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.

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Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 1

My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician whose journey started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Highland bagpipes. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same about melodic performance on the autoharp.

Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire, not least in the US (where a fair number of those tunes originated) but the autoharp does not have an established position among the instruments normally associated with ITM in its home country. The list of those that are has, however, been less static than might be imagined. Some current fixtures became so relatively recently and others have relinquished their positions.

One particularly relevant example of an erstwhile participant is the autoharp’s cousin, the hammered dulcimer. Its heyday in that role extended through the 1960s and its most prominent exponent at the time, John Rea, was still recording in the late seventies. He appears in an interview from an unknown date and plays O’Dwyer’s Hornpipe here.

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