THE melos of Bach’s works may be described as baroque—if we take the much abused term to mean an over-ornamentative style. In many respects Bach followed the passagi style, so popular in Germany especially during his early career, and we need a clear picture of the history and nature of musical ornamentation during this period before analyzing Bach’s maturing style of composition further. But we must keep in mind the significant differences between Bach’s work within this highly developed art of ornamentation and most of the work of his predecessors and contemporaries. Bach’s unique transformations of simple Lutheran chorales, achieved partially through ornamentation, into hallowed meditations are far from the ornate confusions of Buxtehude. Yet, as we have seen, Buxtehude’s music remained a source of inspiration to Bach throughout his lifetime.
We must admit that the Arnstadters were somewhat justified in their complaints about the art to which Bach was exposed during his stay in Lübeck. Buxtehude’s style of florid ornamentation could distract rather than illuminate the congregation, as a comparison of the unadorned melody of “A Mighty Fortress” (taken from Bach’s Cantata No. 80) with Buxtehude’s treatment of it clearly illustrates (see example). The composer submerges the melody in a maze of serpentine passages, runs, and turns. Possibly in deference to the Arnstadters’ taste, Bach’s works of that period did not follow the extravagancies of Buxtehude’s style. The few existing examples of Bach’s work that do strongly reflect Buxtehude’s style come from a much later period; even among these Bach creates such masterful expressions of intimate mystic experience as “Oh Mensch, beioein’ dein Sunden” (Oh Man, Bewail Thy Sins) and “Wenn wir in Hochsten Nothen sein” (When We Are in Greatest Need). Thus the term baroque as used above does not satisfactorily describe Bach’s style. In Buxtehude’s work ornament seems to weigh down and dominate, while Bach achieves an integration of ornament and melody into a flow of continuous melody of the most expressive quality.
a) The unadorned chorale melody “A Mighty Fortress.” From Bach’s Cantata No. 80.
b) Ornamented version from Buxtehude’s chorale-prelude based on “A Mighty Fortress.”
c) repetition with different ornamentation
Buxtehude’s rather licentious type of coloratura is closely elated to the traditional style of the Italian singers and instrumentalists, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Improvisations of these gorgie or throat exercises dated back to the Gregorian chant, and during the height of the a cappella singing this kind of improvised elaboration—called diminutione (diminution) for the division of long notes into a coloratura of small ones—was expected of a good singer.
At first ornaments were never written out; but as these coloratura began to be applied to contrapuntal compositions, it would have been too much to expect a singer to observe contrapuntal rules as his imagination augmented the text. As early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, Johannes Tinctoris (ca. 1435-1511), a Belgian composer and theorist who spent a great deal of time in Italy, relates that there were two kinds of diminutus: aut scripto (written out) and aut mente (improvised). A master like Adrian Willeart (ca. 1490-1562), the founder of the Venetian school of San Marco, could no longer trust himself to spontaneously improvised ornamentation as the polyphonic art of his day became more involved.
These Italian practices became known and fashionable in all of Europe, and violinists, gambists, harpsichordists, and organists found great delight in allowing their fingers to ambulate over the keys or strings in arabesques of their own invention. In fact, musicologists today do not agree on whether ornamentation is really vocal or instrumental in origin.
This art of diminution, called division in England, has a spontaneous and unpredictable character, which many theorists, especially in sixteenth-century Italy,1 tried rather unsuccessfully to refine. Rules of execution were formulated and various types of ornaments— passagi, cascade, tirate, with their smaller distinctions such as cascada doppia, circolo, mezzo circolo, trillo, temolo, tremoletto, and groppo— were classified.
There was no universal agreement among the theorists, however, over these rules and classifications. Giovanni Battista Bovicelli and Lodovico Zacconi (1555-1627), for instance, teach that one must never begin with passagi, and that one must refrain from ornamenting quarter notes and reserve the diminutions for long notes. Others, like Riccardo Rognoni, find no fault with such “transgressions”2 What some called tremolo, other called trillo, and vice versa. Caspar Printz (1641-1717) calls a trillo or triletto” a tremor, a quivering of the voice in a note above a large note.” He writes out the Circulus Remittus .3 The term accento for us means accent; in the terminology of the later sixteenth century, it was equivalent to our appoggiatura or grace note. Bach, in his small list of Manieren— his term for grace notes—which he wrote out for his lo-year-old son Friedemann, still identifies appoggiatura as accent.4 Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) calls the accent Port de la Voix, Rognoni, Modi di portar la voce. For Germans Johann Andreas Herbst (1588-1666) and Johann Criiger (1598-1663) the term accent included so many notes that it could easily be confused with the cascata, a downward scale encompassing about an octave. What Guilo Caccini (ca. 1550-1610) calls a cascata, Herbst calls a tirata, a term generally used for an upward surge of an octave run. Wolfgang Caspar Printz distinguishes between the tirata meza adscendus (four ascending diatonic notes) and tirata meza descendus .5 The same confusion reigned in the application of these grace notes. In Italy, during the eighteenth century, the single grace note, now called appoggiatura, was preferably treated iambically, that is, sung or played before the beat; its value was taken from the preceding note. This is contrary to the teachings of Francois Couperin (1668-1733) and C. P. E. Bach. The opposite practice, that of treating the grace note trochaically, was also common in Italy.6 In Italy the trill was started more often with the main note than with its auxiliary, especially in chains of trills and short ones,7 another practice disputed by the teachings of Couperin.8
All this disagreement stems from the very nature of ornamentation, which in its freedom, spontaneity, and improvisation resists codification. Living art has always preceded theory; a work has usually been universally established in the hearts and esteem of connoisseurs long before the arid schoolmaster concocts his arbitrary rules. The artist’s work springs from the natural fecundity of his personality and his inspired imagination, and the laws upon which it may be based are recognized probably least of all by the creator.
Johann Andreas Herbst, along with Michael Praetorius (1571?-1621), first introduced Italian ornamentation into Germany in 1658. Buxtehude and Bach had access to their works as well as to the large German literature subsequently written on the subject of improvised ornamentation, including works by Adrianus Petit Colico (1499 or 1500-1562), Hermann Finck, Johann Criiger, and Printz. But Buxtehude’s teacher and predecessor, Franz Tunder (1614-1667), who studied with Frescobaldi in Rome, probably influenced his development of the art most. Buxtehude undoubtedly passed on his impressions of his first-hand knowledge to his pupil from the north.
Among the most striking examples of Bach’s use of Italian ornamentation are his “transcriptions” of Reincken’s sonatas in A minor and C major.9 Bach so transformed even the slow movements of these into elaborate, ornamented passages that Reincken’s original text is difficult to recognize.10 The first movement of Bach’s own Violin Sonata in A Minor, which he himself transcribed for harpsichord (or clavier), is written in the same ornate style. In this case, of course, we have no original model with which to compare the final composition.
The Meaning of Ornamentation
Moderns generally cannot respond with sympathy to this ornate style, so remote from our current mode of esthetic perception. What seems strangest to us is the realization that elaborate embellishments were universally regarded by Bach and his contemporaries as a means of intensifying musical expression. Even the serene and mystic cantilenas of Palestrina, for example, were not always sung as written: long notes were divided in diminutions of more “expressive,” fast moving figures. In the following example Bovicelli11 shows how a text written by Palestrina (upper line) was actually sung (lower line). The respective ornaments are ribattuta di gola (repeating beats of the throat), groppo (a kind of turn), and exclamatio (emotional outburst).12
Early experiments with the music-drama temporarily subdued enthusiasm for vocal ornamentation. In order to make the words clearly understood—a matter of paramount importance in a music-drama— composers such as Caccini and Claudio Monteverdi urged their singers to refrain from too much coloratura. Most of their improvised embellishments were confined to cadences, firmata, da capi, and connecting passages, leaving the words free for more distinct pronunciation and natural expression. But this noble purpose in the early music-drama soon gave way to that hybrid of musico-dramatic staging, the grand opera, in which both music and drama were merely vehicles for displays of vocal pyrotechnics.
French Influence on Bach’s Ornamentation
French vocal music took a somewhat different path than its Italian counterpart. Under Lully (1665-1743), the dominant figure in French opera, literary meter and stress were zealously guarded against encroachments and interference from the rhythm and accentuation of their musical setting. Louis XIV and his entourage, whose taste was more literary than musical, heartily supported Lully’s restoration of poetic diction to primary importance. Musical ornamentation of the text was reduced to the use of short trills and agrements (graces) of single notes (the kind Bach called accents), and more elaborate melismata were again relegated to endings and other safe places.
Passagi, however, were still enlivening the instrumental sections. French overtures abound with Urate, cascate, accenti of more than one note, groppi, and trills of all varieties. In the scores they were not written out but indicated by a cross (+). (Our modern editions in their passion for authenticity also omit these ornaments, making a performance faithful to the composer’s intentions impossible to achieve.) Bach uses all these varieties of Italian ornament in his French Overtures, but writes them out in full. “Every ornament, every grace, everything that one thinks of as belonging to the method of playing, he [Bach] expresses completely in notes,” Johann Adolph Scheibe complained in the May 17,1737, edition of his weekly magazine, Der Critische Musikus.13 The statement, which accurately describes Bach’s practice, confirms that strict adherence to the art of improvised ornamentation was by no means a thing of the past. Johann Abraham Birnbaum, a music connoisseur and rhetoric teacher at the University of Leipzig, defended Bach and other composers for taking what he called “a necessary measure of prudence,”14 since singers and instrumentalists alike do not always show enough discrimination.
Both Bach and Buxtehude clearly rejected the uncertainty and fluctuations in quality that the improvised ornamentation of earlier periods must have harbored. Bach, of course, continued to use the conventional stenographic signs, usually developed by French theorists, for short ornaments. He had easy access to the acceptable interpretation of these symbols through prefaces to the works of several French composers-Jacques Champion de Chambonnieres (Pieces de Clavecin, 1670), Nicolas Lebegue (1677), Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1689), Charles Dieupart (between 1700 and 1712)—and Francois Couperin’s famous UArt de Toucher le Clavecin (1716). Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, in his preface to his Musicalisches Blumen-Biischlein (1698), deals with almost all the French signs used by these composers.
Passagi or diminutions are never mentioned in these books, unlike the Italian and English instruction books of the previous century. In French clavier music only the short ornaments survived. Fixed symbols such as covered every variety of trill and grace note, and these ornaments distinguished and established the fashionable French music. Although Georg Muffat mentions a few types of the old, florid Italian ornaments, the tirata and the cascade, in the preface to his Florilegium Musicale Secundum, virtually all of this type of improvised ornamentation had died out in France by the time his work was actually published (1695 and 1698).
Bach and Buxtehude did not wish to follow the French manner of total rejection of extended ornamentation (in Germany and Italy freely improvised passagi were still in vogue). They simply refused to leave this art to the caprice of others beside themselves. We find examples of written-out passagi in Bach’s own variations on his sarabandes, in the English Suites, in g minor and a minor, which he entitles “les agrements de la meme Sarabande.” His works based on Reincken’s sonatas and his A Minor Violin Sonata, mentioned above, are further examples of his practice of writing out ornaments.
The modern listener and the performer can be thankful that Bach so meticulously set forth his intentions for long coloratura passages, for in our time the correct execution of even short ornaments—designated by conventional French stenographic signs15 —have become a source of controversy among organists, pianists, and harpsichordists. At issue is Bach’s strict adherence to the French instruction books. The small list of ornaments that Bach wrote out for his lo-year-old son Wilhelm Friedemann16 suggests that he did follow their stiff and stereotyped rules quite literally. But Bach surely meant this simple exposition only as an introduction, indicating the basic usages, to which practical execution might reveal many exceptions. Bach himself used many signs not included in this small list and very often wrote out one part of an ornament in notes and the rest in stenographic signs, a habit that adds considerably to the confusion of present-day performers.
Moreover, the explanation for his young son is not entirely in accord with the elaborate and intricate explanations that another son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was thoroughly steeped in his father’s understanding of music, presents in his famous Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. Recent writers suggest that Philipp Emanuel’s book is not a definitive guide to his father’s original desires for short ornaments and is in fact misleading.17 The brilliant son developed a style quite different from that of his father, and some critics feel that he incorporates a new conception of ornamentation into his explanation of this new style. However, the master-student relationship that Carl Philipp Emanuel enjoyed with his father provides strong evidence for rejecting this view. He revered his father and in his autobiography says, “In composition and keyboard performance I have never had any teacher but my father.”18 Many new styles have developed while remaining faithful to tradition, and Carl Philipp Emanuel could accurately voice his father’s desires for ornamentation in the same Essay in which he calls for uses of harmony and counterpoint radically different from those of his father. Although Philipp Emanuel introduces some new signs not found in his father’s scores—such as composites of different ornaments—and in his own compositions used certain ornaments more frequently than others, we may in general regard his intricate rules, with their numerous exceptions, as an attempt to codify his father’s practices.
Johann Sebastian never was a slave to one particular style or method, as Philipp Emanuel’s statement about “a certain great man,” who said that “one style may be better than another, yet each may offer something specially good, and neither can be so complete as to forbid addition or improvement” evidences.19 His independent genius did not bind itself to the style of any one nationality, least of all to the rigid rules and all-too-simple precepts of the French. Carl Philipp Emanuel in his role as theorist takes the free creations of true genius as a norm from which he derives laws for more pedestrian talents.
Philipp Emanuel’s associate at the court of Frederick the Great, the flutist Johann Joachim Quantz, described the German style in his autobiography (see Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie): “The German artists endeavored to obtain their education in Paris and in Italy; and among the German composers thus originated the so-called mixed style; i.e. one adopted the manners of Lully’s ballet music and strove to unite it with the style of Vivaldi.” And again in his Essay on Flute Playing (1752) he says, “If one knows how to choose the best from the taste of various peoples with proper judgment, a mixed taste flows from it, which one may very well call the German taste, without surpassing the limits of modesty” (p. 332). These reflections could apply to the style of Johann Sebastian Bach.
From Bach’s oldest biographer, Forkel, we learn that Johann Sebastian, although he held the French school in esteem, “on the other hand considered them as too affected in their frequent use of graces, which goes so far that scarcely a note is free from embellishments.” Moreover, Bach considered that “the ideas which they [the French school] contained were, besides, too flimsy for him.”20
It seems safe to assume, on the basis of C. P. E. Bach’s description of ornamentation and Bach’s own strong reservations about French style, that he did not intend his stenographically noted ornaments to be rigidly interpreted according to French rules. The most explicit of the French textbooks, Couperin’s L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin, did not appear until 1716, long after Bach had established his own style for ornamentation. Bach adopted no Couperin symbol that differed from those already in use in Germany at the time,21 and we must remember that reading French was probably quite difficult for Bach. Bach’s style in ornamentation, to paraphrase Quantz, represents a synthesis of many schools. Italian composers influenced Bach more than the French, whose symbols he used simply because they were already in general use in Germany and current in the scores of many of the composers who influenced him.