Baroque Trills

January 23, 2008 at 07:33 AM · In Baroque music, do trills always begin with the higher note? Are there any exceptions?

Replies (21)

January 23, 2008 at 02:20 PM · Normally, Baroque trills begin on higher note. However, I do not know the origin of this practice. Anyone know?

January 23, 2008 at 02:25 PM · Well, they, according to tradition, start on the higher note. But when I play my baroque violin, usually when the notes are going in a more downward direction (I don't know how to explain it more thoroughly), I start on the original note. When the notes are going uphill, I start on the note above. It's really your choice.....whatever sounds better. Out if the great baroque violin players today, Biondi usually starts on the higher note, and so does Carmignola, but Holloway usually starts on the bottom note.

P.S. When you are doing baroque trills, make it sound like an ornamentation. Make it sound like you are making it up on the spot (improv). Don't do such a straight trill. Geez, this is hard to explain.

January 23, 2008 at 03:45 PM · I"m certainly no expert, but there some other considerations. If you begin from the top note, especially if you make it more like an appoggiatura, you have to make sure it doesn't lead to parallel 5ths. There are some good texts on ornamentation in baroque music.

January 23, 2008 at 06:12 PM · In all forms of ornamentation: portamenti, vibrato, grace notes trills etc., and in all eras of music, not just Baroque, my belief is that cultivation of taste, rather than learning rules to obey, leads to the best performances. It takes more of an effort to cultivate taste than it does to follow a rule, but it is worth the time and effort. The process starts with enthusiasm--someone loves coffee, so he's eager to try various coffees. At first, he can't tell one from another, but because of his enthusiasm he samples one coffee and another repeatedly. Then distinctions start to form. This might lead to his development into a coffee connoiseur. In a similar manner, the violinist who is willing to experiment with various ways of trilling, or of doing an expressive portamento, starts to make clearer and clearer distinctions. He starts to develop personal convictions about which way of playing the portamento best integrates with the individual phrase.... which way of playing the portamento puts across the feeling that is most beautiful to him. He learns to distinguish between a portamento which, with its musical integrity, draws the listener into the music, and a poorly done (schmaltzy) portamento which, with its superficiality, distances the listener from the music.

It seems to me that in the twenty first century, the cultivation of taste in all areas of life is less highly valued than it formerly was. (Just turn on your TV for proof of this!) However, because Art can infuence, as well as reflect culture, this presents an opportunity for those who produce art to benefit and refine society.

January 23, 2008 at 04:01 PM · Bravo!

It takes time, experimentation, and careful listening to know what will sound best in any style of music as well as within the context of 'the moment' in music to which it will be applied.

You can never quite tell when something may accidentally happen that ends up being much better than what you had planned!

January 23, 2008 at 06:32 PM · Mr. B. Hong- I hope that you answer 'this' question. You say that the trill should be more like ornimitation. So let the trill not be long, just a beat and a half? Like a little seasonning rather than a main ingredient? If that make since?

January 23, 2008 at 06:49 PM · The best place to go for advice on this stuff is the research library although it can be daunting. will help a lot in the theory section (this site also offers free staff paper of all kinds!) and read books by Johann Quantz, Robert Donington, and Leopold Mozart (yes, Mozart's father, whose book should be owned by all violinists). Most of these books you can even find online transcripts.

Best of luck in the confusing yet fulfilling world of baroque debate.

January 23, 2008 at 06:58 PM · Hi, Mr. Faina. Yes, unless its in a Mozart concerto, where the trill is very substantial, a lot of baroque music (not saying Mozart is baroque), has trills that are more subtle. Even when the baroque composer writes trills in, they are usually not as "meaty" as a Mozart trill. So, what I usually do to make it sound ornamentational is I start slower on the trill and speed up, so I get a "whirlwind" effect. Of course, it takes place in less than a second :-).

P.S. Oh, and please just call me Brian. Mr. B Hong makes me sound too professional-I'm only a kid!

January 23, 2008 at 08:09 PM · There's a book out there that I would highly reccomend for anyone interested: "Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners" by Judy Tarling. It is a wonderful book that will help anyone trying to learn how to play in a baroque style play convincingly.


January 23, 2008 at 08:36 PM · I second George's recommendation. Also Leopold Mozart's TREATISE ON THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF VIOLIN PLAYING is here:

Ah and Geminiani's THE ART OF PLAYING ON THE VIOLIN is back up:

April 13, 2012 at 07:24 PM · I was wondering about this too. My teacher sent me this link, which has this paragraph:

"Baroque trills usually, but not always, start from the upper note. This depends on whether the music is influenced by the French or Italian style. In the Italian style, start trills on the main note. This applies to music by Vivaldi, and others. Trills are there to decorate the musical line. The French trill decorates notes or harmonies and when starting on the upper note creates an appoggiatura, a dissonance which should be stressed before its release. German composers combined the two trill styles, though even then, the style can change from one movement to another. Performers will need to consider whether it is the main note which is dissonant or its upper neighbour and then choose whether it is the dissonance or the consonance which ought to be stressed. For example, if a trill was played on the resolution from a suspension, it may be better to start on the principal note, because it is the consonant resolution which is of primary importance. ‘Upper, lower, or not at all’? That isn’t so important as the way the trill is played. It is an expressive device, not necessarily to be played quickly. In a slow movement, a slower trill is preferable as it won’t disturb the character of the music. Trills should be rhythmic. If the trill can’t be written down then it is too untidy. Still confused? The trill is the exit to a musical phrase; as a gentleman or woman would bow, curtsey and make a departing comment, so the performer departs elegantly from the phrase using the conventions and customs of the time. ‘See yer, mate!’ just won’t do!"

April 13, 2012 at 07:43 PM · I am in agreement with Oliver. The rule which supercedes all in Baroque performance is bon gout, good taste. If you look through Frederick Neumann's book Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music

(all 573 pages of it), You will certainly find a justification for trilling a note in almost any manner you wish.

April 14, 2012 at 02:45 PM · Years ago, my (distinguished) teacher told me to begin all trills on the higher note, not just baroque ones.

April 14, 2012 at 11:01 PM · Interestingly, this issue was the subject of a discussion between Wanda Landowska and Casals during a rehearsal, leading to a famous remark of hers. They were arguing about trills in Bach, with Casals saying that certain ones did not make sense unless started on the lower note. Landowska responded, "That's fine dear. You play Bach your way, and I will play Bach his way." The rallying cry of the A-415 crowd.

April 15, 2012 at 02:24 AM ·

I must say that Neumann's book title also has at the end of it "With Special Emphasis on J.S. Bach."

This is a scholarly tome published by Princeton University press. I realize that there are those who disagree with him in certain areas, but I think that this book with its immense bibliography argues that he is an acknowledged expert in Baroque ornamentation. Somehow I think that Wanda Landowska did not put in the same amount of time researching this as Neumann. You might wish to pick up a copy which goes for about $100 these days.

April 15, 2012 at 04:38 AM · Hi Lyndon you said,

"modern trills start on the lower note, baroque trills started on the higher note, with few exceptions." My comments are not intensely personal, and just relate what I know from my reading and personal experience.

Having played with such period instrument groups like JE Gardiner English Baroque soloists, Concert Royal (concertmaster), Brandenburg Collegium (concertmaster) Aston Magna, J Rifkin The Bach Ensemble, Ensemble for Early Music, concertmaster (Fred Renz),Tureck Bach Ensemble concertmaster, Boston Early Music Festival (Roger Norrington Nick McGegan, and many others), Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra (Jaap Schroeder and others), Banchetto Musical (guest concertmaster), Nederlands Radio Chamerchor and Orch.,Raglan Players (BBC recordings),Capriole Ensemble, Carolina Consort, Complesso Ensemble Courant, Il Complesso Barrocco (Alan Curtis);I can say with some authority (through my performance experience) that some trills start from the upper note, some from the main note.

I figure I also have a bit of knowledge about modern performance practice as well. My BS, MM,and DMA degrees are from Juilliard.

April 15, 2012 at 02:29 PM · Bruce - with all due respect, Landowska put in an enormous amount of time researching these issues, although she did not probably have as easy access to much of the material as contemporary researchers do. That said, but for her continuous and public advocacy of the harpsichord and period performance, many of the groups you play/played in would probably not exist today nor would most of this controversy, except perhaps in the academic setting.

April 15, 2012 at 07:33 PM · There has been a tremendous amount of new research during the past 20-30 years. We know a lot more now than we did in the era of Landowska and Dolmetsch.

While everybody acknowledges the debt we owe to Landowska for her pioneering efforts and her overpowering musical artistry, she is generally regarded as a product of the late romantic era in her interpretations, and also her specially constructed 9 foot harpsichord which sounded rather like a 9 foot steinway and bore little resemblance to the harpsichords of the 18th century.

Trills in general start on the upper note with many exceptions, notably when they for part of a descending scale. It also depends on the speed of the passage. In other words, there are more detailed rules governing the trill than a simple "always start on the upper note".

There are some wonderful books now available including "Bach's Solo Violin works" by Jaap Schroeder, "Unaccompanied Bach, Performing the Solo Works" by David Ledbetter, "Bach and the Baroque" by Anthony Newman (not to be confused with Fredrick Neumann.)

In this day and age, when information is so readily available, and when historically informed performance is so widespread, it is unacceptable for a serious musician to take the attitude of "it's all a matter of good taste."

April 15, 2012 at 09:29 PM · Roy - your points are good ones. I did not mean to imply that Landowska was the last word. Certainly, she was not (disclaimer - she is a relative). HIP is very important, but IMHO, not the last word either. At some level, what you do has to work for you and the listeners. That may be the ultimate takeaway of the exchange between Landowska and Casals. I am not sure Casals was wrong in that exchange, even though in a larger sense, at that time, Landowska had an important point.

April 16, 2012 at 01:37 PM · Lyndon - thanks for those comments. With all of the research out there, I am still not convinced that there can ever be a "party line" on what baroque practice actually was or that it was uniform. A-415 was certainly not uniform, from what I have read, and, to the extent it was fairly widespread, reflected a peculiarity that the harpsichord sounded best with that tuning, a sort of "sweet spot." I suspect that on various technique issues, baroque practice varied from place to place. I also think that baroque composers might be troubled that we moderns think that somehow we must play their music precisely as they themselves would have done. Especially someone like Bach who was such a visionary.

April 17, 2012 at 11:28 AM · Just to throw a spanner in the works here, in most seventeenth-century music -- in fact, therefore, for the bulk of the period of time we awkwardly lump together as "the Baroque" -- trills largely started from the note. Worse yet, there are still modern editions printing trills where what the composer wrote was a "trillo" -- the rapid repetition of a single note (the trill as we know it was called a "groppo").

For the first half of the eighteenth century in Germany, France, and Italy, it's really pretty safe to assume the upper-note trill. One might occasionally make exceptions, but I cannot share Neumann's easy confidence that his aesthetically loaded analyses of written-out versions of the trill in context really reflect how 18th century musicians thought.

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