Historical Performance Practice, Epilogue: My Application

In the past three blog posts, I have laid out a literature review on the subject of vibrato in the historical performance practice of early music. You may be wondering if I am pro vibrato or pro straight tone. However, rather than label myself in either of those courts, I like to say that I am pro healthy singing and pro beautiful music. I strive to maintain a free and lovely sound while coloring each phrase in such a way that the meaning will be best enhanced and expressed.

Basically, I've found that historic literature and modern HPP commentary are both too subjective, controversial, and flowery to be definitive, even though there seems to be a significant "cult following" in favor of a strict straight tone. (This is ironic, because so many of the best early music vocal soloists use vibrato much of the time.) As we have seen in the previous three posts, many of the early teachers and singers (like Caccini and Praetorius) seemed to believe in a free and full sound. (Granted, they were undoubtedly thinking "full sound" like we might hear Mozart, as opposed to the full sound of Wagner.* Nevertheless, they expected singers to sing with a free and relaxed instrument.

*Side note: Speaking of the subjectivity of "full sound," I do believe that big-voiced Wagnerian singers have the capacity to sing early music well. I do not mean to suggest otherwise. Jamie Barton is the ideal example of a singer who does it all. She is as respected and revered for her Handel interpretations as her interpretations of Wagner. But she probably colors her voice a little differently for these contrasting composers.) 

Some critics have said that early music singing requires a foundation of straight tone, and that vibrato is used sparingly as an ornament. I take a reverse stance. I believe that early music singing requires a foundation of vocal oscillation, using straight tone as the expressive ornament. It is probably safe to say that when I sing anything written earlier than 1750, I use an unobtrusive but definite vibrato approximately 80% of the time. I believe in incorporating straight tone for 20%, more or less, usually for higher notes, but ALWAYS with an open throat. For sustained notes, I start straight and add oscillation partially through, just like in pop music. I might use more straight tone in some pieces compared to others, and I kind of rely on instinct to guide me. I always strive for an open throat position. That is my basic practice, I suppose. 

That said, I always strive to accommodate the aesthetic vision of directors with whom I work, to the extent in which I am still able to sing in a healthful and beautiful manner.