Chapter 6: Summary and Conclusions

In this thesis I have explored the intimate relationships between late-18th- and early-19th-century vocal and violin styles and techniques, and how this can help us interpret the use of portamento in the violin music of Schubert and his contemporaries. The practical application of 18th- and 19th-century portamento in current playing is a relatively unresearched area. Thus, my research aimed to shed more light on the subject and to provide current performers with a wider variety of approaches in interpreting and using 19th-century expressive devices, such as portamento, to create unique and spontaneous performances that move the listener. I conducted extensive analysis of written and recorded sources of portamento use by singers and violinists. I then explored why this fundamental expressive technique was lost during the 20th century and explored the psychological associations with and responses to music to gain better understanding of the variation over time of portamento’s importance as an expressive device. I augmented this research with my own artistic experimentation with the music of Schubert and his contemporaries and surveyed leading 19th-century HIP practitioners, to explore possible ways to reignite this expressive device in modern-day performance practice.

Through my analysis of 18th- and 19th-century written documentation in Chapter 2, I found that vocal styles and techniques greatly influenced the violin playing of the time, as violinists were always advised to, and praised for, imitating the voice. There was frequent portamento use documented before, during, and after Schubert’s time. Portamento also had its own dedicated section in both vocal and violin treatises, and was often the first ornament discussed, even before vibrato, which clearly shows its importance in the 19th-century expressive language. This written historical evidence provides strong justification for current historically-informed performers to use portamento in Schubert’s music.

I found a variety of documented ways in which to execute different portamenti through my analysis of historical written sources. Therefore, in Chapter 3 I categorised the different types of portamento found in vocal and violin treatises, exploring the connections between these types. In both vocal and violin treatises, portamento slides before the destination syllable or bow change were overwhelmingly the preferred execution technique. In singing, Manuel Garcia favoured continuous air pressure during portamenti, whereas Domenico Corri advised to alter air pressure and speed depending on the context of the slide. Similarly, violin treatises advised connected and continuous bow pressure and speed in general, but Louis Spohr’s and Ferdinand David’s respective treatises suggested varying bow speed and pressure when executing hairpins, often in association with portamenti. The vocal and violin treatises examined also discussed appropriate locations of portamento use, including in slower movements or cantabile passages, or at fermatas as an alternative ornament option. Fingerings from annotated 19th-century violin music showed portamento use in order to emphasise chromatic melodic movement, falling intervals, such as fourths or sixths, or after an accented note to release the sound after an accent. Charles de Bériot’s 1858 treatise also explored the expressive qualities of different types of portamento based on vocal style.

While the written evidence of portamento use from the 18th and 19th centuries is useful academically, interpretation of written evidence alone can vary drastically. Therefore, I found it essential to explore, in Chapter 4, the early-recorded evidence of portamento use in order to have a better aural understanding of the device. These recordings are highly relevant to understanding how portamento was used in the 19th century, because each recorded performer had strong links to early-19th-century performance practices. Using Sonic Visualiser software to analyse portamento use in the 14 vocal and 7 violin recordings examined, I categorised the six main portamento types with sub-categories, many of which have not yet been documented in detail in current academic research. I compared the vocal and violin use of portamento and found that early-recorded portamento use shared many similarities with written documentation of portamento execution. These similarities included using more ascending than descending portamenti, favouring sliding before the destination syllable or bow change, using portamento in association with rubato, and using more portamenti in cantabile or slow movements. I did not find many substantial differences between written and recorded evidence of vocal and violin portamento use. The only substantial difference I found between vocal and violin portamento use in early recordings was that, compared with violin players, singers used far more anticipation portamenti to begin phrases, which could be due to the ease with which singers can execute this portamento subtly. A minor difference was that written documentation often suggested portamento use in “moderation,” whereas early-recorded singers and violinists used portamento frequently. However, as we cannot know exactly to what “moderation” referred in the written sources, this difference in portamento use cannot be deemed a substantial difference.

To understand how each portamento was executed I used spectrogram images from Sonic Visualiser to analyse and describe, mathematically, the shapes, speeds, densities, and placements of each type of portamento found. While there was a wide variety of slide shapes used throughout the recordings examined, the most common and natural-sounding slide shapes were ascending or descending linear slides, which have a constant rate of change of pitch, (as seen in Bériot’s description of “lively” portamento), and ascending positive exponential growth slides (y=ex), where the singer or violinist starts the pitch ascension slowly and then increases the rate of change of pitch as they approach the destination note, (as seen in Bériot’s description of “soft’ and “drawn-out” portamenti). These types were used throughout phrases that did not have any particularly dramatic moments and therefore acted as general subtle enhancers of phrase expressivity. They were also used for most guide-finger shifts in the violin recordings examined, which gives us insight into the preference for this type of shift in the early-19th-century, as they are the most naturally-sounding slide types. For more dramatic moments, I found that both singers and violinists often used ascending negative exponential decay slides (y=-e-x), where the rate of change of pitch decreases as they approach the destination note. This shape of slide tends to be more obvious or obtrusive than others, but when executed with careful use of air and bow speed and pressure, it can be a very expressive type of portamento for particularly dramatic moments. While these commonalities of portamento shapes were found, I also found, importantly, substantial variation in the use of different types of portamento across the vocal and violin recordings examined, as this device was used spontaneously and always with musical and expressive intent.

Chapter 5 examined the possible ways in which to help incorporate portamento into current violin playing. First, it was essential to understand why this fundamental expressive technique was lost during the 20th century. Academics have proposed many different reasons, including the introduction of recordings and the push to listen to “clean” and “repeatable” music, the loss of innocence of interpretation of music after two World Wars, increase in vibrato use that essentially took portamento’s place in the expressive language of the 20th century, and neophilia. While there is no single answer, having a general understanding of the change of musical aesthetics over the last 100 years can help us find ways of encouraging the reintroduction of these old aesthetics in a new way in modern-day performance. Secondly, it was important to understand the innate emotional responses listeners can have to music and the emotional and expressive associations with different types of portamento use. Portamento in phrases can hold our attention longer than plain phrases. Moreover, this expressive device taps into our earliest memories of sound through its association with the adult-infant language, Motherese. Music is one of the closest art forms to natural human communication and portamento imitates natural speech patterns, especially when used in singing. Thus, I found it important to explore portamento use that taps into these associations in order to create more expressive and engaging performances in my own playing.

Finally, I conducted my own artistic experimentation of portamento use in both singing and violin playing with leading vocal and violin 19th-century HIP practitioners. I recorded David Greco singing 18th- and 19th-century documented portamento types and related them to the violin shifting exercises of Ferdinand David and Louis Spohr. I noticed in Greco’s recordings that singers can vary types and subtlety of portamento much more than violinists can, so I recorded both Spohr’s and David’s respective shifting exercises in several ways to help create variety in shifting technique and portamento use in my violin playing. I then recorded excerpts of Schubert’s Violin Sonata in D Major, Op. 137, No. 1, “Trout” Piano Quintet in A Major and “Death and a Maiden” String Quartet in D minor to compare the interpretation of portamento use in relation to other 19th-century expressive devices. I also surveyed nine musicians and found trends in their use of portamento, depending on different characters of music, as well as the importance of understanding other 19th-century expressive devices when executing portamenti, and the fact that theoretical knowledge is of limited use unless ones finds a way to make it effective in one’s own playing. I found that it was not possible to fully understand portamento’s expressive application without also understanding its placement within, and interplay with, other 19th-century expressive devices, such as tempo rubato or flexibility, expressive vibrato, and piano arpeggiation. I found that using portamento in combination with other 19th-century expressive devices not only helps create a more convincing execution of the different types of portamento in singing and violin playing, but also that portamento can in turn aid in more expressive and convincing executions of other 19th-century expressive devices.

Through the analysis of portamento use in written and recorded documentation and through my own artistic experimentation, I discovered that a general knowledge of 19th-century performance practices is essential to the execution of tasteful and effective portamento, both in singing and violin playing, as the expressive devices from that time were interconnected and influenced each other. Detailed analysis of recordings also helps contextualise appropriateness of use of different types of portamento, giving us insight into the possible uses of different types of portamento. However, I have found that it is not useful to take these historical examples as prescriptive rules upon which to base one’s playing style today. Portamento and 19th-century expressive devices are so effective in early recordings because each performer used them spontaneously, in a variety of ways, and with unique musical intention. Therefore, it is important to understand the possible emotional associations with different portamenti and then to use them in a way that is most authentic and musically expressive for oneself. In my opinion, individual expressivity is likely to have been much easier in the 19th century because performances were live, one-time events that did not have to be clean and repeatable on a recording. This fit well with the uniqueness and spontaneous expressivity of portamenti. As Leech-Wilkinson argues, we hear in recordings from the mid- to late-20th century that portamento tended to be used more subtly and only at key moments, often to mark different sections or used to slow down ends of phrases. I believe we can actually use this knowledge to our advantage, both of the history of use of portamenti and the tendency to emphasise the same musical points throughout the centuries. I suggest that current performers use these universal key expressive moments in music to gradually integrate portamenti into their playing in order to heighten an already-expressive moment and to sound less obtrusive.

While I do not advocate for prescriptive rules when making expressive decisions, whether it be in mainstream modern or historically-informed performance, the historical written and recorded evidence examined provides various tools and clues to help introduce portamento into one’s violin playing today. These include:

  • Practising a legato bow technique and practising the guide-finger shifting exercises of Ferdinand David, Louis Spohr and Gaylord Yost, in order to maintain a consistent singing tone colour and smooth connected shifts,

  • Using una corda (single-string) fingerings as much as possible, which naturally introduces portamenti, due to the nature of connected bow and left-hand shifting techniques,

  • Using the markings in early-19th-century editions as a starting point for introducing portamenti, such as same-finger shifts under slurs (especially over the interval of a third), during chromatic movement, during falling intervals after an accented note, and at fermatas and cadenzas,

  • Generally shifting with a guide finger with either linear or exponential growth slide shape, except for shifts to harmonics or specific expressive moments where a destination-finger shift is appropriate,

  • Using a variety of types of portamento throughout each performance, depending on their expressive context,

  • Using portamenti in combination with small- or large-scale rubato,

  • Using portamenti to join sections or phrases of music together, often in combination with rubato,

  • Practising different types of portamento with different combinations of bow speed and pressure, and the amount of bow used, in order to have a greater variety of execution of portamenti for different expressive effects,

  • Being mindful of the differences in bow use and speed of slide when executing jovial light portamenti as opposed to drawn-out languid portamenti

  • Singing phrases before playing them and noting the natural moments of rhetorical expression in order to judge where portamenti are most appropriate and expressive

  • Using early vocal and violin recordings as guides for the varied ways in which different types of portamento can be executed expressively and convincingly

Again, I stress that these historical clues should be taken as general guidelines that can and should be altered depending on the musical expressive intention of each given performance.

As performers, our duty is to be responsible for questioning our own artistic decisions. There is never one right or wrong way to play Schubert’s music, or any music for that matter, but instead of just playing how your teacher plays or how everyone else around you play, why not explore the possible sound worlds of the composer? This gives both performers and listeners a better understanding of the context in which these composers were writing, and, in turn, more insight into the expressive languages of their contemporary singers and instrumentalists. While we can try to seek the “truth” academically, it is also important to remember that it is impossible to authentically recreate the sounds of the past. What we can do, however, is learn from the clearly documented, expressive world of the past in order to create new, exciting and spontaneous ways of interpreting this timeless music. There is no question that there were some general fashions in portamento use, and variation in its application and appreciation. More importantly, however, artists from Schubert’s context, and for a century thereafter, had their own unique expressive styles. Given these historical foundations, I urge you to dare to be different and push yourselves to break the current expressive boundaries. Given Milsom’s central theory—that neophilia can be seen to drive modern society in general, especially with 24-hour, fast-paced addictive social media platforms—I feel we can use this, too, to our advantage. By introducing a “new” musical aesthetic based on the past, that follows history’s patterns of rejecting the aesthetics of the immediate past (i.e. the often clean, dry, computerised recording-quality world of both current modern and HIP musicians), we can reintroduce expressive devices that have strong historical precedent: ones that command and retain attention, while tapping into our innate and fundamental emotional responses to sound and music. While we are fighting a somewhat uphill battle against the aesthetic ideals of modernism by reintroducing unpredictable and varying expressive devices such as portamento back into performance, hopefully we can use our current society’s obsession with neophilia to our advantage in order to propose a new and exciting application of an old form, as a way of presenting music that is unique, dirty, spontaneous and interesting, and thus a refreshing alternative to the clean dry sounds of modernism, be they mainstream or HIP.