Don’t Repeat It – Ornament It!

by Todd Markey, Artist-teacher of Double Bass Valdosta State University


There is a continuous debate among performers and teachers about “authentic” or “historically informed” performance of pieces. This is especially true of baroque music. One side argues that we must perform works exactly the way the composer intended (or as near to that as we know) for the performance to be legitimate. The opposing argument is that since the instruments, musical atmosphere, and prevailing aesthetics have changed, we should feel free to re-interpret each piece based on our contemporary tastes.

I do not intend to argue for one side or the other, as they both have validity, but it seems reasonable that at least the most basic and important elements of baroque performance should be retained whichever side of the debate you fall on. After all, it is not accepted that performers change composers’ harmonies regularly to keep up with each generations’ aesthetics.

One essential element that is frequently left out of performances of baroque music is the addition of embellishments of the melodic line, which is especially important on repeated sections. This element is unfortunately ignored very often today, possibly due to the contemporary performer’s general lack of experience with composition and improvisation. Hven professional recordings of baroque sonatas very often do not include embellishments, which shows a lack of either understanding or concern of this vital element of baroque performance.

Most published parts have no written suggestions of the embellishments one might add. Although this may reflect an editorial belief that it is the performer’s responsibility to become educated about baroque performance practice and add the ornaments him or herself, it would be a great benefit to student performers and nonexperienced baroque performers to have written ornamentation as a guide.

Therefore, I present the following as a model and a guide to performance of the first movement of the Georg Telemann Sonata in A Minor. The embellishment of a repeated section should preserve the basic “affect” of the movement by not giving it a differing character. Therefore, the lyrical style of the movement should be preserved when performing the repeat. Also, care must be taken to imply the proper harmony and preserve successful voice leading when adding ornaments. Knowledge of music theory is needed, but the best judge of the quality of the ornamentation is the ear. Some of the common methods of ornamenting a melodic line are:

1) Adding trills, mordents, and the port d’voix to various notes: Note the trill in mea. I and the inverted mordent in mea. 3:

2) Filling in leaps with faster scale passages: See the first example. Sixteenth notes connect the G to the Eb.

3) Adding lower or upper neighbor tones: Upper and lower neighbors are used in mea. 4 and 7:

4) Adding appoggiaturas: