Bill Sallak

percussion • research • creation

Thoughts on Free Ornamentation (IV)

As promised, our discussion of ornamentation continues—today's post addresses the metered or unmetered execution of trills. As with the starting-note issue and the concept of support, most of what is presented here will be in the form of guidelines as opposed to hard-and-fast rules.

(Aside: I'm beginning to re-consider the title of this series of posts, if only because we haven't broached the topic of free ornamentation yet. We're still talking about trills, and only after finishing trills [and introducing mordents, appoggiaturas, etc.] will we begin discussing free ornamentation per se. Regardless of what the posts are titled, though, I hope this is a valuable discussion.)

The best advice I can give about whether to rhythmicize ornaments comes from my own experience: the extent to which I give ornamental notes specific rhythmic values increases as the tempo of the music increases and/or as the rhythmic value of the trilled note decreases. Over time, this has made the most practical sense—if I have to fit an ornament into a small amount of time (either because the tempo is fast or the trilled note is short), I want to be more certain about exactly where I'm placing each of the alternations as well as the termination. The long trilled B-flat at the end of the A section of the Sarabande in BWV 1010 is very leisurely and can accept a lot of variation in alternation speed and density...

Get a latté, check Twitter—you've got time.

...whereas some other passages leave no time for lollygagging, such as this trill from the Corrente in BWV 1007.

Get your backpacks and get in the car because WE'RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR THE B-NATURAL!

In cases like this, it can even be helpful not to think of it as a trill at all; I think of this (and play it) as a C#-D-C# sixteenth-note triplet, accenting the first C# slightly. (The main-note start is for what I hope by now are obvious reasons.) This same concept can be applied to the amount of support a trill receives as well as the exact number of alternations the trill contains—the less time you have, the more precision is required.

There is one fairly strict rule that's worth introducing at this point: when a dotted note is trilled, place the termination on the dot. This largely has to do with maintaining rhythmic clarity throughout an ornamented passage; ending the trill on the dot rather than continuing the alternations right up to the next printed pitch will help clarify the overall rhythm of the passage for listeners. Examples:

BWV 1010, Sarabande mm. 18-19; in m. 19, place the final D on beat 3.

BWV 1008, Allemande m. 9; place the final B-natural on the "&" of 2.

Before wrapping up, I'd like to emphasize that the ideas discussed here are only one way to think about ornaments and rhythm; some performers give rhythmic values to ornamental notes even at tempos where they could play more freely. The best examples of this kind of playing I've heard are guitarist Paul Galbraith's recordings; here's his recording of the Adagio from BWV 1003 (the A Minor Violin Sonata), with nearly every note right on the rhythmic grid. The fact the Galbraith does this while maintaining a sense of breath and expression is really inspiring to me—his rhythmic integrity gives the music a sense of pace and inevitability without being dry in the slightest. Amazing.

Next up: Mordents and Appoggiaturas 

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