Chapter 1: Introduction
Background and context
The voice and violin have always shared an intimate connection. Every violin treatise from the late-18th and early-19th centuries that I have consulted has referenced the voice in some way, encouraging the violinist to imitate the voice or take inspiration from vocal techniques and expressive devices. This historical evidence is not always considered by current historically-informed (HIP) ensembles and, in my experience, there is a lack of knowledge concerning how to apply different late-18th- and early-19th-century practices in modern HIP performance. Some ensembles revert to the dry 1980s style of HIP Baroque performance. Others try to implement late-18th- and early-19th-century expressive techniques, but only by choosing them at random and with no apparent rationale, resulting, in my opinion, in an unconvincing musical outcome. However, I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the current leading 18th- and 19th-century HIP practitioners and through reading documented evidence from the period, analysing early recordings, playing on instruments of the period, and using singing and vocal techniques as a basis for expressivity in instrumental playing, I have been inspired to explore, in this thesis, the links between voice and violin further.
There is no better example of vocal expressivity in instrumental writing than in the music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who is famous for revolutionising the form of Lieder. I was first drawn to Schubert when I sang his Lieder in high school and early university years, and was incredibly moved by his beautiful melodies, intricate piano parts, and how his music captured the very essence of the poems. Schubert’s instrumental music is inherently vocal in nature, particularly that for the violin; therefore, it is important to examine vocal techniques in order to interpret how they were applied to violin technique, and vice versa. Moreover, violinists were repeatedly told to imitate the voice, as can be seen in treatises and reviews of performances throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as earlier in history. During the 18th and 19th centuries, there were not only parallels in vocal and violin techniques, but violinists were also expected to be able to sing, and vocal examples were used in instrumental treatises in teaching contexts. Today’s players, and indeed audiences, can learn much by understanding this Schubertian nexus between voice and violin.
For the scope and parameters of this study, I focus on one of the most effective vocal expressive devices, portamento, and explore how an understanding of vocal technique and style can help today’s violinists interpret the violin music of Schubert and that of his contemporaries. The current Grove Music Online definition of portamento is “the connection of two notes by passing audibly through the intervening pitches.”1 Unfortunately, portamento has to a large extent been lost as an expressive device in current singing and playing, and the only type of portamento that is currently used with any sort of frequency is a very exaggerated one often with a drawn-out slide with lots of vibrato and breath/bow pressure that can leave the listener feeling slightly ill.
Aims and approach
My thesis aims to (1) understand the historical appropriateness of portamento in Schubert’s violin music and how different types of portamento work, (2) examine why the technique was lost, and (3) explore ways of reigniting it in today's musical aesthetic. To do this, we must first establish the influence of vocal style on violin playing of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Therefore, in Chapter 2 I analyse late-18th- and early-19th-century written documentation of the interplay between vocal and violin styles and techniques. I also examine other contextual influences on Schubert’s sound world, such as the influence of the French School on Austro-German violin playing, and reviews of the performances by violinists in Schubert’s circle that exhibited such singing playing styles. The French School of violin playing was largely based on the singing style of playing the violin. While some may argue that the French Violin School is not relevant to the performance language of Schubert’s music, I see clear evidence of the link between Austro-German and French violinists at this time.2 Therefore, it is imperative to understand the stylistic qualities and technical aspects of the expressive language of the French Violin School, and especially the prominence of portamento within it.