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The Fluctuating Fortunes of Vibrato
 & Pertile on Vowels

During the March 30, 1991 broadcast I refer to my article on vibrato, reprinted here.

The Fluctuating Fortunes of Vibrato

Once Thought to Convey Emotion, 
Fast Vibrato Is Again Out of Fashion

For most of the 20th century singers used less vibrato than in the 19th, when it became so popular as to provoke British critic Henry F. Chorley in 1862 to call it “that vice of young Italy, bad schooling, and false notions of effect.”

The use of fast vibrato as a prominent aspect of each sung tone was pioneered by tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, beginning around 1814. Before him singers reserved vibrato for special effects and moments of heightened emotion. At first, because of vibrato, Rubini was derided as a goat. He could not find employment as a recitalist or opera singer–not even as a chorister. Eventually by virtue of a masterful singing technique, unsurpassed musical sensitivity and a most magnetic vocal personality he became his age’s preeminent singer, despite an objectionably small voice. Even Chorley had to concede that, with vibrato, Rubini produced “an effect of emotion not obtainable by any other means.” His tones even came to be widely admired for their beauty.

By the mid-1820s other singers with pervasive vibratos had begun to make careers, Henriette Méric-Lalande becoming the first such star soprano. By the middle of the century Rubini vibrato was commonplace–in spite of critics’ fulminations. Rossini, among many, deplored it. Still, Italian tenors, in particular, sported it: Enrico Tamberlick, Roberto Stagno, Fernando De Lucia and Italo Campanini, for example. George Bernard Shaw’s epithet for Italian tenors was “Goatbleaters!” (Curiously, Campanini, in an unpublished letter, wrote of his rival Ernesto Nicolini, “His voice shakes as if with palsy.”)

In this country as well as Britain critics and public have tended to think of this quiver as disfiguring. When De Lucia and soprano Celestina Boninsegna appeared here, in 1893-94 and 1906-07, respectively, critics called each a goat. Baritone Riccardo Stracciari was excoriated here for the same reason, in 1907. Virtually all Italian tenors who appeared here from the 80s to the First World War vibrated and in consequence didn’t become really popular, even those with illustrious careers in Europe, such as Campanini and Stagno. When the adulated Jean de Reszke on occasion lapsed into such a vibrato at the Met, even he was scourged.

Enrico Caruso was found refreshing when he made his Met debut, in 1903, because, so critic W.J. Henderson noted, his voice was “without the typical Italian bleat.” (Henderson once wrote, “To make the voice quiver with imminent tears all the time is ridiculous.”) Although Caruso’s vibrato on his early records does seem moderate when compared to other Italian tenors then, it is faster, narrower and more flutterlike than on records he made 15 or so years later, where it is comparatively slow and wide.

The fortunes of Aureliano Pertile and Giovanni Martinelli exemplify a difference between Italian and American taste of the past. Both tenors were born in Montagnana, Italy, in 1885, both were impassioned. Pertile was received coolly here, in 1921-22, perhaps because of his “bleaty” vibrato-laden tone. Martinelli, a Met stalwart for decades, had almost no audible vibrato. When he returned to Italy in 1929 he was crucified for having la voce fissa, a tight or constricted tone with insufficient vibrato.

Since W. W. II few Latin singers have had prominent vibratos, with the exception of throwbacks such as tenor Salvatore Fisichella, indifferently received at his Met debut, in 1986, and tenor Bruno Beccaria, whose vibrato is reminiscent of Pertile’s. In the late 50s Franco Corelli, who had begun his career with a prominent vibrato, eliminated it, regarding it as a flaw–a sign of the times. Magda Olivero, a heavy vibratoer in the 30s, used comparatively straight tones after 1950.

With some exceptions Afro-American singers have a different kind of vibrato, slower and wider. Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price are examples. To study vibrato, it’s helpful to play tapes at half speed.

To serve music vibrato’s width and rapidity must be capable of variation. For me the main objection to omnipresent vibrato is that pitch fluctuations interfere with resolutions of dissonances and other moments of harmonic repose. In florid music vibrato, moreover, creates ambiguities of pitch. Still, the allure of Conchita Supervia does seem to stem in part from vibrato.

Although the British dislike vibrato in singing, old-time Oxford philosophy dons were given to talking with voices aquiver with emotion. As a graduate student I heard one such deliver a highly abstract and rigorous lecture on truth theory in a manner worthy of Pertile. On early records and sound films a number of orators, politicians and actors also speak with vibrato, as did Evans and Gielgud in Shakespeare.

Pertile on Vowels

It always has been thought that Italian has five “pure” vowels: “ah,” “eh,” “ee,” “oh,” “oo,” but in actuality this has not been true in singing for generations. In 1932 Pertile dictated a singing method, Metodo di canto, that codified what by then had become standard practice for men: “ah” should be blended with “oh,” “oh” should sound like “oh,” “ee” should sound like “ih” (as in “it”), “eh” should be blended with “oo,” “oo” should be blended with “oh.” He said that, in singing with this approach, the five vowels, which in speaking are dissimilar, come to resemble one another. Possibly because of Pertile, possibly because of a trend, this treatment of vowels rapidly was taken up by women. It is the way in which rounded or darkened singing is achieved. (Pertile, incidentally, opposed “exaggerated” pronunciation on the grounds that it makes singing proceed with syllable-by-syllable choppiness, induces muscular contractions and rigidity and causes the voice to lose its placement. He advocated masque placement–and placement still deeper in the masque when singing in the passaggio, the area of the voice where head resonance begins to predominate over chest resonance. His Metodo di canto is reprinted in Bruno Tosi’s Pertile, una voce, un mito.)

A special case: before W. W. II most women had a good “ah” vowel but did not sing a true “oo.” Instead they were apt to sing “ü.” Had Claudia Muzio attempted to sing her name the result would have been Müzio. Some singers from the generation before Muzio also turned “oo” into “ü,” Gemma Bellincioni being one example. Today “oo” is the one vowel often heard in its pure form–at least when singers don’t go above their middle ranges. On higher pitches they are apt to blend “oo” with “oh.”

Like Pertile, Del Monaco and Corelli darkened “ah,” “oh,” “ee” and “eh.” But unlike Pertile they sang “oo” as “oo.”

According to former Milanov student Linda Kundell, of New York City, Milanov taught that one should sing each vowel with the mouth position for “oh,” with the lips formed into a spout. (Conversation, November 16, 2008) This is another way to round or darken.

–Stefan Zucker