thus, the fast tremolo in Bach is always designed for the most intense expressive moods, representing an extreme case, for Bach normally uses slow tremolos.

‘The’ vibrato did not exist in the Baroque. The lack of a uniform name indicates in itself that the various terms for vibrato designate different performance styles and possible uses. Sometimes the term only designates a technique or an acoustical effect (tremolo, balancement, Schwebung, Bebung, wavee, etc.). Other times the term also denotes the character of the ornament (ardire, sting, mordant, soupir, sweet’ning, flattement, langueur, plainte, etc.). Technical designations can distinguish the ornament from other similar or technically related ornaments (thus, for example, the pairs trillo-trilletto, tremolo-tremolo sforzato; close-shake, battement, etc.). This is all the more noticeable since related ornaments in one national style at least have uniform names.

d) Vibrato signs

Vibrato is only very rarely marked in compositions, usually represented graphically by a wavy line. However, very short wavy lines () often stand for trill types, but under certain conditions – as in Bach, for example – longer wavy lines could also indicate glissandos (with vibrato?). The latter is usually clear from the musical context.

Lutenists and guitarists often use a cross (). In the late eighteenth century, a symbol for vibrato similar to that for tremolo () is occasionally found. Other signs now and then seen for vibrato are: , etc.  Especially in France, crosses ( + ) could designate a great many different ornaments, in a few cases perhaps meaning vibrato. Here also the musical context is decisive.

In no way do the surviving compositions with vibrato symbols offer proof of using vibrato ‘on every longer note’, and to what extent one can transfer these signs to other music is not always clear. At any rate, they indicate one element of what we can roughly understand by the much-praised expression ‘good taste’. From the composers’ points of view, vibrato on all longer notes was not intended, but we know that musical practice did not always conform to these expectations. After all this, it remains clear that vibrato was still viewed as an ornament, even by those musicians who used it quite frequently.

e) Vibrato combined with other ornaments

The combination vibrato-messa di voce and the use of vibrato after an appoggiatura have already been mentioned. Nevertheless, vibrato as an ornament most often occurs by itself or with the messa di voce. The connection of vibrato and messa di voce is regularly marked in French viol music. Also the port de voix is now and then followed by a vibrato, even if not nearly as often as by a mordent. In French style, the vibrato can generally be combined with all the other agréments, even if quite rarely. There certainly are similar combinations in the other national styles, but fewer statements about them survive. A heightening effect is no doubt created by the vibrato-glissando, a combination which creates an extremely strong expressive effect and consequently seldom occurs. Perhaps the wavy lines in Bach mean a glissando with vibrato, producing a highly intense effect.

3. Historical developments. Ornamental vibrato, doctrine of the affections and rhetoric in various national styles. Changes of taste.

Nowhere is a noticeable continuous vibrato approved of. The fact that from time to time warnings are made about it, of course, proves that such a thing existed, but it was at least theoretically not tolerated, and I believe that the better performers tried to avoid it.

On the whole, one can say that the greater the importance of rhetorical theory and the doctrine of affections in composition and performance, the more strictly the rules of the application of vibrato were followed. This trend against a frequent ornamental vibrato is clearly present up to the 1670s. In this connection, frequent use of vibrato in earlier times is referred to now and again. Unfortunately, I have found almost no documents about this practice and therefore I can not verify it. In any case, up to the beginning of the eighteenth century, ornamental vibrato is to be applied quite strictly according to the rhetorical rules, and there are few complaints about violations of these rules. The vibrato symbols in lute and guitar music, as well as those used by the French viol players, only substantiate these tendencies. I have not found a vibrato that only serves to beautify tone in the music of this time; consequently the application of vibrato as an ornament always has meaning.

The increasing sociological significance of amateur musicianship and, at the same time, virtuosity brought changes in this situation. Instruction books for beginners from the end of the seventeenth century often include very simplified directions for the use of vibrato without rhetorical or expressive meaning. These sources are of course completely unimportant for professional performance. But after the beginning of the eighteenth century, isolated complaints about excessive vibrato appear. On the one hand, they are directed against a too-frequent use of vibrato outside of its rhetorical context and, on the other hand, against a vibrato used without enough differentiation of the performance possibilities. At the same time, some serious instruction books advocate the use of vibrato on most long notes. This suggests that vibrato is slowly beginning to free itself from its strict rhetorical context and that a component of tone enhancement is becoming more prominent and gradually assuming an established place next to rhetorical doctrine. Within a certain expressive area, the rules of vibrato usage do appear to be loosening somewhat.

Around the middle of the eighteenth century, when the strict doctrine of affections with all its consequences had long ceased to exist and a certain sentimentalism was spreading, a tone-enhancing vibrato also arose. No longer are the rhetorical rules observed absolutely; however, the character of the vibrato remains somewhere between pleasing and mildly sad. Thus, the element of tone enhancement becomes more important, but vague rhetorical associations still survive. Exactly at this time complaints are made about excessive use of vibrato. These are no longer related only to the tremolo of old-age or to the use ‘on all long notes’, but also to a vibrato that is becoming habitual. How widespread this ‘bad habit’ was in Europe is difficult to prove. In France vibrato or trills {chevrotier} were apparently used on long notes in general. Complaints against a constant vibrato are found primarily in Germany. The English might have adopted the frequent use of vibrato from Geminiani, but probably it applied only to the violinists.25 Up to this time, we know least about the Italians. The members of the Tartini school were known for their vibrato, among other things, but this also was not a constant thing. French reports about Italian musical practice from the second half of the eighteenth century do not directly indicate the use of excessive vibrato. Here we should not draw hasty conclusions.

4{5}. Vibrato and tremolo

The imitation of the organ tremulant [by the tremolo] is in principle also considered a type of vibrato, in this case written out. The notes enclosed under one slur serve to indicate how many fluctuations the note value should contain, corresponding to the number of notes under the slur. At the same time, the notation defines the speed, adopted from the organ tremulant. In most cases, the rapid tremolo is perceived as more intense, in contrast to the slow tremulant; accordingly, it is reserved for the strongest expressive emotions {Affektregungen}.

In performance it should still be noted that, as long as the mental connection with the organ tremulant existed, the tremolo should sound like a measured vibrato. However, early in the eighteenth century, there was evidence that from time to time the tremolo was played as a type of portato under one slur. This later resulted in a certain confusion in marking since both were similarly notated. Naturally, the distinction in sound was blurred {fließende Übergänge}; however, for composer and player, tremolo and portato (‘carrying of the tones’) were two clearly separate concepts.

Normally, the tremolo is employed by the composer as an emphatic rhetorical device. Almost certainly that rules out ad-lib use by the player, yet there is some evidence that there were also some ornamental tremolos. As a sound effect similar to vibrato, the expressive effect of tremolo is comparable to that of vibrato but, in contrast to the vibrato, tremolo is often used in longer sections of a movement. As a portrayal of trembling and, metaphorically, also of fear and coldness, it lends itself to musical-physiological meanings. In addition to fear, awe, and the like, it also depicts the agony of death and often death itself (very often in Bach the longing for death), and thus also related states such as sleep, weakness, rest, or night. On the other hand, it also stands for supplication, petition, prayer, mercy, and similar expressions. Especially in Germany, the fear of God is very often represented by tremolos.

In purely instrumental music, the meaning of tremolo is not always so clear. Many times it is found in a slow movement; here the slow tremolo is usually used, since the fast tremolo always has a clear and strong rhetorical function. In instrumental pieces, it often appears to represent milder emotions, including the sad and possibly also pleasant moods. Symbolic usage and representations of nature are in general marked as such.

Just as vibrato in its pure form was only introduced on single notes according to the mood, the tremolo could very well portray a certain duration of a physical reaction to the mood. In the expression of emotion, apparently tremolo and vibrato operate similarly; but while vibrato belongs in general to the feminine realm, the tremolo is very often used for stronger emotions, as well as for extreme cases. Tremolo and vibrato are clearly related concepts; they are both parts of one thing. The greatest differences between them are probably that tremolo, used for longer periods, shows a specific duration which the normal vibrato does not have. The differences in sound are not always very great or very clear, except for the measured pace of the tremolo. Finally, the organ tremulant is more closely related to the normal vibrato than to its measured counterpart, the tremolo; therefore, it is often used as an acoustic explanation of the concept ‘vibrato’. For the notated tremolo, the regularity is, in any case, another great difference from vibrato. Many times in performance this is also the only difference, as in vocal vibrato/tremolo. Only in this sense can it be understood that the tremolo on string instruments is produced with a bow vibrato: a left-hand vibrato can never be as rhythmically exact as a bow vibrato.

5{4}. Vibrato in the Baroque. Final definitions. Closing observations.

From the preceding, it is clear that the definitions of what we now call vibrato should be thought about in a new way for the Baroque period. A theoretically ideal vibrato like that of today – in practice such a vibrato certainly does not exist, but it is always held up as a model – did not exist in the Baroque at all. Furthermore, the oscillation did not have to be absolutely regular, but could be fast, slow, or accelerating, with speed and intensity governed by expressive mood and rhetoric. A balanced combination of the elements of intensity and width was not absolutely followed nor was the size of the fluctuation measured according to an ideal model. In addition, an intensity-only vibrato was fully considered as vibrato. Thus, in many borderline cases, the old vibrato was similar to other ornaments like trills.

Only an intentional vibrato, perhaps with the exception of the quivering of old-age, is seen as vibrato. Some scientific examinations of the problem, all from the eighteenth century, concerned themselves with the intrinsic vibrato of the voice or instrument. But such considerations appear to have been of little value for musical practice and were recognized without influencing music making.

Technically, the Baroque vibrato is also completely different from modern vibrato. Thus, we often see a relationship to other ornaments, most obviously to the finger vibrato on woodwind instruments. Unlike today’s practice, there were also different techniques for producing vibrato for various purposes. These differentiations include not only distinguishing vibrato from tremolo, but also variations in the normal vibrato.

Finally, it must also be mentioned that vibrato occurs only in a relatively small percentage of instruction books. At first, we find it in teaching manuals which are not [sic] directed to beginners. Perhaps at that time, vibrato was not in fashion or perhaps was so well known that one did not need to mention it. In the really important method books, vibrato is found quite regularly after the late seventeenth century; in all of these it is treated as an ornament.

In music compositions, vibrato is only very rarely notated, possibly because of the strong emotional connotations it had. Without a doubt, its effect determines its frequency of use. An often-employed vibrato loses a significant amount of its expressive power, and a continuous vibrato has no expressive meaning at all. The few symbols for vibrato give proof of intentional use. The standard vibrato does not exist in the Baroque period; rather, the manner of performance is adapted according to its intended expressive effect. Probably that is also the reason why the ornament had no uniform name: it encompassed in itself so many variations that we should view it as a great complex of ornaments which have in common only a similar acoustic quality.

Selected additional bibliography on vibrato

* = Works on singing

  • *Agricola, Johann Friedrich. Introduction to the art of singing, trans. and ed. Julianne C. Baird. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. German version of Tosi.
  • *Baird, Julianne. ‘Solo Singing 2: The Bel canto Style’, Performer’s Guide to Seventeenth-Century Music, ed. Stewart Carter. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. Pp. 36–8.
  • *Brown, Clive. Classical and Romantic performing practice: 1750–1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. 517–35.
  • Brüggen, Daniel. ‘Das Vibrato im Blockflotenspiel’, Tibia: Magazin fur Holzblaser, Vol. 21 (1996), 23–7, 116–23.  
  • Carter, Stewart. ‘The String Tremolo in the 17th Century’, Early Music, Vol. 19 (Feb. 1991), 43–59.
  • *Crutchfield, Will. ‘Some thoughts on reconstructing singing styles of the past’, Journal of the Conductors’ Guild, Vol. 10 (Summer–Fall 1989), 111–20.
  • *Crutchfield, Will. ‘The Classical Era: Voices’, Performance Practice: Music after 1600, ed. H. M. Brown and Stanley Sadie. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. Pp. 295–6.
  • Dickey, Bruce. ‘Ornamentation in Early-Seventeenth-Century Italian Music’, Performer’s Guide to Seventeenth-Century Music, ed. Stewart Carter. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. Pp. 263–7.
  • Donington, Robert. String Playing in Baroque Music. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977. Pp. 66–8.
  • Donington, Robert. ‘String playing in Baroque music’, Early Music, Vol. V (July 1977), 389–93.
  • *Elliott, Martha. Singing in Style: A Guide to Vocal Performance Practices. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Pp. 14–18, 64–5, 87–8, et passim.
  • *Foreman, Edward. The art of bel canto in the Italian baroque: a study of the original sources. Minneapolis: Pro Musica Press, 2006.
  • *Gable, Frederick K. ‘Some observations concerning Baroque and modern vibrato’, Performance Practice Review, Vol. 5 (Spring 1992), 90–102.
  • Gärtner, Jochen. The Vibrato, with particular consideration given to the situation of the Flutist, trans. E. W. Anderson from the German edition of 1974 . Regensburg: Bosse Verlag, 1981. Pp. 17–29.
  • *Harris, Ellen T. ‘The Baroque Era: Voices’, Performance Practice: Music after 1600, ed. H. M. Brown and Stanley Sadie. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. Pp. 103–5.
  • Haynes, Bruce. ‘Das Fingervibrato (Flattement) auf Holzblasinstrumenten im 17., 18. und 19. Jahrhundert’, Tibia: Magazin fur Holzblaser, Vol. 22/2–3 (1997), 401–7, 481–7.
  • Haynes, Bruce. ‘Vibrato’, The Eloquent Oboe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. 250–66.
  • Hauck, Werner. Vibrato on the violin. London: Bosworth, 1975. A translation of Das Vibrato auf der Violine (Koln: Bosworth, 1971)
  • *Jackson, Roland. ‘Vibrato’, Performance Practice: A Dictionary-Guide for Musicians. New York: Routledge, 2005. Pp. 435–40.
  • *Johnson, Evan. ‘Good vibrations?’ Historical Performance, Vol. 5 (Spring 1992), 25–6, 54.
  • *Journal of Voice Vol. 1/ 2 (June 1987): Special issue on Vibrato, including ‘Acoustic Properties of Straight Tone, Vibrato, Trill, and Trillo’, by Jean Hakes, Thomas Shipp and E. Thomas Doherty; and ‘Discussion on Vibrato’, 168–71.
  • *Kelly, Terence. ‘The authenticity of continuous vocal vibrato: An empirical and historical investigation’, The NATS Journal (Journal of Singing) Vol. 51 (Jan.–Feb. 1995), 3–6.
  • *Kurtzman, Jeffrey G. ‘Vocal Style’, The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. 386–403.
  • Jooste, Fanie. ‘Die gebruik van vibrato op houtblaasinstrumente’, South African Journal of Musicology, Vol. 4 (1986), 29–39. With English summary.
  • Manning, Dwight. ‘Woodwind vibrato from the eighteenth century to the present’, Performance Practice Review, Vol. 8 (Spring 1995), 67–72.
  • Melkus, Eduard. ‘Das Vibrato im 17./18. Jahrhundert’, Studien zur Aufführungspraxis und Interpretation von Instrumentalmusik des 18. Jh., Vol. 23. Blankenburg: Kultur- und Forschungsstätte Michaelstein, 1983. Pp. 66–72.
  • Meyer, Jürgen. Zur klanglichen Wirkung des Vibratos. Tutzing: Schneider, 1994. Pp. 77–91.
  • Meyer, Jürgen. ‘Zur klanglichen Wirkung des Streicher-Vibratos’, Acustica, Vol. 76 (1992), 283–91.
  • *Miehling, Klaus. ‘Zur Rolle des Gesangsvibratos in der abendländischen Musikgeschichte’, Concerto: Das Magazin fur Alte Musik, Vol. 18 (June 2001), 19–24; (July–Aug. 2001), 13–15.
  • *Miller, Richard. National Schools of Singing: English, French, German, and Italian Techniques of Singing Revisited, rev. ed. Lanham and London: Scarecrow Press, 1997. Pp. 92–7, 141–2.
  • Moens-Haenen, Greta. Deutsche Violintechnik im 17. Jahrhundert: ein Handbuch zur Aufführungspraxis. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 2006.
  • *Neumann, Frederick. ‘Authenticity and the Vocal Vibrato’, The American Choral Review 29, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 13–17. Reprinted in New Essays on Performance Practice. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989, pp. 169–73, and absorbed into the longer article ‘The Vibrato Controversy’, Performance Practice Review, Vol. 4 (Spring 1991), 1–14.
  • *Neumann, Frederick. ‘More on authenticity: Authenticity and the vocal vibrato’, American Choral Review, Vol. 29 (Spring 1987), 9, 13–17.
  • *Reid, Cornelius. ‘The Nature of the Vibrato’, Journal of Research in Singing, Vol. 12, No. 2 (June 1989), 39–61.
  • *Sanford, Sally. Seventeeth and Eighteenth Century Vocal Style and Technique. DMA diss., Stanford Univ., 1979. Pp. 71–8.
  • *Sanford, Sally. ‘A Comparison of French and Italian Singing in the Seventeenth Century’, Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music, Vol. 1 (Oct 1995), pars. 3.1–3.2. <>
  • *Sanford, Sally. ‘Solo Singing 1’, Performer’s Guide to Seventeenth-Century Music, ed. Stewart Carter. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. Pp. 6–7, 12–13, 15–16, 18–19.
  • Schenk, Erich. ‘Zur Aufführungspraxis des Tremolo bei Gluck’, Anthony von Hoboken: Festschrift zum 75. Geburtstag, ed. Joseph Schmidt-Georg. Mainz: B. Schott’s Söhne, 1962. Pp. 137–45.
  • *Stevens, Denis. ‘Über das Vibrato: aesthetische, stilistische, geschichtliche Betrachtungen’, Musica, Vol. 25 (1971), 462–64.
  • Stowell, Robin. ‘The Classical Era: Strings’, Performance Practice: Music after 1600, ed. H. M. Brown and Stanley Sadie. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. Pp. 245–46.
  • Thierbach, Sue Ellen Puyear. ‘Vibrato in the violin music of the Baroque period’, American String Teacher, Vol. 49 (May 1999), 76–81.
  • *Toft, Robert. Heart to heart: expressive singing in England, 1780–1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. 30–38.
  • Turnow, Hans. ‘Die Verzierungkunst aus Matthesons Sicht’, New Mattheson Studies, ed. G. J. Buelow and H. J. Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983. Pp. 269–89.
  • Veilhan, Jean-Claude. The Rules of Musical Interpretation in the Baroque Era, trans. J. Lambert. Paris: Leduc, 1979. Pp. 36–37, 47.
  • Walls, Peter. ‘The Baroque Era: Strings’, Performance Practice: Music after 1600, ed. H. M. Brown and Stanley Sadie. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. Pp. 58, 71.
  • Warner, Thomas E. ‘Tromlitz’s Flute Treatise: a Neglected Source of Eighteenth-Century Performance Practice’, A Musical Offering: Essays in Honor of Martin Bernstein, ed. E. H. Clinkscale and C. Brook. New York: Pendragon Press, 1977. Pp. 261–73, 265.
  • *Weber, Steven Todd. An investigation of intensity differences between vibrato and straight tone singing. DMA dissertation in Music: Arizona State University, 1992.
  • *Wistreich, Richard. ‘Reconconstructing pre-Romantic Singing Technique’, The Cambridge Companion to Singing, ed. John Potter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. 178–191.
  • Zaslaw, Neal. ‘Vibrato in eighteenth-century orchestras’, Performance Practice Review, Vol. 4  (Spring 1991), 28–33.

[Prepared with the help of NISC and BiblioLine:]

Some interesting sidelights: 

Google search (Dec 14, 2010) = About 6,380,000 hits for Vibrato; and 385,000 for Vocal Vibrato.

  1. [FKG] Modern vibratos can surpass even the interval of a whole-tone trill.
  2. [M-H] In the nineteenth century, this effect was used in the orchestral tremolo or in the octave tremolos on the piano. In the time under study here the technical difference appears to have predominated over acoustical considerations.
  3. [M-H] That is to say, with a consciously produced vibrato. This oscillation could be, for example, produced by a wavering of two not identically tuned registers. For the term ‘wavering’ {Schwebung}, see the Glossary.
  4. [FKG] Moens-Haenen’s discussion of vocal technique begins with the thorny problem of natural vibrato. A summary of her discussion appears below.
  5. [M-H] I cannot consider it scientifically correct to assume it has not changed – even if it were only, for example, because of the completely different acoustic environment. Concerning vibrato, it should be mentioned that modern listeners expect a sound defined by a continuous vibrato. This continuous vibrato should be as similar as possible to a physically ideal type (to what extent this is the case is not part of my investigation), and a vibrato-free sound as normal sound production is frowned upon. The premises are therefore clearly different. On the modern concepts of vibrato, see, among others, Arthur H. Benade, Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976; and Emile Leipp, Acoustique et musique, Paris: Mason, 1971, both of which also include literature on the subject. [FKG] For more recent studies of vibrato, please consult the Selected Additional Bibliography.
  6. [M-H] Therefore, this includes also a trained vibrato which becomes normal, as for example is often the case with the modern continuous vibrato. However, it should not be mistaken for a ‘natural’ vibrato. In addition, we should be aware that a continuous vibrato, now generally common, is from a more recent time.
  7. [M-H] By this, however, I am not excluding the possibility that an effect similar to today’s vibrato existed.
  8. [FKG] Many scholars place the development far earlier than this date, while others have found a more complex situation depending on genre, medium, repertoire, performance locale, and numerous other factors. See especially the studies by Clive Brown and Robert Toft in the Selected Additional Bibliography appended to this translation.
  9. [FKG] Carl E. Seashore, Psychology of the Vibrato in Voice and Instrument (Iowa City: The University Press, 1936), p. 117.
  10. [M-H] Mutatis mutandi perhaps comparable to the so-called Viennese wind tone, also mostly free from intentionally produced vibrato. The great difference, however, is that there were regularly occurring ornamental vibratos in the Baroque.
  11. [FKG] Perhaps referring to remarks by W. A. Mozart about the oboist J. C. Fischer’s tremulous playing in a letter to his father, April 4, 1787, mentioned later, or to statements by Tromlitz (see footnote 13).
  12. L’Arte de la Flute Traversiere (c.1760).
  13. Ausführlicher und gründlicher Unterricht die Flöte zu spielen (1791).
  14. Methode raisonée pour le Haut-Bois (c.1798).
  15. Regole per arrivare a saper ben suonare il Violino (before 1750).
  16. Supplement au Memoire sur la Voix et sur les tons (1706).
  17. Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (1756).
  18. Michael Praetorius, Syntagma musicum III (1619).
  19. See note 16 above.
  20. Traité de l’Harmonie des sons et leurs rapports (1733).
  21. [GMH] The Art of Playing on the Violin (1751). [FKG] The type which can be applied to any note. However, Geminiani’s remark was removed in Robert Bremner’s 1777 edition of his treatise.
  22. Notes of Me (c.1695).
  23. See note 15 above.
  24. [FKG] See note 21 above.
  25. [FKG] For later violin vibrato in England, see especially Clive Brown in the Selected Additional Bibliography.