The composer Nicola Vaccai (1790-1848) was a contemporary of some very famous –ini’s including Rossini, Bellini, and Paganini. Vaccai’s sixteen operas are rarely performed today but his vocal exercises, published as Metodo pratico di canto italiano per camera, or Practical Method of Italian Singing, have been studied by generations of students from the nineteenth century to the present, including a certain newbie: your humble author. I first learned of Vaccai and started working through his exercises when I began taking voice lessons last year, my most recent step in a long musical journey that began when I took up classical guitar in my early teens.
While all of Vaccai’s exercises have been challenging for me in one way or another, I didn’t find myself “stuck” until I got to Più non si trovano, a piece that showcases the turn or gruppetto. In this post, I’d like to take a close look at this ornament, first in the abstract, and then in the context of Più non si. If you’re a singer working on Più non si, you’ll find a detailed discussion of how to interpret the turns in the score, including a helpful comment from the Vaccai editor.
Background on Turns
The basic idea behind a turn is to surround a given note with its upper and lower neighbors. The example below shows how a turn symbol can be placed directly above the note to ornamented:
A common way to interpret this notation would be to transform the quarter note into a sequence of sixteenth notes as follows. This is the solution given, for example, in Gardner Read’s Music Notation, second edition:
(Note that the audio examples in this post consist of a synthesized piano, played by Finale software in a direct rendering of the notation, at 60 beats per minute. I’ve added a drone bass line, consisting of a repeated D in eighth notes, to emphasize the beat, hopefully making it easier to hear the rhythmic differences between the various interpretations.)
Gardner Read also suggests the following solution for slow tempo:
Below are three other possibilities that can be found in J.S. Bach, Willard A. Palmer, Editor, 1968 as quoted here.
The examples above interpret the turn as a four note figure, but it’s also possible to use a quintuplet. I’ve seen this referred to as a “Classical Turn.” (Note that in the audio excerpt, you will hear a polyrhythm created by the quintuplet against the eighth notes in the bass; since this might be distracting, I’ve added a second rendition without the bass.)
We’ve seen how turn symbol can be interpreted when it’s placed directly above a note, but the symbol can also be placed after a note, like this:
Here is a common interpretation:
The ornament is handled a bit differently when placed after a dotted note, like this:
Here is a common interpretation:
The First Turn in Vaccai
Now that we’ve seen a number of ways to render the turn, let’s (bad pun alert!) turn to Vaccai.
When I first started practicing Più non si, I wondered why I was having so much more difficulty than with the previous exercises. I realized I had gotten stuck because I was trying to sing the notes of the turn as fast as possible, without clearly deciding on a rhythmic interpretation. One could make the case that ornaments like the turn should not be precisely counted; rather the rhythm should be felt intuitively and the figure should come off as a free embellishment. But this leaves open the question of how best to practice the turn if it doesn’t flow naturally from one’s throat the first time one attempts to sing it. Vaccai himself writes out the simplest form of the turn in the preparatory exercise that comes before Più non si, and following his lead, I found it helpful to practice the more sophisticated turns in strict rhythm (at first slowly, with a metronome), before trying to sing them freely.
There are two types of turns in Più non si. Vaccai doesn’t use the turn symbol but instead spells out all the notes of the ornament. Even with his notation, multiple interpretations are possible. The first type of turn appears in measure 1 and is printed like this in 1975 Schirmer edition, which aims to stay as close to Vaccai’s original text as possible:
How should we make sense of those intimidating little grace notes? There are two basic questions to consider:
1) Do we adhere strictly to Vaccai’s notated rhythm — three thirty-second notes followed by a sixteenth — or do we treat this rhythm as a suggestion which can be varied?
2) Do we steal all the time from the note that precedes the turn (A), or do we also steal some time from the note that follows it (B)?
If we stick to Vaccai’s rhythm for the turn, and steal all the time from the preceding A, then that A must become a double-dotted eighth:
If we stick to Vaccai’s rhythm as above, but steal half of the subsequent B’s duration, we get the solution recommended by editor John Glenn Paton in his helpful notes at the back of the 1975 Schirmer edition. However, please see Prof. Paton’s comment at the end of this post for his updated preference. (By the way, I highly recommend reading Paton’s inspiring description of how he came to edit the Vaccai exercises.)
One thing to point out about stealing time from the note after the turn is that a syllable falls there at some places in the score. With this approach you have to adjust your handling of the text and sing certain syllables faster. In my own practice, I’ve found it convenient to sick to interpretations that are neutral as far as the text is concerned, since it’s easier to switch between them.
A variation of the above is to render the first three notes of the turn as a triplet. In this example and the ones that follow, we’ll be deviating from Vaccai’s notated rhythm.
Here we use a sixteenth note triplet. I find this version one of the easiest to sing with precision because the first and last notes of the turn are clearly stressed. This is the version I practice most often.
This is another triplet interpretation, but here the triplet is of thirty-second notes and the preceding A becomes a dotted quarter. As the notes of the ornament are rendered faster than above, you could say this version sounds more “ornamental.” In contrast to the interpretation above, there’s no stress on the first note of the turn. This is another version that I practice often — it sounds more graceful to me than the version above, but I find it a bit harder to pull off.
This version uses all sixteenth notes and has a plain sound compared to the others. It is similar to what Vaccai writes in Quando accende, the “Preparatory Example for the Turn” that comes right before Più non si.
The Second Turn in Vaccai
The second type of turn in Più non si first appears in bar 7, but we’ll take bar 17 as our example to work with. Here the turn is sandwiched between a quarter and an eighth, and all the notes of the ornament are written as thirty-seconds:
With the first type of turn, there isn’t one interpretation that stands out as the most obvious. However, the second type of turn does have one straightforward interpretation as we saw at the beginning of the post: change the preceding quarter to an eighth and render the ornamental notes as written. This is what Paton recommends.
Looking beyond the straightforward interpretation, here’s another way to keep an even rhythm for all four notes of the turn:
When we start exploring uneven rhythms, there are myriad possibilities. I won’t give many examples here — some of the options can be extrapolated from the examples above for the first type of turn. However, here’s one uneven version that I experimented with (preferring this triplet rendering to a simpler version starting with a dotted sixteenth).
Which of these interpretations are the most plausible from a historic perspective? I would welcome feedback from someone with knowledge of 19th century Italian performance practice. That said, I still think it can be interesting to put the historical concern aside as we’ve done here and take a broad look at what’s possible: even if one wouldn’t use all of these ideas in performing Vaccai, the fringe possibilities could still be useful in performing music from a different period, or in writing new music. I hope you’ll agree, it’s amazing how much variety a simple four note figure can support.
If you are a singer who has worked on this exercise and has a favorite interpretation to add to the mix, or any related advice on practicing Vaccai’s turns, please let me know!