Let’s Talk Vibrato

I would like to return to the subject of expressing emotion through music. This is a good topic and one which we can no doubt find in other writings in addition to Geminiani’s. For today, let us look at his description of the close shake, which we call vibrato.

“To perform it, you must press the finger slowly upon the string of the instrument, and move the wrist in and out slowly and equally, when it is long continued swelling the sound by degrees, drawing the bow nearer to the bridge, and ending it very strong it 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.”

Now I find this especially interesting for a couple of reasons. First it is a vivid picture of how to use vibrato expressively. Second, it contradicts the usual notion found in much of today’s historical performance practices that dictates vibrato should be used sparingly, as an ornament for long notes. There are treatises which do treat vibrato this way, for example Tartini’s treatise on ornamentation which classifies vibrato as an ornament and says it should be used for final notes and notes that are long. This may reflect an older style of playing whereas Geminiani may be speaking of a style moving towards the continuous use of vibrato which we find in many performances today.

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