In the eighteenth century there was a great trend for decorating the melody, particularly in slow movements, and some music was written deliberately plain, with the expectation that the performer would embellish it in his own way. And yet, ornamentation is of little use if it does not reflect and enhance the character of the music. Sometimes simplicity is of greater importance. In Handel’s sonatas, two things are essential: cadential trills and embellishments at Phrygian cadences.
Cadential trills are often not notated: they were taken so much for granted, it was assumed players would know where to insert them. Omitting trills at these points is rather like forgetting to wear your clothes; the effect is shockingly bare! So remember to dress your cadences. At this time the fashion was for starting trills on the upper note, to savour a last dissonance which resolves into the trill. Don’t feel you need to trill to the end of the note; six notes would suffice here.
Many slow movements of Handel sonatas conclude with a special type of imperfect cadence, called a Phrygian cadence, as a link to the following movement. Frequently, these Phrygian cadences occur after a full cadence which is really the end of the piece. Then a short coda creates an anticipation of what is to come. The tempo is relaxed (often marked Adagio), the piece winds down but is left unfinished. Rhetorically it is a way of saying: “And then...” or “To find out what happened next, read on...” So often these occur just before a page turn and inevitably the connection is lost! If such interruption is unavoidable, try at least to turn the page with a sense of expectation.
A Phrygian cadence is easily recognisable. It finishes on the dominant chord, and the previous bass note is one step higher with figured bass chords 7 6. In the key of E minor, this cadence occurs a surprising number of times in Handel’s flute sonatas: at the end of the E minor Larghetto and Largo movements in HWV 379, the Adagio in HWV 359b, op.1 no.1, the Adagio in HWV 375 and the two Adagios in the G major sonata, HWV 363b, op.1 no.5.
Basic skeleton of a Phrygian cadence with implied cadential trill and with a trill with a termination.
Phrygian cadences are particularly affecting in minor keys. The seventh chord is especially touching and this is invites a little embellishment. Dwell on the 7th (B) just long enough to savour the dissonance, then add a short cadenza, of just a few notes, based on notes of the seventh chord leading to a trill on the penultimate melody note. Any of the notes of the seventh chord can be used, in any order (though ascending or descending order flow most logically) and in any rhythm (not necessarily connected with the piece). Even the simple addition of one more note from the chord can be highly expressive.
In this Phrygian cadence in E minor the notes of the seventh chord are C, E, G and B.
Introducing just one new note alone is possible, but perhaps without dwelling too long upon a C, since it is already there in the bass. Here are lots of alternatives:
The E could be introduced at either octave and in combination with the C. The interval of a 6th from E to C is especially tender.
Similarly, the sixth from B up to G has a heartfelt appeal about it. It may be combined with C, E and B. Whilst only notes of the 7th chord are used, they may be tongued or slurred as you please. Suggestions are in dotted lines.
Such a tiny cadenza can be made even more enticing by adding passing notes. All passing notes must be slurred from or onto a harmony note.
This last one is typical of Italian style ornamentation, with many notes under a long slur and a shape within the melisma; a rise before the fall or a hilly contour. Here are some examples transposed and adapted from Corelli violin sonatas, supposedly as he played them.
Quantz gave a beautifully florid example in his book (Versuch) in which he marked various entry points for lengthening or shortening the cadenza. A typical Phrygian cadence by Telemann, however, would be simpler yet poignant with a strategically placed accented chromatic rising appoggiatura (D#).
Transposed from Quantz, Versuch, ch. Transposed from Telemann Methodical Sonata in C minor
And finally, one from Handel himself, transposed from the keyboard Sonata in G minor.
As a step on the way to becoming fluent in the art of improvising these embellishments, practise all the suggestions above. Pick a few that you like and memorise them. Then introduce one of them on the spur of the moment in performance. A prepared choice will still offer an element of freedom. Make up some of your own. It is a very good idea to write them down (not in the music, but on a separate piece of paper), then you can analyse what was good and what was less successful and try to work out why. Was it incorrect harmony, lack of (or too much) rhythmic interest, or inappropriate choice of articulation? That knowledge is the key to understanding this style of ornamentation.