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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Do Tosi and his commentators prefer too many or too few ornaments?

I was recently flicking through an instruction book aimed at teaching modern singers how to ornament eighteenth-century repertoire, and I once again came across oft repeated truism that it’s better for students to do fewer ornaments than too many. Although cautions against excess are indeed commonplace in historical vocal sources, this passage from Tosi (1723) and the additions by his translators/commentators (1743, 1757) always leaps to mind when I come across this particular piece of advice:

Galliard (1743):

Ԥ 52. He [the singer] knows, that a Deficiency of Ornaments displeases as much as the too great Abundance of them; that a Singer makes one languid and dull with too little, and cloys one with too much; but, of the two, he will dislike the former [too little] most, though it gives less Offence, the latter being easier to be amended.

§ 53. He will have no Manner of Esteem for those who have no other Graces than gradual Divisions [102] ; and will tell you, Embellishments of this Sort are only fit for Beginners.

[Note 102] Passo and Passagio. The Difference is, that a Passo is a sudden Grace or Flight, not uniform. See Pl. VI. Numb. 5. A Passagio is a Division, a Continuation, or a Succession of Notes, ascending or descending with Uniformity. See Pl. VI. Numb. 6.’

Tosi (1723):

‘Ei sa, che tanto dispiace la sterilità degli ornamenti quanto l'abbondanza, non ignorando, che un Cantore fà languir col poco, ed annoja col troppo; Anzi di questi due difetti odierà più il primo, benchè offenda meno, essendo più facile il secondo ad emendarsi.

Non avrà stima alcuna di chi non ha migliore artificio, che i Passaggi di grado, e dirà, che abbellimenti di quella fatta, che con giusta comparazione chiamansi Razzi sono per i Principianti.’

Agricola (1757):

‘He knows that a dearth of ornamentation is just as undesirable as an excess. He is aware that with too few ornaments the singer causes a yearning; and with too many, disgust. Of these two defects, the first will be more serious [lit., despised], although it is less insulting, because the second is more easily corrected.

He will pay little attention to those who can execute nothing better than a stepwise run of an octave; rather, he will say that such ornaments, aptly called rockets, which they resemble, are best suited to beginners (i).

(Note i) Since there must be variations in all parts of music, they must occur also in the divisions. Whoever is capable of executing only one type is unfortunate indeed. Executing a run that ascends and descends over two octaves and performing it in tune [lit., on key], evenly loud, round, well articulated, and clear, is not as easy as many might conclude from the author's words. Everyone, however, can test his ability in this to see how he succeeds. These rockets are especially conspicuous in singers whose voices do not have a wide range or are not even. With many singers the rockets take on a particularly crooked flight [lit., course] and tend to burst by the time they are halfway up.’

‘Er weis, daß die Unfruchtbarkeit an Auszierungen eben so sehr misfällt, als der Ueberfluß. Es ist ihm nicht unbekannt, daß ein Sänger mit allzuwenigen Zierrathen Sehnsucht, und mit allzuvielen Ekel erwecket. Doch wird ihm, unter diesen beyden Fehlern, mehr der erstere verhaßt seyn, ob er gleich weniger beleidiget: da der zweyte viel leichter zu verbessern ist.

Diejenigen welche nichts bessers ausführen können, als etwan einen Lauf von einer in Stufen fortgehenden Octave, wird er nicht sonderlich achten: er wird vielmehr sagen, daß solche Auszierungen, welche man, durch eine geschichte Vergleichung Raketen zu nennen pflegt (i) sich am besten für Anfänger schicken.

(i) So wie in allen Theilen der Musik Veränderung seyn muß; so fodert man dieselbe auch in den Passagien. Wer nur eine einzige Art davon ausführen kann, ist freylich, unglücklich. Einen Lauf durch zwo Octaven und drüber, rein, in gleicher Stärke, rund, abgestoßen, deutlich, etc. aus der Tiefe in die Höhe, und von der Höhe in die Tiefe auszuführen, ist so leicht nicht, als manche aus des Verfassers Worten hier schlüßen möchten. Ein jeder kann seine Kräfte hieran versuchen, und sehen wie es ihm gelingt. Sänger, deren Stimme keinen weiten Umfang hat, oder nicht egal ist, sind diesen Raketen besonders auffaßig. Ben vielen nehmen diesetben auch wirklich einen sehr krummen Gang, und pflegen schon auf der Hälfte des Weges zu crepiren.’


Pier Francesco Tosi, Opinioni De’cantori Antichi, E Moderni, O Sieno Osservazioni Sopra Il Canto Figurato.(Bologna: , 1723).

Pier Francesco Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song ; Or, Sentiments on the Ancient and Modern Singers, trans. Johann Ernst Galliard (London: J. Wilcox, 1743).

Johann Friedrich Agricola, Anleitung Zur Singkunst (Berlin: G.F. Winter, 1757).

Johann Agricola, Introduction to the Art of Singing, trans. Julianne Baird (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

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