On Ornamentation and Christmas Trees

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Every Christmas, my brother and I always decorate our Christmas tree. Over the years, the way we have decorated it has evolved greatly into the current combinations of European glass treasures and delicate ceramic angels amid multicolored lights and gleaming gold tinsel. However, we often want to put up every lovely ornament we have in this collection, and my mother has often commented that this is not only impossible, but also clutters the tree to the point that it begins to look overcrowded and gaudy. As of a year ago or so, I have begun to see what my mother has meant and have thus come to the conclusion that indeed, putting up every lovely ornament every year is indeed impossible. Yet I never once suspected that this principle would ever apply to the delicate art of Baroque ornamentation …

At a recent recorder lesson, I was going over Anne Danican Philidor’s hauntingly beautiful “Sonata in D Minor” with my teacher. This was my third French Baroque piece after two Hotteterre suites and the second one I had learned under my teacher’s gentle guidance. He had recommended that I learn it the previous year, and now that I had polished the Hotteterre, I was ready for another French Baroque challenge. Yet I was somewhat puzzled when my teacher firmly announced that he did not want to hear me play the first movement until last, when I was fully warmed up. Although I had previously thought it to be an easy movement, my teacher’s somewhat firm voice made me think to myself, “There must be something about that piece …”

Sure enough, as soon as I was done, my teacher commented about how nicely I had gotten the rhythm with the exception of two counting mistakes, but I was neither capturing the affection of the piece, nor executing the ornamentation properly. Scooting to the edge of the piano bench, my teacher enthusiastically stood up and said, “Okay. Classic example of mine: Christmas tree.” My teacher’s bright blue eyes twinkled merrily as he began to explain, gesturing enthusiastically. “When you look at a Christmas tree, what do you look to see?”

Puzzled a bit since I had never quite thought about this, I thought hard and responded tentatively, “Mmmmmmm, the ornaments?”

My teacher’s eyebrows raised a bit, and he continued, “No, I want to see the whole tree! Look, when you look at a Christmas tree, you want to see the outline of the whole tree, not a shape of a tree covered in ornaments. The ornaments are there to accent the outline of the tree, not cover or distract from it.”

At that moment, I began to giggle and mentioned how the general American public has come to decorate their trees in the most annoying and gaudy manners. In particular, I mentioned how commercialism has just practically destroyed Christmas with often ridiculous decoration options (e.g. pink and upside-down Christmas trees) and how many store displays just pack their trees with the most frivolous, Christmas-irrelevant ornaments. My teacher chuckled warmly, and we immediately launched into a brief discussion on how ridiculous this stuff is and how we prefer to decorate our trees, in particular how I like my tree to be traditional.

Then, once we were done laughing, my teacher began, “Well, now do you see what I mean? You don’t want a tree like at American Sales, just packed with ornaments to the point that I only see a pile of ornaments in the shape of a Christmas tree; I want to see a tree with ornaments only accenting. That’s what they’re there for; just to accent the tree. So, look at the tree. Don’t just sit over a little ornament and obsess on the details; then you miss the whole tree. Just glimpse over the ornament and see the whole tree. Got it?”

My teacher then proceeded to demonstrate to me how this applied to the piece. With recorder to his lips, he took the first phrase of the piece and just played three notes. When he had finished, he explained, “See, that’s the tree: Only three notes. Those are the melody notes, and you must be able to see them with the ornaments on.” Then, taking a deep breath, my teacher proceeded to play the phrase with the ornaments in, emphasizing the main notes while playing around them lightly with the ornaments. He continued, “See, I just decorated those main notes, emphasized the ornaments less, just went over them, not worried about every little note. Now you try it.”

As I was trying this new method of picking out main notes, just practicing each phrase with them, then adding the ornaments, the concept began to “click” for me. Now I clearly realized that ornamentation was not solely confined to essential graces and free ornamentation; ornamentation could actually be written into the piece. I just had to learn to identify it and separate it from main notes. Soon I found myself, phrase by phrase, eagerly searching for the main notes, then “decorating” the piece with the written-in ornaments. By the time my lesson had ended, I was extremely satisfied with what I had learned. Beaming, I turned to my teacher and asked one final question, “Should I practice it this way at home?” He enthusiastically responded, “Absolutely. Just remember: Four measures at a time, slowly.”

Every day since that lesson, I have practiced not only the Philidor like this, but also every other piece that I work on, whether review, polishing, or new. Each time, I continue to be amazed: Ornamentation is everywhere in Baroque music, whether free or written-in. And the key to playing the music elegantly is to learn to identify melody notes and such ornamentation, then separate them before finally putting them back together. What a potent method is my teacher’s pedagogy on this, and what a potent analogy is his Christmas tree comparison. Indeed, when I decorate my tree this year and for years afterwards, I shall always think about how this applies to Baroque ornamentation, hearing my teacher’s enthusiastic and gentle voice playfully explaining it to my somewhat neophyte Baroque mind.

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