Essential Frivolity: Examples from a Nineteenth Century Vocal Ornamentation Manuscript1

Laura Moeckli

1. Introduction

It is as an amateur singer rather than a musicologist, that I first became acquainted with the concept of ornamentation when my teacher drew some extra notes above the vocal line of a Handel Aria, saying ‘there, try it that way’. Originally confused by the news that I could now proceed to transform or add notes to my score, I became fascinated by the possibilities of adapting and transforming vocal lines. However, the realisation quickly dawned that what was desired and expected for Handel, was neither desired nor expected for repertoire such as romantic opera or, God forbid, German lied. So questions arose as to when, where and how composers, singers and listeners moved from one set of ideas and practices to the other.

Due to the long and ongoing tradition of the genre, Italian opera presents an ideal field in which to observe the gradual historical development away from ornamental practice and toward a more literal interpretation of musical texts. Generally speaking, the parameters of performance remained more traditional in Italian opera than in other contemporary genres. To quote Philip Gossett: ‘Opera, and Italian opera in particular […] remained bound longer than other nineteenth-century genres to eighteenth-century traditions concerning the relationship between composer and performer’.2 Thus throughout most of the nineteenth century, singers were seen as collaborative artists of a work rather than mere performers of a fixed composition. Accordingly, the first half of the century produced a rich selection of documents describing vocal technique, interpretation and ornamentation of Italian opera. One finds much criticism of the excesses of ornamentation, but also vast evidence of its ongoing practice. Although some musicians and scholars have taken an interest in these sources in recent years, many universities, music schools and theatres continue to ignore the evidence of improvisational freedom, expecting singers’ performances to stick to the written scores or to some famous ornamented versions created by musicians of the past. The historical evidence shows that many works which are a part of today’s standard opera repertoire could well (and perhaps should) be performed very differently than they are today. In any case, vocal ornamentation of some kind is clearly more than a simple option for performance. In Italian opera of this time, original ornamentation is an essential structural element of the works themselves.

In this presentation, I shall discuss a previously unknown source, written by an unidentified author around 1835, and containing examples of ornamentation for over fifty different recitatives, arias and duets. This should allow us to get a better idea of how Italian opera was performed (and expected to be performed) in the first half of the nineteenth century. The reasons why these kinds of sources have often not been studied in detail are well known to musicians and musicologists whose concern centres around performance rather than composition: On the one hand, there is the scarcity of evidence available when dealing with oral traditions, and the difficulties of interpreting these sources when they are found. During the nineteenth century this already difficult situation was intensified through the paradigm shifts which still dictate many of our conscious and unconscious aesthetic judgments today. Damien Colas neatly synthesises this shift in his chapter on melody and ornamentation in The Cambridge Companion to Rossini:

[…] the systematic use of ornamentation is generally disparaged in modern western culture. This disparagement is the end result of a departure from the ancient opposition of structural and ornamental laid down in the precepts of rhetoric, where ornamentation completes the narratio or body of the discourse. The fall into disrepute of rhetoric came with French Classicism’s quest for simplicity and the sublime; it is in this context that an opposition of essential and accessory was substituted for the ancient one of structural and ornamental.3

Thus ornamental came to mean accessory rather than complementary, while the romantic vision of the composer as a ‘genius’ gradually made his or her compositions sacrosanct, and any change to the given score unthinkable. Clive Brown describes this emerging notion of ‘Werktreue’ in his chapter on embellishment: ‘[…] the tendency for composers to specify their requirements with ever greater precision grew progressively during that period, [and] performers became inclined to observe the letter of the notation ever more punctiliously.’4 Where the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are concerned, new approaches to performance and interpretation have become more common in recent years. But nineteenth-century repertoire is often still surrounded by a halo of romantic sacredness, which has yet to be convincingly discarded.

2. Main sources of 19th-century vocal ornamentation

These are on the one hand, the compositions themselves, which contain numerous examples of ornamental figures. Composers like Rossini, Pacini, Donizetti or Bellini all wrote hundreds of melodic lines containing ornamental passages. This has sometimes been interpreted as a sign that these composers did not want singers to improvise. But since there is much practical evidence proving the importance of improvised ornamentation, we may consider the composed examples as a first source of suggestions for singers to use or elaborate when deemed appropriate. If one thinks of the often repeated phrase from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, ‘Si Lindoro mio sarà’, the original descending line already contains some typical ornamental features: the dotted rhythm creates an effective accentuation which is further enhanced by an added appoggiatura. Combined, these elements give the line its light, virtuoso character. Such examples are an ideal starting point in order to imagine what kind of ornaments may be appropriate.

Through the study of contemporary singing treatises, which abounded in the first half of the nineteenth century, we can gain further insight into the performance practice of the time. Manuel Garcia’s influential Traité complet de l'art du chant 5 is only one example among many others, offering both theoretical information concerning the use of ornament, and transcriptions of ornaments created by famous singers of the time. Finally, there are the notes taken by the singers themselves. These sources are rarely found in libraries, since they were usually not meant for publication or posterity but rather kept as personal reminders or didactical material. The Parisian soprano Laure Cinti-Damoreau is a case of a singer whose notebooks and treatise containing suggestions for ornamentation have survived until today.6

3. Manuscript Foà-Giordano 631

The manuscript I would like to present here is a similar example of a singer’s notebook. It is entitled Raccolta di abbellimenti, o fioriture / di Cavne, Arie, Duetti / di varii autori and is found in the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino. It is neither dated, nor signed, and belongs to the mixed fond ‘Foà-Giordano’ rather than the coherent collections of one of the two industrial families Foà or Giordano. The notebook contains 42 folios of ornamentation fragments. The document is separated into sections usually headed by a title of an aria, the name of an opera and/or the name of a composer. Within these sections, we find suggested ornaments for certain passages of that particular aria written in a neat and legible hand, on Parisian paper. The manuscript also contains comments regarding style, expression and technique both in good Italian and in hesitant French.

The author’s identity has not yet been definitely established, but a series of identification hypotheses have lead to the conclusion that she was probably a female singer, active both in Italy and in France during the first half of the nineteenth century, probably also a singing teacher, and definitely a professional musician. The main content of the manuscript must have been written towards the end of the 1830s, with certain later additions such as Verdi’s Macbeth (1847). At this point in the identification process more than one singer still fits the profile, but I am confident that after some more research in Turin a definite answer will emerge. The following table of contents, which is a transcription of the autograph table found on fol. 18v, offers an overview of the manuscript’s scope:

Table of contents (diplomatic transcription)

The autograph table of contents is incomplete and many additional fragments can be found both after fol. 18v and in between the works mentioned. Around half the examples in the notebook are intended for works by Rossini. The others concern either works by contemporaries of Rossini such as Giovanni Pacini, Saverio Mercadante, Nicola Vaccai and Carlo Conti, or for works by his immediate successors Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro presents an interesting exception to the nineteenth-century repertoire with ornaments for both of Cherubino’s arias as well as Susanna’s ‘Deh vieni non tardar’. The latest ornamented excerpt, also a chronological exception, is a very short fragment from Verdi’s Macbeth. Most of the ornamented arias are for soprano or alto although the tenor cavatina from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena is a notable exception.

The suggestions for Rossini’s cavatina ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia will serve as an example in order to demonstrate the quantity and quality contained within the manuscript.7 The cavatina is an ideal ornamentation aria with numerous repetitions and a light fiery character which invites virtuoso embellishment. The manuscript contains three different entries for ‘Una voce poco fa’, two of which are practically identical. These suggestions are transcribed and inserted on separate lines above the score in the attached transcription. Occasionally a third line has been necessary when a proposition contains additional material for certain bars. The version on fol. 11v is a rare example where the author has transcribed an entire aria, adding ornaments only when required. The suggestions on fols. 5v and 8r are more typical fragmental versions which first propose ornamentation for bar 20 and then again for key moments during the aria. In bar 21 you see another typical feature of the manuscript: the author’s personal indications inserted between the lines, here: con espr. This example is a good model through which to examine the main characteristics of 19th-century ornamentation. General tendencies for embellishment and improvisation are well documented in other sources of the time such as Manuel Garcia’s aforementioned treatise or Cinti-Damoreau’s notebooks which are obviously known to many musicians and scholars interested in this field. Some of the more famous ornamental passages have regularly found their way into the performances and recordings of the last decades. However, the real challenge lies in creating original, stylistically accurate, ornaments for the arias and recitatives of each work in this repertoire.

The continuous version shows an interesting and often forgotten aspect of ornamentation: The slight changes of rhythm, emphasis and minor embellishments which are inserted freely throughout an aria. Both the beginning of the cavatina, and the ‘parlante’ section in bars 31–34, particularly illustrate how far singers could go with smaller changes of this kind. In this as well as many other examples in the manuscript, the embellishments naturally tend to increase towards the end of a section, focusing around cadences and building up as the aria progresses. Many ornament propositions like the fragmental suggestions on fols. 5v and 8r focus exclusively on those key passages. This also implies that florid embellishments tend to appear in passages that are already quite florid in their composed form, rather than the more simple sections which are only moderately changed.

Another well-known characteristic of ornamentation is that it usually consists of diminishing rather than augmenting. There are only very few examples of augmentative ornament found in documents of the 1820s or 30s, and also very few found here. Although it is certainly possible to simplify a phrase or hold some long notes as an effective contrast or moment of suspension before the next ornament, most cases of augmentation belong to the stylistic language of a much later historical period. Furthermore, although some of these ornaments are practical changes or ‘puntature’ which allow a singer to adapt or simplify a phrase according to their vocal ability, most ornaments are clearly essential aesthetic and formal components of the arias they complement.

So we can observe how the ornamentation builds up towards the end of the cavatina. As the textual repetitions increase, they are systematically embellished, and this is where the structural essence of ornament becomes most blatantly apparent: Rossini would have been quite capable of shortening his arias to fit the exact number of words in the text and thus avoid the numerous repetitions so typical of this repertoire. However the whole point of repetition is to allow space for variation. For rhetorical reasons, most singers usually do not sing the same phrase twice in the same way. When a repetition occurs in a German Lied, the singer changes either the dynamics or the emphasis in order to bring something new into the song. In the case of Italian opera, well into the 19th-century, the possibilities for variation go far beyond this type of nuance. They include variation of dynamics and emphasis but also extend to rhythmical changes and, most importantly, considerable melodic variation and embellishment.

This fascinating manuscript offers a large quantity of embellishment material, similar in quality to the excerpts presented here. Our understanding of the main characteristics of nineteenth-century ornamentation is deepened and refined with the help of such documents. Furthermore, whenever singers use these transcriptions as a basis for creating their own versions in a similar style, the quality of such ornamented versions is revealed. So why not learn to systematically study, master and enjoy these historical possibilities and give the music back its essential frivolities?

Appendix 1

A transcription of Rossini’s Cavatina ‘Una voce poco fa’ enhanced with the ornaments found in the manuscript Foà-Giordano 631.

Appendix 1 (PDF  , 253kb)

Appendix 2

A recording of Rossini’s Cavatina ‘Una voce poco fa’ including ornaments found in the manuscript Foà-Giordano 631. Sandra Rohrbach, mezzo-soprano; Eric Cerantola, piano.

  • Appendix 2 ( 10,706kb download)

Laura Moeckli

Laura Moeckli studied musicology, English literature and philosophy in Fribourg (Switzerland) where she obtained her M.A. degree in 2009 with a thesis on vocal ornamentation. She is currently writing her PhD-thesis on 19th century recitative aesthetics and performance at the University of Bern. In 2009/10 she was visiting research assistant at the Gutenberg University in Mainz where she taught two seminars on French and Italian opera. In collaboration with the Bern University of Applied Sciences, Laura Moeckli is research assistant for the projects “Singers as Actors” (2010) and “Recitative performance” (2011). She has presented papers at international musicology conferences in Fribourg, York, La Spezia, Bern and London.

  1. For a longer, elaborated version of this article see: Moeckli, Laura, „Abbellimenti o fioriture: Further Evidence of Creative Embellishment in and Beyond the Rossinian Repertoire”, in: Beyond Notes: Improvisation in Western Music in the 18th and 19th centuries, ed. by Rudolf Rasch, Turnhout, Brepols, 2011. The manuscript Foà-Giordano 631 entitled Raccolta di abbellimenti, o fioriture di Cavatine, Arie, Duetti di varii autori, will be published in 2012 as the first volume of a new series on interpretation research at the Bern University of Applied Sciences edited by Kai Köpp. A second more practical edition of selected arias is also planned. I would like to thank all the participants of the NEMA International Conference 2009 for encouraging me to continue this research project. My special thanks go to Martha Elliott, Kai Köpp and Anselm Gerhard for their helpful feedback regarding this paper.
  2. Philip Gossett, Divas and Scholars (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2006), 293.
  3. Damien Colas, ‘Melody and Ornamentation’, in The Cambridge Companion to Rossini, ed. E. Senici (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004), 104–5.
  4. Clive Brown, Classical and romantic performing practice, 1750–1900 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999), 415.
  5. Manuel Garcia (fils), Traité complet de l'art du chant, ed. by the author, Paris, 1847. See also the collection of 19th-century Parisian treatises published by J. M. Fuzeau, Méthodes et traités, facsimile edition (Courlay, 2005). For an extensive list of Italian singing treatises see Marco Beghelli, ‘Il contributo dei trattati di conto ottocenteschi al lessico dell'opera, Studi sulla lingua della letteratura musicale’, (Leo S. Olschki: Florence, 1994), 177–224.
  6. Her detailed notebooks are housed in the Lilly Library at Indiana University and are available in an edition by Dover Publications. Austin Caswell’s transcriptions of some of these ornaments have served as a useful example for my own transcriptions of ornamental suggestions. See Austin Caswell, Embellished Opera Arias, Recent Research in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, vol. 7 and 8, (A-R Editions: Madison, 1989).
  7. For the following analysis, see the Appendices: 1) a transcription taken from my M.A. thesis of the ornamental suggestions found in Foà-Giordano 631 for this cavatina, and 2) a recording of the piece which includes some of the new material, sung by the mezzo-soprano Sandra Rohrbach, accompanied by Eric Cerantola on the piano. Sandra has carefully chosen ornaments suited to her voice and range, thus creating a new and exciting version of a piece we thought we knew.