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Bach: To Vibrate Or NOT To Vibrate?

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It seems to me that the music of Bach is marvelous in that so much of it sounds wonderful no matter what instrument it is played on. So whatever you do with your left hand when playing it, it can me marvelous.

The difference between playing it in the supposed baroque style and whatever (modern???) can be like the differences available in "museum diving" - (maybe even the difference between ancient cave paintings and baroque paintings or between baroque painting and impressionism).

It's all great but some of it is really moving for some people and others for others (different strokes for different folks).

Personally, I like the added range of color and volume available with artistic use of vibrato - even with great baroque music.

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Andres, I agree with you 100 percent. Another clue would be Tremulant effects in baroque organs, again showing that a continuous vibrato was not anathema to everyone in the baroque period. However, it is my opinion that Bach did not care much for vibrato, and only employed it rarely as a special effect, where he indicated it  with a wavy line, as found in one place in the violin solos, and one place in the Brandenburg concertos.

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4 hours ago, avandesande said:

I wonder if people in Bach's day were obsessing over playing 15th century music exactly as it was.

Probably not.  But then they were not surrounded by a dead musical tradition whose self-referential circularity has created a homogenized style dense with manneristic conventions, a surprising number of whose adherents, despite being clearly in the majority and having nothing to fear, find it necessary to poke fun at people for valuing something different, even going so far as to deny that anything can be known about the object of their study.

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3 hours ago, Andres Sender said:

Probably not.  But then they were not surrounded by a dead musical tradition whose self-referential circularity has created a homogenized style dense with manneristic conventions, a surprising number of whose adherents, despite being clearly in the majority and having nothing to fear, find it necessary to poke fun at people for valuing something different, even going so far as to deny that anything can be known about the object of their study.

Yes agreed, On one hand it has become a highly ritualized mish-mash, but on the other hand, are all of those folks who Did Not show up for their Baroque Music History classes. If it sounds good, what matter? It's going to evolve anyway and was during Bach's own lifetime, and I'm including everything, the fashion, the writing, the playing, as well as, the instruments evolving to keep up.

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I haven't scoured the posts for an answer to this, but when I hear that the "purist" approach is to play with no vibrato, my gut reaction is to ask, "Says who?"  Has someone found a stash of 8-track tapes from the eighteenth century?

Is the notion that vibrato was anathema to players in the 1700s founded on solid evidence?  The fact that someone famous whined about excessive vibrato in a letter from the period doesn't carry much weight, with me.  Famous people today still whine about all manner of things...

Play it how it sounds best, whatever that means.  After all, if you want to be TRULY period correct, you'd be playing most of Bach's work as background music, anyway.

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16 minutes ago, Fossil Ledges said:

Yes agreed, On one hand it has become a highly ritualized mish-mash, but on the other hand, are all of those folks who Did Not show up for their Baroque Music History classes. If it sounds good, what matter? It's going to evolve anyway and was during Bach's own lifetime, and I'm including everything, the fashion, the writing, the playing, as well as, the instruments evolving to keep up.

Sure.  See, I'm not an advocate for HIP in the sense of thinking everyone ought to be doing it.  I'm a big believer in live and let live.  The point of this whole exercise is to go after what you like.  Sure, find the reasons why you like what you like, be passionate about it, dig into it, develop it, but leave the other guy alone.  The thing that it sometimes seems as though no one outside of the HIP movement is able to understand is that they are digging into that stuff because they love the results.  They are doing it for love.  It's not some conspiracy to make other people feel inferior.  If you think the discovery of the conventions of playing in the baroque has some implications for how you should be playing that music who do you have to blame??  You're the one making that judgment.

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I agree with the proposal that music should be played the way that sounds best and expresses what the musician wants.  There has always been controversy concerning HIP.   Sir Thomas Beecham made a now famous remark that harpsichord music sounds like skeletons copulating on a tin roof :) .  I myself find it more difficult to hear many aspects of Bach played on harpsichord compared to on a modern piano due, I think, to the dynamic capability of the piano.  I imagine that Bach might have appreciated being able to use the dynamic properties of the modern piano.  As for violin music, I love the solo Bach as played by Rachel Podger, Arthur Grumiaux, and Henryk Szeryng.  I am not sure about Isabelle Faust's version, more time listening needed.  It seems to be a partial HIP performance, using the 1707 Strad (the Sleeping Beauty) in modern set-up and using a Baroque style bow.

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The evidence that Bach liked dynamics (he liked to play his violin sonatas on a clavichord, too) does not mean we are justified in imagining he liked them at all costs and would have liked the modern piano.  I think András Schiff is a phenomenal interpreter of Bach's keyboard works but even his performances on the piano can't avoid a certain intrinsic muddiness in the middle register.   Well here, Schiff describes the compromises of the modern piano very well himself.   This is an aspect in which the harpsichord is a revelation.  Good modern reproductions of well regarded harpsichord designs have both a lovely tone and a transparency that allows the music to be heard clearly.  Does that mean one "has to" put up with the lack of dynamics and listen to Bach only on the harpsichord??  NO!  But was something valuable discovered in the exploration of historical means?  Absolutely yes.

Meanwhile the HIP movement has led to charming discoveries like the incredible hybrid sound of well made early Cristofori design pianofortes.  The transparency and brilliance of a good harpsichord married to dynamics.  Fantastic.  Sollazzo plays Scarlatti on copy of Cristofori.  I wish he had recorded the entire album on that instrument.

 

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7 hours ago, Andres Sender said:

The evidence that Bach liked dynamics (he liked to play his violin sonatas on a clavichord, too) does not mean we are justified in imagining he liked them at all costs...

Who's making THAT assumptive leap? 

However, the fact that composers largely abandoned the harpsichord after the development of the early piano is a good indication of the keyed instrument Bach would likely have chosen to express his ideas.

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On 4/18/2020 at 9:50 PM, Desert Rat said:

I haven't scoured the posts for an answer to this, but when I hear that the "purist" approach is to play with no vibrato, my gut reaction is to ask, "Says who?"  Has someone found a stash of 8-track tapes from the eighteenth century?

The purist approach is to apply vibrato judiciously and consciously and avoid the "continuous" vibrato that is the style for Romantic/Modern repertoire.  There is not a single Baroque violinist who plays without vibrato.

 

On 4/19/2020 at 11:18 AM, gowan said:

Sir Thomas Beecham made a now famous remark that harpsichord music sounds like skeletons copulating on a tin roof :) 

If you haven't listened to Baroque French harpsichord music then you don't know that this isn't an exaggeration.  Check out the great harpsichordist/scholar Wanda Landowska's recordings to get an idea of what Beecham was dealing with.  Off the top of my head I can't remember anything with insane ornamentation, but when it's thick, the music is, I find, very nearly unlistenable.  But I know that if I gave myself some time with the repertoire, I would come to understand it.

 

I'm definitely part of the camp that says people should play things how they want.  But, this is an idea at the heart of the HIPP movement.  In those days, they made do with what they had.  So, they would think nothing of rearranging music, changing instrumentation, substituting and removing movements.  Music wasn't art in those days, it was all about the function.  Want to play a slow dance fast or a fast dance slow?  Sure!  Want to transcribe into another key?  No problem!

But, it's worth knowing that a Minuet is slower and more stately than a Gigue, that a Courante runs while an Allemande walks, that a Prelude can be free, but a dance should be steady, that vibrato should be used, but as an ornament, that a Baroque bow doesn't sustain as easily as a modern bow and has less attack... etc. . .

Once you internalize the style and the "rules" you realize that you can have a completely individual style and break as many of the "rules" as you want.

It's like any fiddling tradition.  There are all sorts of rules that don't get written down (except rarely) and the best players know both how to stick out and how to fit in.

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7 hours ago, Stephen Fine said:

 ( ... )

Once you internalize the style and the "rules" you realize that you can have a completely individual style and break as many of the "rules" as you want.

It's like any fiddling tradition.  There are all sorts of rules that don't get written down (except rarely) and the best players know both how to stick out and how to fit in.

Isn't this well stated?

Backing up a bit, the weezy natural gut sound is a chosen timbre that can be created at a lower a- pitch or higher. With a modern bow or a baroque bow. A friend played the Berg concerto on a baroque set up and we laughed. Then he played the opening to the Sibelius without vibrato and we almost weeped ( i weeped ) because the tone was so beautiful. It sounded so barren, so alone...

If 3rd quarter music theory during the late 20th century as i remember it was centered around the purpose of suspensions ( or anticipation ) - the sonic use of tension and release - it is an important device frequently used for our pleasure. The introduction of well placed pitches on the dissonance is far more intense without any hint of vibrato. A vibrato can soften the impact of the intensity of such dissonance. If the relief of the release is to have greater impact, we might draw out that intensity by not using vibrato.

There is a harmonic and melodic consequence to the non use of vibrato, preferred or not. If one has to have only one recording of a Bach Suite or Brandenburg, then the choice is likely to include vibrato. For most audiences who make an effort to hear performances and pay for Bach, it is likely for something familiar enough with differences. Play it too differently, or too similarly and there is likely disappointment. For most, recordings set a base line to be met or exceeded during the performance. Subjectivity is fine and expected, so argue away.

Like the transparency of equalization, non-vibrato tones are static in presentation and less-obtrusive. When performing the outer mvmts of Bach cantatas where singular voices are highlighted ( the ensemble has no words ) especially in intimate settings, the lack of vibrato gives the vocalist ( or solo instrument ) - especially a fine one - space. As an ensemble, it literally provides a more individualized voice. Some have argued, then why did not Bach have solo voice with continuo? He did but as his style is one of complexity he will likely provide textures that supports that voice. Religious matters at church is often a group matter, but even in that group setting some experiences have an affect at the individual level. When we try to articulate those thoughts that intimacy starts to fade. I love performing at services as there is no applause. The silence that follows is wonderful. That is one of the best parts of listening to media - no applause- at home. Live recordings can be a bit jarring when the room at home suddenly fills with hundreds of people.

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The gap between Landowska's equipment and the replicas being made today is pretty wide.  Using Beecham's comment as some sort of point of reference about HIP is on par with talking about the experience of owning a car based on things people said about Chevys in the 1950s.

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8 hours ago, Andres Sender said:

The gap between Landowska's equipment and the replicas being made today is pretty wide.  Using Beecham's comment as some sort of point of reference about HIP is on par with talking about the experience of owning a car based on things people said about Chevys in the 1950s.

I'm assuming Beecham was talking about the fantastic number of ornaments prevalent in 17th and 18th century French harpsichord music.  The melody is almost incomprehensibly disturbed by the prevalence and variety of ornaments.

I only mentioned Landowska... you could choose any performer of the music who has studied the style.

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Beecham was making a joke but we all know what he meant. For a better joke (if you like to squirm), last weekend the BBC showed a clip of Menuhin and Oistrakh in the Double Concerto, Colin Davis conducting the full string section of the RPO. Actually I think they may have augmented the band for greater effect

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072x1qh

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On 4/18/2020 at 9:50 PM, Desert Rat said:

I haven't scoured the posts for an answer to this, but when I hear that the "purist" approach is to play with no vibrato, my gut reaction is to ask, "Says who?"  Has someone found a stash of 8-track tapes from the eighteenth century?

Is the notion that vibrato was anathema to players in the 1700s founded on solid evidence?  The fact that someone famous whined about excessive vibrato in a letter from the period doesn't carry much weight, with me.  Famous people today still whine about all manner of things...

Play it how it sounds best, whatever that means.  After all, if you want to be TRULY period correct, you'd be playing most of Bach's work as background music, anyway.

I still have an eight track player, I want to listen to those eighteenth century tapes!

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On 4/18/2020 at 9:50 PM, Desert Rat said:

I haven't scoured the posts for an answer to this, but when I hear that the "purist" approach is to play with no vibrato, my gut reaction is to ask, "Says who?"  Has someone found a stash of 8-track tapes from the eighteenth century?

Is the notion that vibrato was anathema to players in the 1700s founded on solid evidence?  The fact that someone famous whined about excessive vibrato in a letter from the period doesn't carry much weight, with me.  Famous people today still whine about all manner of things...

Play it how it sounds best, whatever that means.  After all, if you want to be TRULY period correct, you'd be playing most of Bach's work as background music, anyway.

I can't remember if I've cited sources on this topic before, but since there seems to be legitimate interest...

Clive Brown's book Classical & Romantic Performing Practice: 1750-1900. Is an extraordinary work of scholarship that cites a variety of sources.  Chapter 14: Vibrato is 40 pages long.

For brevity and wisdom, you might prefer Robin Stowell's The Early Violin and Viola: A Practical Guide.  Let's take pages 64-66:

Quote

Vibrato, discussed as early as the sixteenth century by theorists such as Ganassi and Agricola, has passed in and out of fashion in string playing, Thomas Mace (1676) referring to it as a 'very Neat and Pritty Grace, (But not Modish in these Days)'.  Geminiani informs us that 'To perform it, you must press the finger strongly upon the string of the instrument, and move the wrist in and out slowly and equally, when it is long continued swelling by degrees, drawing the bow nearer to the bridge, and ending it very strong may express majesty, dignity, etc. but making it shorter, lower and softer, it may denote affliction, fear etc. and when it is made on short notes, it only contributes to make their sound more agreeable and for this reason it should be made use of as often as possible.'  Robert Bremner reports that many players complied with such advice; however, despite Geminiani's exceptional recommendations, which were suppressed in later editions of his treatise, vibrato was generally used selectively up to the late nineteenth century as an expressive ornament linked inextricably with the inflections of the bow...

Leopold Mozart distinguishes three types of violin vibrato: slow, accelerating, and fast.  Spohr writes of four kinds: fast, for sharply accentuated notes; slow, for sustained notes in impassioned melodies; accelerating, for crescendos; decelerating, for decrescendos.  He demonstrates their selective application and, like Baillot, emphasizes that the vibrato movement should be slight and that deviation from the true pitch of the note should be scarcely perceptible to the ear.  Interestingly, Spohr advocates a vibrato oscillation slightly above or below the actual note, while Baillot specifically illustrates one above the note only.

The book goes on to cite Viotti, Beriot, David, Moser, Joachim, Auer, Ysaÿe, Flesch, and says that while Kreisler is usually credited with reintroducing continuous vibrato, credit should probably go either to Massart (Kreisler's teacher) or Wieniawski.

There's a whole host of information on vibrato for singers and wind instruments as well, which is probably cross-applicable.

For anyone interested in learning a whole lot more, I'm thinking about registering for the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute.  It's online this year, and you can register for free daily concerts, or pay for more access to masterclasses, etc. . .

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2 hours ago, Stephen Fine said:

 ( ... )

The book goes on to cite Viotti, Beriot, David, Moser, Joachim, Auer, Ysaye, Flesch, and says that while Kreisler is usually credited with reintroducing continuous vibrato, credit should probably go either to Massart (Kreisler's teacher) or Wieniawski.

There's a whole host of information on vibrato for singers and wind instruments as well, which is probably cross-applicable.

For anyone interested in learning a whole lot more, I'm thinking about registering for the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute.  It's online this year, and you can register for free daily concerts, or pay for more access to masterclasses, etc. . .

It's very interesting to read and digest historical context as it can very helpful. Not always, but we make choices. Scholarship is meaningful. It's curious to see how artists arrive at their decisions. Elman is a performer that is special and have wondered how he arrived at his source of inspiration. Certainly one wouldn't miss when he was playing even in a crowded theatre.

I attended the Baroque Performance Institute years ago ( as did my teacher when i was in elementary school ) and was uncertain of the value at the time. Looking back on it, the knowledge is useful. But playing in period ensembles at the time, a lowly performer ( like me ) was bound to the dogma of either the conductor and concert master. One learned not to pipe up too often with learned ideas or deviate or to forget to use a specific ornamentation. The scholarship is useful or at least interesting but was not applicable. What was learned could not be used in performance without serious vetting. There were also those at the institute who looked down on those who performed in other more modern styles and that lends itself to creating rifts. Sometimes it appeared that it was professional manipulation to be in favour with the faculty but that appears to occur everywhere. Online would be great. Except for missing the shared meals, it would be interesting to hear new ideas.

I think it was Norrington who recorded some Mendelssohn works. I felt happy that he committed to bridging into the Romantic era. I have also been curious how Joachim played Brahms' stylized Hungarian works derived from Remenyi. One was to be known to be so hot and the other so cool. We have impressions of players, in writing, but to actually hear, say the Galimir SQ playing Ravel under the supervision of Ravel is stunning. It's shocking to hear, though as an early modern piece has evolved quite a bit as expected in 100 years. The Rolston SQ manages to insert a few slides in to the Ravel, in competition, which was very cool and thoughtful.

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Stephen - It doesn't really matter, but I think Beecham's tin roof has tonal implications.  But leave aside what he meant, tonal (to use that term in a very broad way) differences strongly affect how textural things like ornamentation and harmony work in performance.  You seem to have an active mind, so I'll just leave you with an amplification on your own prediction that you would come to understand this music if you listened to it more:  one of the things you would quickly see is how much the difference between what Landowska had to work with and modern accurate replicas of original instruments (not to mention updates in performance practice) has changed the impact of ornamentation on the way the music flows.  To see no difference among informed harpsichord performances from the aspect of musical accessibility to a modern ear is a symptom of lack of exposure.  Disclaimer:  I am not advocating that anyone listen to harpsichord performances out of some ineffable Platonic duty or even for that matter to "keep up with the Joneses".

Oh, and to tie this back in with vibrato and violins, one of the insights of HIP is that transparency of ensemble sound seems to have been highly valued, and when you bring together things like lack of continuous vibrato, high tension stringing, and relatively small ensembles, that transparency is wonderfully revealing, and a refreshing change from the more or less "wall of sound" effect of the modern orchestra.

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i've actually heard skeletons copulating on a tin roof and it sounds more like hitting a trash can with a chicken bone than anything else

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10 hours ago, Bill Merkel said:

i've actually heard skeletons copulating on a tin roof and it sounds more like hitting a trash can with a chicken bone than anything else

You've been a caretaker at a cemetary during a zombie apocalypse?

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34 minutes ago, Rue said:

You've been a caretaker at a cemetary during a zombie apocalypse?

A stylistic interpretation by a keen observer...which brings us back to Bach.

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