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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

A Reminder that Englishmen, when Moved, do not Tremble! (1917)

‘Our quarrel with excess of tremolo is twofold. When passion is simulated by tremor, it is forgotten that an Englishman, when he is moved, does not tremble. He does weird things, uses queer words, or gives ordinary words an unusual turn ; or he wrests the matter in hand to his grave of anxious thoughts, and so makes them mean the more to him for their deep root in his practical life. People who make their voice tremble do, therefore, just the unconvincing thing. They ask us to believe that emotion has deprived them of the control of it, whereas we all know that real emotion would have made it do its work in a fuller and finer way. Secondly, tremolo never indicates which of all the emotions it alludes to ; it may be grief, anger, or love ; and we have to look at the words to see which, whereas the style of singing ought to tell us. Thus habitual recourse to it argues poverty of ideas, and may fairly be described as musical bankruptcy.

The listener is either cajoled or cheated. He is cajoled by the mystery of a note sung as if the emotion behind it were too great to flow steadily, and he is cheated by not knowing which of two notes is meant. Tremolo is like the dancing plume on the knight’s helment, which was there ostensibly to dazzle the eyes of admirers, but really to confuse an antagonist’s aim; and rubato is like the blazon on his shield which concealed him from those who did not know his pedigree and revealed him to those who did. The essence of both was—and is—that they should not be made too common.’



Some Devices Of Singers." Times, 29 Dec. 1917, p. 9. The Times Digital Archive,

Of all the historical objections to excess pitch fluctuation, this might be the most entertaining. Suffice it to say that a brief overview of recorded English singers from this period places the comment firmly in context.

The painting below is Thomas Eakins’ portrait of the well-known American singer Weda Cook, completed in 1892. The work took Eakins almost two years to finish, during the first year of which it is reported that he required Cook to sing ‘O rest in the Lord’ from Mendelssohn’s Elijah three or four times a week in order that he could observe the movements of her mouth and throat.

The conductor’s hand and baton in the corner is modelled on Charles Schmitz, the conductor of the Germania Orchestra and Cook’s teacher. An earlier sketch of the painting shows the baton being held between the fingers in the manner of a paintbrush.

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