What I love about medieval music

I’ve been listening to Veni Emmanuel: Ancient and Traditional Christmas Carols, an all-Latin songfest from Classical Academic Press. It’s wonderful. One thing I like about medieval music is that the singing is all with pure tones. Vibrato hadn’t been invented yet. Does anyone know why vibrato in classical singing was invented? I would just as soon do without it.

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About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Carl Vehse

    Well, there’s vibrato and then there’s tremolo. They are not the same. According to my better, and more cultural, half (with her Ph.D. in music performance) vibrato is a natural part of the voice, which can be suppressed for pure tones but was used in music as far back as the 16th century, and in later music (e.g., bel canto).

    For more information one can also read the humorous, but musicologically detailed, article“The Vibrato Thing” by David Montgomery, who writes:

    The Question: if, when and where to apply modern, “continuous” vibrato to older works, and still prevent high-brow performance sophisticates from kicking metaphysical sand in your face….

    The two biggest causes of misunderstanding here are generated by people, including respectable scholars, who write that “vibrato” was “once an ornament.” It wasn’t. “Tremolo” (Bebung, etc.) was once an ornament, and, yes, it was used only on long notes, but it was not vibrato. Furthermore, an “ornament” is something that stands out against the texture of the music – a fleeting, expressive enhancement, a trill, a mordent, a turn, (a ring upon the finger, a diamond stud in the tongue, a jewel nestled into the bellybutton) – but not an ongoing, abstract aspect of sound itself.

    This subject is complicated and cannot easily be encapsulated; for readers interested in the details I recommend two major studies: Frederick Neumann’s Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music (1978), and Greta Moens-Haenen’s Das Vibrato in der Musik des Barock (1988).

  • Ray

    Instrumentalists tend to use a vibrato to add warmth to a tone. It is rare to hear a violin/viola/cello played without some vibrato. As a trombone player, I can use a wide variety of vibrato styles to color my sound, from the barely discernable to the tremolo that Carl mentions. But, many instrumentalists will not use vibrato or at best, a very subtle vibrato when playing older music. Vibrato really came into popular use later in the 19th century and especially with the advent of jazz in the early 20th century.

    Too often vocalists in church will use more of a tremolo when a more subtle style or a straight tone would be better. When I directed a church choir, I insisted on a straight tone with no vibrato for a more consistent blend.

    Dr. Veith, I agree, it is often overdone.

  • CRB

    Just listened to the samples, really beautiful! Too bad they could not do an English version.

  • Katy

    I dislike vibrato and super overdone trills. Which is one reason I prefer heavy metal over classical.

  • Joe

    Just added this to our school supply list. This will be a great tool for the kids’ latin studies.

  • Booklover

    Hmmm, I actually heard a lovely natural vibrato in the voices of the sample, especially in the soprano. Vibrato is such a misunderstood term. The most beautiful voices actually have a natural vibrato caused by a *relaxed and open throat*. A natural, pure vibrato gives warmth, depth, and lovely resonance to the tone.

    As in anything else, balance is the key. The unpleasant sounds we are all envisioning are caused by an unnatural too-wide vibrato used by some opera singers, or an unnatural too-fast and tight vibrato, more aptly named a tremolo, which is used by some church ladies. :-) Then there is also the problem of a straight, pinched, forced tone which comes out flat, used by some pop singers and pop church singers. :-)

    I am blessed to have the vocation of pianist for well-trained choirs. They are trained by their directors to sing with a natural vibrato caused by a *relaxed, open throat*. The blend of the choir is beautiful because no one is using the too-fast pinched tremolo or the too-wide uncentered vibrato, and especially not the flat, straight, lifeless pitch of many pop singers. :-) Blend of choirs is also greatly caused by correct matching of the vowels and a few other factors.

  • CRB

    Has anyone heard Hayley Westenra sing, “Abide with me”? She has perfect pitch.

  • Ann

    In response to someone wishing for an English version of the aforementioned CD.. What I love about this beautiful CD is that it is in Latin, actually. I can listen to the voices and harmonies and still go about whatever I am doing or thinking about without being distracted by English words. I know the carols’ subject matter is holy and the haunting sound of the music itself leads me into a posture of quiet reflection. Some of the carols and hymns are new to me and have added an additional depth to the Advent/Christmas season.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I am still thankful for my trumpet instructor who always kicked my but when I would kick in my very “natural vibrato” to mask my horrible tuning. Clear voices are voices that hear and offer one voice. Hey its like the Gospel!

  • Kurt

    I don’t know from vibrato or tremelo, but I do know that this “Veni Emmanuel” CD is beautifully done.

  • FW

    My old music teacher william birsching, WELS, said that bach pretty much evolved out of and discarded motet style music, singing in the round… because he was so very focused on the listener hearing every word clearly.

    I notice that most Lutheran choir music seems to be all about motet style singing in the round. (think “row row row your boat”), where the sopranos for example will start singing a phrase and after a while the tenors will join in with the same phrase. I DO find it really hard to catch what the words are because of this, beautiful as it does sound….

    I think ol’ bill birsching (and bach?) was right.

    anyone have anything on this. this probably is more directly germain to church music than vibrato or no…..

  • CRB

    Hayley Westenra, anyone? Check out a perfect pitch voice on youtube. Amazing!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    OK, so maybe it’s tremelo I don’t like! Thanks for the comments, everybody.

  • Bruce Gee

    Gaudete! Quem Pastores Laudavere! Precedenti Puero-Eyal Novus Annus Est!

    I love ‘em all.

  • Anabasis

    May we clarify some terms? Perfect pitch is the ability to identify pitches aurally without prior reference. (As opposed to relative pitch where you compare a pitch you hear now to a reference identified for you in the near past.) Lots of non-musicians have perfect pitch. Singing in tune is more properly called good intonation.

    I was blessed to collaborate early in my training with a rare singer who has complete mastery of her vibrato and the musicality to use it well. So I sympathize with you and I encourage you to set a high standard. What you’re missing is possible; truly difficult to attain, but definitely possible.

    We only notice vibrato when it is misused. It is a natural function of the human voice and when embraced properly listeners are not conscious of it. In fact, without vibrato the voice would be limited to only a handful of the beautiful colors it is capable of producing. Usually, we notice when the vibrato is too wide (strays too far on either side of the pitch), when it is not centered on the pitch, when it is oscillating too fast or too slow, or when it prevents the singer from moving smoothly between notes. I am also bothered by a secondary issue, when vibrato is uniform to the point of monotony.

    You would notice, guaranteed, if a cellist tried to begin the Elgar concerto without vibrato. One of my best friends and colleagues is an exceptional young violinist who refines her vibrato by listening to… good singers!

    I could opine at length about this. It’s controversial even among professionals. Suffice to say, good vibrato is necessary on some level for healthy singing. Singers being trained often sound out-of-control temporarily. It’s necessary to completely relax and discover your own unique vibrato before you can manage that vibrato and sing straight-tone in a healthy, free way. To further complicate matters, our voices mature and age along with our bodies, we can’t see our voices, and we can’t just go and buy a new one at the store if ours breaks or if we want to sing different music than our voice is suited for. With so much at stake, it’s understandable why these questions are so contentious.

    Often it’s clear to us when singers should use less (or better) vibrato. Less obvious are the opposite situations. Without vibrato, the solos in the Brahms German Requiem would sound thin and anemic: Pretty, perhaps, but in a disembodied, gnostic sort of way wholly at odds with the rich, deep orchestral sonorities and the weight of the symphonic structure. Also, both professional and choral singers could injure themselves trying to project exclusively, indiscriminately, and forcefully in straight-tone.

    I hope that helps!

  • LAJ

    Thank you booklover and Anabasis for your comments. I happen to dislike when strings use too much vibrato. They sound like they’re crying. For a bass who has complete control of his voice, listen to Byrn Terfel.


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