'The Historic Record of Vocal Sound': A conversation about vibrato with Richard Bethell

In the Spring 2021 publication of the Newsletter of the National Early Music Association UK appears a rather substantial article entitled ‘The Historic Record of Vocal Sound (1650-1829.) ’ The article in question was penned by independent musicologist and secretary of the National Early Music Association UK, Richard Bethell, in response to a somewhat mixed review by Dr. Edward Breen of Mr. Bethell’s recently published book on the same subject. While Mr. Bethell and I have discussed the contents of his book at great length outside of print, the publication of the aforementioned article served as an opportunity for an explicit and public challenge to be issued for me and my colleague and friend Lisandro Abadie to defend our perspectives on the subject.

The original article containing Mr. Bethell's challenge can be found here, pages 30-83:

[NEMA Newsletter Spring 2021]

Mine and Lisandro's responses were subsequently published in the Autumn edition of the same newsletter, and can be found here on pages 88-98 

[NEMA Newsletter Autumn 2021]

Mr. Bethell then used the opportunity to respond once again, which can be found on pages 99-103 of the Autumn publication shared above. 

Finally, both myself and Lisandro have decided to release a final, informal response in order to tie up any loose ends, giving both us and Mr. Bethell two opportunities to voice our opinions on the subject. 

Response Tim Braithwaite 01/11/2021

Mr. Bethell’s response (Autumn 2021) was greatly revealing, and I thank him for taking the time to write it. While our disagreements remain, the clarification he provides as to the nature of his argument have proved helpful in better understanding his perspective. Considering the confrontational nature of past incarnations of this discussion, it seems unlikely that we will reach an amicable consensus. However, I hope that my response below will satisfy those readers who are left with questions after reading Mr. Bethell’s rebuttal.

Behind our surface disagreement lies a broader misconception about the nature of the discussion itself. That Mr. Bethell considers my position to be ‘defending [the] use of a modern vibrato in early music’ points either to a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of my criticism, which is essentially a call for more nuance when discussing such a complex subject. For the record, I am a passionate defender of the idea that historical singing, including historical approaches to vibrato, was far more varied than typically heard in the modern incarnation of the ‘Early Music Movement,’ albeit with rather more sympathy for the professional demands of the freelance musician than demonstrated by Mr. Bethell. 

Indeed, it seems important to acknowledge that we actually both agree that some sort of vibrato was used by singers throughout the period in question, although we are clearly of differing opinions as to the nature of its use. Our disagreement is grounded primarily in what I consider to be Mr. Bethell’s misrepresentation of sources in order to impose a false impression of unity on a soundscape as diverse as one might expect for a period stretching almost two centuries. At the risk of repeating myself, a fruitful discussion on the subject needs to consider what sort of vocal fluctuations documented in historical sources can be considered analogous to modern vibrato, as well as when, and by whom they were thought to be appropriate. If the aim of Mr. Bethell’s article is to determine ‘The Historic Record of Vocal Sound’ between 1650-1829, he needs to be able to accept a history in which different types of tremulousness are reported, as well as conflicting opinions on their use.

Passages of extreme prohibition such as that by Johann Friedrich Schubert, cited by Mr. Bethell in his most recent response, certainly play a role in completing this picture; there is no doubt that many historical authors were troubled by the approaches to vocal tremulousness they heard throughout the period in question. However, the existence of passages such as this do not negate the existence of comments to the contrary, and continuing to quote those authors who support a certain perspective while omitting or undervaluing those that don’t serves only to present an incomplete image of 'the Historical Record of Vocal Sound.’

It is for this reason that it is not sufficient simply to reference a collection of three recordings made by a single singer in 2009 in order to determine 'what pitch fluctuations were used and when’ between 1650 and 1829. Indeed, although Mr. Bethell protests that they are ‘essential’ to answering the question, he doesn’t actually explain why he thinks this to be the case, and I myself fail to see how using recordings in this way can be anything other than an exercise in confirmation bias.

The situation is not helped by Mr. Bethell’s insistence that all descriptions of ‘trembling’ must refer to vibrato, despite having cited several sources himself which explicitly state the contrary. He is right to point out that the word ‘vibrato’ was not typically used during the period in question, but this does not absolve him of the responsibility to acknowledge the flexibility of terms such as ‘trembling,’ ‘tremulous,’ or ‘tremolo.’ His comment that writers ‘seldom explained what they meant by the term [tremolo]’ dodges the inconvenient fact that many writers did in fact define the term, and often not in the way he would have us believe.

Furthermore, it escapes me how one could possibly interpret Burney’s comparison between the unnamed falsettist in Amsterdam and a peruque, a type of wig popular between the 17th and the early 19th-century, as referring to vibrato. The passage in question is as follows: 

'One of these voices was a falset, more like the upper part of a bad vox humana stop in an organ, than a natural voice. I remember seeing an advertisement in an English newspaper, of a barber, who undertook to dress hair in such a manner as exactly to resemble a peruque; and this singer might equally boast of having the art, not of singing like a human creature, but of making his voice like a very bad imitation of one. Of much the same kind is the merit of such singers, who, in execution, degrade the voice into a flute or fiddle, forgetting that they should not receive law from instruments, but give instruments law.'

Burney is quite clear as to his meaning here; just as this English barber attempted to make their clients’ natural hair resemble the artificial peruque, the singer in question managed to make his natural voice resemble the sound of the artificial vox humana stop. We are even told exactly which elements of this singer’s tone were objectionable, with Burney stating that ‘he forced his voice very frequently in an outrageous manner.’ Tremulousness of any sort remains unmentioned, indeed, Burney’s criticism is not that the singer sounded like a vox humana stop, but that he sounded like a bad vox humana stop. 

Furthermore, while Mr. Bethell may well be right that Burney’s references to Cuzzoni’s ‘warbling’ refer only to her facility in singing florid passages, this interpretation is by no means indisputable. Just as with those descriptions of vocal tremulousness which Mr. Bethell does choose to cite, these passages require careful analysis before a decision can be made as to their meaning. That Mr. Bethell acknowledges that these comments are ‘often raised by people defending use of a modern vibrato in early music’ and yet neglects to mention them in his own survey of Burney’s comments on vocal tremulousness, is yet another example of his attempt to downplay the diversity of the discussion. 

Even worse, we as readers are confronted with the defence that Mr. Bethell simply ‘wasn’t aware’ of the comments of Herbst and Mylius I cited in order to expose the cherry-picked nature of his seventeenth-century sources, and that he ‘didn’t have access to a good English translation’ of Dodart. Aside from the fact that neither of these excuses should be acceptable in a discussion of this nature, they also happen to be untrue. Both Herbst and Mylius are cited clearly in Lisandro’s article, which Richard takes the time to critique in his original publication, and the relevant passage from Dodart was posted in translation by Lisandro to the ‘Historical Performance Research’ Facebook page on the 18th of August 2019, to which Mr. Bethell responded on the same day: ‘This very interesting passage is also quoted in full by Greta Haenen, with German translation, but this is the first English translation I’ve seen.’

While it is my opinion that the study of historical vocal practices can continue to be enriched by discussions on the subject of vocal tremulousness, I believe that the issue should be approached with as much care and objectivity as can be mustered considering the nature of past discussions. In order to conclude this exchange, I offer a series of suggestions in order to facilitate a more cautious analysis of the source material:

- The most pressing issue in this debate is that of terminology. References to vocal tremulousness must be carefully contextualised and analysed before being considered as referring to vibrato. 

- All source material should be discussed and presented alongside the text in its original language.

- A single source can only be considered an expression of a single author’s perspective, as opposed to representative of a generation or a genre. A diversity of source material therefore reflects diversity in practice. 

- When and where an author is writing is important. We cannot assume a continuity of practice across continents and centuries. 

- Diversity of historical opinion is to be expected, and should embraced rather than suppressed, even when the result does not support our thesis. 

Response Lisandro Abadie 01/11/2021

Many thanks, Tim, for this very clear response. I am equally grateful to Mr Bethell for his most recent comments which confirm once again his position, displaying however a new set of double standards as well as his questionable habit of concealing every detail that might challenge his conclusions. 

It is important to warn readers about the extent of this problem. I might start by quoting Mr Bethell’s interpretation of Charles Smyth's words (1810/1817): "Singing in the throat is occasioned by making a kind of tone which conveys to a hearer the idea that the singer has a swelling in his throat; and in addition to this inconvenience has a chord tied tight round his neck" to which Mr Bethell bluntly adds: "which exactly describes the sounds produced by a modern operatic male singer." 

On behalf of myself and my colleagues, thank you, Mr Bethell!

This is the essence of the discussion. Mr Bethell dislikes most, if not all, sounds produced by "modern operatic" singers. The mere existence of such a category is in itself a puzzlingly broad statement given the great diversity among us singers. This personal aversion is as legitimate as any taste or preference. The problems emerge from his efforts to substantiate his tastes as universal values of the past centuries, inevitably by manipulating historical sources, ignoring contrary evidence, and selectively quoting authors from the past and the present, often in contradictory ways.   My comments in no way intend to change his musical likes and dislikes, but it is important to expose the flawed methodologies he applies.

A perfect example of his double standards can be seen in his treatment of historical passages describing vocal tremulousness compared to the equally widely documented descriptions of loud singing throughout the period in question (1650-1829). In Mr Bethell’s opinion, these singers displayed a "default straight tone" and "sang more softly than the opera singers of today." When confronted with the tenuousness of his arguments, Mr Bethell insists upon a single phrase in which Roger North describes "a clear plain sound", which he quotes out of context as proof that the ideal sound in 1695 was free of all tremulousness. At the same time, he neglects to comment on the implications for loudness in the following pedagogically oriented passage on the same page, which I quote in my reply since it contradicts Mr Bethell's ideas.

"I would have a voice or hand taught, first to prolate a long, true, steddy and strong sound, the louder and harsher the better" [Roger North, ‘As to Musick’, Notes of Me, ed Peter Millard, 2000, p.149.]

North could not be clearer on the importance of producing loud sounds since the early days of vocal and instrumental training. The entire passage leaves no doubt:

“Therefore as to the pratique, I would have a voice or hand taught, first to prolate a long, true, steddy and strong sound, the louder and harsher the better; for that will obtein an habit, of filling, and giving a body to the sound, which els will be faint and weak, as in those who come to sing at maturity of years, when the organs of voice are stiff and intractable. And so for a bow hand, to spend the whole bow, at every stroke, long or short. These lay a good foundation, the roughness and harshness of which will soften in time. The loud may abate, but soft voices cannot be made loud at pleasure. Those must be formed early, as the limbs, to arts, by much striving and continuall exersise, so as to grow, and setle into a forme, to fitt the use and practise of them;” [ibid.]


Mr Bethell’s strategy here is to dismiss the importance of these lines by distracting the reader. I quote his most recent response to my comments:

“Abadie disputes my conclusion that ‘the best long 18th century vocalists sang more softly than the opera sings of today’, vaguely mentioning ‘sources describing the remarkable volume of numerous singers in the 18th and early 19th centuries’ and providing a single quotation from Roger North in support of his position. However, he fails to provide a single example of a singer with ‘remarkable volume’.”

This is particularly relevant, as he accuses  me of employing his own methods. Mr Bethell, I did not "fail to provide a single example," I simply did not intend to. But if you insist, let us consider a few, for the amusement of our readers.

An obvious case is the bass Filippo Galli, born in 1783, for whom Rossini wrote the title role of Maometto II among many other important parts. The Parisian Journal des Débats writes in 1825 about the strength of his instrument, using terms such as "La voix colossale de Galli."

The legendary bass Luigi Lablache was born in 1794, active since 1812 in Italy and later in France and England, even giving singing lessons to Queen Victoria for twenty years. We read about him in 1845:

"He is a mountain of a man; and he occasionally contrives to pour forth a volume of sound, that one could fancy as proceeding from the depths of a volcano, rather than a human frame." [The Musical World, September 25, 1845, p.460.]

Alfred Crowquill writes unequivocally in 1850:

"Lablache's voice is an organ of the most extraordinary power. It is impossible by description to give any notion of its volume of sound. He is an ophicleide among singers. One may have some idea of this power of tone, when it may be truly asserted that, with the entire opera, band and chorus playing and singing forte, his voice may be as distinctly and separately heard above them all as a trumpet among violins. He is the very Stentor of vocalists. [Bentley's Miscellany, 1850, p.338.]

William Gardiner wrote in The Music of Nature, 1832:

"This extraordinary singer, in person, is a giant, and has a voice equal to that of ten ordinary men. It is said of Stentor, who went to the Trojan war, that his voice in loudness equalled that of fifty; and probably fifty moderate voices would not surpass the powerful tones of Lablache." [pp.167-168]

About Angelica Catalani, born in 1780, the same Gardiner wrote in 1832:

"Volume and force of voice are essentially necessary in a public singer. The same powers which delight us in private life would fail to give satisfaction and pleasure in a theatre. Like the scenes upon the stage, the finest touches must be bold and strong to be felt at a distance. Catalani's power was so great as to be offensively loud to those who were placed near her. None should venture upon the stage but those who have acquired, or upon whom nature has bestowed, a plenitude of voice'" [William Gardiner, The Music of Nature, 1832, p.68]

"The most splendid vocalist of the age, made her appearance in this country, in the year 1806; and such was her extraordinary power of voice, that it was said, 'place her at the top of St. Paul's, and she will be heard at the Opera House.'" [ibid., p.135]

These could be considered exceptional singers, of course, but if so, what are we to make of Burney's comments on the forces employed at the San Carlo theatre in Naples in 1770? 

"I obtained from Signor Fabio an exact account of the number of hands employed in the great opera orchestra; there are 18 first, and 18 second violins, 5 double bases, and but two violoncellos" [Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy, 1773, p.365.]

It is frustrating that Mr Bethell insists on ignoring passages from sources that he himself constantly quotes, however selectively.

We are equally perplexed by a deceiving series of fragmentary quotes by Pierfrancesco Tosi, intending to frame him as opposed to all vocal tremulousness on the basis of mistranslations and misrepresentations of his comments on unrelated phenomena. Tosi's book from 1723 provides Mr Bethell with no fewer than nine instances of contextomy, none of which can seriously be understood as related to vocal vibrato: 'che la voce titubi, o vacilli' which actually refers quite clearly to the unsteady tone production of beginners; 'svolazzar,' meaning a conspicuous fluttering, not the kind of vocal tremulousness that pipe organs imitate; 'il caprino fa ridere, perché nasce in bocca come il riso,' which is a comment about a defective trill; and worst of all: 'l’inventato stile emetico'...'canta a onda di Mare'...'villane spinte di voce'... 'incivile,' all of which refer to a style of sudden crescendos and decrescendos that Tosi dislikes; and 'mordente fresco,' the fashionable articulation of repeated notes which Mr. Bethell confuses with the 'trillo' of the previous century. 

Were all these descriptions of vocal haps, mishaps, likes, and dislikes to be understood as a critique of conspicuous or obtrusive vocal undulations, we should then conclude that Tosi's musical environment in 1723 was a bleating choir of trembling voices. Whether this was the case or not, is not clear from any single statement in Tosi's text, but it is certain that Bethell's case for a historical 'default straight voice' is not helped by this strategy.

As for his insistence on the fake measurements perpetrated by David Badagnani, he is being deliberately deceptive and he knows it. Hand vibrato on a modern trumpet with valves in 2020 provides no useful information about breath vibrato on a natural trumpet in 1695, and even less about the sound of the singers to which North is referring. 

I adhere wholeheartedly to Tim's suggestions about a more cautious analysis in further discussions. Otherwise, Mr Bethell's subsequent responses will only be useful for the study of logical fallacies, confirmation bias, and belief perseverance.

Further discussion continues as ever on Facebook: