Mordent

« Back to Dictionary Index

One of the most important of the agremens or graces of instrumental music. It consists of rapid alternation of a written note with the note immediately below it.

Mordents are of two kinds, the Simple or Short Mordent, consisting of three notes, the lower or auxiliary note occurring  but once, and the Double or Long Mordent, in which the auxiliary note appears twice or oftener. Both kinds begin and end with great rapidity, and, like all graces, occupy a part of the value of the written note, and are never introduced before it.

mordent-1

The appropriateness of the term Mordent (from mordere, ‘to bite’) is formed in the suddenness with which the principal note is, as it were, attacked by the dissonant note and immediately released. Walther says its effect is ‘like cracking a nut with the teeth,’ and the same idea is expressed by the old German term Beisser.

The Mordent may be applied to any note of a chord, as well as to a single note. When this is the case its rendering is as follows:

mordent-2

mordent-3

Sometimes an accidental is added to the sign of the Mordent, the effect of this is to raise the lower or auxiliary note a semitone. This raising takes place in accordance with the rule that a lower auxiliary note should be only a semitone distant from its principal note, and the alteration must be made by the player even when there is no indication of it in the sign, except in certain understood cases.

The exceptions are as follows:

  • When the note bearing the Mordent is either preceded or followed by a note a whole tone lower
  • When the Mordent is applied to either the third or seventh degree of the scale.

In these cases the auxiliary note is played a whole tone distant from its principal.

mordent-4

mordent-5

mordent-6

mordent-7

The Long Mordent (pince double) usually consists of five notes, though if applied to a note of great length it may, according to Emanuel Bach, contain more; it must, however, never fill up the entire value of the ote, as the trill does, but must leave time for a sustained principal note at the end.

mordent-8

Besides the above, Emanuel Bach gave the name of Mordent to two other graces, now nearly or quite obsolete. One, called the Abbreviated Mordent (pince etouffe) was rendered by striking the auxiliary note together with its principal, and instantly releasing it. This grace, which is identical with the acciaccatura, was said by Marpurg to be of great service in playing full chords on the organ, but its employment is condemned by the best modern organists. The other kind, called the Slow Mordent, had no distinctive sign, but was introduced in vocal music at the discretion of the singer, usually at the close of the phrase or before a pause.

mordent-9

Closely allied to the Mordent is another kind of ornament, call in German the Pralltriller (prallen, ‘to rebound,’ or ‘bounce’) for which term there is no exact equivalent in English, the ornament in question being variously named Passing Shake, Beat, and Inverted Mordent (pince renverse), none of which designations are very appropriate. It consists, like the Mordent, of three notes, rapidly executed, the auxiliary note being one degree above the principal note instead of below it.

mordent-10

The Pralltriller is characterized by Emanuel Bach as the most agreeable and at the same time the most indispensable of all graces, but also the most difficult. He says that it ought to be made with such extreme rapidity that even when introduced on a very short note, the listener must not be aware of any loss of value.

The proper, and according to some writers the only place for the introduction of the Pralltriller is on the first of two notes which descend diatonically, a position which the Mordent is indicated in a false position, the Pralltriller is in reality intended, and the sign is an error either of the pen or of the press.

mordent-11

Nevertheless, the Mordetn is occasionally, though very nearly, met with on a note followed by a note one degree lower, as in the fugue already quoted. This is, however, the only instance in Bach’s works with which the writer is acquainted.

When the Pralltriller is preceded by an appoggiatura, or a slurred note one degree above the principal note, its entrance is slightly delayed, and the same is the case if the Mordent is preceded by a note one degree below.

mordent-12

mordent-13

Emanuel Bach said that if this occurs before a pause the appoggiatura is to be held very long, and the remaining three notes to be ‘snapped up’ very quickly, thus:

mordent-14

The earlier writers drew a distinction between the Pralltriller and the so-called Schneller (schnellen, ‘to fillip’). This grace was in all respects identical to the Pralltriller, but it was held that the latter could only occur on a descending diatonic progression, while the Schneller might appear on detached notes. It was also laid down that the Schneller was always to be writer in small notes thus, mordent-15.Turk observes, nevertheless, that the best composers have often made use of the sign in cases where the indispensable diatonic progression is absent, and have thus indicated the Pralltriller where the Schneller was really intended. This is, however, of no consequence, since the two ornaments are essentially the same, and Turk himself ends by saying ‘the enormity of this crime may be left for the critics to determine.’

Both Mordent and Pralltriller occur very frequently in the works of Bach and his immediate successors; perhaps the most striking instance of the lavish use of both occurs in the first movement of Bach’s Capriccio on the departure of a brother, which though only seventeen bars in lenth contains no fewer than seventeen Mordents and thirty Pralltriller. In modern music the Mordent does not occur, but the Pralltriller and Schneller are frequently employed, as for instance by Beethoven in the first movement of the Sonate Pathetique.

Although Mordent and Pralltriller are in a sense the opposites of each other, some little confusion has of late arisen in the use of both terms and signs. Certain modern writers have even applied the name of Mordent to the ordinary Turn, as for example Czerny, in his ‘Study’ op. 740, No. 29; and Hummel, in his ‘Pianoforte School,’ has given both the name and the sign of the Mordent to the Schneller. This may perhaps be accounted for by the supposition that he referred to the Italian mordent, which, according to Dr. Callcott (Grammar of Music), was the opposite of the German Mordent, and was in fact identical with the Schneller. It is nevertheless strange that Hummel should have neglected to give any description of the Mordent proper.

« Back to Dictionary Index