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Flute Vibrato

Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683), Man playing the fluteI've read quite a few books on flute history and technique. Unfortunately, most of them have little to say about vibrato, other than how to develop it. This reflects a basic lack in modern musical pedagogy. Students are taught nothing about historical performance styles—because most of the teachers know nothing about the subject either. There is an exception, however: Nancy Toff's excellent The Flute Book. (The second edition of this book is now in print.) Although it deals mainly with the modern Böhm flute, it is a comprehensive work filled with all sorts of flute-related information, including the history of performance techniques. The following discussion is drawn from that source.

Apparently she has asked some people who put uncredited pieces of her book on the Web to remove them. However, I believe that the citations below (which are properly credited) fall under the "fair use" provision for the purpose of academic discussion. Since the time when I initially created this page, some other sources have appeared dealing with this topic, and I have added those in as well.

Renaissance flute

Contrary to popular legend, vibrato is not a modern invention. It began as an ornament—usually produced by the fingers, only occasionally by the breath. The more continuous form did not emerge until the late nineteenth century. Modern flutists should consider the roots of the technique.

In his Musica instrumentalis deudch (1528), Agricola lists "trembling breath" as a "special grace." Praetorius (1619) discusses vibrato created by diaphragm action. Mersenne (1636) talks of "certain tremolos which intoxicate the soul" and specifies that organ tremolo has a frequency of four vibrations per second, which he suggests as a model for wind players. Hotteterre, in his Principes de la Flute (1707), discusses a finger vibrato, called a flattement, which also appears in the methods of Corrette (about 1735) and Mahaut (1759). Quantz's Versuch (1752) discusses a messa di voce, a swelling and diminishing of volume within a single note, produced by a finger flattement on the nearest open hole. (Because this procedure also lowers the pitch, Quantz advised flutists to compensate with the embouchure.) Delusse (about 1761) speaks of a breath vibrato, used in imitation of the organ tremulant, as a measured expression of "solemnity and terror." And Tromlitz (1791) discusses the Bebung, a finger vibrato.

Nancy Toff
The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985
p. 109

Agricola is the first to discuss a consort of "Schweizerpfeiffen'. Here he gives fingering charts for a bass in D, tenor/alto in A, and descant in e … The range of each instrument is said to be three octaves, greater than that mentioned by any other author.

He also writes that one should play with vibrato: 'If you want to have a fundament, learn to pipe with trembling breath, for it greatly embellishes the melody'. He is alone in mentioning the use of a diagphragmatic vibrato, as opposed to finger vibrato, in the sixteenth century. It is not referred to again in flute tutors until the second half of the eighteenth century.

John Solum
The Early Flute
Oxford University Press, 1992
p. 17

Auch sey im Pfeiffen darauff gsind
Das du blest mit zitterdem wind
Dann gleich wie hernach wird gelart
Von der Polischen Geigen art
Das zittern den gesang zirt
Also wirds auch alhie gespürt.
When playing remember that you know
Into the flute with trembling breath to blow
As shortly we shall learn awhile
Of Polish violins and their style
That trembling ornaments the song
Thus must we sense it all along.

Raymond Meylan
The Flute
translated from the German by Alfred Clayton
Amadeus Press, Portland, Oregon, 1988
p. 77

Nicholson flute

Vibrato on the modern flute is used lavishly, in many cases virtually continuously, by contemporary players. It is regarded as essential for giving the flute the brilliance and projection needed for it to be heard in our modern symphony orchestras and in our stadium-sized concert halls. A tone without vibrato is considered to be lifeless and dull.

Although there was undoubtedly a great deal of variation in the amount and use of vibrato by different players on the traverso in the baroque and classical ages, the taste of the time obliged performers to regard vibrato as an ornament. It was generally used only on longer notes as an expressive device, certainly not continuously. Continuous vibrato reduces the opportunity to be expressive in other ways, such as shaping minute gradation of dynamics. Sometimes the use of vibrato was notated in printed music by a wavy line …

Modern vibrato is usually produced by a pulsation of the windstream controlled by muscles in the throat and diaphragm. Vibrato on the transverso is not usually made in this manner. Instead, the player's finger fluctuates at the edge of an open finger-hole on the instrument or sometimes opening and closing an entire hole. The French call this vibration flattement, a name which reminds us that the effect actually involves flattening a given note and then returning it to the correct pitch in a fast fluctuation. Not until De Lusse's treatise of about 1760 was vibrato referred to as involving the pulsation of the wind stream, blowing the syllables, hou, hou, hou, and doing it as often as possible.

Today's modern Boehm-system flutist is accustomed to using a throat/diaphragm vibrato as a nearly constant, integral part of the sound. Contrarily, careful study of representative tutors tells us that the tone most recommended for eighteenth and early nineteenth-century players was probably produced without vibrato. Quantz (1752, p. 162) and others required instead a "clear and sustained execution of the air."

I recommend that the one-keyed flute be played without any vibrato. Because vibrato has become such an inegral part of our modern flute technique, some flutists have difficulty playing historical instruments without it. Eliminating the vibrato at first seems cold and lifeless to some. Yet the ear soon accepts the clarity and purity of tone of the one-keyed flute, and eventually the player does not feel the need to rely on vibrato as an important means of expression. Ask what you might do instead. Explore ways to shape and color individual notes. It will become immediately apparent that playing with a straight tone demands good intonation; vibrato cannot be used to cover intonation difficulties, as frequently happens with the modern flute.

An ornament the French called flattement (a vibrato-like effect produced with the finger) most closely resembles our modern vibrato. The flattement is a wavering of the tone which is slower than that of a trill and produces an interval narrower than a semitone. Instead of fluctuating both above and below the tone (as the modern breath vibrato appears to do), the flattement produces a fluctuation with a pitch lower than the given tone.

Unlike, modern vibrato, the flattement was used sparingly and reserved for long notes.


Tromlitz (1791) said it could be applied to long notes, fermatas, and to the note before a cadence, but that it was used infrequently. Two years later, Gunn (c. 1793, p. 18) expressed a real dislike of the ornament, saying it is "inconsistent with just intonation, and not unlike that extravagant trembling of the voice which the French call chevrotter, to make a goat-like noise, for which the singers of the Opera at Paris have been so often ridiculed." By the time Gunn published his tutor, the flattement was just one of many ornaments falling out of use.


The French tutor by Delusse (c. 1760, p. 9) is the only eighteenth-century flute tutor of nearly one hundred I examined which recommends producing vibrato with the breath. ...

Tromlitz (1791, p. 214) states firmly that vibrato is not done with the breath and claims it "makes a wailing sound, and anyone who does it spoils his chest and ruins his playing altogether."

I refer you to Catherine Parsons Smith, Characteristics of Transverse Flute Performance in Selected Flute Methods (1969) for a study of vibrato in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Janice Dockendorff Boland
Method for the One-Keyed Flute: Baroque and Classical
University of California Press, 1998
ISBN 0-520-21447-1
pp. 31-34

J. Harrington Young, in his 1892 method, … cautioned that

Vibration should, therefore, be produced only by finger movement.

Keep in mind that at the time vibration was a ornament, not an omnipresent element of tone. This was equally true of violin playing. A possibly apocryphal story is illustrative: the great Fritz Kreisler auditioned for the Royal Opera House orchestra in Vienna, but was turned down because of his "restaurant vibrato." Yet later, his "Golden Tone" became the ideal to be copied by all other violinists. And so taste changes.

Vibrato as we know it today—a more or less continuous pulsation or shimmer in the tone—originated in the late nineteenth century in Paris. Paul Taffanel and oboist Fernand Gillet were two of the instigators. This may seem surprising in view of the statement in the Taffanel-Gaubert method:

Ignace Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Un morceau de Schumann, 1864 The advent of vibrato in France, around 1905, was the fuel for a great debate. Because it was new, it was often not done very well and was used indiscriminately, and so it got a bad name. Furthermore, "talented instrumentalists had sought for too long, not without difficulty, to find good tone in all registers that was pure, stable and flexible, not to conceive of this perfection as the height of their art." Or as Moyse concluded, "Vibrato? It was worse than cholera. Young vibrato partisans were referred to as criminals. Judgments were final with no appeal. It was ruthless." Some critics, Moyse continued, labelled vibrato "cache-misère (literally misery hider, something to hide behind when faced with problems of intonation and tone quality)."

Woodwind vibrato was brought to the United States by Georges Barrère, Georges Laurent, and oboists Marcel Tabuteau (longtime principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra) and Gillet (who joined the Boston Symphony). By 1940 it had become an accepted part of American orchestral woodwind performance. At the same time Moyse, newly arrived in the United States, despaired that, in France, "vibrato is used so excessively that all music is distorted by its constant waver."

Elsewhere, however, vibrato was slower to catch on. Henry Welsh, for instance, wrote in the British periodical Music and Letters in 1951:

This was the Viennese as well as the British ideal, and it perturbed foreign critics, who accused the English of coldness and lack of feeling. More recently, vibrato has infiltrated British flute style, though the technique is nowhere as pervasive as in the United States and France.

The vibrato as first imported to the United States was, true to its roots, both rapid and naturally produced. Barrère's was reportedly very rapid indeed. In a 1944 article Barrère explained: "It being settled that expression in music must be a love message, music has to be performed with a quiver in the tone, much as the histrionic lover's lines must be spoken with a tremolo in the voice." But Barrère qualified this typically Gallic statement:

One of Barrère's last students, Pittsburgh Symphony principal Bernard Goldberg, quotes his teacher as saying, "For three hundred years flutists tried to play in tune. Then they gave up and invented vibrato."

See my review of recordings by Barrère and his contemporaries.

Baroque flute

What the modern-instrument player should not do, however, is to introduce anachronisms into the performance of baroque music. The prime example is vibrato. We have seen that the baroque masters made effective us of finger vibrato as an ornamental device, and a simulation of that technique is perfectly in order. But a wide, Brahmsian, orchestral-style vibrato is categorically out of place. Staccatissimo articulation is similarly inappropriate.

Note that Ms. Toff follows a commonly held error in associating a wide, constant vibrato with the music of Brahms. Recordings of Brahms' close friend, the violin virtuoso Joachim, show that he used only a shallow vibrato as an ornament at phrase endings. Since most of Brahms' violin pieces were written to be played by Joachim, it seems very likely that Brahms himself intended them to be played this way.

Go to the Vibrato Page.

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