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Tasteful Trills: Perspectives on Ornamenting Vocal Music

August 30, 2011

Respected musicians and pedagogues have weighed in for hundreds of years on what constitutes tasteful ornamentation of vocal music. Over the years, opinions have evolved as to what musical effects are most successful at expressing the inexplicable depths of text and tone.   However, the many ornaments used throughout history have at least two things in common: they are motivated by the text, and added for the sake of expressivity. Often they are used during repetitions, to keep the music interesting and say something a little different each time. With the proper historical perspective, ornamenting a piece appropriately is not particularly difficult and comes rather intuitively.

Cover page of composer and theorist Giulio Caccini's "Nuove Musiche"

For the sake of simplicity, take Alessandro Scarlatti’s “Già il sole dal Gange” as an example. If you are unfamiliar with the melody, you can hear Beniamino Gigli interpret it here.  Featured in the ever-popular Schirmer anthology Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias, this canzonetta contains not only a few opportunities for ornamentation, but also some embellishments written in by the composer and/or editor. The Schirmer score features several trills — an ornament codified as early as 1601 by Giulio Caccini, in which one rapidly alternates between two adjacent tones. One of the simplest and most popular ornaments, the trill has endured into modern day composition and performance. Divisions (ornaments which simply decorate a melody by substituting two or more faster notes for a longer, held tone) would be appropriate as well in this ebullient melody.  For example, on the return of the first lines of text before the second verse begins (0:53-54 on the Gigli recording), one could divide the first syllable of “Gange” into two eighth notes, arpeggiating the tonic chord on that word. This could be seen as a textually motivated ornament because the word “Gange” is the name of a river (Ganges), and the embellishment of the melody allows it to flow more smoothly. Similarly, whenever there are two quarter notes a third apart, one may consider dividing the interval into two intervals of a second each.

Appogiaturas as written in a score (above) and as executed in practice (below)

Not every piece can make use of every type of ornament.  For example, this particular Scarlatti melody does not provide obvious opportunities for appoggiatura, though there are many figures worked into the melody and harmony which give a similar melodic effect, such as the last “sfavilla” before “e terge…” (0:27-30).  There are further vocal effects which would not fit this canzonetta, but which could be lovely in other songs. In Pier Francesco Tosi‘s 1723 treatise Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni, o sieno Osservazioni sopra il canto figurato (free download here),  Tosi describes passaggi, or “passages,” in which a singer gently fills in the descending notes between a high note and a low note. This ornament was popular and considered highly expressive in baroque music, as was the tremolo (a rearticulated, usually penultimate note) in late Renaissance and early baroque music.

Some ornaments have come to be associated with certain national schools or composers. In 1736, Michel Pignolet de Montéclair wrote extensively on French baroque ornaments in his Principes de Musique, which included the coulé, chûte, port de voix, and various kinds of tremblements (trills). Though many of these were the same as or similar to ornaments used in Italy and the rest of Europe at the time, one can easily be overwhelmed by the long list of different ornaments with names in several different languages.

Mordents as written in a score (above) and as executed in practice (below)

The same can be said of the German style; Grove Music describes it as a “synthesis” of the French and Italian styles. One of the leading resources on German baroque vocal ornamentation comes from Johann Friedrich Agricola, and it is merely a commentary and translation of Tosi’s Opinioni. The mordent (which Grove describes as a “rapid, often sharply rhythmic, alternation of main note, lower auxiliary note, and main note”) is often associated with the German high baroque, but must be interpreted carefully. Trends, definitions, and terminology have evolved dramatically over the years with contributions from Quantz, C.P.E. Bach, Telemann, and others. Robert Donington’s book The Interpretation of Early Music is an excellent resource for singers and other musicians who seek detail and historical accuracy.

Even the most beautiful ornament becomes egregious when used too frequently or exaggeratedly. In his Opinioni, Tosi outlines five qualities that make a passage effective: judgment, invention, time, taste, and artfulness. He also points out that ornaments “should not appear studied” and should be performed “with equal regard to the expression of the words and the beauty of the art.” These qualities are essential to the successful implementation of any ornament in any style.

A singer may choose to either improvise ornaments during a performance or plan them in advance. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. If a singer possesses the skill to improvise ornaments (usually with a repertoire of ideas in advance), it is exciting for the intelligent audience member and fellow musicians to experience, but it can also catch an orchestra or accompanying musician off guard if not done with great clarity and direction. During the baroque period it was customary for the performer to improvise ornaments, but most singers today feel less comfortable doing so. Planning out ornaments may at times be seen as less interesting for fellow musicians, but it allows singers and musicians (such as obbligato orchestra parts) to collaborate with greater confidence and ease, and it ensures that any changes to the score fit the greater harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic texture of the piece.

With recorded music more ubiquitous and easily accessible than ever, it is common for singers today to “borrow” ornaments from other interpreters of the same music. In some instances, specific ornaments are so commonly used that they become part of the performance practice of the piece. In this case, it can make sense to either follow common practice for a conservative audience or deliberately go against it with something new. In any case, singers should always maintain a sense of individuality in their choice of ornaments and not copy another singer start to finish.

When a singer chooses to perform a given piece, he or she must consider the composer, the period in music history, and the text with its own historical/cultural context.  Further,  the expectations of the audience both when the piece was written and when it will be performed can dictate a singer’s choices in ornamentation. Once these factors have been considered, the singer may make educated decisions about how to give a creative, informed performance.

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