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August 13, 2008

'Elgar without vibrato is the musical equivalent of dead roses' — Stephen Pollard

Them's fightin' words, what?

Pollard, a Times of London columnist and blogger for The Spectator, was quoted thus in today's New York Times Arts section front page story by Daniel J. Wakin about British conductor Roger Norrington's insistence on playing classical music in the style of its day, which in Elgar's case means sans vibrato.

Above, Elgar conducts his most well-known composition, "Pomp and Circumstance," at the opening of EMI's Abbey Road studios in London on November 12, 1931.

Here's the New York Times piece.

    Elgar Without Vibrato? Fiddlesticks

    The Great Vibrato Controversy is sending tremors through, well, a small corner of British cultural life.

    The conductor Roger Norrington, a champion of playing classical music in the style of its day, says he may play Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 on the last night of Britain’s premier music festival, the Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, without vibrato. Oh, the horror!

    True, it is not the stuff to tear down an empire. But traditionalists in England are in a huff, sending rockets of outrage into the blogosphere and newspaper columns.

    “Elgar without vibrato is the musical equivalent of dead roses,” Stephen Pollard, a columnist, harrumphed in The Times of London last week.

    As a rule, Elgar’s music has been played with the lusher, fuller sound produced by that slight oscillation of pitch called vibrato, which is typical of modern playing. But Mr. Norrington argues that orchestras in Elgar’s day played with much less vibrato, and that an unadulterated sound better suits the music.

    The dispute sits atop the intersection of deeper issues, like British national pride and how to bring art of the past back to life. At the heart of the kerfuffle lies the reputation of Edward Elgar, the quintessentially British composer in a country that can be sensitive about its relative dearth of great masters. Elgar, who wrote works including the “Enigma” Variations and a popular cello concerto, is best known for the “Pomp and Circumstance” March, which is a staple at high school graduation ceremonies even in America.

    The piece is called “Land of Hope and Glory” in the version traditionally sung at the vaunted Last Night of the Proms, when the buttoned-down British public goes a little nutty, wearing costumes, waving Union Jacks and singing along. That night (Sept. 13 this year) draws the most attention, but two months’ worth of concerts precede it. One of those last month featured Mr. Norrington and his Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra playing Elgar’s Symphony No. 1. That prompted a letter to The Times of London, which seems to have set off the debate.

    “Sir, as a professional violinist, I was appalled by the quality of sound,” Raymond Cohen wrote in the letter, published on July 29. “To anyone with a musical ear, it sounded bizarre.” Columnists and other musicians soon weighed in, some aquiver with rage. Mr. Norrington’s performances were “screeching” and “unmusical,” Mr. Pollard wrote, and someone identified as R. G. James of Brasschaat, Belgium, commented on The Times’s Web site (timesonline.co.uk), “I am fed up with these politically correct liberals in the establishment doing all they can to denigrate and undermine British and English cultural icons.”

    Mr. Norrington has “gone too far,” the composer Anthony Payne was quoted as saying in an article in The Guardian. That article also quoted Mark Elder, the music director of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester and the conductor of the Last Night of the Proms in 2007, as calling Mr. Norrington a wonderful but obsessed musician.

    The debate blossomed into a discussion of a burning issue in the classical music world: How much should performers try to reproduce the musical conditions that existed when a piece was written? It is no small matter. We experience old paintings with an unmediated eye, but works of classical music require interpreters to bring black marks on a page to life.

    The early-music movement of the second half of the 20th century sought to return to music’s performing roots, and Mr. Norrington played a major part in that movement in the 1980s and ’90s. He and other period-performance evangelists moved from the Baroque through Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to the Romantics, and some now lap at the early 20th century, when Elgar was composing.

    The movement calls for the use of instruments of the day, but also different techniques: cleaner articulation, sometimes swifter tempos, clarity of texture and, of course, less vibrato. And it has permeated contemporary orchestral playing. Even the most traditional conductors give a bow toward some aspects of the style. Some commentators have suggested that the movement is, in fact, a reflection of our modernist age.

    “We value clarity, transparency, precision, sharpness, rather than what some people consider the excessive lyricism and indulgence and big sound of previous eras,” said Nicholas Kenyon, the former Proms director who engaged Mr. Norrington.

    As for vibrato, it has been used throughout music history to varying degrees, often applied in small dollops to intensify expression, before becoming part of the basic string sound in the first decades of the last century. String players create it by moving fingers slightly back and forth on the fingerboard, wind players most often by oscillating the air flow.

    Mr. Norrington has taken vibratoless playing farther than most, issuing recordings of works by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mahler and Wagner with his Stuttgart orchestra using what he prefers to call “pure tone” rather than vibrato-free. He wrote an article on the subject for The New York Times in 2003.

    Byron Adams, a musicologist at the University of California, Riverside, and a leading Elgar scholar, said Mr. Norrington was somewhat extreme in stripping away vibrato from Elgar’s music. But he lauded the effort to tone down a “hyperintense expressionistic quality” that came to be the norm in the 1960s.

    In an interview last Wednesday, Mr. Norrington was coy about how the BBC Symphony Orchestra will sound when he conducts it at the Proms’ final night. He said he would ask the players in rehearsal what they preferred in matters of vibrato.

    But he was unwavering about his own preference. He cited a Schoenberg reference to vibrato as “goat bleating,” called the heavily vibrating French woodwind sections of the 1920s “earthquake zones” and referred to the practice as “acoustic central heating.”

    Pure tone, he said, is a beautiful thing that restores a sense of innocence and dignity to Romantic music and makes phrasing more important.

    Mr. Norrington acknowledged that hearing Romantic music played with minimal vibrato could be a “bit of a shock” for the first-time listener. He conceded that his opponents have a legitimate point of view: “It’s not a professor saying, ‘Just shut up or we’ll lose India.’ ”

    He also acknowledged that early recordings of orchestras playing Elgar’s music under the composer’s own baton revealed a fair bit of vibrato. But he contended that the practice was creeping into orchestras whether composers liked it or not, and that Elgar grew up as a musician listening to music without vibrato.

    “In the end it’s an aesthetic question,” he said. “It’s a matter of taste. I love the sound.”

    It might not even matter what style the BBC orchestra adopts on the Last Night of the Proms, Mr. Norrington said. “You’re lucky if you can hear how they’re playing at all, with all the singing.” He added, mischievously, that if he does an encore, “I’ll ask the whole of the auditorium to sing with more of a vibrato.”




The New York Times story has a sidebar allowing you to listen to excerpts from Elgar's Symphony No. 1, Adagio played with minimal vibrato and with vibrato more typical of orchestras today.

Finally, to keep Flautist mollified I'll conclude this post with Nimrod

from Elgar's "Enigma Variations," with Daniel Barenboim conducting conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to open the 1997 season at Carnegie Hall.

August 13, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Hey, modern day conductors need to do something when they are directing other people how to play yet other people's music.

Posted by: Rocketboy | Aug 13, 2008 6:09:51 PM

I tend to agree with Milena -- if you don't like this guy's version, listen to that guy's version. That's why I get copies of so many different performances of the same things. (Certain people I've known could never understand that -- "Why do you need five of the same piece? It's the same damn music!" Not hardly.) Clifyt's right -- it depends very much on the piece. I personally liked the Elgar "P&C" with minimal vibrato (and also Norrington's version of the Elgar Sym. No. 1 Adagio). It's a processional; I wouldn't want it sounding like "Bali Hai" or something. Long live diverse styles of performance, it's what makes things fun.

Also, I don't know too much about the vibrato that hip-hop girls use, but I'd sure as HELL like to see them take some lessons in how to use melisma -- that's the rocking out on one syllable of a word where they noodle around in the stratosphere forever, trying to show off, and all it does is make no musical sense atall, and sounds like someone having a hemorrhoidectomy unanesthetized and/or unsedated. Listen to Sam Cooke, people! He was the king of melisma -- simple, beautiful, skillful, made perfect sense in context.

If you want to hear some GREAT, BIG, amazing old-style vocal vibrato, you could go here:


Posted by: Flauticrit | Aug 13, 2008 5:13:45 PM

It has been mentioned many times that Vibrato was an artifact of the early recording process. To get instruments to stand out in a mono sound stage, one needed the soloist to do something different so that it was readily available.

To me, it really depends on the piece...early music -- I like the cardboard dry sound. Modern works? Why not? I spent several hundred dollars on a ribbon device for my synthesizers so that instead of an inarticulate pitch wheel, I could rock my fingers back and get the same sort of precise stinging vibrato as I can on any stringed instrument. I've also reprogrammed every synth I have NOT to have built-in vib because it sounds like crap...yet people DEMAND it on their instruments (I know, because I've had to include it when I've done sound design for others no matter how much I hated the over the top, always on vib that people have grown accustom it).

Personally, done tastefully it can be used for great effect. Think of any female hiphop 'singer'...this is the type of vibrato to be avoided...just garish crap to be noticed and nothing more (and as others do it, the vib got more and more and more in competition). Heck, pop in general would be great with a moratorium on vibrato for a year...teach people how to do something else.

Why am I ranting...oh yeah, because thats what I do when I'm sober. Someone shut me up.

Posted by: clifyt | Aug 13, 2008 3:09:43 PM

Such a to-do, boo-hoo. I think we should burn Norrington at the stake - c'mon... let the guy play it anyway he wishes. Don't like it? Don't listen. Personally I feel the vibrato adds a certain je ne sais quoi. Barenboim's conducting of Nimrod? Lush. I still remember that my father had a recording of the variations with Sir Adrian Boult directing. What a to die for brilliant piece of conducting that was.

Posted by: Milena | Aug 13, 2008 2:36:07 PM

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