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College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Lamont School of Music, Musicology and Ethnomusicology


Musicians debate daily the authentic execution of pretty much any music, especially historical styles, even among non-specialist performers. To be considered authentic, there is little consensus among musicians deciding upon a unified vision of accuracy. Maybe the idea of a strict authenticity threatens a musician’s fundamental understanding of musical expression. That discussion, alone, can become very personal in nature. For decades, semantic and philosophical discourses have driven the impetus to debate of what ‘authentic’ music is, and the answer is (mostly) clarified when you start to investigate minute and critical musical details.

Especially among period performance specialists, there tends to be stringent expectations within bowed string pedagogy regarding “correct” execution of vibrato and supplementing expression via adjusting bowing technique. It is a much more uncomfortable conversation outside of the period playing specialty that addresses the appropriate use of vibrato for authentic tone color. Realizing this idea in modern performance practice seems to have taken on a deep controversial stance. Suggesting a performance approach that abandons vibrato for an entire work – save for vibrating select pitches in structural context – might as well be an act of sacrilege. Vibrato is a pedagogical standard in modern bowed string performance, and it is fiercely coveted as a standard tone production technique. Having studied string performance for twenty years, I have witnessed many hot debates among string players and conductors of historically informed performance ensembles over the small, crucial detail: whether to use sustained, “romantic” vibrato… or not.

This annotated bibliography describes sources which address the following: the differing philosophies behind historical performance practice and the discourse of appropriate use of vibrato according to original pedagogical sources and modern musicologists. There are scant scholarly publications that explore instrumental vibrato in historical performance practice. The discussion is elusive. Maybe for the sake of maintaining pedagogical standards, and maybe because there is not enough research to suggest that this one aspect of bowed string performance practice could afford another fresh perspective. Thinking about this gap in information has inspired me to investigate why vibrato is not comfortably debated between professors and students. Is abandoning vibrato a matter of radically changing personal understanding of music? Is the “inappropriate” use of vibrato in HIP a justifiable judgment as over-romanticization?

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