Arts - Spring 2009

Vibrato Wars

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Elgar, served neat and unshaken, stirs up the Brits

By Sudip Bose

March 1, 2009


Unless you happen to be British, the brash spectacle known as the Last Night of the Proms might seem more like a carnival than the culmination of a venerable classical music festival. Traditionally, on the second Saturday in September, thousands of patrons in outlandish costumes and hats gather inside London’s Royal Albert Hall for the final concert of the two-month Proms, or Promenade, season. With the interior of the cavernous hall awash with rippling flags—the Union Jack, as well as the emblems of England, Wales, and Scotland—confetti showers down from above, balloons rise, and the animated crowd sings along to such patriotic tunes as “Rule Brittania” and Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem.”

To upset this tradition in any way is to risk the wrath of the public, which expects the music to be played a certain way—that is, the way it has always been played. Imagine, then, the firestorm that erupted last summer when rumors began circulating that Roger Norrington, selected to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, was planning to perform “Land of Hope and Glory”—the lyrics of which are set to Edward Elgar’s first “Pomp and Circumstance March”—without orchestral vibrato.

Vibrato refers to the oscillation of the fingers of a string player’s left hand, in order to color a note, to imbue it with richness or intensity or sensuousness. Listen to any great violinist of the 20th century, and you will hear many kinds of vibrato—wide, thin, rapid, slow, creamy, focused—each used to communicate a different emotion or thought. As the period-instrument movement became ascendant in the 1970s and ’80s, its advocates sought to eliminate vibrato from performances of Baroque and classical music, arguing that in those periods, vibrating was merely ornamental, to be used sparingly, if ever. Few scholars had dared suggest, however, that the Romantic repertoire—which has always been associated with a certain sonic lushness—be shorn of this most romantic of musical devices.

Enter Roger Norrington, as stubborn and dogmatic and controversial a musician as one is likely to encounter these days. He argues that during the first three decades of the 20th century, when Elgar heard his works performed, orchestral musicians did not employ vibrato. Rather, the device arrived later, he wrote in a 2003 New York Times article, “with Hollywood, aerodynamic car design, radio, ocean liners and the early days of flight.” To re-create the sound that Elgar would have known, he believes, an orchestra must play without any hint of the shakes, in a style he refers to as “pure tone.”

During an earlier Proms performance last year, of Elgar’s monumental First Symphony, this is precisely what Norrington and his ensemble, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, did. The reviews were mixed, but the negative ones were hostile, virulent, and at times, personal. “To hear the orchestra’s vibrato-less performance,” wrote Stephen Pollard in the Times of London, “was to hear it with the soul ripped out. . . . There is nothing historically aware in Sir Roger’s version of orchestral sound, just a man with a bizarre fixation ruining the music he conducts.” Sarah Urwin Jones, also in the Times, wondered how pure-tone Elgar could have been performed “in that heartland of traditionalism,” equating Norrington’s approach to “burning torches at the gates of Buckingham Palace.”

Elgar’s First Symphony was one thing. The possibility of Norrington imposing his idiosyncratic style upon “Land of Hope and Glory” was simply too much for many Brits to bear. “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set,” reads a line from this song, which once embodied the ambitions of an empire—the peacock unfurling its royal plume. And though the imperialist subtext has diminished considerably over the years, “Land of Hope and Glory” is no less an emblem of the British spirit. Surely that was a piece with which no one would dare tamper.

As the date of the Last Night approached, the great vibrato controversy grew ever more heated. But how could something as seemingly minor as vibrato have ignited the passions of so many people? Perhaps an even more tantalizing—and irritating—question is: Could Roger Norrington possibly be right?

Elgar composed his first “Pomp and Circumstance March” in 1901, his Symphony no. 1 seven years later—some three decades, according to Norrington, before European and American orchestras began vibrating continuously (on each note, despite its length). “When Berlioz and Schumann, Brahms and Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, Schoenberg and Berg were composing their masterpieces,” the conductor wrote in The New York Times, “there was only one orchestral sound: a warm, expressive, pure tone, without the glamorized vibrato we are so used to.”

Norrington believes it was the Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875–1962) who changed the way stringed instruments were played. But in truth, the transformation had occurred a generation earlier. In the late 19th century, violinists began moving away from the relatively dry sound characteristic of earlier times to one made rich with vibrato and portamento (the expressive sliding from note to note). The greatest exponent of this new style was the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, who masterfully controlled the speed of his vibrato, depending on the color he wished to produce. A few of his early-20th-century recordings survive, and they reveal an artistry of many moods. In Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” for example, Ysaÿe’s thin and placid vibrato conveys a childlike innocence, whereas in Wagner’s “Prize Song,” the noble opening, played without vibrato, provides an emotional contrast to the heartfelt material later in the piece, embellished with both vibrato and portamento.

Ysaÿe served as a bridge to the 20th century. All of the leading solo violinists who followed him—Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh—made use of a varied palette of vibratos. And very soon, orchestral string players were doing something similar—not just as a means of ornament but as a mode of genuine expression. Precisely when this shift took place is a matter of debate. If we listen to orchestral recordings of the 1930s—Felix Weingartner’s 1936 Eroica Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, for example, or Fritz Busch’s 1931 Brahms Second with the Staatskapelle Dresden—we hear very little vibrato. Not an absence of it, but very little of it. There are, however, some notable exceptions, namely among the recordings Elgar made of his own works. These happen to contain quite a bit of vibrato.

One of the great records of the 20th century is Yehudi Menuhin’s 1932 interpretation of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. The soloist was only 16 at the time, the composer 75. I first heard that performance as a boy, listening to the radio late one night, the crackling old record casting a spell upon me as I lay there in the dark. Menuhin’s vibrato was one of the first things I noticed: it gave a pulse to every phrase of that unabashedly romantic piece. This was what a violin ought to sound like, I thought at the time. Surely if Elgar had wanted to record his concerto without any vibrato, he could have reined in, imposed his will upon, a precocious 16-year-old. But he didn’t. And his orchestral accompaniment, though not as overtly emotional and full-bodied, contains vibrato, all the same.

All of this would seem to contradict Norrington’s asser­tion that in Elgar’s time, all orchestras played with a pure tone. But really, these arguments over historical accuracy—as well as the compulsion to achieve absolute fidelity with a composer’s intent, insofar as that is even possible—seem far less impor­tant than whether a performance communicates with the listener, whether it expresses something beautiful and profound. And this is why so many people with Elgar in their blood recoiled from Norrington’s method: without the vibrato, the music seemed to lack its essential beauty.

The vibrated note seeks ostensibly to mimic the human voice, which is given, by nature, to tonal vibration. And a great deal of music is marked espressivo (with expression) or cantabile (songlike)—notations that surely call for vibrato. In certain musical contexts, the use of vibrato can be magical—the way metrical variation in poetry can illuminate the meaning of verse. The beginning of Ivry Gitlis’s 1950s recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto is a brief but brilliant study in contrasts. By playing the opening with almost no vibrato, Gitlis conjures up a hypnotic moment; we can feel the iciness of a Finnish landscape, a frozen mountain lake at dawn, perhaps. But as the phrase develops, Gitlis begins his vibrato—it becomes thicker and thicker as the line grows more intense—and the effect is almost like the slow, inevitable rise of the sun, the iciness melting into a rich and glowing warmth.

What has proved surprising, however, upon listening to Norrington’s numerous Stuttgart recordings, is how poetic the absence of vibrato can be, as well. The first thing you notice is the naked timbre of a pure-tone orchestra. It is not, in the conventional sense, beautiful—not at first, at any rate. In Norrington’s recording of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, his Stuttgart musicians produce a string tone that sounds like silver; bathed in a metallic sheen, it tingles in the ear. I found it off-putting at first, but the more I listened, the more I seemed to crave this stripped-down sound.

For me, Bruckner’s music inhabits an almost unearthly plane, a celestial realm of repose. The lack of vibrato somehow communicates something of this monumental, otherworldly calm. The slow movement reaches real pathos and is as moving, in its own way, as Bernard Haitink’s recent version, or Sergiu Celibidache’s. Something similar happens in Norrington’s reading of the famous “Adagietto” of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony—another peaceful, meditative sound world rendered by the orchestra’s pure tone. Because vibrato can be used to help sustain a long note—adjusting one’s vibrato from slow to fast gives the impression of movement—Norrington’s strings must do other things to prevent Mahler’s score, marked sehr langsam (very slowly), from sounding static. Therefore, they emphasize the dynamic contrasts, the small swells in volume within a measure or two, and maintain careful control of both their bow speed and of the pressure the bow exerts upon the strings. And as the movement progresses, the sound, innocent at first, opens up very subtly, until it blooms like the most radiant flower. This interpretation, in terms of intensity, clarity, and yes, beauty, is surprisingly close in spirit to Bruno Walter’s 1930s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Listen to nothing but Norrington’s take on the Romantic repertoire, and after a while, you begin not to notice the absence of vibrato; you start to become aware of other interpretive aspects. In Elgar’s First Symphony, the piece that started the vibrato wars last summer, I found myself immersed in the drama, the wistfulness and intensity of Elgar’s elegiac music, as well as its wondrous sense of calm. In the Grail theme and Act III prelude to Parsifal, I heard only a tremendous power and nobility. The same with Wagner’s Meistersinger prelude.


Norrington’s is by no means the only way (I would never want to be without John Barbirolli’s Elgar or Carlo Maria Giulini’s Bruckner), but we would be wrong to dismiss his seemingly unorthodox path. In an earlier age, orchestras could be identified by their own unmistakable voices. The Philadelphia Or­ches­tra’s lush, sonorous string sound, cultivated under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, was like no other. Arturo Tosca­nini’s focused, hyperintense nbc Symphony was instantly recognizable. So, too, were Wilhelm Furtwängler’s mighty, majestic Berliners and the virtuosos in Yevgeny Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic. But these days, many of the world’s ensembles sound too much alike. They produce a more or less homogenized sound. If you were to hear a contemporary performance of Debussy or Ravel, you might not know if the orchestra was French or Japanese. Norrington’s vibrato-less performances, so different from anybody else’s, are essential not just because they are, strangely enough, beautiful, but because they are so different. The question is one, I think, of inimitability.

September 13, 2008. The Last Night of the Proms had finally come, and the buildup had been feverish. Journalists, musicians, the public—all wanted to know what “Land of Hope and Glory,” not to mention the rest of the evening’s patriotic fare, would sound like in the hands of Roger Norrington.

In the end, it didn’t matter what the conductor did: the crowd sang along with such fervor and volume, that nobody could have distinguished between a vibrated and non-vibrated sound. With all that noise, the orchestra could have played on kazoos. Through it all, Norrington proved that despite the attacks, both professional and personal, he could maintain his impish sense of humor. Before beginning “Land of Hope and Glory,” he had turned to the audience and asked, “Can you sing with a bit more vibrato, please?”


Sudip Bose is the managing editor of the Scholar.


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