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.

In Chapter 3 I categorise and compare the types of vocal and violin portamento found in 18th-and 19th-century treatises and their possible appropriate contexts from written documentation. I also explore the singing playing styles of violinists in Schubert’s circle and their documented use of portamento. Although analysing primary sources from the mid-18th to mid-19th century is integral to this study, it is also equally important to analyse early recordings made by singers and violinists at the turn of the 20th century. Written documentation, while informative in providing an historical basis for the development of playing styles in Vienna leading up to and during Schubert’s life, has limitations because the interpretation of written documents is subjective and does not necessarily provide a completely accurate account of the playing styles of the time, as many performers would play in completely different ways to those of their written instructions.3 It is important to analyse and consider the evidence of both the written 18th- and 19th-century primary sources as well as recordings from the turn of the 20th century as the singers and violinists who made these recordings had clear links to the past through their pedagogical lineage. These performers were only one or two generations younger than Schubert, and many were educated by musicians close to Schubert’s contemporaries, and therefore they had direct links to early-19th-century performance practices. It is important to compare their recorded expressive choices with those indicated in the written documentation of the previous century in order to gain a better understanding of the range of expressive devices used in Schubert’s sound world and the ways in which performers executed different types of portamento, both in singing and violin playing. Therefore, in Chapter 4 I analyse the portamento use in early recorded singers and violinists with a strong connection to Schubert’s context. I use Sonic Visualiser audio analysis software to categorise different types of vocal and violin portamento and analyse the shapes, speeds and placements of each type. I also compare portamento use in early-recorded singing and violin playing, as well as analysing the links between evidence of early-recorded portamenti and written sources from Schubert’s time, in order to gain a better understanding of how different 19th-century portamenti were executed.

Given the strong evidence of the importance of portamento as a fundamental expressive tool for both vocal and violin performance practices of the 18th and 19th centuries that I present in Chapters 3 and 4, I find it difficult to comprehend why this expressive device was lost in the 20th century. Hence, in Chapter 5 I examine the wider phenomenon of style change in the 20th century, exploring how recording technology and modern aesthetic changes contributed to the demise of portamento use in performance. I also research innate emotional responses to music and portamento’s importance as an engaging communicative tool to understand its expressive qualities as a communicative device in music. Finally, I undertake my own artistic experimentation in early-19th-century music, collaborating with and surveying leading vocal and string 19th-century HIP practitioners in order to explore ways of making portamento expressive and relevant to modern musical practice and appreciation. I also conduct general research into other aspects of 19th-century performance practices in order to place portamento use within its relevant context to further understand the different expressive uses for it.

Through these academic explorations and artistic experimentations, I hope to gain a better understanding of the types of portamento used during Schubert’s life and their appropriate contexts. I intend to expand the expressive possibilities in my own violin playing and provide advice to fellow 18th- and 19th-century HIP practitioners to give performers more options for expressive freedom in their singing and playing.