Back to index
Earle, Eugenia

Improvised Ornamentation in Solo Instrumental Literature of the German Late Baroque: A Study and Lecture Demonstration

Ed.D. Teachers College, Columbia University, 1979

Improvised ornamentation was a significant element in the performance of Baroque music and has long been the subject of study by musicologists. The knowledge thus gained, however, has remained largely in the hands of music historians and performers on "ancient" instruments such as the harpsichord, recorder and viola da gamba. It is the purpose of this study to illustrate the principles of improvised ornamentation in a form that will make the material accessible to the trained but non-specialist musician.

The term "improvised ornamentation" is used to designate, not the conventional, small ornaments indicated in the music by signs (trill, mordant, etc.), but the free embellishment by a performer, according to his own imagination and taste, of a given melody. The given melody, whether original or the work of another composer, acts as a structure upon which the performer bases his ornamentation.

Often the Baroque composer notated an entire movement in simple, almost outline form. It was expected that the performer create a finished composition through the art of improvised ornamentation.

There is a wealth of information, both direct and indirect, on ornamentation. Eighteenth century didactic works, including treatises in the form of instrumental tutors and compositions intended for instruction in the art, furnish direct evidence on the practice. Examination of these sources makes it clear that many compositions from the standard repertory are in fact either "structural" melodies in need of ornamentation, or written out ornamentations which can be used as models.

The primary method of the study has been to develop the relationship between structural and ornamented melodies, revealing through analysis the ornamentation devices and formulas used and the general principles according to which they are applied. In some cases a melody has been preserved for us in both structural and ornamented versions. When this is not the case, the procedure has been: When dealing with an ornamented melody, to deduce a presumed or possible structure from it; and when dealing with a "structural" melody, to create an ornamentation of it. The historical sources are quoted and analyzed in connection with the appropriate examples.

The first chapter of the dissertation sets forth the rationale and procedures of the study, while the second presents a brief over-view of ornamentation in historical perspective and an outline of source materials. In the following chapters, musical examples are analyzed, structural reductions are demonstrated and original ornamentations by the author are added as illustrations of the principles and procedures discussed. These central chapters deal with ornamentation: in slow movements without repeats (chapter 3); in slow movements with repeats (chapter 4); within faster movements (chapter 5); and within sets of variations (chapter 6). A concluding chapter summarizes the findings of the study.

The techniques and principles demonstrated are applicable not only to instruments in common use in the Baroque era, such as the flute, violin and harpsichord, but the piano and voice as well. It is hoped that the study will give the teacher and performer a new insight into music of the Baroque era and will aid in the creation of more authentic performances of music of the period.