Bill Sallak

percussion • research • creation

Thoughts on Free Ornamentation (V)

Greetings—the last three posts on this topic have given a pretty thorough exposition on the many ways in which one can think about trills, by far the most common ornament in the cello suites. This post will discuss a few of the other agrèments that you may encounter in the suites. (An agrèment, you will recall, is any one of a number of French ornaments that are expressed in shorthand symbols within a piece of music.)


BWV 1011, Allemande m. 31, with a trill on beat 1 and a (suggested) mordent on beat 3

Trills are rapid alternations between a written note and its upper neighbor. Mordents are similar; they are rapid alternations between a written note and its lower neighbor. The mordent is usually denoted by a short zig-zag, as above.

(Aside: If you've been following along closely, yes, you might be asking why this notation doesn't coincide with Bach's own ornament chart from the Klavierbüchlein, to which I've referred in previous posts. The main reason for this is that most editions of the cello suites use the "tr" abbreviation for the trill, rather than dealing with the vertical strikethrough notation that indicates an ornament's inversion. Since it is so pervasive in this context, it makes no sense to abandon it. Again, notational conventions about these things aren't terribly consistent; what is important is the consistent use of these symbols and concepts within your local body of work, rather than trying to check them against a [nonexistent] global standard. In other words, this is theory, but this is not theory class—use a system that works for you.)

The execution of mordents does differ slightly from that of trills: 1) mordents usually have fewer alternations than trills (often only a single one), and 2) mordents start on the written pitch. Like trills, however, mordents can be supported or plain, and metered or unmetered. Examples for discussion:

BWV 1011, Prelude mm. 1-3

BWV 1011 is easily the Frenchest of the six suites—its Courante is a true French Courante (not a Corrente), its Gigue is a true French Gigue (not a Giga), and its prelude is a French overture (an adagio with lots of dotted rhythms, followed by a faster, more imitative, more rhythmic section, sometimes alternating back and forth between the two types more than once [though not in this case]). It also exists in a version for lute that Bach made himself (BWV 995), and most recordings of BWV 995 include a number of French ornaments added at the performer's discretion. Göran Söllscher doesn't add many ornaments when he plays the above passage, but he does add a mordent (with one alternation) on beat 3 of measure 3. (He also does something on the downbeat of measure 3 that we'll get to in a minute.)

In contrast, Paul Galbraith uses ornaments in more places that Söllscher, and both of the mordents he adds to the passage contain more alternations and a significant amount of support. Galbraith also plays the passage at a slower tempo, and that tempo choice affects his ornamentation decisions. Stated as a principle: ornaments exist in part to help fill space, so their number and complexity will decrease as tempi increase

One last thing about mordents (that also applies to trills): occasionally, the unwritten neighbor pitch may require a chromatic inflection, especially in minor keys. In these cases, the accidental to be applied to the neighbor pitch is written above the ornament. Technically, a mordent written above beat 3 of measure 3 in the above example should have a natural sign above it, indicating alternations with B-natural, not B-flat (because this is Bach, not Ockeghem). In the 18th century, this would likely not have needed to be spelled out, but for the purposes of clarity in our time, it can't hurt to add the accidental in cases like this..


Appoggiaturas allow for the addition of single notes with specific rhythmic values to a passage. Appoggiaturas look like grace notes, so percussionists might at first be tempted to play them like flams; this is decidedly not the case. Instead, the small note is played where the main note would otherwise be, and the appoggiatura's value is then subtracted from the main note. Here's an example from BWV 1007 (this is one of the few places on the suites where source manuscripts contain appoggiaturas):

BWV 1007, Allemande mm. 19-20, showing realization of appoggiaturas

In this passage, because the appoggiaturas are written as sixteenth notes, they take half of the main eighth-note's value for themselves, so to speak.

One of the most common ways to use appoggiaturas is to create suspensions and retardations. (I guess, technically speaking, they're not true suspensions or retardations because the appoggiatura is rearticulated, but that's a minor point.) This is what Göran Söllscher is doing on the downbeat of measure 3 in the first video: placing an eighth-note appoggiatura D-natural in front of the half-note E-flat. The resulting dissonance and its subsequent resolution help create interest in a place that might otherwise be too plain. On paper, the passage would look like this:

BWV 1011, Prelude mm 2-3, detail with Mr. Söllscher's appoggiatura

(Aside: again, if you've been following this series closely, you might be scratching your head a bit—during the discussion of starting notes for trills, weren't we trying to avoid consecutive repeated pitches? And now one of the most common uses of appoggiaturas creates consecutive repeated pitches? You are correct—this is a point at which ornamentation principles begin to conflict with each other [avoid repeated pitches!/insert repeated pitches!] and where subjectivity becomes increasingly important. Better yet, think of it not as contradiction, but as the articulation of a range of options in an ever-more-personal practice.)

Another common use for appoggiaturas is to have them replace trills in very tight spaces where even one alternation might not be effective. Any trill over an eighth or sixteenth note might be a good candidate for an upper-neighbor appoggiatura instead—it's worth a try, and your ears will tell you pretty quickly if it's not a good idea. (But it might create a repeated pitch! Yes, it might, and it might sound good, and it might not.)

Next up: Some Free Ornamentation, Finally

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