The Trouble with Trills
"I have always played trills 2-to-1. I recently bought a new edition of Haydn and the editor suggests 3-to1. Is this just an editor’s “showmanship” or have I been playing my trills wrong all these years?"
Elise Russell from the Piano Curriculum Facebook Page has asked me to approach this question from the aspect of how many notes or “beats” to play in a trill. I’ve expanded the conversation a bit, so please bear with me. Ornaments are possibly the most often argued subject in music, so I expect there to be many comments. Fire away!
In a simplistic way, there are two types of trills, measured and free, so I will attack these separately. Besides this, the main question when approaching a trill is: What is its function within the context of the phrase? Is it an elegant addition? Does it have an angry buzzsaw character as we often find with Beethoven’s trills? Is it a place saver, i.e. does it extend the sound of one note over a long period of time (see the Bach example below)? How we answer these questions will affect the number of notes spinning under our fingers. There may be an entire book just exploring that!
Measured trills are usually played in fast works from J.S. Bach through Mozart, although free trills may be used under certain circumstances. They work well with clean textures, and I use Clementi sonatinas as an introduction to measured trills for my students. A 2-1 ratio of trill notes vs. other voice notes works well most of the time. Often this means half the value of the smallest note value of a piece. Have a look at the trill from the Bach invention in d minor below that demonstrates this idea (ex. 1). The smallest note value is a sixteeth note and the trill works well as in thirty-second notes. In Ex. 2, I realized the trill starting on d for the purpose of this essay, although an argument could be made to start it on the C (I hear several of you scrolling down to challenge this idea in the comment section already)! If a measured trill starts on the main note, a triplet must be inserted on the penultimate trill beat (exx. 3 and 4).
Ex. 1, Bach invention in d minor
Ex. 2, Bach invention in d minor, trill realized
Ex. 3, Clementi Sonatina, op. 36 no. 3
Ex. 4, Clementi Sonatina, op. 36 no. 3, trill realized
The next example comes from Beethoven’s sonata, op. 31 no. 3 (ex. 5) and looks similar to the Bach invention. Playing it will be completely different, though, since it is not going to be measured. This section points to another consideration, too. When I play a trill that is preceded by a scalar passage, I tend to linger on the first note of the trill note briefly to allow my audience to hear the resolution created by it.
Ex. 5, Beethoven trill
Ex. 6, Chopin trill
How fast or slowly should one play free trills? This is a matter of personal choice. I played the Chopin Nocturne in C# minor, op. post. for a colleague once and was chastised for my “too fast trills” (ex. 6). I was told that the piece was Lento and that my trills ought to reflect that. Well, I never heeded this advice and my trills are still fairly quick when I play this work. As with the Beethoven, I hesitate a bit on the first note of the trill, as it is part of the melodic outline (red notes). In longer trills as this one (which is couched inside an expressive character), I am apt to start slowly, speed up in the middle, and slow down towards the end, also. I find that it keeps the energy moving forward.
In the final analysis, how fast trills go are and the question of ratios is left to the individual performer or the composer would have written them out exactly how he or she wanted them to go, right?