Musical Instruments

Turns and rolls — Part 2

The first part of this series presented a few 17th-century instruction books for the flageolet and recorder. It illustrated continuity in ornamentation practice as the first of them ceded its position in urban amateur music making to the second. The present post moves that discussion into the 18th century and brings reed instruments into it. An instruction book for the Baroque oboe — “hautboy” — comparable to those for the flageolet and recorder was published in London in 1695, titled The Sprightly Companion.

The tunes can be played comfortably on all the explicitly named instruments. (Unqualified reference to a “flute” at that date meant a Baroque recorder, in this case one in C.) Ornamentation is clarified with tablature as in the books examined last time. The Ɔ sign that indicates both a “beat” and a “shake” in them, is used in this one exclusively for a shake executed downward from the note to which it is applied. Here is the first line of the explanatory table with a concluding remark in this post’s banner image.

The absence of a corresponding ornament played from above is surprising. Earlier and later instructions for beginners on other wind instruments include both devices, normally labeling one a shake and the other a beat. Proficient players went beyond them with more intricate ornaments, often written as combinations of the two basic devices. This includes the turn that is a focus of this series alongside its Irish counterpart, the roll.

The list of instruments heading the Sprightly Companion is echoed in the title of A Collection of the most Celebrated Irish Tunes proper for the Violin, German Flute or Hautboy, published by John and William Neal in Dublin in 1724. The only difference is that the common flute (recorder) has been replaced by the German flute (Baroque flute or traverso). There is no narrative material in the book but its use of ornamentation signs is still quite informative.

One of the tunes is well known as Si Bheag Si Mhor, by Turlough O’Carolan who may have written the lyrics The Bonny Cuckoo to the original melody. The t was a common abbreviation for trill at the time, with the zigzag sign representing the mordent, as it still does. In the attested practice of that day, a trill started on the note above and a mordent went to the note below.

Another tune, Ye RAGG set by A gentleman, illustrates the embellishment of a melody both by what earlier sources call its diminution and the application of ornaments. It is peppered with turns written by placing a trill sign over the principal note and extending it with short-value ordinary notes, binding the aggregate with a slur. Here is a four-measure excerpt from the undecorated Ragg, followed by one of its variations.

This doubtless represents the accustomed style of the anonymous gentleman’s musical community. If The Ragg is accepted as a traditional tune, the question becomes how far his setting also reflects the performance practice of the community in which it originated. As is frequently the case, a spectrum of instrument-specific variation needs to be weighed into the answer.

Bagpipes provide a clear illustration of one such detail. John Geoghegan published The Compleat Tutor for the Pastoral or New Bagpipe, in London in 1743 (discussed extensively in an earlier post). Its preface begins:

The Bagpipe being at this Time brought to such Perfection as now renders it able to perform the same Number of Notes with the Flute or Hautboy, I thought it might be acceptable to the curious to set forth this small treatise…with a view of explaining all the Difficulties which deter a great many from attempting it…

The pivotal modification was to the instrument’s chanter (which Geoghegan directly compared to the recorder), allowing an increase in blowing pressure to raise the pitch of each fundamental note by an octave. There was no way to interrupt the flow of air through the reed (as is possible on chanters that can be closed dynamically at the lower end, typified by the uilleann pipes that were still decades in the offing) making it necessary to separate consecutive notes of the same pitch with an intervening auxiliary note. Where this serves no purpose other than basic articulation, Geoghegan limits it to a quick shift between two pitches, saying “of the cadences or shakes”:

A Shake is an Agitation or Mixture of two sounds together which is perform’d by a quick Motion of the Finger and is commonly mark’d thus (tr) over the Note on which the Shake is to be made. The first shake on this Instrument is made on Ela [low E], which is done by a quick beating of the first Finger of the lower hand and holding the middle Finger stopt and all the Fingers of the upper hand. All the rest of the Shakes are done by a quick motion of each Finger as they gradually ascend or descend.

He then makes a distinction between the shake and more elaborate ornaments,

……the Graces that are absolutely necessary to the well playing this instrument and particularly adapted to it, they are call’d curling notes. … The first and chiefest Curl is performed by the little Finger of the lower hand on the Chanter which is done by a doubling the little finger on the lower hole. This Double is done by a moveing the finger to and fro…[and] performs the Sound of two Quavers [eighth notes]…

and “shews how this first curl is prick’d in musick.”

Although not clear from either the description or the notation alone, reconciling the two makes the “double” a pair of eighth notes, of which one is further divided into two sixteenth notes. This ornament now has a central position in the performance of traditional Irish dance tunes but is called a “treble” (or triplet). A few pages later, Geoghegan adds “an example of other curles on the pipe.”

The two first Quavers in the first Bar is performed by rubbing down the fingers of the lower hand cross the lower holes keeping all the upper holes perfectly stopt in the second and third Bar likewise. The last Curle which is mark’d with slurs, is performed by sounding the Note D, by a sudden Pat of the lower finger of the upper hand then slurring the other notes as quick as possible which performs two Quavers, and are called Curles on the Bagpipe.

The two first eighth notes would again have to be the beamed three-note figure (also seen in the earliest collection of Scottish bagpipe music, from 1717). It appears in several positions in the actual tunes, presumably played in all by rapidly sliding a single finger across the indicated hole from above and then from below. (This technique is still used for the “back D treble” on uilleann pipes and the low A “birl” on Highland pipes.) Here is a tune with might be called a curled treble on the E and A.

Just as the shake is a “quick beating” on a hole above the one for the note being ornamented, the second type of curl shown in the example before last begins with “a sudden pat” of a finger on an upper hole. This can also be done with a curled treble, affording a two-finger alternative to the double movement of a single finger. Both are illustrated here in the second measure of the Highland Rant.

The beamed five-note figure to the right could as easily be a transcription of an Irish roll in recent performance. For comparison, here is an illustration repeated from the preceding post, showing a turn as explained in an English text from 1698. The clearest analytical distinction between it and the cut roll (another tentative coinage) is that the auxiliary notes in what would then be a turned roll, have the same duration as the principal note between them.

Joseph MacDonald wrote A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, Containing All the Shakes, Introductions, Graces, & Cuttings, ca. 1760. This includes an opinionated discussion of the differences between that instrument and what he alternately names a “Low Country” or “Bellows” pipe. It has a chanter he compares with the hautboy, that can produce “pinching notes” (i.e. overblown by an octave), making it a sibling if not twin of the New Bagpipe. He also notes that Scottish pipes are generally suited to playing “violin dancing music.” Regarding shakes and beats:

The touching of these little Introductory Notes must be So Quick and Slight that they Cannot be Said to be Sounded but only beat upon, as they are properly the Cutting or Division of the Notes.

The cut roll appears as a specimen ornament in a “pipe reel” with auxiliary notes of two lengths. The extreme number of flags on the shorter ones suggests the tightest execution possible.

MacDonald doesn’t include similar detail in any “violin reel” but does compare that instrument’s idiomatic ornaments with those of the bagpipe:

…as they deviate from its proper Style (a great many of them), they cannot be so properly Cut…

From the descriptions seen thus far, the Irish roll articulated with vanishingly rapid auxiliary notes from above and below does seem to have its roots in bagpipe ornamentation. Nonetheless, here is how Leo Rowsome notates the ornament in his Tutor for the Uileann Pipes, from 1936. (An acciaccatura is a rapid grace note before the beat.)

Postlude: Turns and rolls — Part 2

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart completed his famous Concerto in C major for the oboe (K.314) in 1777. He reworked it a few years later into an equally renowned Concerto in D major for the transverse flute, which by then had acquired four keys. The classical turn is epitomized by the composite ornament consisting of a trill preceded by an eighth note and followed by two thirty-second notes seen in this passage (from the oboe score), and heard at the linked spot in the following performance.

Subscribe to this discussion
Notify me by email about
This will be displayed with your comment
This will not be displayed with your comment
Clicking the name displayed with your comment will redirect to this address

Inline Feedback
View all comments