C.P.E.Bach wrote the following: "Nobody doubts the necessity of ornaments. They are quite indispensable. They connect the notes and give life to them. An indifferent composition is made tolerable by them. ...Those performers who have sufficient ability may insert ornaments beyond those I prescribe, but they must be careful to do this in the proper places and without doing violence to the general expression of the composition.....many notes need no addition. Just as good architecture can be spoiled by overloading it with decoration, or good cooking by too much seasoning, so music too can be ruined by being over-embellished."

One of the problems is that the practice of different countries and even of different composers within a country varied greatly; so much so that many books of early keyboard music contain a table of the signs used in that volume. The meaning of some signs changed somewhat over the years. There are a few which mean more or less the same thing no matter where one sees them, but often there is ambiguity, or one finds that, say, a trill won't fit properly in the place indicated in the music.

There are other problems which none of the treatises mention - what sounds OK on one instrument may not be successful on another. For example - in a harpsichord piece, an ornament may sound fine, but if I'm using an organ, where the sustain and the harmonics are different, what to do then? The old argument about playing trills on a harpsichord to sustain the sound doesn't hold water; early organ music is full of similar ornaments. And what about playing harpsichord music on the piano? Are "harpsichord" ornaments going to sound right on an instrument with totally different acoustics?

I play early music on the piano, and offer a few remarks about it.


The guiding rule is that the effect must be musical. Listen to the effect you are making. If it sounds wrong, it's no good. Better to omit an ornament than insert one which can't be executed smoothly and effectively. And try to cultivate a 'baroque' touch - light, transparent texture; no unnecessary doubling (avoid those terrible Victorian editions full of phrase marks, left hand octaves and pedal indications) ...and leave the sustain pedal alone. It's not appropriate.

There are other things to bear in mind, too ..... look at the piece as a whole. Does it contain a large number of marked ornaments? If so, you won't be adding many extra ones; there won't be room. But if there are very few ornaments, as in some English organ and harpsichord music of around 1700, then you will probably need to add some. Pencilled annotations to old copies, and early treatises, indicate that more ornaments were played than printed in this type of music.

There is very little in the way of printed ornamentation in early music from central Europe - say around 1690. A number of books of pieces were inscribed "Ornaments may be added as per the illustrious Herr (Georg) Muffat". It's interesting to look at Gottlieb Muffat's music (his son), where ornaments are so numerous that there's little room to add more. But if a piece is lacking in ornamentation, add simple ornaments if / where they fit.

Before going any further...is the piece suitable for the piano? Do not fool yourself .... some early music is not. The piano produces fewer upper harmonics and the sound is much thicker and heavier. Play it through. Listen. Play it again. Was it written for "harpsichord", or just "keyboard"? Think about it. If the result is doubtful, leave the piece alone; there are plenty of others.

There is scope here for varied ornamentation. Anything which sounds musical is OK but don't ignore ornament markings where a particular harmonic clash (perhaps an F# against a G) is indicated. The trill generally begins on the main note (unlike in Italy and some other countries, where the upper note trill gradually became popular), and in quick passages, the three note trill is common. Do not be afraid of varying the melodic line a little on a repeat, and vary the ornamentation on a repeat, making it a little more elaborate. But don't lose the melody. A "pause" sign often indicates a short cadenza; perhaps a scale run leading into the next phrase.

©Nigel Deacon, Diversity website

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