Bill Sallak

percussion • research • creation

Thoughts on Free Ornamentation (II)

Or maybe "Prequel"—I think it's a good idea to talk about some basics before jumping into the zany, freewheeling world of free ornamentation. Trills are a good place to start, because anyone who plays Bach needs to navigate them.

What note to start on?

Actually, let me raise an additional question: how far down this rabbit hole would you like to go? If your answer is, "not very far, please," just start every trill on the upper neighbor. Most people are used to hearing trills that start on the upper neighbor, and it's unlikely that you'll startle many people if you do the same.

However, there's more to talk about, if you're interested. You don't have to go as far as Jerome Carrington, who wrote a book giving his starting-note suggestions for each and every trill throughout all six suites, but there are a few principles to consider.

If you've studied Baroque music, this table might look familiar; it's an engraved version of a table that J. S. Bach wrote in the Klavierbüchlein for his son WIlhelm Friedemann. Don't worry about remembering the names of the different ornaments or their little shorthand symbols (agrèments). Do look, however, at the two general characteristics they all share: no pitch is immediately repeated, and all motion is stepwise.

So, to stay within basic ornamentation principles, try to avoid starting-note choices that deviate from those two characteristics. This is not a bad starting-point principle to articulate: If a trill-starting-note-choice creates either a repeated pitch or an unnecessary leap, you need a pretty good intervening reason to choose it. (Exceptions are possible, of course.)

Also, let me introduce some terminology that will become important as we move forward: a trill that starts on the upper neighbor is an appoggiatura trill (AT), and one that starts on the written pitch is a main-note trill (MT).

Some examples for discussion:

BWV 1008, Sarabande, mm. 14-15

This should be played as an appoggiatura trill. I don't think I've heard a recording or live performance of the above passage that doesn't use an AT, and that's the case with most trills approached from a third above. The descending A-G-F# line is just too darn pleasing and sensible.

BWV 1010, Corrente, mm. 21-22

BWV 1010, Corrente, mm. 21-22

When I made my edition of the suites, I put the above trills in parentheses because they're not in any manuscript, but Yo-Yo Ma plays them on his second recorded cycle, and they work really well. (They're especially nice to add on the repeat of the section.) The written stepwise line only remains clear, though, if you play MTs—ATs not only obscure the line, but you would need to cram in an additional alternation to end on the main note, and there's just not time here. (I borrow Ma's execution and play both of these as schnellers, which start and end on the main note with only a single alternation, terminating on the beat. Schnellers can be useful in tight spaces; more to come in future posts.)

BWV 1007, Sarabande, mm. 9-10

Given the discussion so far, this one might look like a slam dunk: an AT would cause the E to be repeated, so start on the D-sharp. However, this example raises one of the main exceptions to the immediate-repetition guideline: consider using an AT wherever the written note is the introduction of a chromatically-altered pitch. The AT can be a sensitive and effective way to introduce a new pitch, and in these instances it's worth a try. (Of course, if an AT sounds silly to you, play an MT instead.)

As more guidelines get introduced in future posts, we will start encountering musical examples where one guideline will suggest a solution that is contravened by another guideline. There is one hard-and-fast rule in these kinds of situations: if you're going to go against a guideline, be able to articulate why, whether the reason relates to another guideline, a performance or recording you heard, your own preferences, or some combination of those things.

OK, there are two hard-and-fast rules: you end a trill on the written pitch, with clarity. Please note that there is no corresponding trill-ending-note question. Thanks for reading!

Next time—Trills 2: The Retrilling! Supported, or unsupported?


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