Dec. 24, 2018

Getting Started With Writing, Part XXXVIII

(con't from Part XXXVII)
Among copies of original keyboard music J.S. Bach began compiling around 1720 for the instruction of his eldest son W.F. Bach, he included a table of ornaments concerning the execution of various signs (photo); these signs are placed very near (over or under) a note in the score to indicate how that note is to be embellished; the addition of such ornamentation changes the character and contour of the melodic line.
The first 2 signs in this table are very commonly found in Bach's music and require some comment:
A mordent (in French, and sometimes in German, spelled mordant) is thought of as a quick single alternation between an indicated note, the note above or below, and the indicated note again, thus comprising a rapid series of 3 notes.
The upper mordent is indicated by a short squiggle; the lower mordent is the same with a short vertical line through it.
The precise meaning of this term has changed over the years; in Germany following the days of Bach what became known as the upper mordent was called a pralltriller, or schneller; the lower mordent remained the mordant; outside Germany in the 19th century and beyond however, the name mordent was generally applied to the upper mordent, and the lower mordent became known as an inverted mordent.
NOTE: the first entry in Bach's table is a trill, denoted "trillo," which starts on the upper auxiliary note, and is NOT an upper mordent as understood today, even though he uses the symbol for it (an example may be found in the final cadence of the A Major Op. 13 "jig" Fugue); the actual execution of the upper mordent, although its sign is present in the table over the trill execution, seems curiously missing from his table. This omission is not all that curious when we consider that in Baroque music there was NO upper mordent. C.P.E. Bach, another of Bach's sons, was also adamant that the trill ALWAYS started on the upper note.
For Baroque music, as Bach indicates in his table, the trill begins on the upper auxiliary note and is heard on the beat itself; if the upper auxiliary note happens to precede the trilled note in the musical line, then the trill begins on the note itself, a practice which developed in the 19th century; the Baroque trill is also measured, with its speed usually being double the speed of the "unit of value," the unit of value being the shortest note value which recurs most frequently in the piece.
When the score indicates a trilled note held longer than one beat, the trill execution continues through the duration indicated by the trill squiggle in the score -- otherwise, in a rapid or moderate tempo the trill stops at half the time value of the note over which it is placed; in a slow tempo the trill stops at 3/4 the time value of that note.
Ornaments were written into the notation of the score for the Op. 30 Postlude in A Major, a stand alone 4 voice fugue written in quadruple counterpoint with 3 countersubjects maintained throughout.
In this work the subject begins boldly on scale degree 3 and has a tail ornamented with a trill which points strongly to the dominant key, thus a real answer in the dominant is supplied.
The 1st countersubject which enters with the answer is also ornamented with a trill, only midway through its melodic curve.
As the entries proceed through all related keys in a similar manner to all the other fugues described on this blog, plus one unrelated key (G Major), the subject and each countersubject take turns entering in the bass in chronological order, i.e. in the order in which they make their successive entries in the exposition.
The trills in this score were written into the notation to facilitate the intended execution but are omitted in the bass, as the pedal is not concerned with them.
During the episodes separating the entries the outer voices (soprano and bass) are silent as the inner voices (alto and tenor) carry the music forward; these episodes are all of uniform length and constructed using fragments of the subject, countersubjects, their inversions, or by means of sequences.
The last episode employs a crescendo, and the final entry, following many examples left to us by J.S. Bach, places the subject in the bottom octave of the pedals.
A short coda rounds out the piece during which there is a further crescendo with the addition of stops and couplers and an additional voice (low tenor, or baritone) entering on the middle staff.
Concluding with a crescendo over a tonic pedal point, the music ends in 8 voices with great finality on a big tonic chord in spread harmony with a held 2nd using the full power of the instrument.
The thing to notice about the ornamentation in this work is that there isn't too much of it -- just a trill in the tail of the subject and a trill midway through the 1st countersubject; these trills are spaced apart, by 3 bars -- this so the listener's ear can pick them out clearly as the music proceeds; the other 2 countersubjects lack ornamentation altogether.
This was deliberate; ornaments are like salt and pepper -- they are essential ingredients to the musical recipe at times, but their overuse can ruin a piece; when used sparingly and wisely in critical places however a great deal of fire and energy can be incarnated in the music by using them.
This is easily demonstrated by playing Bach's great Toccata & Fugue in d minor without the lower mordents on its opening notes in octaves; this opening fanfare is one of the most well known passages in Western music, and reducing those first 3 notes down to one held note by editing out the lower mordent specified for each hand immediately changes the character of the music; it doesn't just cause it to lose something -- the fire and glory of the commanding opening of this work is quite literally drained out -- eviscerated.
Ornaments therefore should not be downplayed or ignored; they are a part of the music, important thematic elements put there by the composer for a reason, to be observed in performance just as much as any other notes written into the score, whenever that score is a faithful copy of the autograph.
At the same time we should remember that a musical score is the map the composer left us of the music, and, like any map, it can get so cluttered by insertions that at some point its clarity will be sacrificed.
We should be very careful therefore, when the autograph is missing, about incorporating ornaments in parentheses inserted by subsequent editors based upon a single copy, or copies of copies, into our own performances of famous works with the idea that we're making our interpretation more stylistically correct; in so doing we are changing the composer's piece and can get carried away by an editor's eagerness to further adorn the work or present it in a hitherto undiscovered way.
When most, if not all, extant copies of an early work are traceable to and agree with a single copy, then the ornaments appearing in that single copy are to be regarded as the most correct, if not definitive, reading.
It's entirely possible for an otherwise outstanding recording of a well-known organ work on a period instrument to be spoiled by the well-meaning additions of ornaments or prolonged, florid cadenzas inserted under a smug guise of increasing its stylistic authenticity.
No matter how exciting, unique, or impressive the results may sound or how flamboyant the mannerisms, if any, an organist engages in when exercising such liberties, this kind of tampering still places the performer, whether they are oblivious to it or not, on a very slippery slope.
We notice something of the same thing in writing or improvising codas; if the choice is between the longer or shorter of 2 versions, the shorter one is generally preferable.
It's a case of less being more [See blog, Less Is More].
(con't in Part XXXIX)