To vibrate or not to vibrate, that is the question:
The evidence of early orchestral performances on film

by Tomoyuki Sawado

In 2010, the British conductor Roger Norrington released a controversial recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on the Hänssler Classic label. In that performance, he stipulated that the players of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR perform without continuous vibrato -a decision based on a provocative theory he had set out earlier in articles in The New York Times (1) and The Guardian (2). Norrington insisted that when great composers like Brahms and Berg created their works "there was only one orchestral sound: a warm, expressive, pure tone, without the glamorized vibrato we are so used to." In the Times, he summarized his findings thus:

"In the early 20's the more sensuous and entertainment-minded French players began to experiment with continuous vibrato, and the British followed suit in the late 20's. But the high-minded Germans and most of the big American institutions held out until the 30's. The Berlin Philharmonic does not appear on disc with serious vibrato until 1935 and the Vienna Philharmonic not until 1940."
This theory provoked considerable debate, and was criticized by many scholars and critics. The American critic David Hurwitz, for instance, dismissed the recording as "ridiculous" and "stupid" (3), and challenged Norrington's theory by presenting numerous examples of written documents supporting the idea that vibrato was commonplace in orchestral performances even in the nineteenth century (4).

Norrington mainly relied upon recordings and probably some written documents to make his case; Hurwitz, by contrast, examined a vast number of letters, articles, interviews, and musical scores, though he did not really consider audio recordings to be reliable sources (4) -a decision that was probably appropriate given the limitations of recording technology in the pre-war era. A few early sources, such as Arthur Nikisch's 1913 recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic, do display a non-vibrato-like sonority from string players, but in most such cases it is difficult to determine, from the audio alone, the degree of vibrato in the original performance.

Compared with audio sources, written documents, including interviews and memoirs, provide detailed information without being influenced by technological limitations; however, they also inevitably involve hearsay, and are influenced by subjective perceptions. Mahler once described vibrato (to Natalie Bauer-Lechner) as "a liquefied pulp without substance or form," and, according to Reinhold Kubik, "favoured instead a short-range, declamatory style of 'baroque' articulation" (5). On the other hand, Herbert Borodkin, who played under Mahler in the New York Philharmonic, remembered that Mahler requested vibrato more than any conductors living around the 1960s (4). The apparently contradictory information about Mahler's taste underscores how difficult it is to identify precisely the style of an early orchestral performance based on hearsay evidence.

The focus of this article is not on Mahler but on the use of vibrato in the early twentieth century, and to this end I have studied film footage made before 1935, in the belief that visual sources provide the most direct and reliable way of determining the level of vibrato in an orchestral performance. Though the quantity of footage from this period is very limited, the surviving films I have examined indicate that vibrato was already used in the New York Philharmonic in 1926,  in the Berlin Philharmonics in 1931, and in the Vienna Philharmonics in 1933, in contrast to Norrington's claims.
Charles Barber, the conductor and artistic director of City Opera Vancouver and the author of Corresponding with Carlos: A Biography of Carlos Kleiber, documented the work of more than three hundred conductors in a large film collection he donated to Stanford University (6). According to Barber, the first films to document professional conductors were made in 1913 by Oskar Messter and captured Nikisch, Weingartner, von Schuch, and Oskar Fried, though only the film of Nikisch, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, survives. That silent film shows Nikisch conducting, from both front and back, but does not show any orchestra members.

Several sound films of orchestras made between 1926 to 1935 show string players apparently using a considerable amount of vibrato. For example, films showing Fritz Stiedry (conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin, 1930),  Fritz Busch (Staatskapelle Dresden, 1933), Erich Kleiber (Staatskapelle Berlin, 1932), Max von Schillings (Staatskapelle Berlin, 1932), Felix Weingartner (Paris Symphony Orchestra, 1932), Leo Borchard (Staatskapelle Berlin, 1933), Leo Blech (Staatskapelle Berlin, 1933), and Karl Elmendorff (Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, 1933) are all consistent with Norrington's claim that continuous vibrato was already used in German and French orchestras by the 1930s. Other early films, however, contradict Norrington's views; five examples follow.

--Click images to watch videos--

1) Wagner, Overture to Tannhäuser: Henley Hadley conducting the New York Philharmonic (1926).

(click to download)
In this excerpt from the earliest surviving film showing an entire orchestra in performance one easily observes that the string players' style is no different from that of a modern orchestra; the use of continuous vibrato being particularly extensive in the cello section. This footage, which captured arguably the most famous American orchestra of the 1920's, is inconsistent with Norrington's remarks that "most of the big American institutions held out until the 30's" (1)(2) and "orchestras didn't generally use vibrato until the 1930s" (7). 

2) Carl Maria von Weber, Overture to Oberon: Bruno Walter conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (1931).

In this performance, conducted by Bruno Walter, vibrato is extensively used throughout in the cello (e.g. 1:43-2:22, and 5:27-5:35) and violin sections (e.g. 4:04-5:00, and 7:23-7:27). Similar degrees of continuous vibrato are used in footage of the same work performed by the same orchestra under Mariss Jansons (8). This suggests that the Berlin Philharmonic's current performance style, with continuous vibrato, was already established in 1931.

3) Christoph Willibald Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice. Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (1933).

A few opera scenes were filmed during the Saltzburg festival in 1933 (9), and they include probably the earliest footage of the Vienna Philharmonic. In the scene where Rossete Anday sings Che farò senza Euridice under Bruno Walter, a camera captures players' left hands playing vibrato.

4) Excerpt from Maskerade: Vienna Philharmonic (1934).

In 1934, the Vienna Philharmonic appeared in Maskerade (also known as Masquerade in Vienna), an Austrian film directed by Willi Forst. Philharmonic members appear in a ballroom to perform a work "by Johann Sebastian Bach". When they play in unison, the violin player does not use vibrato, but one can briefly see a cellist's left hand creating vibrato (below the conductor's right hand); however, it is difficult to definitively evaluate the overall degree of vibrato from such a short sequence.

Maskerade also contains an extended but frequently interrupted sequence of the orchestral performance near the end. The Vienna Philharmonic performs Verdi's "Rigoletto" in an orchestra pit, and the cameras capture a few players in the cello section routinely using considerable degrees of vibrato (1:27:30, 1:29:49-1:30:03, 1:31:13, and 1:31:27-1:31:40 of (10)).

5) Excerpt from Letzte Liebe: Vienna Philharmonic (1935).

The other early footage of the Vienna Philharmonic appears in the 1935 Austrian film Letzte Liebe, directed by Fritz Schulz. The orchestra plays the overture to Don Giovanni in an opera house. A cellist uses vibrato in the opening bars, and one passage shows three out of five violinists using vibrato (0:55 to 1:05); significantly, one of the violinists who does not use considerable vibrato in the latter sequence (or in the opening bars) is none other than Arnold Rosé.

Rosé was the Vienna Philharmonic's concertmaster from 1881 to 1938, and it was his non-vibrato style, in a 1928 recording with his quartet, that formed the basis for Norrington's non-vibrato interpretation of Mahler's Ninth Symphony: "He led the orchestra all the time Mahler, his brother-in-law, directed the opera. We can hear Rosé on records with his string quartet as late as 1928, playing with exemplary clarity and naturalness and without anything resembling modern vibrato" (1).

Rosé's dislike of vibrato was well documented. When the violinist Otto Strasser auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic, Rosé and Frantz Schalk were on the panel. According to Strasser, Rosé "was not keen at all on vibrato which had long ago become common practice," and employed it "only sparingly." When Strasser was asked to play a phrase from Lohengrin, Schalk, who shared Rosé's views, stopped Strasser and said, "Stop bleating like that" (11).

This particular film raises two important points. First, as we might have predicted from his recordings and the documentary record, Rosé indeed does not use vibrato extensively though it should be noted, however, that he does not entirely avoid it (see 0:55 to 0:58 and 1:05 to 1:06). This suggests that his playing style essentially differs from the non-vibrato style we observe today in period-instrument performances. Second, Rosé's influence over Vienna Philharmonic members was apparently not decisive in 1935, since three out of five violinists, and a cellist, can clearly be seen using vibrato in the film. This conclusion is supported by another example from Letzte Liebe, in which musicians (presumably also Philharmonic members) play the minuet from Don Giovanni in a restaurant right after the opera; here both the violinist and the cellist use a considerable amount of vibrato. Therefore, despite Norringron's claim that there is "no vibrato" in audio sources recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic before 1940's (1)(2)(12), there were evidently two types of players in the orchestra in 1935: those who preferred vibrato and those who did not. Rosé himself disliked it, but clearly did not have or use the authority to impose his taste on the whole orchestra.
The analysis of surviving film footage suggests that vibrato was extensively used in New York Philharmonic in 1926, in the Berlin Philharmonic in 1931, and in the Vienna Philharmonic in 1933-35, in contrast to Norrington's claim. In the Vienna Philharmonic, moreover, some players used vibrato while others did not, and it is not clear whether the orchestra had been in that state for many years or was in the middle of a transition from a non-vibrato to a continuous-vibrato style. Analysis of more early film footage will be required to solve lingering questions related to the degree of vibrato.

(October 13th, 2013) Copyright (C) 2013 T. Sawado, All Rights Reserved.
(1) Roger Norrington, "Time to Rid Orchestras of the Shakes," The New York Times, February 16, 2003.
(2) Roger Norrington, "Bad Vibrations," The Guardian, March 1, 2003
(3) David Hurwitz, "Roger Norrington's Stupid Mahler Ninth,", 2010.
(4) David Hurwitz, " 'So klingt Wien': Conductors, Orchestras, and Vibrato in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,h Music & Letters, Vol. 93, Issue 1 (February 2012), pp. 29-60.
(5) Reinhold Kubik, "'Progress' and 'Tradition': Mahler's Revisions and Changing Performance Practice Conventions," in Perspectives on Gustav Mahler, ed. Jeremy Barham (Aldershot, England, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005), p. 404.
(6) Conductors on Film Collection (Charles Barber Collection), Archive of Recorded Sound, Department of Music, Stanford University (Stanford, CA).
(7) Nicholas Wroe, "Speed it up", The Guardian, July 27, 2007.
(8) THE BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER IN TOKYO, Hilary Hahn/Berlin Philharmonic/Mariss Jansons. DVD, Euroarts, 2000
(9) Great Conductors: The Golden Era of Germany and Austria. DVD, Dreamlife, 2008
(10) Maskerade (1935). DVD, Hoanzl, 2010
(11) Otto Strasser, Und dafür wird man noch bezahlt: Mein Leben mit den Wiener Philharmonikern (Vienna and Berlin: Neff), 1974.
(12) Richard Dyer, "Sir Roger Norrington still conducts challenges to the tradition", The Boston Globe, August 25th, 2002.

I would like to thank Mr. Angelo Villani, Ms. Zerlina Mastin, and Mr. Kevin Bazzana for commenting on earlier versions of this article, and Dr. Charles Barber for providing information about the films cited.


Melo Classic has recently uploaded a 1933 film, in which Clemens Krauss conducts the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, which is the mother organization of the VPO. The orchestra in the film uses contenious vibrato.