Music score

Classical Vocal Technique



Moreover, it is very unlikely that any vibrato was used in the ensemble singing of earlier times; the few theorists who mention it condemn it.

A similar sensitiveness to the effect of vibrato is found in books dealing with solo singing or solo instrumental-playing; a vibrato was a ornament, comparable to a mordent, a trill, a messa di voce or a slide, and it is to be used no more and no less frequently than the other graces. In ensemble music it is to be used only with the greatest discretion.

And so in solo music. The incessant vibrato which has so regrettably infected nine out of every ten singers of the present day could not be obtained with the methods of breath control taught by the finest eighteenth- and nineteenth-century singing teachers. The evidence of early recordings shows that even fifty years ago it was used with the utmost care (though the tremolo seems to have been rather more common than it is today), and it is one of the greatest disfigurements of modern musical performance.

Thurston Dart
The Interpretation of Music
Harper & Row, 1963
pp. 51-52


The late nineteenth century has much to answer for, since it replaced subtlety of articulation with exaggerated modes of 'expression'. Most of all, it introduced the unremitting use of vibrato, coupled with the vowel distortions and suppression of consonants characteristic of most operatic singers today. The complex polyphonic textures of Tudor music would be imperspicuous if the parts were blurred, particularly by vibrato. Yet in spite of this, singers are reluctant to forsake wobbling, partly because it appears to amplify the voice, and partly because intonation problems are covered up by its obligingly wide margin of error… The operatic retracted larynx technique, with its concomitant vibrato, also began to gain ascendancy at about this time. It is obvious that Baroque singers could hardly have sung in such a way that trills were indistinguishable from the surrounding gelatinous wobble, yet it is woefully rare to hear a singer who has forsaken the nineteenth century mannerisms.

David Wulstan
Tudor Music
U. of Iowa Press, 1986
p. 179-180


There is thus every reason to suppose that sixteenth-century English vocal production differed from that of the continent; but both English and continental tone diverged markedly from the type of production prevalent today. The distinguishing factor lies in the treatment of the vowels. The vowel formants shown in the diagram demand a dramatic amplification of the higher frequencies of certain vowels. This is particularly the case if the mouth is opened only a moderate amount, as specified by several sixteenth-century writers: Maffei (1562) for example. Maffei also mentions the contact of the tongue with the lower teeth and this, together with a moderate lateral opening of the mouth and forward jaw position (found in many contemporary representatives of singers) enhances the high frequencies of the vowel formants. This is in stark contrast to the cavernous and chinless gape seen on the operatic stage, associated with a consistently lowered tongue and retracted jaw. This configuration flattens out all the vowels into the characteristic 'plummy' sound associated with this type of singing technique. Overall power, necessary to ride over a Wagnerian orchestra, is achieved in the mid frequency, at the expense of the high frequencies. Thus the voice is heavy and dull, rather than brilliant, and distorts the vowels, contrary to the express prescriptions of virtually every writer on singing from von Zabern up until the time of Garcia.

The vowel distortion resulting from the artificial flattening of the tongue is dramatically illustrated by Caruso's recommended mouth positions (Marafioti, 1922, pp 235-6). These self-styled 'correct' positions are shown in the upper part of Figure 21 and may be compared with the true tongue positions given by Jones (1950), here shown in the lower part of the diagram. These latter are, needless to say, stigmatized as 'incorrect' by Caruso.

Marafioti's pictures of Caruso taken in the act of singing each of the five cardinal vowels are peculiarly comical, ranging from an impression of a splenetic mafioso to that of a canvassing politician about to engage in statutory baby-kissing. They unwittingly illustrate the 'uncomely gaping of the mouth' disliked by Ornithoparcus and Finck. The Renaissance singer made the vowels with the tongue as in speech; the late nineteenth century, however, subverted natural methods by attempting to make the vowels with the mouth in order to keep the tongue low and static. It was Garcia (1840) who advocated the new technique which had come from the Parisian Opera a few years earlier and was called the voix sombrée. …

The Romantic voice production was not espoused by all, for the old method of production survived with tenacity in certain places, and not only in English cathedral choirs. The agility displayed by Jenny Lind, for example, came from a higher and freer position of the larynx. A notable characteristic of Romantic production is the slowness of the voice in its reaction to pitch changes due to the different position of the hyoid bone, and consequent differences in the use of musculature. Zacconi (1592) asked for a 'voice neither forced nor slow' and emphasized the role of throat (i.e. glottis) so that rapid passages can be sung with ease, Vincento (1555) says that a bass 'singing in full voice cannot accommodate rapid articulation'. Thus the voice required for the divisions in Gibbons' 'Glorious and powerful God' is necessarily light, and must be able to make use of rapid glottal contractions.

… The technique of the Romantic voice not only makes the agility and clarity of the treble voice a physical impossibility, but it rules out the use of the trill, which was coming into fashion at the end of the Tudor period. Ironically, the retracted larynx position engenders the use of vibrato, which is then indistinguishable from the trill. As was noted in the previous chapter, the combination of undifferentiated vowels, loud but dull tone, and wobble, is antipathetic to the performance of polyphonic music.

David Wulstan
Tudor Music
U. of Iowa Press, 1986
p. 229-233



19th century voice teacher Margaret Alverson discusses vibrato.

Go to the Vibrato Page.



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