Wednesday, April 06, 2005

More on vibrato

I have a love-hate relationship with old sheet music. It tends to have an odor and using it is not very practical because it is often unnecessarily large in format and made of paper high of groundwood pulp content, similar to newspaper, and breaks apart easily. But one can come across most interesting discoveries and learn the unexpected from studying it.

Yesterday I wanted to have a student start on dé Beriot's Scène de ballet, op. 100. Having misplaced my usual copy I found a thick folder of the composers music in my library, all dating back a century or so, most of it being part of the Bosworth Edition. Surely enough this famed piece was there as well, with a title page that stated it was "Revised and fingered for modern requirements and with explanatory remarks by Emil Kross" and printed in 1901.

We went through the first three pages so that this young Chinese-born man would have an idea how the piece was supposed to sound. He looked puzzled and I didn't realize why, until he pointed to some unusual markings on the printed music, as I was not really looking at it and was merely playing the piece from memory. There it was! The editor has clearly marked the notes that were to be vibrated on with a squiggly line, which is explained on the first page as "Bebung des Fingers", trembling the finger. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that on the first page there are but six such notes. Even when the main slow theme is introduced, vibrato isn't indicated until the second time it comes around and then only on two notes. Clearly vibrato was being used as a special effect.

What a refreshing discovery which opened up a window to what performance practice of a romantic showpiece was just a hundred years ago! Mr. Kross is much more concerned with the art of playing harmonics than vibrating. "Touching of strings the at the exactly correct mathematical points is necessary for the production of the Harmonics otherwise the notes will not sound clearly. The bowing should be soft and flaky in character, the stick of the bow inclined as (m)uch as possible towards the fingerboard." There are many more instructions in the footnotes, both technical and musical in nature.

I had to explain to my confused student that I didn't expect him to follow all the printed advice, as the music he was going to order would most likely look quite different. On the other hand, this might have been a golden opportunity for him to learn with a hands-on experience about the history of the art of violin playing and opened his eyes at an age before I myself could have had the chance.

Never again will I complain about the smell of old music.