A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Mordent

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MORDENT (Ital. Mordente; Ger. Mordent, also Beisser; Fr. Pincé). One of the most important of the agrémens or graces of instrumental music. It consists of the rapid alternation of a written note with the note immediately below it.

Mordents are of two kinds, the Simple or Short Mordent, indicated by the sign
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \musicglyph #"scripts.mordent" } }
, and consisting of three notes, the lower or auxiliary note occurring but once, and the Double or Long Mordent, the sign for which is
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \musicglyph #"scripts.prallmordent" } }
, in which the auxiliary note appears twice or oftener. Both kinds begin and end with the principal note, and are played with great rapidity, and, like all graces, occupy a part of the value of the written note, and are never introduced before it.
1. Single Mordent. Double Mordent.
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \cadenzaOn c''\mordent s s s8. \bar "||" s1 c''2\prallmordent s1 s s s \bar "||" }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \cadenzaOn c''32[ b' c''8.] \bar "||" c''32[ b' c'' b' c''8] ~ c''4 \bar "||" }

The appropriateness of the term Mordent (from mordere, to bite) is found 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—

2. Bach, Sarabande from Suite Française No. 4.

{ \time 3/4 \key ees \major \relative g' { << { g8 aes16 bes bes2\mordent bes8 c16 des des2\mordent } \\ { s4 g,2 s4 <bes g>2 } >> } }
{ \time 3/4 \key ees \major \relative g' { << { g8 aes16 bes bes32 aes bes8. ~ bes4 | bes8 c16 des des32 c des8. ~ des4 } \\ { s4 g,2 bes4 <bes g>2 } >> } }

3. Bach, Overture from Partita No. 4.

{ \time 2/2 \key d \major \relative d'' { << { <fis d\mordent>2 ~ q8. fis16 g8.\mordent a16 } \\ { a,2 ~ a8. d,16 e8. fis16 } >> } }
{ \time 2/2 \key d \major \relative f'' { << { <fis a,>2 ~ fis8. fis16 g32 fis g8 a16 } \\ { d,32 cis d8. ~ d4 <d a>8. d,16 e8. fis16 } >> } }
Sometimes an accidental is added to the sign of the Mordent, thus
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \smaller \center-column { \musicglyph #"scripts.mordent" \natural } } }
, or
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \smaller \center-column { \musicglyph #"scripts.mordent" \sharp } } }
; 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 (Ex. 4), 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 (Ex. 5 and 6) and, generally, when the Mordent is applied to either the third or seventh degree of the scale (Ex. 7). In these cases the auxiliary note is played a whole tone distant from its principal.

4. Bach, Organ Fugue in E minor.

{ \clef bass \time 4/4 \key e \minor r8 b b4\mordent r8 b b4\mordent | r8 b e fis g b e fis }
{ \clef bass \time 4/4 \key e \minor r8 b b32 ais b8. r8 b b32 ais b8. | r8 b e fis e b e fis }

5. Air from Suite Française No. 2.

{ \time 4/4 \key ees \major \relative d'' { d16 c d ees f g aes f g8\mordent b, ~ b16 c d b } }
{ \time 4/4 \key ees \major \relative d'' { d16 c d ees f g aes f g64 f g16. b,8 ~ b16 c d b } }

6. Well-tempered Clavier, No. 1, vol. 2.

{ \time 2/4 \key f \major \relative g' { r8 g16 f g8 c, a'4\mordent g } }
{ \time 2/4 \key f \major \relative g' { r8 g16 f g8 c, a'16 g a8. g4 } }

7. Sarabande from Suite Française No. 5.

{ \time 3/4 \key g \major \relative b' { b4.\mordent^\markup { \halign #2 \italic Bar 1. } c8[ a8. g16] | d4 s2 \bar "||" fis4.\mordent^\markup { \italic Bar 5. } g8[ e8. d16] | g4 } }
{ \time 3/4 \key g \major \relative b' { b32[ a b8.] s8 c8[ a8. g16] | d4 s2 \bar "||" fes32[ e fes8.] g8[ e8. b16] | g'4 } }

[App. p.719 "Example 4. It should be mentioned that many excellent authorities consider it right to play this passage without the accidental, i.e. using A, not A♯, as the auxiliary note of the mordent. See Spitta's 'Bach,' English edition, i. 403, note 89. Example 7, the last note but one should be D, not B."]

The Long Mordent (pincé 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 note, as the trill does, but must leave time for a sustained principal note at the end (Ex. 8). Its sign is
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \musicglyph #"scripts.prallmordent" } }
, not to be confounded with
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \musicglyph #"scripts.prallprall" } }
, or
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \musicglyph #"scripts.prallup" } }
, the signs for a trill with or without turn.

8. Bach, Sarabande from Partita No. 1.

{ \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \time 3/4 \key bes \major \relative d'' { << { d8. d16 \afterGrace d4 ~ { d32[ c bes a] } bes16 d f g, | aes8.\prallmordent aes16 aes8 } \\ { <bes f>4 q8 r r4 | <f d>4 q8 } >> } }
{ \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \time 3/4 \key bes \major \relative d'' { << { d8. d16 \afterGrace d4 ~ { d32[ c bes a] } bes16 d f g, | aes64 g aes g aes8 aes16 aes8 } \\ { <bes f>4 q8 r r4 | <f d>4 q8 } >> } }

Besides the above, Emanuel Bach gave the name of Mordent to two other graces, now nearly or quite obsolete. One, called the Abbreviated Mordent (pincé etouffé) was rendered by striking the auxiliary note together with its principal, and instantly releasing it (Ex. 9). This grace, which is identical with the Acciaccatura (see the word), 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 (Ex. 10).

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \relative c'' { \cadenzaOn \acciaccatura b8 c4^\markup { \center-column { \line { 9. \italic Abbreviated } \italic Mordent. } } s2 \bar "||" c4 g^\markup { 10. \italic { Slow Mordent. } } r8 g4 \bar "|" c2 c,\fermata \bar "|" } }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \relative c'' { \cadenzaOn << { c4 } \\ { b32 r r16 r8 } >> \bar "||" c8[ b16 c] g4 r8 g4 \bar "|" c4. b16[ c] c,2\fermata } }

Closely allied to the Mordent is another kind of ornament, called 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 (pincé renversé), none of which designations are very appropriate. The sign for this grace is
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \musicglyph #"scripts.prall" } }
, the short vertical line being omitted; and it consists, like the Mordent, of three notes, rapidly executed, the auxiliary note being one degree above the principal note instead of below it.
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 2/4 \relative c'' { c4\prall^\markup { 11. \italic Written. } b \bar "||" c32 d^\markup { \italic Played. } c8. b4 } }

The Pralltriller is characterised 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 cannot properly occupy. This being the case, there can be no doubt that in such instances as the following, where 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.

12. Mozart, Rondo in D.

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 6/4 \key d \major \relative d''' { d8[( cis]) b\mordent([ a)] g\mordent([ fis)] e\mordent([ d)] } }

Nevertheless, the Mordent is occasionally, though very rarely, met with on a note followed by a note one degree lower, as in the fugue already quoted (Ex. 6). 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 (Ex. 13), and the same is the case if the Mordent is preceded by a note one degree below (Ex. 14).

13. W. F. Bach, Sonata in D.

{ \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \time 2/2 \key d \major \relative d'' { << { d8*2/3[ a' fis] d' cis b \appoggiatura a4 g2\prall | <g cis,>4 \bar "||" } \\ { r4 fis, e <a cis> | d,2 } \\ { } \\ { r4 d'2 } >> } }
{ \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \time 2/2 \key d \major \relative d'' { << { d8*2/3[ a' fis] d' cis b a4 ~ \times 2/3 { a32[ g a } g8.] | <g cis,>4 \bar "||" } \\ { r4 fis, e <a cis> | d,2 } \\ { } \\ { r4 d'2 } >> } }

14. J. S. Bach, Sarabande from Suite Anglaise No. 3.

{ \time 3/4 \key g \minor \relative d' { << { d8 f16 e \appoggiatura e8 f4.\mordent d8 } \\ { bes4 b2 } >> } }
{ \time 3/4 \key g \minor \relative d' { << { d8 f16 e e8 ~ \times 2/3 { e32[ f e } f8.] d8 } \\ { bes4 b2 } >> } }

Emanuel Bach says 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—

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \time 4/4 \partial 2 \relative b' { \cadenzaOn << { b8^\markup { \halign #2 15. \italic Written. } g'4 b,8 | \appoggiatura b4 a2.\prall\fermata r4 \bar "||" b2^\markup { \italic Played. } ~ b32[ a b a] r8 r4\fermata \bar "||" } \\ { g4 cis, | d2. r4 | d2 ~ d8 r r4 } >> } }
The earlier writers drew a distinction between the Pralltriller and the so-called Schneller (schnellen, to filip). This grace was in all respects identical with the Pralltriller, but it was held that the latter could only occur on a descending diatonic progression (as in Ex. 11), while the Schneller might appear on detached notes. It was also laid down that the Schneller was always to be written in small notes, thus—
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \grace { c''16[ d''] } c''4 }
while the sign
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \override Score.Clef #'stencil = ##f \stopStaff s4^\markup { \musicglyph #"scripts.prall" } }
only indicated the Pralltriller. Türk 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 Türk 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 beloved brother,' which though only 17 bars in length contains no fewer than 17 Mordents and 30 Pralltrillers. In modern music the Mordent does not occur, but the Pralltriller and Schneller is frequently employed, as for instance by Beethoven in the first movement of the Sonate Pathétique.

Although the 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 mordente, 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.

[ F. T. ]