Review of Putnam Aldrich, Ornamentation in J. S. Bach's Organ Works (1950)

By: Rosalyn Tureck

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

Putnam Aldrich was one of the foremost and among the first (and foremost) American scholars to he actively concerned with the art of embellishment. He made a major contribution in attracting significant attention to its indispensability. This area of musical scholarship and historical performance practice has been receiving gradually increasing attention on the part of scholars and, to a lesser extent, performers. Perhaps this is a natural sequence of interest. The historical practices are initially investigated by musicologists and are followed by performers who are honest enough or curious enough or solely interested enough in the current scholarly fashion to make an attempt according to their individual interests and abilities to acquaint themselves with the newest findings. Ideally, this effort should aid in integrating their contemporary techniques and musical orientation with those of a past era in order to fulfill a music of another culture with authenticity and aesthetic validity.

The scholars uncover the historical materials which then become accessible to the performing musician. Availability of vital information does not, however, produce an inevitable corollary of conveying understanding of the material. (And, for the performer and teacher this step is later — 2 steps) Furthermore it is only now being realized slowly, but hopefully surely, that the art of realizing embellishment symbols, and the developed style of performance which emerges as a totality of fulfillment of the art of embellishment is a field in which comparatively little work has been done. The gap between the musicologist and the performer is at long last contracting, but the bridge of the fully integrated artist-scholar is still tenuous and shaky.

With each new scholarly emphasis those performers who keep up with developments in research tend to move in the current direction. The problem in the late 20th century has become, as result, one of specialized extremes. When attention was drawn to Quantz's paragraph on 'notes inegales' about 25 years ago, dotted rhythms became the fashion de rigeur, and were applied with comparatively little judgment and taste to performance with great choral groups as well as to solo instrumental performance. At present, in the latter part of our century, the informed performer, (still too rare) is overwhelmed with the luxury of embellishment additions. The result is again unbalanced. Roulades of applied divisions are added in repeats of variations to a first playing which is often left bare. The result is an empty and sterile skeletal performance followed by its opposite extreme of a repeat where the music is choked with the uncontrollable honeysuckle growth of divisions.

Unselective application of historical performance practices is, in fact, not the result of a fully informed performer; It demonstrates a woefully inadequate scholarship. Just as the unselective application of 'notes inegales' produced absurdities at the height of the 'inegales' fashion, so the present extremes of embellishment, starkness and over-elaboration, will no doubt settle down, hopefully, as result of deeper consideration and wider scholarship on the part of the performer.

Putnam Aldrich was writing at a time when he felt it necessary to explain that 'the agrements were by no means restricted to keyboard music. Michel de Pures informs us that the trills and mordents executed by the singers, oboists, and violinists at the court of Louis XIV were performed as evenly and as neatly as was possible on the best of keyboard instruments. [Note 1] His following general points in this section concerning appoggiatura, agrements and melodic line, etc. are well-known to the cognoscenti of the late 20th century, but they are of inestimable value to the uninitiated. The general comments are simply fundamental principles attendant upon the study of embellishment. They must be impressed upon the performer and teacher and must become the habitual psychological as well as educational background from which a valid art of performance of 17th and 18th century music can emerge.

In the sections devoted exclusively to the consideration of specific symbols, the presentation and elucidation of embellishment symbols, although represented within the orbit of organ music. Is concerned with general historical and musical usage applicable to all performing media. The value of this work lies in his realization that the principles of the vast art of embellishment, and the principles of the realization of individual symbols and those agrements implied for addition by the performer are fundamental to the music rather than confined to specific performance media. The realization of all ornaments is based on firm general principles. Because Aldrich presented his material on this basis, his work is of value to not only organists but to all musicians who seek enlightenment in this field.

Aldrich considers a comparatively small number of embellishments — trill, mordent, appoggiatura, doppelschlag and a few 'composite ornaments.' However these are primary types. The study of this book will not tax the musicians' mind, time or energy unduly. But it will lead to an enlargement of horizon based on firm historical principles, and will aid in imparting a balanced sense of judgment. For Aldrich does not pronounce absolute rules; he presents evidence based on primary, historical sources, quotes musical examples where each type may be applied and best of all, perhaps, recommends legitimate varieties of treatment of these types. In this way his book is of fundamental value to all performers and teachers. It is not a vast compendium of symbols attached to individual, historical practices of their performance. These are indispensable of course to those who are concerned with the larger view of historical notation. But, when they are presented out of the context of musical compositions, the performer is stranded on the other side of the canyon - with a view of the possibilities but with little enlightenment as to how to integrate them into the myriad musical situations which are encountered phrase by phrase in any composition even of minimal complexity.

Thus Aldrich contributes not only a basic knowledge of realising certain primary embellishments but the varieties of application of each of these with a balanced sense of judgment In actual performance with reference to specific works of J. S. Bach. This combined approach to embellishment will impart a sense of the general musical style in addition to the specific notational musical symbolism. Aldrich's entire attitude in his general comments whether on Bach's notation style or in reference to the historical performance practice of specific symbols creates the true mental environment for embellishment performance and an authentic sense of fitting musical style.

Aldrich also understood that the visual time value of, for instance, an appoggiatura was not necessarily the time value to be employed in performance.

"The formulas represented by the symbols were never completely stereotyped. Tables of agrements left by Bach and other musicians must be understood to be schematic rather than literal. That is, the pitch of the notes given in the realizations of the signs is invariable in relation to the note upon which the sign is placed; but the quantity and the rhythmic interpretation of these notes was always left to the discretion of the performer. The schematic nature of these tables is readily demonstrated through a comparison of numerous tables prepared by different composers (both French and German). The melodic outline of each formula, as it appears in various tables, is identical but note values in which it is expressed differ with different musicians. Moreover, the number of notes in the formula is often incongruous with their time-values. Some writers deliberately used a notation in which no definite time-values are allotted to the notes forming the ornament". [Note 2]

This point, often still debated today, Is one of prime significance for understanding the psychology underlying the usage of embellishment symbols.

To approach this style of notation with the enforcement of precise orthographic habits of arithmetical exactness is to load this florid art with an anti-embellishment attitude. The very essence of the musical psychology from which embellishment emerged and developed is non-arithmetical non-precise in the mechanistic terms of the 19th century and the tyrannical categorization processes of the 20th century psyche. These two centuries are rigid in their demands, in their aesthetic expectations and in their insistence on setting down to the ultimate degree every nuance of the composer's intentions. Forgotten is the irreversible fact that the more precise the notation of musical symbols and performance devices, the more enforced a specific instrument and sonority, the more rigid is the musical situation imprisoning the work in its local surroundings. This exactness binds the composition and composer to one set formulation losing its capacity for true abstraction, longer life and meaningfulness to other future cultures. It conveys its import only to the limited intellectual and aesthetic norm of a short period. As idioms change and as instruments develop and mutate, the exact chaining of a musical work to a totality of specific conditions will cause its own death. The expectation that interest in the reproduction of all idioms and all instruments will persist throughout all future eras is naive. Some instruments and idioms will be reproduced from time to time as they correspond with the current interests of evolving and revolving idioms but it will never be possible to achieve total historical reproduction. The attempt to reconstruct the instruments and historical performance practices of the Baroque and Renaissance styles, for instance, show how exceedingly difficult, slow and painstaking this process is. Those composers who were not most free idiomatically and instrumentally will live much longer than those who are tied to total specificity. Bach, in this respect, apart from the quality of his music, will live much longer than Chopin who is tied almost inextricably to the piano.

Perhaps Aldrich's greatest strength lies in the following quotation:

"The internal evidence of the music itself is a far better guide than that of more or less dubious sources." [Note 3]

Scholarship must continuously uncover sources, select and sift the best among them. The study of reliable sources must however ally itself with the internal evidence of the music. The latter requires Intensive study and thought equal to the research labors of the scholar specialist. The former must in its very nature require a different and at times a more subtle discernment (poor scholars!) for it deals with the ever indefinable demands of the artist and the spiritual rapprochement and communication of composer to performer. The ideal integrates both — the best scholarly precision and the most inspired musical vision. The inner revelation must as well be fulfilled by an endlessly cultivated subtlety of performing techniques in order to articulate and project with the greatest clarity the formalistic as well as the spiritual qualities of the music.

An embellishment symbol involves every aspect of the musical composition. For instance, it does not apply solely to melodic line as it is often mistakenly interpreted. Every embellishment symbol is involved with every aspect of its music - certainly melodic line, but also of inestimable importance Is the harmonic situation, the rhythmic, the motivic, the contrapuntal relationship caused by the linear steps of the symbol and the voice leading these produce in relation to the other parts. Aldrich does not develop this point and Indeed It Is too often neglected or too little recognized today as well. But he does perceive the wider fulfillment that even a single embellishment achieves. In his chapter on the trill he brings up the point of dissonance which is so much part of the embellishment function. But he touches a deeper level when he refers to the trill on a cadence appearing as it does on the penultimate beat as a necessary accessory to the creation of the cadence. The wider significance of this point which Aldrich does not quite notice enough or develop is the vast part that embellishment play in the structure of a composition. In my view embellishment is a structural function without which the music composed within this idiom is not a completed composition. Embellishment is not, as too many today still view it, a filling out of the music. Although this view is at least an improvement upon the earlier one, namely that embellishment is solely decoration without which the music is satisfactory fulfilled. These two views are totally inadequate. With the accessibility of the current enormous store of available sources there is no longer a valid excuse for viewing or treating embellishment in performance as a virtuoso display of decoration on a melodic line or within a single musical situation. When embellishment as a structural function enters the ken of all involved in this indispensable art, then only will the musical totality implicit in its study and practice be fulfilled.


  1. Aldrich, Putnam - Ornamentation in J. S. Bach's Organ Works, pp. 10/11.
  2. Aldrich, p. 12.
  3. Aldrich. p. 14.