One of the things I find myself discussing often with students is how to make a trill, or general ornamentation guidelines.  It’s actually pretty involved, aside from the part about making a finger go up and down…

First a little historical (hysterical) context:

The Quantz View

Noted musicologist Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773), on ornamentation, particularly trills. It must be noted that his reference to the “shake” should be translated to “trill”.

“To fix precisely the proper speed of a good regular shake is rather difficult. Yet I believe that a long shake which prepares a cadence will be neither too slow nor too quick if it is so struck that the finger makes not many more than four movements in the time of a pulse beat. (quarter = 80) With regard to the speed of shakes in general, it might also be mentioned, perhaps unnecessarily, that you must adjust to the height and depth of the notes. Taking the four octaves of the harpsichord as the gauge, I believe that if the shake is struck at the speed described above in the octave C’ to C’’, it can be struck a little more quickly in the octave above; in the octave below it can be struck a little more slowly, and in the lowest octave still more slowly. I grant everyone the choice of accepting or rejecting this notion. Although some may censure subtleties of this sort as useless, I will be satisfied if only a few persons of refined taste, ripe critical sense, and much experience are not completely opposed to me.”

“Each shake begins with the appoggiatura that precedes its note. The appoggiatura may be taken from above or below. The ending of each shake consists of two little notes, which follow the notes of the shake, and are added to it at the same speed. If only a plain note is found, both the appoggiatura and termination are implied, since without them the shake would be neither complete nor sufficiently brilliant.”

“If a cadence follows the shake, whether it is in the middle of the piece or at the end, an appoggiatura is not permitted between the closing note and the termination of the shake, particularly if the note of the shake is a step higher than the closing note. For example, if a shake were struck on D’’, in order to close on C, and the appoggiatura D were made before this concluding note, it would sound quite ineffectual, and you would be immediately enlisted among the musical rabble, since this error is never committed by a person of refined taste.”

A Caution for Quantz

The types and forms of embellishment [ornamentation] have differed considerably from period to period and within the same era.  Some caution must be exercised in applying Quantz’s precepts, without corroborative evidence, to music written well before or after he was active.  Certain of his points might apply to almost any period, but many will not; even among Quantz’s contemporaries, there was no unanimity of opinion about many matters of interpretation.  The French approach to ornamentation differed somewhat from the Italian, and Germans were influenced by both.  All of these matters, of which contemporaries were fully aware, suggest how necessary it is to recognize the variety that existed in performance in the past and to approach the question or ornamentation freshly in the works of each individual composer.

The Casals Approach

Cellist, conductor and music teacher, Pablo Casals (1876-1973):

“A trill should express the atmosphere of its musical setting. ‘In a slow movement the trills must not be too rapid.’ As with other long notes, a long trill should not remain on one dynamic level.  ‘In general we must make a crescendo or a diminuendo.’”  “Generally, the [Baroque] trill should begin on the upper note (on the beat). Exceptions occur in the following instances:

  • When the note immediately preceding the trill is identical with the upper note, in which case it is, as a rule, preferable to avoid the repetition.
  • When the melodic line becomes an overriding consideration.
  • When the termination consists of a single note, the trill is to be stopped on its last main beat at which moment an accent is to be given to the principal note. Such a trill must have two accents: one when it begins, the other when it leads to the next note. Otherwise it is cold; something is lacking. There is no rhythm.
  • When the termination consists of two written notes (a turned ending), the trill is to be continued throughout the entire note.”