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Taking turns

August 22, 2014

Like those used on Christmas trees, ornaments in music make melodies more attractive, injecting a bit of zip and sparkle into an otherwise mundane note. Some of them carry technical names that students struggle to remember but, on paper, a simple shorthand sign is used to tell the performer how to execute rhythmic and melodic alterations to those plain notes. Lots of time and ink is spared in the process, since these alterations are often quite complicated to write down.

Acciaccatura

An ‘acciaccatura’, for example, injects a bit of cheeky flippancy by adding a single, quick note in front of the one written down. You can hear this effect in Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals (8.550499), at the opening of Kangaroos.

Mordent and Trill

A ‘mordent’ adds two notes to an original one and can have a range of effects. The opening 3-note flourishes of the first three phrases in Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ form perhaps one of the most dramatic examples, but there are countless others in his output. This opening of Bach’s chorale prelude O Mensch, bewein’ dein Sünde gross (8.553032) uses a gentle mordent on the second note, which is then soon followed by a ‘trill’, another ornament that alternates rapidly between the written note and the one above it; it’s easy to spot. Bach’s melody line continues with more examples of the trill, which you can hear in this extract.

Turn

One ornament that doesn’t sound so florid, however, is the ‘turn’. The sign for this appears as the cover image for this blog, although composers often write out the notes of the turn in full as it’s rhythmically simple and easy on the pen. It usually requires the performer to transform an original, plain note into four equal ones; most of the time this involves playing the note above the original, the original itself, the note below the original and then the original again. That may look complicated in a written description, but the result has a simple, mellifluous charm about it, so self-effacing that it sounds more like a straightforward melodic motif rather than a specialised ornament. The first four melody notes of Gavotte from Prokofiev’s ballet score Romeo and Juliet (8.572928) represent a turn.

As turns are less glitzy and less instantly recognisable than most ornaments, I set myself a challenge, which I extend to anyone reading this blog who feels up to the task of a bit of rapid recall: how many sections of music that make a significant use of turns can you cite in sixty seconds? The rest of today’s blog details the ones that sprang to my own mind.

The young mozart at the keyboard

The first to surface was the opening of the finale of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 (8.550258). It’s titled Rondo alla Turca and the first four bars manage to squeeze in five turns in around 3 seconds. The last 18 bars of the movement also have eight of those cheeky acciaccaturas to spot, in addition to four more turns.

Still with Mozart, the aria Der Vogelfänger from his opera The Magic Flute (8.660030-31) has nine turns in the introduction to the first verse alone, with thirty examples during the whole of the song.

Joseph Haydn
Painting:
Thomas Hardy

Haydn’s popular Symphony No. 100, Military (8.550139) has turns scattered throughout much of the third movement’s Minuetto. Not that front-line military men would usually have been be seen partaking in such a refined dance; the work’s nickname comes from the cymbals and drums that, unusually, feature in the last movement.

Fryderyk Chopin
Source: Wikipedia

Some of Chopin’s piano works are littered with ornamentation. You’ll no doubt know his Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 No. 2 (8.554045), but you’ll need a keen ear to pinpoint the turns, mordents and the acciaccatura in this opening section. The trill near the end of the extract, however, should be easier to spot!

Gustav Mahler
Source: Wikipedia

Last on my instant list is the work that, for me, milks the turn the most. I’m thinking of the last movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 (8.110852), during which the figuration is deployed throughout the orchestral texture, at different speeds and with enormous passion. These opening bars give a foretaste of the rest of the emotionally draining movement.

Well, your sixty seconds are up. How many ‘nicely turned’ works did you think of?

 

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2:09:32 PM, 19 September 2014
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