During the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries the trill was easily the most important vocal ornament, paramount both for concluding cadenzas and decoration within melodies. No singer who wished to succeed could be without it, and those singers without a trill would be judged as imperfect. By 1723, Tosi, looking retrospectively at the previous sixty years, could collate eight varieties of trill; and we know that one of the three or four daily hours of a castrato’s training in the preceding century was solely devoted to its study. For the professional singer of the Baroque and Classical period its acquisition was essential.
Early in the trill’s history the Italian term was gruppo – a group or cluster; from which has descended the modern term for a turn: gruppetto, a little cluster. This close relationship indicates that the mechanism of the trill is used in the performance of the turn (as it is also in the mordent, acciaccatura, battuta di gola and ribattuta di gola), all of which use fragments of the trill in their execution (see fig 1). Before about 1680 the Italian word trillo indicated another vocal ornament: accelerating pulsations of breath on a single note. When this decoration became old fashioned and fell into disuse, it seems that the term was reapplied to increasing reverberations of two adjacent notes instead. The English word for the trill in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was the very descriptive – ‘shake’.
Tosi, in 1723, complains that there is no fixed method of teaching the trill. But in the years since his day it has been recognised that there are two complementary kinds of exercise necessary to achieve a good trill.
The first is an irregular jerky exercise designed to promote the essential laryngeal rocking. This is the exercise made famous by the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887). In its first form, notes a fifth apart are repeated, the lower note very short and the upper sung as if sustained; then the intervals are narrowed to a fourth, then a third and finally a major second; the exercise being sung in four separate sections (see fig 2). In its final form the exercise is continuous (see fig 3). This exercise should be confined to the middle of the voice.
The second exercise is regular and promotes evenness, accuracy of tuning and eventually speed. Two notes a tone apart (major trill) or a semitone apart (minor trill) are alternated with ever increasing speed: eventually and ideally, with four gradations – quarter notes (crotchets), eights (quavers), sixteenths (semi-quavers) and thirty-seconds (demi. This exercise should always be sung measured and in strict time; the repetitions should always be countable, even at the fastest speed (see fig.4). This was the standard method for all singers in the bel canto period and throughout the nineteenth century, and is the favoured method once the laryngeal movement has been achieved. It has been noted that the reverberations of a fast trill are appreciably quicker than the fastest scalic agility which any voice can manage. This gives a clear indication that the laryngeal shake stands technically apart from all other agility.
Contrary to expectation, fast agile voices are not always those which trill easiest. This is because the method is a laryngeal shake, and strong sturdy voices often find it more natural. However, all voices are prone to the common defects of the trill which include: out of tuneness of all sorts, particularly too narrow an interval (which produces an effect akin to a tremolo), and too wide an interval (a wild wobbling known in Italian as trillo caprino – a goat’s trill). Although trills are common in Baroque, Classical and nineteenth century bel canto music, they are also written by later composers for surprisingly heavy, strong voices, usually for characterful effects. Iago, Posa, Brünhilde, Hans Sachs, Manrico, Ferrando and Azucena all have trills written for them. One can hardly imagine that the composers would have bothered to write them if they had not felt they were essential! Nowadays, alas, they are either missing or approximate.
A good trill has, for four hundred years, been an integral tool of good vocalism. With messa di voce, it has been one of the main pillars of vocal technique, which is why both appear together in the late Baroque cadenza, an item clearly designed to show off the technical prowess of the artist (see fig.5). Contemporary performance of Baroque music, often under the heading of ‘authentic performance practice’ in regard to instruments and pitch, frequently pays little or no attention to the standards of vocal technique expected of Baroque singers in their own period. No singer who has practised for three or four hours per day can possibly imagine that the effete, feeble sound produced by so many modern early music singers, was that heard by Baroque listeners. To perform such music without a solid, regular trill is anathema.
Within thirty years of the first opera in 1600, the study and practice of the trill, both as a vocal ornament and a measure of expertise, had reached its apogee in the achievement of Baldassare Ferri (1610-1680). He would have completed his studies as a castrato singer by 1630, and his legacy to us is the performance of a two octave chromatic scale in trills both up and down and in one breath: a technical tour de force which has undoubtedly neither been surpassed nor equalled since. Regular study of the trill renders the voice supple and the throat strong; it makes possible many different vocal ornaments; evens the voice from top to bottom and by so doing facilitates all other agility; it enables the singer to encompass repertoire from 1650-1900, for which the trill is an essential requirement. No singer should be without it.
© 2005, Neil Howlett