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Use of Vibrato in Baroque Vocal Music

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The topic of performance practice in early music has produced a veritable flood of emotionally charged criticism from both sides of the proverbial "fence". While some assert that the application of modern styles to early music only enhances the expressive quality of a piece, others argue that historical authenticity should take precedence over all other aspects of a performance. This push for "historically informed" (1) performance has given rise to the widespread use of period instruments. Approaching this topic from a vocalists perspective, then-- in which the performer IS both the period and the modern instrument simultaneously-- becomes problematic.

At the centre of this controversy lies what counter-tenor James Bowman refers to as the "thorny problem of vibrato" (2). Most specialists agree that some vibrato is a necessary element in the performance of Baroque Music; to what degree it is used, how it is used, and the width and speed of the vibrato used encompass the main part of the controversy. As one ventures further into the argument, two "camps" begin to emerge-- the "pro-vibratoists" Frederick Neumann and Robert Donington, and the "limited-vibratoists" or "vibrato-as-ornament" proponents Ellen Harris, Greta Moens-Haenen, and Neil Zaslaw. By examining the main arguments of some of these scholars and the subsequent reaction to the debate they have created, it is possible to develop a slightly more objective stance on the issue of vibrato in Baroque vocal music.

1. Duffin, p. 27
2. Bowman, p. 60