Musical Instruments

Turns and rolls — Part 1

This post examines historical descriptions of a musical ornament that appears in several genres. In Western classical music it is referred to by the Italian name gruppetto (small group) or a native designation in the language of discourse, such as the English “turn.” Its manifestation in Irish traditional music is called a “roll.” Tutorial presentations in that context frequently mention its resemblance to the classical ornament but caution against confusing the two. Despite sharing the same basic five-note configuration — note; note above; note; note below; note — their rhythmic segmentation and musical functions differ.

An ornament called a gruppo appears in a treatise on improvised embellishment and ornamentation in vocal performance by Giulio Caccini titled Le Nuove Musiche (The New Music), published in 1601. The five-note figure now called a gruppetto is a diminutive of it in both grammatical and structural senses, formed by the final thirty-second notes of a long trill. The execution of the trillo is similarly apparent. It is the single-note ornament now referred to as a tremolo. As written, both labeled ornaments accelerate over the first six or seven notes.

John Playford added an English translation of material from Caccini’s book to A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Music, first published without it in 1655. The “fourth edition much enlarged” from 1664 includes a near clone of the preceding illustration.

The double relish is sung at an even speed but the plain shake still accelerates through its first half. It has no general correlate on musical instruments and references to shakes in historical texts about instrumental practice are normally to the two-note ornament now commonly termed a trill. There has been significant stylistic and regional variation over time in the way it is played. Pivotal attributes include its length, if it starts on, above, or below the note it decorates, and if it ends with an additional flourish.

Essential information about many ornaments is camouflaged by the shorthand signs used for their representation. As notational conventions developed, authors and composers commonly explained their own preferences in narrative or tabular form. An example of English practice is found in The Pleasant Companion: or new LESSONS and INSTRUCTIONS for the FLAGELET, by Thomas Greeting (discussed in detail in an earlier post). It may have been published in 1661 but the oldest edition known to have survived intact appeared in 1680. Here is a tune from it.

Although this might appear to be staff notation, it is not. Each line corresponds to one of the six tone holes on a flageolet. A dot on a line indicates that the corresponding hole is to be closed, and a circle on the top line that all holes are open. Rhythm is marked by skeletal notes above the top line.

A system of notation that maps the positions of the fingers on an instrument is called a tablature. The illustrated one for the flageolet provided means for writing music in what was termed the “dot way.” The alternative pitch-based notation was the “violin way” (aka “gamut way”). Abbreviated reference was also made to “dots” and “violin notes.” This usage has since reversed and colloquial reference to “the dots” now means staff notation, with “tab” being the finger-mapped alternative.

Greeting’s introduction includes a section headed Of the several Graces on the flagelet. It describes a “beat” and a “shake,” and explains the Ɔ sign used to indicate both in the preceding example.

In the former example of Graces, the Mark or Character of a Beat or Shake is all one, but in Playing them is this difference: When the Mark is on the same Line even with the Dot, then you are to lift up that finger and shake, and lay it down again before you play any other; this is called a Beat. But when the Mark stands alone upon any other line and beneath the dot, then with the finger belonging to that Line on which it is set you must shake, taking it off again before you play any other Note; and this is called a shake.

Greeting’s book was the forerunner of a number of similar publications about the recorder. One published in 1679, A VADE MECUM for the LOVERS of MUSICK, Shewing the EXCELLENCY of the RECHORDER: With some Rules and Directions for the same, by John Hudgebut, acknowledges the relationship between the two instruments. He replaces the single-line indication of metric information in the tablature with a full parallel notation of the tunes in violin notes and shows the ornaments described verbally by Greeting with signs representing them in staff notation. The double line for the shake evokes its two-note rather than plain form (which in any case was not played on either the flageolet or recorder). The supine semicircle is similarly appropriate to an action below the note.

Hudgebut otherwise says nothing about the execution of such signs but other authors do. It’s difficult to track the exact sequence of their publications but one that may initially have appeared in 1682 is immediately useful. The corrected second edition of this book by Robert Carr was released in 1686, titled The Delightful Companion: or Choice New lessons for the Recorder or Flute … Plain and Easie Instructions for Beginners, and the Several Graces proper to this Instrument.

The two names designate the same instrument, with the further synonym “pipe” added in the text. Here is Carr’s equivalent to the preceding illustration, refining Greeting’s definitions of the beat and shake but exchanging their labels.

The zigzag sign doesn’t appear in any of the actual tunes, where a shake is indicated with the slanted double stroke. Here is a tune written out and ornamented in both the dot and violin ways.

It is clear from the tablature that the double stroke marks a two-pitch shake starting on the note above but there is no indication of the number of alternations. Turns appear in the seventh, tenth, and fourteenth measures, written with a shake followed by two sixteenth notes. An explicitly labeled turn appears with a sign of its own in Rules for the Graces in A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinnet, by Henry Purcell, published posthumously in 1696.

Purcell adds an unbroken sixth line for middle C to both the treble and bass staves. He indicates individual sixteenth and thirty-second notes in the current manner with two or three flags on the stem, or by placing that number of waves in a single flag. Transcribing the turn in the preceding snippet into modern staff notation gives a pattern that more closely resembles the way a contemporary Irish fiddler might play a roll, than a classical violinist would play a turn.

The turn sign appears three times in the lessons. The first is in a courante (p. 43), a common Renaissance dance form that became a standard part of Baroque suites. One of its characteristics is the hemiola; a rhythmic device commonly used to introduce a cadence (and applicable to the tune from Carr’s collection). It is seen in the third and fourth measures of this phrase.

The barline between those measures is ignored and the resulting six-beat measure is divided into three rather than two parts. This places the turn sign and pulse on an unambiguous dotted quarter note. (The zigzag sign belongs to the note below in the bass staff.)

Purcell illustrates the beat and shake with quarter notes and explains how they are executed when that note is dotted. Although he doesn’t say so, this is also be applicable to the turn: “…if it be a note with a point to it you are to hold all the note plain and shake [or turn] only the point.” Doing so while retaining the thirty-second-note triplet gives:

The compression of the five-note figure into an eighth note is marked explicitly by the two remaining appearances of the turn sign. Both are in a chaconne (p. 58) that has the same time signature — 3 — as the preceding courante.

According to the introductory explanation of the “time or length of Notes” the shared time signature indicates that both dances are played at the same tempo; two degrees faster than “very slow” and one degree slower than “brisk tunes as Jiggs.” Halving the values of the quarter-note form gives an extremely rapid ornament with more of a percussive than melodic effect.

The sequence of pitches in the last four notes of Purcell’s turn are congruent with the first four of an inverted variant that appears in a table of “Grace marks and their meaning” in Pièces de clavecin, by Jean-Henri d’Anglebert, published in 1689.

The four-note segment appears as an ornament of its own in the penultimate measure. This remains how a note is played when a turn sign is placed directly over it. The five-note device is now commonly written with the sign after the note.

Finally, nudging the discussion further in the direction of Ireland, Leo Rowsome includes the following explanation of the classical turn in his Tutor for the Uileann Pipes, from 1936. The pitch sequences of the four- and five-note forms are shared respectively by the short and long rolls in the current Irish repertoire. The turn sign is commonly used to represent both.

Part 2 of this series extends the discussion with an examination of similar sources from the 18th century, when the arrival of the Baroque transverse flute in Ireland can be attested, and bagpipes with overblowing chanters made their first documented appearance.

Postlude: Turns and rolls — Part 1

The trillo seen at the outset of this essay is now often referred to as a “Monteverdi trill.” It is heard below in one of the most iconic pieces in the period repertoire. The challenge it initially presented to modern vocalists is explicitly mentioned in a New York Times review (here) of a concert performance from 1969. (I was one of the “players of ancient instruments” noted in the review.)

The same effect can only be produced by a few musical instruments. Here is a performance in the context toward which this series of posts is intended to lead.

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