How to Play Trills in Beethoven

First, we must remember the musical tradition from which Beethoven came. That was the Baroque and Bach--whose trills were codified by his son CPE. (Other composers of the period also left treatises and charts on ornamentation: Muffat, Geminiani, Tartini, Quantz, and Couperin.)

Bach's trills (marked /\/\/\/) start on the upper note. Always. Because we are not part of that heritage--we have to learn it through study, not by hearing it every day at home, at church, and in the community--we tend not to take this into account when trying to decide how trills should be performed. Instead, we think about how we hear trills performed (mostly in romantic music).

Any trill starts on the beat. Always. For all musical periods.

One of the prime Baroque "reasons" for trills is to create a momentary dissonance (tension), which the composer then relieves. (There are other reasons, of course, such as to add emotion to the music, etc., but creating a dissonance explains 80% of them, so this is a convenient starting place for any discussion.) Therefore, to displace the starting (upper) note to before the beat to avoid a dissonance is to obviate the reason for the trill's existence!

The question--if it is one--is what note starts the trill: the main note or the note above.

A simple trill always starts on the note above. A complex trill-for example, one with a turned beginning from below--*will* start on the lower note, granted, but only because Bach has specified that it is a trill with a turned beginning from below. A trill marked tr or /\/\/\/ never starts on the lower note; it always starts from above.

To sum for Beethoven: trills start on the beat and on the upper note.

This is the general guide for Chopin and Mozart, too.

Yes, yes, I can hear you saying: "But what about the trills in the RH of the con brio section of the first movement of Beethoven's 'Pathétique'?" This is a thorny problem. To do these trills "correctly" (Baroque style as explained above), you would start the trill on the upper note. Therefore the note prior to the one bearing the trill sign would be *repeated* as the preparatory note of the trill. This is most clumsy. Not to mention "difficult" at this speed.

If we remember that Beethoven was a pianist and we "listen" to our hands, however, we will see that it makes "hand sense" to start these trills on the main note and go upwards and then back down (3 notes total) because the "preparatory note" has already been played just prior to the note marked with the trill. I believe Beethoven allowed for this by writing the "preparatory note" for the trill as a notated part of the music proper. (Mozart and Chopin often do this, too.) It is not very obvious to us, sometimes, because we weren't brought up in the early nineteenth-century musical milieu, having been "corrupted" by the late nineteenth-century romantic style. There is also an element of musical shorthand here: to people of that period, it would have been perfectly obvious that the preparatory note for the trill was written out "this time." This is the same sort of thinking that players contemporary to Mozart used when they saw a note printed small plus an eighth followed by two sixteenths: they knew this was a shorthand or alternate notation for four even sixteenth notes.

As a learning device, I often add words to help get the counting correct. The "counting text" to this RH melody in the "Pathétique" is as follows--don't laugh! it works!-- beginning with the pick-up note: "Oh, eat a strawberry pie, strawberry pie, strawberry pie every day." (The "strawberry pie" part is the trill.)

Therefore, I state the following rule for trills in Beethoven: start on the beat and on the upper note EXCEPT when in a descending line (that is, when the note before the note bearing the trill is a step higher than the trill note).

This rule also should be applied to Chopin. In some instances, I use it for Mozart, but by and large, I apply Bach's pure rules (repeat that upper note as the preparatory note if the trilled note is approached from a step above) to Mozart.

copyright 1997, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

Piano Home Page | Pedagogy | Home Page