I’ve enjoyed the comments on my post about ornamentation and rubato in past centuries. And I certainly agree with a point at least one commenter made, that when musicians (in the old days or now) change what the composer wrote, they can do it well or badly. But that, at least to me, doesn’t reflect badly on ornamentation as a practice. We judge all kinds of things about performances, and this just adds another element. If we flag it as especially troublesome — as if it’s worse to change the composer’s written notes in a bad way than it would be to play at the wrong tempo, or in the wrong mood — I think that’s only because we’re not used to changing the notes. Musicians in past centuries might not have felt that way.
I know some criticisms that were made of ornaments in past centuries. In the baroque era, singers were damned for inventing ornaments that made parallel fifths with the bass, a violation of the rules of harmony. In 18th century Germany, orchestra violinists were attacked for ornamenting their parts individually — each violinist (if we can believe this) adding his own ornaments to the written melody, without any coordination with the ornaments added by everybody else.
And Manuel Garcia, Jr., in his famous 19th century book on singing, offers two sets of ornaments for the opening tenor aria in The Barber of Seville, and says that one set is bad. Not for musical reasons, though — he says the bad ornaments are theatrically inappropriate, because they’re too languid for the character. (I assume the good ornaments are those used by Garcia’s father, who created the role.)
Many of you also talked in the comments about ornamenting Brahms, which I said just wouldn’t work. I guess I should clarify that I didn’t mean nobody could improvise on a Brahms piece. And in fact pianists in Brahms’s time routinely improvised in performances, inventing preludes to pieces they were going to play, and transitions between one piece and another. The practice survived into the 20 century, and there are recorded examples, including one from as late as 1969, played by Wilhelm Backhaus at his last recital.
What wouldn’t work, I think — or wouldn’t work most of the time — would be to play a Brahms piece, and change the melodies Brahms wrote, the way any 19th century singer would have changed the melody in a Rossini aria. Suppose, for instance, that some orchestra’s principal horn player adds something of his own to the first bars of the second symphony, playing the top line below, instead of the bottom line, which is what’s in the score:
That would be terrible, ecause the three-note figure in the third measure — the one that’s changed — is a key motif all through the first movement. Just before the passage I’ve quoted, it showed up inverted, in the cellos and basses. (Or, more likely, form the motif takes in the cellos and basses is the ur-version, and the horn plays the inversion.) During the 19th century, music — at least from classicist composers like Brahms, and avant-gardists like Wagner — began to suffuse itself with motifs. If you change them, you audibly spoil the coherence of the piece.
But back to Rossini, which is where this discussion started. In my post, I talked about how he started to write out the ornaments — or some of them, anyway — that he wanted singers to sing. We should understand that this is deceptive, first because not all the ornaments are written out, and secondly because singers would change the ones that Rossini wrote (and often have to, because passages are repeated, and nobody would sing repetitions without changing them).
And Rossini’s scores are deceptive thirdly because his earlier operas — which in places look pretty bare — have to be ornamented just as fully as the pieces that bristle with ornaments. This goes against our present grain. We’ve all been taught to play what’s in the printed score, and now we have to learn that this passage, from L’Italiana in Algeri, an early work, with ornaments mostly not written out
would very likely be sung with as many ornaments as this one, from Semiramide, one of Rossini’s later scores, where he did write out suggested ornaments:
I tried improvising ornaments myself one afternoon, walking down the street in New York and singing one of my favorite moments in L’Italiana, making up changes for it. (It comes later in the aria whose beginning I quoted earlier, “Per lui che adoro.”) But I found that some of the wilder rubato variants that singers of the time might try — like the one I quoted in my earlier post — are hard for me to improvise, because I’m a classical musician, and I have trouble keeping the beat in my head while I make up melodies that phrase across beats and barlines, as jazz musicians know how to do.
I came up with simpler variants, which were nice enough. But that night I got out my notation software, and started having fun. Here’s what I came up with. What Rossini put in his score is in the bottom staff, and my variant is on top of it. I added the bass, so you can see how my ornaments stretch across the measured pace of the harmony:
I really like my version. The original — which I used to think was wonderfully elegant — now seems bland to me.
And what I wrote is theatrically appropriate. The character singing the aria is a smart and beautiful woman who’s dressing and putting on makeup, knowing full well that the silly man who loves her is watching. She’s playing a trick on him, and nothing could be more appropriate than to put makeup on the aria as well, making it less innocent and more seductive, to exactly match the singer’s acting.
As a footnote, here are some elegant ornaments for a passage in “Oh bella a me ritorno,” the cabaletta to “Casta Diva,” the great soprano aria from Bellini’s Norma, as sung by Giuditta Pasta, the singer who created the role. Again they’re from Manuel Garcia’s book. The bottom line, as usual, is what’s written in the score, and the top line is what Pasta sang. Just look at those quintuplets, a rhythm never (or, outside Chopin, virtually never) found in written music of this period. And look also at the lovely rubato in the final measure. Pasta, we should remember, was considered one of the great artists of her time, certainly the greatest of the bel canto era sopranos. This is how she made this passage her own (I left out the words because I don’t have the Garcia book with me, and can’t recall exactly where Pasta put them):