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.
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.
A clear case, one would think, and trill with the main note b double flat1 and the neighbouring note c♭2. 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?
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 b♭1? 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 c♭2 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.
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 e♭3. 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 e♭3). 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.