On Trills and Twiddles – Practising the Piano

I am dusting off the Goldberg Variations for a couple of performances early next year, and I decided to consult my Kirkpatrick edition (Schirmer, 1938). When I have the best modern editions on my shelves, why would I choose to revisit such an old and surely outdated source? Well, there is much to gain from using an interpretive edition such as Kirkpatrick’s alongside a modern Urtext. The lengthy preface is divided into 9 chapters on the origin of the work, its form and the instrument. Then Kirkpatrick delves into the topics of ornamentation (general rules as well as each ornament treated individually), phrasing, fingering, tempo, dynamics and general interpretation. His scholarship has withstood the test of time and this edition still has much to offer. The score itself presents the canons in open score (a great plus point), and is mercifully free of fingerings and other editorial tamperings.


Having not played the work for 5 years, I wanted to refresh my memory on the exact shapes of each ornament and I am always fascinated to discover how great performers realise them. Kirkpatrick decided to write each ornament out in full. While this is helpful to a certain extent it is also problematic. Certain ornaments that fulfil a rhythmic function in fast music might well be played in a clearly discernible rhythmic way; others need to sound more expressive and free. Kirkpatrick’s realisations of the ornaments in Variation 7, for example, will sound just fine if played metronomically according to his recipe.

Baroque ornaments and trills

However, there is no way Kirkpatrick or anyone else can possibly notate the necessary freedoms in inflection in slower or more expressive music such as the Aria. The mordants in the first couple of bars feel more or less fine as they are notated, but the long trill (with prefix and written-out suffix) in bar 3 risks sounding stilted if the changes in beat divisions are done mathematically or rigidly.

Baroque ornaments and trills

In his preface, Kirkpatrick admits that his written-out trills “reproduce the fundamental characteristics of my present execution” but stresses that they are “subject to alteration by myself as well as others”. He goes on to clarify his stance on the realisation of the ornaments:

At any rate they give some indication of the frequently ignored but necessary shapeliness and expressive subtlety which should be given to all eighteenth-century ornamentation in accordance with its context. It has seemed useless to complicate the text with any indication of the fluctuating details of rhythmic freedom, which must necessarily be the result of the performer’s own feeling. On the piano the trills could often be executed with fewer “beats”. Certain trills may be given terminations where they are not indicated. (Kirkpatrick, xv-xvi).

So what freedoms do performers have, and on what basis do we reach a decision? A knowledge of the basic shapes and designs of the various ornaments is fundamental. We can study the ornament tables of Bach, D’Anglebert, Couperin and others, and research the various theoretical treatises of the period as well as modern-day writings on the vast subject that has come to be known as performance practice.

The way ornaments were played changed as the piano evolved, with various authorities altering the rules. In his book Musical Ornamentation of 1893, Edward Dannreuther decreed: “The trill should begin on the main note for music of all eras in order not to blur the melodic line”. Erm, where did that come from? Well, Muzio Clementi in his Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Piano Forte (1801) stressed the importance of beginning trills on the upper note but allowed main-note starts in certain legato situations: “Trills following stepwise motion in a legato melody, or very short trills on passing tones, could begin on the main note.” (11)

There is still great confusion over trills and mordants today, thanks to a little paragraph in the Grade V chapter on ornamentation in that slender red theory book many of us grew up with, Rudiments and Theory of Music, published by the Associated Board (1958). The information has since been updated in recent ABRSM publications, but the main-note realisation of the wavy symbol they called the “upper mordent” is not applicable to the music of JS Bach or the Baroque period, and this should have been made clear. There is no argument that as a general principle the short trills in the Baroque period, indicated by this wavy sign, should start from the upper note. The ornament consists of a minimum of 4 notes, but may be extended to 6, 8 or more – depending on the context and the taste of the performer. The performer is also able to start the ornament slower and accelerate if they want. A mordant (my preferred spelling of what the Associated Board called the “inverted mordent”) is something else – a 3-note (or 5, or 7) job starting on the main note and dipping down to the note below. All ornaments should come on the beat.


Then there is more confusion over Pralltrillers and Schnellers, and I can feel you all glazing over and yawning. But if we are going to play authoritatively and be taken seriously it is important to get clarity on all of this. I like to think I have researched this subject reasonably thoroughly over the years but it took time and it is a bit of a minefield. There are some reputable books out there that muddy the waters and end up being unhelpful, and unless you can devote time and energy to the subject you are going to want some quick and easy answers. Apart from Howard Ferguson’s Keyboard Interpretation from the 14th to the 19th Century: An Introduction, the easiest way to get a clear overview is from a really useful little book published by Alfred, entitled Ornamentation: A Question and Answer Manual. It’s a very good place to start.

In my next post I explore how we might develop fantastic trills at the piano in music of all periods. When certain trills are played at full speed, it is often difficult to get a handle on exactly what performers are actually doing (that is if they even know themselves!). But all trills are made up of a finite number of notes that have to be organised somehow… Click here to read it!

Practising the Piano Online Academy

The Practising the Piano Online Academy is the ultimate online resource for mastering the piano. It features a constantly growing library of thousands of articles, videos and musical excerpts on topics including practising, piano technique and performing from leading experts. Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or on one of the options below to subscribe:

  • Monthly subscription – Subscribe for £13.99 a month to get full, unlimited access to all Online Academy articles and updates (click here to sign-up for this option)
  • Annual subscription – Save almost 30% on the monthly subscription with an annual subscription for £119.99 per year and get free eBooks and editions worth over £70! (click here to sign-up for this option)

Tinggalkan Balasan

Alamat email Anda tidak akan dipublikasikan. Ruas yang wajib ditandai *