I hope this article will be useful for any student approaching high Baroque and early Classical music. And before anyone even starts to think of exceptions to the simple guidelines I offer, let me emphasise that this is only an Introduction. Quantz has 12 pages on ornamentation for beginners (starting from p77), Leopold Mozart 59 pages of detail (from p193), CPE Bach 68 pages (p51 onwards), and even Meyer’s harp Method has two pages of text and four pages of music examples (including lots of arpeggios, of course). Links all these primary sources are in my Online Resources post.
So this short summary is necessarily simplified, but it is soundly based on these four mid-18th-century Essays. These mighty historical documents are pretty heavy going, if one tries to read them all the way through. Even a thorough survey of a general topic, such as Ornamentation, is a daunting project. But you can well use them as reference works, looking up the particular Ornament at hand and getting a quick answer to a specific question.
My focus here is on the mid-18th century, and the particular application is to modern harp. Fingerings, and some of my comments, are specific to harp, even to modern harp. But realisations and most of my comments should be useful as a starting-point for any performer.
Irish traditional music preserves a lively practice of ornamentation, which derives in part from local 18th-century styles. During and after the time of O’Carolan, the native tradition continued to flourish (even as it adapted to adversity), and available sources are fairly close (in time and milieu) to that tradition. [Inevitably, the information becomes more sketchy, as one goes further back in time]. So 18th-century Celtic repertoires (Scots and Welsh too) are ripe for exploration by today’s historical harpers, and I include some remarks on Ornamentation for Irish harp. Don’t apply these to European music!
Nomenclature is a challenge – the same ornament is given different names in different languages, and by different writers. And composers and printers use the same signs sometimes for quite different ornaments. So in this Introduction I use the simplest possible English names: if you have mastered Associated Board Grade V Theory, you will manage just fine.
Variations & Graces
There are two broad categories of ornamentation. Free variation, in which the player (spontaneously or with preparation in advance) changes the composer’s melody, usually by playing many short notes in the place of one long note. Such variations were called Divisions or Diminutions in the 17th-century, and in her 1802/1811 Method the Comptesse de Genlis calls them broderies (embroidery).
Improvised variations are beyond the scope of this Introduction, but Quantz’s Easy and Fundamental Instructions whereby either vocal or instrumental Performers … may learn how to introduce Extempore Embellishments or Variations as also Ornamental Cadences with Propriety, Taste and regularity were translated from his Versuch into English in 1780 – free download here.
According to Quantz and his translators, those Embellishments are the Productions of a momentary Invention or Fancy of the Performer, and in this Respect are different from those common Graces that are distinguish’d by particular Marks, such as Shakes [trills] and Beats [mordents] etc.
This article is concerned with ‘those common Graces‘ that might be marked in the score with signs, or should be added by the performer where necessary. Quantz and CPE Bach call them Manieren. These are what we normally think of today as Ornaments, applying to a particular note, rather than Variations that change the whole melody into different notes.
German (and Austrian) 18th-century music explored a mixed style, influenced by earlier Italian and/or French aesthetics. Ornaments on a certain note, whether indicated by a sign or supplied by the performer, were regarded as part of the French heritage within the overall style. This fits neatly with the period characterisation of French style as subtle, tender, delicate, elegant, fashionable and balletic; as opposed to the directness, strength, passion, raw energy and drama of the Italian style. Thus there survives JS Bach’s handwritten copy of D’Anglebert’s table of ornaments from 17th-century France.
If your piece has ornament signs, you should not assume that they have the same meaning as modern signs, not even that they have the same meaning as signs from other historical sources. Many original publications included a specific table of ornaments, and you should look for a list of signs that is as close as possible to the piece you are studying.
Purcell’s 1696 table gives period English names for ‘Graces’: these names differ from modern terminology, and there are subtle differences in vocabulary between different sources even in the same language. Again, you should look for an explanatory source that is as close as possible to the piece you are studying.
JS Bach left a simplified table of ornaments for his 9-year-old son, Wilhelm Friedemann. This can be a good starting point for modern players.
For a particular piece or repertoire, it is well worth creating an ornament table of your own, using signs that give a visual representation of the ornament you have decided to apply. Write your signs into your score, and keep the table handy as a reminder, not only of the notes implied by each sign, but how to play them: fast/slow, loud/soft and fingering etc.
Jane Weidensaul’s edition of the CPE Bach Sonata for Harp applies information from his Versuch to suggest realisations of each ornament. This is a fine work of applied research, but it is only a first step. It fails to take into account differences between keyboard (the subject of the Versuch) and harp (the instrument for which the Sonata was written), or between baroque and modern harps. Many of the suggested realisations are unplayable in an appropriate tempo. And the next step would be to apply CPE Bach’s and Quantz’s recommendations for subtle dynamic and timing contrasts within each ornament (see below).
This 2014 article by Colin Booth discusses ornamentation in JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations and is certainly helpful for the composer’s entire output, and as a discussion of the aesthetics of ornamentation for the whole period.
Beyond this Introduction
Amongst specialist performers and researchers, there is debate about changes in musical taste from one generation to another, from Johann Sebastian’s ornaments to Carl Philipp Emmanuel’s. That debate is beyond the scope of this introduction, and beyond the needs of most mainstream players. Indeed, one of the problems of today’s Early Music is that experts discuss abstruse corners of the field so passionately, examining exceptional cases and outlier opinions, with the result that historically informed (but non-specialist) musicians and mainstream performers can easily lose sight of standard period practice and the overwhelming historical consensus.
For Ornamentation, students will find a broad consensus between the four Essays discussed here, and need not worry – not yet, at least! – about subtle differences between CPE and JSB, or between Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus, in their approach to Graces.
18-century Ornamentation for Irish harp has many similarities to European practices, and also some notable differences. There is a most interesting ornament table, supposedly based on 18th-century traditions, published in Bunting The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840). The two sections excerpted here resemble European Appoggiaturas and Trills, which Bunting categorises according to the period English names of fall and shake.
Ideals and Practicalities
There is a modern tendency to regard the harpsichord as the ideal of baroque music, to be emulated by other instruments. This is not unreasonable, for 20th-century harpsichordists and harpsichord-playing directors have been very influential in today’s Early Music, and we have the inspiring historical examples of JS and CPE Bach. But the sound of the harpsichord is certainly not a baroque ideal, for it is very far from the sound of the human voice (the philosophical ideal of all Baroque playing), and its mechanical nature limits the subtlety of its ornamentations. Probably the best modern-day examples of stylish ornamentation come from baroque flautists, applying all the subtleties of Quantz’s Versuch.
Listen here: CDs are not primary sources, but nevertheless I recommend listening to Laurence Dean’s flute-playing in mid-18th century repertoire, for example the Andantino from this trio Sonata by Georg Benda.
It is harder to play ornaments on baroque harp than on harpsichord, and 18th-century sources advise that harpists don’t have to play all the ornaments that a keyboard-player would execute. It’s even harder on modern harp, where thicker strings, higher string-tension and large-lever finger-movements work against speed and lightness in ornamentation. My advice is to reduce the number of ornaments where necessary, and to reduce the number of iterations in trills. In short: not too many twiddles!
But even modern harpists should add ornaments to the score, where they are essentially needed, for example at cadences (see below).
Amongst plucked-string instruments, lute-family and baroque guitar are able to realise the most elegant trills.
Listen here: I recommend Xavier Diaz-Latorre’s playing, for example this Chaconne by De Visée. Notice that the resolutions of appoggiaturas and the iterations of trills are not re-struck by the plucking fingers of the right hand, but are made by the left hand only. This is a subtle effect that harpists can only attempt to emulate.
The lower string-tension of baroque harps (French 18th-century ‘single-action’ pedal harps had especially low pitch and low string-tension) facilitates the speed, lightness and subtlety of ornamentation.
Listen here: Here is a Chaconne by Lully, with D’Anglebert’s principles of ornamentation applied, on 17th-century triple harp.
Where to play What?
We might regard all these little twiddles as somewhat inessential. But some of them are part of the ‘grammar’ of Baroque music, and cannot be omitted. And if they are missing, they must be supplied.
We English speakers might regard the acute accent in the word café as a piece of French-style decoration, harmless enough, but not really essential. If we see cafe, we are neither confused nor offended. But for any Francophone, the é is essential: if it is missing, the word is wrong! And so it is with French-style ornaments in Baroque music. Don’t go around saying “Kayf”!
The best historical Introduction to the French style of ornamentation in Lully’s time is in Muffat’s Florilegium Secundum (1698), as part of a general introduction to French baroque dance music in four languages: German, French, Latin, and Italian. Writing for ‘foreigners’ (i.e. not French), Muffat’s approach is very useful for us today, as ‘foreigners’ to this historical period. He gives detailed rules of which ornament to apply where.
The rules are indeed detailed. “It is uncouth to give a tremblement to an ascending good note… unless it is a mi or a note sharpened with #, which is almost always ornamented with a tremblement“. But in just 10 paragraphs, Muffat summarises “all the secrets of ornaments played a la francoise“. Highly recommended reading.
Some situations, in particular cadences, demand that the player supply an ornament, even if the composer has not notated it. Muffat: “At cadences, there are certain notes that demand a tremblement and others that refuse it”.
At a Perfect Cadence, with V-I harmonies, typical melodies require some kind of trill from the upper auxilary: Soprano Cadence (tonic, leading-note, tonic: trill on the leading-note); or Tenor Cadence (supertonic, tonic: trill on the supertonic). The Alto and Bass Cadences should not be given a trill.
See here for Cadential Shakes in Irish music.
Quantz and CPE Bach show instances where Appoggiaturas should be added, for example to melodies descending in thirds. We see such Appoggiaturas written, for example in the second bar of CPE Bach’s harp Sonata. It has not yet become standard practice amongst today’s Early Musicians to add these, but the historical evidence for them is clear. Read more in the Easy and Fundamental Instructions.
Repeated or varied ornaments?
Although Appoggiaturas are often repeated, as in CPE Bach’s example above, one element of subtlety can be the avoidance of an immediate repeat of precisely the same ornament. Muffat: “One certainly does not approve of two tremblements in a row”.
Instead, you can use a slightly different version of the same basic ornament type, a more elaborate or simpler trill for example. Usually, the basic type is defined by the situation and the degree of elaboration is up to you – see Muffat’s rules for details. Thus CPE Bach elaborates his third Appoggiatura, above.
Reluctance to repeat the same ornament seems not to be a feature of Irish 18th-century harp-playing. This transcription, based on the Forde MS, 154, shows the ornament that Bunting calls Striking Upwards applied three times in succession to the second strain of Ta me mo cholad, seen also in other sources for this tune.
In this context, the ornament seems to function as an Appoggiatura (perhaps slow) plus a Mordent (fast). Indeed, it looks like the mirror image, ascending, of CPE Bach’s elaborated descending Appoggiatura.
But Bunting’s description of Striking Upwards seems to indicate a brisk execution of the whole ornament. We might conclude that there can be subtleties of timing, even when an ornament is realised with the same pitches.
There are two, inter-related, questions of timing. How should we time the ornament within the note-value it is attached to? And how should we time individual notes within the ornament itself? Period sources gives us detailed answers.
Many sources emphasise that it is important to adapt your ornament to the note-value of the written note, and according to the tempo of the music. In general, ornaments should be longer and slower, if the note-value is longer; shorter and faster if the note-value is short.
For clavichord, with relatively little sustain, CPE Bach likes ornaments to fill up all the available space within the written note. Other sources leave the end of the written note plain: this works well on the harp with its long sustain (even more so for modern harp and historical Irish harp, with even longer sustain). On a dotted note, you can finish the ornament on the dot.
The timing of individual notes within the ornament is beyond the scope of this Introduction. But if the first note is an Appoggiatura, or functions like an Appoggiatura, it can be longer. The detailed information in Quantz and CPE Bach perhaps suggests a tendency to move from slow to fast within ornaments, which we can trace back to Caccini’s trillo in 1601. See this Introduction to ornamentation for Monteverdi’s period.
The most important timing rule is to begin the ornament on the beat, not before. You can practise this by playing a bass note, or tapping your foot, simultaneously with the start of the ornament.
There are some special case exceptions to this rule, and some outlier opinions in period sources and amongst 20th-century commentators. For today’s specialists, this is an area for debate and sophisticated subtlety, applied only in very particular circumstances. Read all 80 pages of Quantz’s and CPE’s remarks on ornaments, before you venture into this fascinating quagmire.
Begin on the beat, with the upper auxiliary (not the written note). Add a concluding turn if there is enough time. Add an initial appoggitura if there is enough time- hold the appoggitura as long as you can. A very long trill can start very slowly and gradually speed up.
Harpists – don’t try for too many reiterations!
Harpists, lutenists, keyboard-players – practise your ornaments with a bass accompaniment, to make sure that you start the ornament on the beat (as defined by the bass), not before the beat. Others can tap their foot with the first note of the ornament.
The alternative harp-fingering comes from Cousineau (1784).
We see something similar in 18th-century Irish Harp ornamentation, but using fingers 2324, without thumb; and beginning on the main note, rather than the upper auxiliary. See Irish Long Shake.
Begin on the beat, with the written note. Play a slower ornament and/or add reiterations if there is time, and to have a gentler effect. Play fast and snappy, to make it bite.
Practise with a bass note or a foot-tap to define the beat. It should sound like the word “ORnament”, and not like “This is WRONG“!
The alternative execution from 18th-century Irish harp playing relies on the sustaining power of historical brass strings, or indeed of the thick strings of a modern harp. Two plucking actions and one damping movement create the illusion of three notes being played. Damp actively, a bit of string noise helps the illusion.
This has to start on the upper auxiliary, so the shortest acceptable version has four notes.
Begin on the beat, with the upper auxiliary. If there is more time, play a more gentle trill with more reiterations.
Practise with a bass note or a foot-tap to define the beat. It should sound like “RIGHT on the beat”, and not like “BeFORE the beat” nor “Before the BEAT“.
The harp fingering is from 18th-century French Methods. Slide the thumb from upper auxiliary to main note, moving the thumb itself, not the whole hand (too slow, too heavy).
The alternative execution is based on Irish techniques, but adapted (the Irish style for this ornament starts on the main note). It works surprisingly well, done fast and actively.
Many 18th-century sources define the Appoggiatura as the most important ornament of all. Luckily it is easy to play. As the Italian name suggests, “lean” on the auxiliary note, and ooze gently into the resolution, which is played softer.
Take the Appoggiatura on a long note, typically after shorter notes, and in the same direction (from below or above) as the approach to that long note.
Start on the beat. Sustain the appoggiatura for half the length of the written note (if it’s a dotted note, for two thirds of the length).
The most important thing about Ornaments
Quantz and CPE Bach concur that the most important element is the Abzug (literally, pulling away), diminuendo. An Appoggiatura is played with a little swelling on the auxiliary (louder still, if it makes a strong dissonance), and then gently and softly into the resolution.
In general, the use of loud/soft within an ornament gives lots of character. Often, ornaments go from loud to soft. The details are in CPE Bach and Quantz, and are most easily accessible for English-speakers in the period translation of Quantz, Easy and Fundamental Instructions (see above).
Subtle use of fast/slow within an ornament is also a vital expressive resource. The general rule is to go from slow to fast. The details are in CPE Bach and Quantz, and are most easily accessible for English-speakers in Easy and Fundamental Instructions.
Quantz gives a sample slow movement, Adagio with ornaments applied and links to his rules for realising them. It’s in the Versuch and included in the Easy and Fundamental Instructions too.
This is a very basic summary of a very short Introduction. Handel with care! (sic)
- Adjust to the tempo and note-value.
- Start with the upper note.
- On the beat.
- From Loud to Soft [most important].
- From Slow to Fast.
- Cadences need trills
If you apply this summary you have made a brave start. Hurray! Now go and read Easy and Fundamental, because it is easy.
It is also Fundamental. So read it!