Bill Sallak

percussion • research • creation

Thoughts on Free Ornamentation (VI), or: Actual Free Ornamentation (I)

Looks like we made it.

Unlike the kinds of ornamentation we've discussed so far, free ornamentation involves elaborations and embellishments that cannot be expressed in shorthand symbols. It has its origins in Italian vocal practice rather than French instrumental practice, and it is mentioned in most standard Western music history curricula in relation to the da capo arias found in Baroque opera. The form of these arias is ABA', where the A and B sections evince contrasting emotions, and the concluding A' section (the da capo!) is a space in which the soloist can freely insert florid runs, arpeggios, and other ornaments to express both the emotional intensity of their character's current state and their own vocal virtuosity. Eventually the ornamentation practice, everyone agreed, got way out of hand, and you can read about reform opera, Christoph Willibald Gluck, etc., to see how that story wrapped up.

It is not a straight path from the da capo aria to the kind of free ornamentation practices found on modern lute recordings (and which I employ at the marimba). There are several important differences:

• While I can't be sure, I'm fairly certain that most modern lutenists and guitarists compose, rather than improvise, the vast majority of their free ornamentation. Because a good portion of my own free ornamentation is deployed to solve musical problems, it also is predetermined.

• Again, while I can't be sure (because I can't read minds), I'm fairly certain that the purpose of modern free ornamentation in Bach can best be described in terms of instrumental idiom and the further elucidation of Bach's ideas as they exist on the page, rather than the glorification of any performer's emotional capacity or technical skill.

While there are significant differences between a da capo aria and a movement from one of the Cello Suites, there is a sort of "da capo principle" that operates in both cases: your audience is going to hear the same stuff twice, and playing the second time through the same as the first time isn't the most reliable way to maintain musical interest. Every effective performance of these pieces takes that into account—most performers of Bach, at the very least, try to play a repeated section with some kind of increased expressiveness or intensity, to make the repeat a somehow heightened version of the initial presentation. That da capo principle extends to ornamentation as well, and a lot of performers, especially lutenists and guitarists, purposefully increase the ornamental complexity of their repeated material as a means of increasing musical interest.


When I wrote above that I use free ornamentation to "solve musical problems," the beginning of the D minor Corrente came immediately to mind. 

BWV 1008, Corrente mm. 1-2

Like the Doubles from the B Minor violin partita or the Presto from the G Minor violin sonata, this is one of those barnburning moto-perpetuo sixteenth-note-fests, with the exception of several points like the downbeat of measure 2, where a chord appears and sustains for a beat—sustains, that is to say, if you're playing a cello. If you're playing the marimba, the chord as written has the effect of jamming on the music's brakes, and even at a fast tempo, I didn't like the hole that the chord created in the musical texture. A lot of performers (both cellists and lutenists) ornament this spot in conventional ways: an appoggiatura D before the C-sharp, trilling the C-sharp, etc., and while there's nothing wrong with any of those options, my favored solution is this:

BWV 1008, Corrente mm. 1-2 with free onamentation added

It's based on what Nigel North plays the second time through the passage, and it points up a lot of the characteristics of good "problem-solving" free embellishments: it reinforces the prevailing harmony and rhythm; it stays within the compass of the written material; it contains smooth melodic transitions into and out of the embellishment. (It also doesn't hurt that parts of the embellishment can be derived from conventional ornamental practice—that first G in measure 2 is essentially a written-out appoggiatura.) In cases like this, the embellishment should appear to be something that a contemporary of Bach's could plausibly have written.

While it's based on Nigel North's performance, it is important to point out that it is not what Mr. North played. Mr. North's figure is also in sixteenth notes and contains the appoggiatura-ish G on the downbeat, but it arpeggiates down the dominant chord to A (G-A-E-C#-A) rather than use the passing-tone D to maintain the original compass. I found that refraining from going below the C# maintained the satisfying descending-bass-line feeling of the first four-measure phrase. (We will, however, soon be discussing cases in which I do lift verbatim from Mr. North and others, with attribution.)

I've found engraving programs to be very helpful in generating and comparing different free-ornamentation options for a passage: if you copy a passage and paste it onto multiple ossia staves, you can tinker with each one independently with minimal effort and maximum flexibility.  Below, I've inserted some ideas for freely ornamenting part of the Allemande from BWV 1010. The amount of elaboration increases as you read downwards—start with ideas based on simple agrèments and expand from there. The eight ideas here are only the beginning.

BWV 1010, Allemande mm. 5-6, brainstorming free ornamentation options for m. 6 authentic cadence

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