VERENA BARIE - My Guide to German Baroque Ornamentation

VERENA BARIE - My Guide to German Baroque Ornamentation

Baroque sonatas for solo instruments and continuo were not meant to be performed in big concert venues, but rather played in intimate domestic spaces where musicians could enjoy one another's company.

To get closer to these original contexts or even to the "composer's intentions", I decided to dig deeper into writings by composer Georg Philipp Telemann, focusing in particular on the use of ornamentation as a key to open the door to performances that make a stronger connection between my emotions and written sources. My Bachelor Thesis took the form of a catalogue, aiming to provide a practical guide of how to ornament melodic figures common in baroque music such as upbeats, cadences, descending and ascending lines, various intervals, rhythms and rhetoric aspects of the music. I transcribed all the examples into C major or A minor, to make it easier to apply these patterns to any baroque melody you find. Deriving these examples from G. Ph. Telemann´s Sonate Metodiche, the Continuations and Ill Trietti metodichi, my goal has been to point out the most striking characteristics at work in Telemann's own suggestions for ornamentation, taking into consideration musical affect, rhetorics and harmony.

 Telemann was a very prolific composer born in Magdeburg on March 14 1681. Amongst his contemporaries he was regarded as Germany´s leading composer known for his desire for musical innovation, which makes him a link figure between the high and late baroque to the early classical period. Telemann was a composer, music publisher, educator and theorist, whose opus includes circa 3000 works. In the 19th century, Telemann´s music was widely ignored, perhaps due to his prolific output and assumptions that he must have privileged quantity over quality (1).

In the 20th century he was rediscovered, and gradually started to be considered as a serious composer. The edition of selected pieces by publisher Bärenreiter, which led to the Telemann-Werke-Verzeichnis (TWV), contributed towards his new image of credibility as a composer.

Telemann had a deep fascination for music theoretical problems, as shown in his music journal Der Getreue Musikmeister as well as in prefaces to Der Harmonische Gottesdienst. He wrote about continuo realisations, the right execution of trills and appogiaturas for recitatives, transposition and tuning matters (Neues Musicalisches System). Most valuable to me is the insight into 18th century ornamentation practice we gather from the opening slow movements in the two sets of six Sonate Metodiche and Ill trietti Metodichi.

As musical director at the Opera House in Hamburg, he wrote six Sonatas for Violino Solo o Flauto Traverso, with Basso Continuo, published in 1728. Arguably, musicians and composers at this time did not differentiate between pedagogical and art music, with Bach´s keyboard Inventions from Das Wohltemperierte Clavier being a prime example. In these skillfully composed Sonatas, Telemann shows a variety of movement types within a four or five part structure with an extra ornamented version of the melody line. He takes great care over the naming of movements, perhaps so as to give the mostly amateur performers of Hamburg´s upper-class clear instructions for interpretation. 

The stylistic of ornamentation is derived from the Italian and French styles, which Telemann always strived to merge within the so called 'German Mixed Style'. As Richard Petzoldt describes it: It was not only an Italian Coat which Telemann altered to fit (), but French clothing as well.” (2)

Telemann's important influence on this 'mixed style' is also reflected in his Sonate Metodiche. The movements are a mixture from French and Italian movements, the ornamentation ranges from written out French agréments to tiratas and articulation indications of slurs and the Keil. A continuation of these sonatas was published in 1732, just a year before Telemann published Ill trietti methodici e Ill scherzi for two traversos or violins, which serves as a very interesting example of how two melody instruments can imitate or contrast each other.

As an example, I will take a closer look at the following bars taken from the first movement Adagio from Sonata Metodiche No. 4, originally in A-Major.


In these four bars Telemann uses all kinds of ornamentation strategies, of which I want to point out a few. As mentioned, I have transposed these fragments into C Major, for the sake of easily applying these ornaments to any melody with similar characteristics. 

The original melody of the first bar starts on the first beat and descends as a triad. In the ornamented version, Telemann leaves out the first beat, and starts the descending line on the second quaver. Considering the art of rhetoric, he starts with an aspirated first quaver silence, a breath that is followed by descending semiquavers, interrupted by a sighing rising note in the middle of each figure. The final note C is ornamented with a wesentliche manier (mandatory embellishment): here a trill with the written out slur down to the leading note B.


Picking up the next bar with an ascending triad, he writes clearly the Keil articulation for the first beat of the bar. The Keil describes an articulation to shorten the note to three quarters of its original value, as described by J.J. Quantz. The following repeated F gets embellished with a combination of double, triple and even four times the speed of the original note values.

An important concept in baroque music is the enumeratio, which is a rhetoric repetition. In this bar you see the motive of the first half of the bar repeated in the second half, playing with our expectation of a third repetition, which is not fulfilled. Telemann maintains this concept of repetition in his ornamentation, but takes the syncopated rhythm of the second bar at a doubled speed.  He keeps the gesture of the descending semiquavers in the end of the phrase, doubles the speed and widens the range, but not without a last cheeky triad and leading tone towards the upper octave G.

Summarising the ornamentation of these four bars, I conclude with some main principles operated by Telemann:

  • Keeping the contour of the melody
  • Adding notes as well as rests
  • Playing with triads of the underlying harmony
  • Clarity within combining different doted rhythms and syncopations, as well as an increase of faster note values
  • Keeping rhetorical gestures, as well as adding gestures which emphasise the melody's general affect

While there is only space enough in this article for a limited discussion of these four bars, my intention has been to demonstrate the richness of Telemann's ornaments as sources that allow one to deal with musical material in a meticulous yet personal way - a combination that embodies what I strive for in my music making.


(1) According to the Hamburgian Lexicographers Greber and Ebeling (Essay from 1792) - 'Polygraphs seldom produce masterpieces’. In their opinion, Telemann was to be criticised also for the extended use of obbligato instruments in arias, the musical depiction of individual words or natural sounds instead of composing an overall affect.

(2) Richard Petzoldt, Georg Philipp Telemann: Leben und Werk, trans. Horace Fitzpatrick, VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik (Leipzig 1967)

Verena Barie (*1994/Germany) holds a deep fascination for chamber music of all sorts, specialising in Renaissance Consort playing and contemporary interdisciplinary performance. Since 2013 she has studied recorder at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam with teachers Erik Bosgraaf and Jorge Isaac, as well as composition and (live) electronics. Verena is a founding member of ensembles which give concerts all over Europe: Queen´s Priest, Lagrime Consort and since 2016, The Royal Wind Music.

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