J.S. Bach, table of ornamentation (see below)

The topic “ornamentation” in music is truly endless. We have to do with a phenomenon that takes place on the border between notation and performance. Ornaments are in the truest sense of the word a “decoration” that the performer adds to the written-out or printed music text. Ornaments were therefore mostly not notated at all in earlier music. Performance tradition taught the interpreter at what spots he or she could fit in whichever embellishments. For instance, the flautist Rachel Brown impressively shows in our edition of the 12 Fantasias by Georg Philipp Telemann (HN 556, scroll to page six to discover the English notes on performance practice), what can be made of the music text, indeed, what must be performed to be stylistically correct. Thus at its core ornamentation always has to do with improvisation.

Yet starting already in early music, ornamentation was not to be left to the performer alone. A repertoire of symbols developed early on to be added to the actual music text. Of course, it was then crucial to know which symbol stood for which ornament. For this reason, Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, entered into the “Clavierbüchlein” (little keyboard book) for his son Wilhelm Friedemann a table to indicate exactly what the player has to do with which signs.

Johann Sebastian Bach, "Clavierbüchlein", table of ornamentation

There are ornamentation symbols and explanations of these symbols aplenty from the last four centuries. It almost seems as if one were always trying harder to deprive the ornamentation of its realm of improvisation and to spell it all out precisely. All in vain. Are there any musicians not familiar with the discussion about the questions of “grace note on or before the beat”, “trill from the main note or from the neighbouring note”, etc.

The notation of accidentals for ornaments became ever more detailed in music history. For depending on the context, neighbouring trill notes or terminating notes do not hark back to the tones available in the relevant tonality. In order to ensure that the correct signs are used when the tones of the ornaments are not written out, the specific accidentals are given next to the ornamentation signs. Showing up in Chopin’s Berceuse in the right hand of m. 43 is a trill on b double flat1, to which Chopin added a ♭ in all authoritative sources.

Chopin, Berceuse, m. 43

A clear case, one would think, and trill with the main note b double flat1 and the neighbouring note c2. Were it not for the pupil’s copy from Camille O’Meara-Dubois. The following entry can be found there on p. 4, end of the fifth measure. It occurred to me only during the preparation of a revised edition (HN 1258) that a problem possibly lays buried here. Why did Chopin think it necessary to make an entry at this spot in his pupil’s instructional copy? And much more important, what does it mean?

I read:

Chopin is obviously concerned with the neighbouring note. The added note head on the middle music line can clearly be recognised: from the note head a line is drawn to the ♭ accidental above the trill, once more pencilling a ♭ over it. Doesn’t Chopin want to make unmistakeably clear here that the neighbouring note should read b1? The printed ♭ above the trill would then be understood as cancelling out the double flat before the main note. It thus relates to the pitch b1 and not, as you might think, to c2 – and with this entry Chopin seems to want to clarify that. The trill would accordingly read or “correctly” notated . If Chopin had been precise, he would have notated . In any case, both variants are conceivable – neighbouring note c2 and neighbouring note c double flat2. Our revised edition will therefore inform you about this problem through a footnote in the music text.

Chopin’s efforts to be unmistakeably precise in notating ornamentation fails in this case because of his harmony pervaded by chromaticism. A similar example can be found in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in f minor, 3rd movement, m. 260.

Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 2, 3rd movement, m. 257-260

At this spot the sources remain silent about the neighbouring note of the trill on e double flat3. If we want to be pedantic, we would have to read f3 – an absurd idea, for a minor third (d3/f3, so to speak) is out of the question as a trill interval. It is rather more likely, on the other hand, that the neighbouring note starting from m. 257 is supposed to read steadily e3. In m. 260 above the trill symbol a double flat would have to be added, so that the neighbouring note reads here f double flat3 (= sounding e3).  In the next reprint of our HN 420 we shall include this minor addition.

Ornamentation in our strictly regulated music texts will always remain a last bastion of improvisation. Even if composers make the effort for a precise formulation of ornaments – a small remnant of fuzziness often remains, granting to the interpreter a small margin of freedom beyond the notation.

This entry was posted in Bach, Johann Sebastian, Berceuse op. 57 (Chopin), Chopin, Frédéric, General, Monday Postings, notation, ornamentation, piano solo and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to »About the difficulties of notating ornamentation – The riddle of a neighbouring trill tone in Chopin’s Berceuse«

  1. Roberto Poli says:

    Dear Mr. Müllemann,

    Thank you for writing about Chopin’s Berceuse. Your observation in regard to the pencil notation in the Dubois score is very interesting, and we know how much information can emerge from the scores that Chopin’s pupils used during their lessons with him.

    However, in my opinion there are several problems with what you gathered from the Dubois score in regard to the trill in m. 43:

    1) Assuming that it was Chopin who added those pencil markings unfortunately remains at a speculative level. There is no way to determine whether that is his handwriting.
    2) Assuming that this was a correction also remains at a speculative level. Even if it was Chopin who actually wrote in m. 43 during Mme. Dubois’s lesson, it is possible that those pencil additions did not represent a correction at all, but the illustration of the interpretation of single- and double-flat signs, which Mme. Dubois may have not understood at first. Had they been a correction, I believe the markings would be more assertive in nature, with notes crossed out, etc. – as it is often the case when Chopin corrected misprints or indicated variants. Rather than a correction, the pencil markings may have been added while Chopin extemporaneously explained how to interpret the accidentals as notated in print – Mme. Dubois at the piano and Chopin standing next to her, or vice versa.

    All best wishes,
    Roberto Poli

    • Dear Mr Poli,

      Thank you for your comment! I totally agree; there are various possible ways to interpret this pencil indication. Your explanation does make sense indeed.
      Please allow me just to comment on one point: Chopin did sometimes use pencil when he corrected details in his pupils’ scores. I admit, the entries rarely look as hasty as the one in our example. However, it’s still possible that it was a spontaneous idea he had in Mrs. O’Meara-Dubois’ lesson, which was, though, not supposed to change the music text here in general. Maybe it was something he wanted to try in this specific lesson only. Maybe I am wrong, but I still think it’s interesting to consider this possibility.
      All best,
      Norbert Müllemann

  2. Cookie Lee says:

    A similar issue exists in the third movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Op.58. Chopin originally notated this in m. 93, and then corrected it to this in the French First Edition. It’s likely Chopin thought placing a double sharp before the note g would do the trick at first, only to found out what he wanted is actually a “g triple sharp” later.

    • Cookie Lee says:

      By the way, HN 290 still have the (likely) erroneous g double sharp at above-mentioned place, which, in my opinion, should be corrected in accordance with French First Edition.

      Best regards,
      Cookie Lee

    • Thank you for this! The passage you refer to is problematic indeed. I agree that Chopins must have had second thoughts on the notation of the trill plus turn in the French first edition. However, in the example you provide, taken from Jane Stirling’s copy, you see that there is a pencilled cross through the group of notes in question. It might originate from a lesson Chopin gave. Did he want to re-correct the passage?

      • Cookie Lee says:

        Dear Müllemann:

        Yeah, in my opinion, Chopin’s modification in the French First Edition is also erroneous. By changing a double sharp to b natural, the ax-b# (equal to bc1) trill would become a bc#1 trill, which definitely sounds strange. Therefore, I think it’s better to follow Chopin’s notation in the autograph and just change the turn to a#-ax, like what he did in measure 23.

  3. Alain G Declert says:

    I guess you know about the Raoul Pugno edition of selected works by Chopin. Pugno was a student of Georges Mathias, himself a student of Chopin. Pugno mentions that the trill in the Berceuse m. 43 is b-double flat/c flat and that the trill b-double flat/b flat is a mistake.

    • Dear Mr Declert,
      Thank you for your comment. That is fascinating indeed, and it demonstrates that there have been discussions on this neighbouring note at all times. I suspect that maybe Chopin himself was not quite sure which reading is the better one – this would explain the entry in the pupil’s copy and statement you refer to. One more item in the field of “Chopin Variants”…
      With best regards,
      Norbert Müllemann

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