A metallophone of the bar percussion family. It was developed in the USA, where it is sometimes called ‘vibraharp’ (it is classified as an idiophone: set of percussion plaques). Notes are produced by vibrations of metal bars amplified by a special type of resonator or electronically, producing a pulsating tone. The bars (an alloy), which are arranged keyboard-fashion, are suspended on cords at the nodal points.
The celesta-like tone of the metal bars is of long duration; the instrument is equipped with a foot-controlled sustaining device, operating similarly to the piano sustaining pedal (pressure on the pedal releases the felt damper; in early models the bars ring freely, and pressure on the pedal damps the tone). The usual range of the concert vibraphone is three octaves (f–f'''); instruments of four octaves (c–c'''') became readily available in the last quarter of the 20th century, and have become common, especially in continental Europe. Alban Berg (Lulu, 1929–35), Messiaen (Trois petites liturgies, 1944) and Henze had all apparently asked for a four-octave instrument earlier in the century, a good example of the way in which percussion instruments have often developed to satisfy the demands of composers.
The outstanding feature of the vibraphone is its unique vibrato. In the tube-resonated model this is obtained by the repeated opening and closing of the upper (open) ends of the resonators by means of revolving vanes The desire for the extraordinary in early 20th-century vaudeville was probably responsible for the introduction of the vibraphone into the field of entertainment where the xylophone and numerous novel percussion instruments were popular features.
Some years elapsed before it was frequently employed in serious compositions. Possibly the first significant use of the instrument is in Havergal Brian's opera The Tigers, which calls for two vibraphones (one a bass vibraphone of unusually extended lower compass). In 1932 Milhaud scored for the vibraphone in L’annonce faite à Marie. Berg gave it a place in his opera Lulu. Britten used it in his Spring Symphony (1949) and in his opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960). It appears in Walton’s Cello Concerto (1956) and Partita (1957); two are used in K.A. Hartmann’s Eighth Symphony (1960–62). Other orchestral or chamber works with vibraphone include Maderna’s Serenata no.2 for 11 instruments (1954, rev. 1957), Schuller’s Seven Studies on a Theme of Paul Klee (1959), and Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia antartica (1949–52) and Eighth Symphony (1953–6). There are particularly challenging vibraphone parts in Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître (1953–5, rev. 1957), Tippett’s Third Symphony (1970–72), Siegfried Fink’s Concertino for Vibraphone (1958–9) and Marc Bleuse’s Moon Step for two vibraphones and percussion (1973). Milhaud’s Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone (1947) remains an outstanding example of the possibilities of the instrument. In this work Milhaud requested that the back ends of the mallets should be used and that the bars be struck with the hands. In Ernst Toch’s First Symphony (1950) ‘Vibraphone ohne Vibrato’ is given as a substitute for marimba; in Britten’s Prince of the Pagodas (1956) and Death in Venice (1973) the vibraphone is used as a metallophone (without motor), and together with other percussion instruments provides a worthy imitation of a Javanese gamelan.
The vibraphone (‘vibes’) is an integral instrument in the modern percussion ensemble and in jazz, where performers such as Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Red Norvo and Gary Burton are famed for their virtuosity; Burton in particular has been noted for his four-mallet playing (two in each hand) and his technique of ‘bending’ or slightly lowering the pitch of a note. He has also used electronic attachments to vary the tone.
Music for the vibraphone is written in the treble clef.
In musical notation a single line or a space in the staff (most often the second from the bottom) is allotted to the tenor drum.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Anna Kokenyessy
- Christopher Michael
- Garabet Nerces
- Ibrahim Jaber
- Mia Ionica Popescu
- Szymon Pawel Urbanszyk
Page created at: 02-06-2015