Message in a bottle: how to play ornaments in 16th century lute music

Listening to lute recordings of the last 50 years, it is rare to find any ornaments at all played in “pre-baroque” music.  The consensus seems to be that it wasn’t until  the 17th century that cadential trills and other kinds of ornaments became an essential part of lute playing.  When playing the beautiful polyphonic music of the early 16th century, we prefer to play it “straight”, with no ornaments at all.  This has the effect of allowing the polyphony to speak for itself, and conforms with the sources, both printed and manuscript, which typically give no indication that ornaments were played.

But is this historically plausible?  Did no one in the 15th or 16th century ever play a mordent or a trill?

We have very little evidence to go on, but one important early source is the Capirola lute book, a manuscript written c.1517 by one Vidal, a pupil of Vincenzo Capirola (1474 – after 1548),  “gentleman of Brescia” and therefore an aristocratic amateur but undoubtedly a master of the lute.

Extract from the Capirola lutebook

The book includes a six-page introduction which includes much valuable information about how to put strings on the lute and how to play.  The section on ornaments (f.2v.) looks like this:

I must also explain to you why some figures 3, 4 etc. are sometimes written with red dots like this 3: it means that those notes are “tremoli” [graces].  I wrote them like this, with red dots, as they cannot be written with the same ink as the other figures.  This means that the note is “tremolizante”, or more precisely that you must shake with the finger [which plays it].  For instance: pluck the first course at the second fret, hold that finger and with another one make the “shake” at the third fret.  To write down this effect I wrote it [the 3] with red dots [to show that this note] is a “dead note” or grace.  When you see those dots it means that you should play a “shake” on that fret.  Everybody will notice that it is an ornament  as it is not indispensable.  Those who know how to play, put [these graces] wherever they like.  I wrote them down just to show you where it is nice to play them – [in fact] these “tremoli” are very elegant when played in the right places.  When a note has to be embellished only on one fret I have written it down [like the others in black ink].  I will teach you how to recognise that it is an embellished note: for instance, you have the third course at the first fret: I have to write it down as it is without [using the red] dots.  I will put them, these two red dots above the figure .I.  It means that you have to embellish the note with just one finger; this sign is used only for this purpose, as generally we only use dots under the figures and not over them.  This is all concerning the graces.

Translation by Federico Marincola (The Lute XXIII, Part 2: 1983)

This text explains the two signs for ornaments given in the manuscript, a number written in red dots next to the note, and a two red dots written either side of the note, as shown here in their first occurrence in the book:

Example 1 (f.21)

Unfortunately the text does not give us a totally unambiguous interpretation of these signs, but it seems likely that the first ornament is an upper mordent (i.e. starting with the main note, going to the upper note, then back to the main note), while the second ornament (usually but not always on the first fret) is a lower mordent (i.e. starting with the main note, going to the lower note, then back to the main note).  In both cases the number of repercussions is not specified.  Sometimes the dotted cipher is the same note as the main note in the tablature – in these cases, assuming they are not errors, the interpretation is more problematic:

Example 2 (f.21)

These cases where the dotted number is the same as the main note seem to be contexts where a lower mordent might be expected, so perhaps the dotted number is an indication that the (lower) mordent should be repeated or “shaked”.  If so, it might suggest that the usual sign for a lower mordent implies no repercussion.

There are also not many of these signs in the manuscript, so (as Vidal implies) they are suggestive of the kinds of contexts in which  such ornaments were used rather than a comprehensive indication of every ornament which is to be played.

So what are these contexts?

For the sake of brevity I’m not going to give a piece-by-piece account but try to summarize my observations from the whole book:

The first ornament is often found:

(a) on the third of a chord:

Example 3 (f.13v)

(b) on the third note in a descending scale of four notes (see also Example 2):

Example 4 (f.25v)

(c) on the leading note in a cadence:

Example 5 (f.11v.)

(d) on the third of a chord on a long note, where it might help to sustain the sound:

Example 6 (f.26)

The second ornament is usually found:

(a) on the first fret, and often in contexts where the note is to be sustained (see also Examples 1 and 8):

Example 7 (f.17v.)

(b) on the third note of an ascending four-note scale (see Example 3) or more generally when the main note is approached from below:

Example 8 (f.27)

Starting from these observations, we might be able to begin to add ornaments to other music from the first half of the 16th century.  Of course there is no one “correct” way to do this, and players in the past must have varied in their tastes and preferences.  Vidal only gives us a few hints rather than an exhaustive list of possibilities, but as he says “Those who know how to play, put [these graces] wherever they like.”

As a start, here is an example of a piece by Capirola (Recerchar otavo, which has no ornament signs in the manuscript) with some of these ornaments added:

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