MP3 Harmonious Blacksmith - Sentirete Una Canzonetta
This CD explores the boundaries of improvisation and composition — some pieces are performed note for note as they were written, others are the inspiration or foundation for improvisation, and finally, some pieces are completely made up on the spot.
13 MP3 Songs in this album (48:51) !
Related styles: Classical: Early Music, Classical: Baroque, Type: Improvisational
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Because improvisation is by nature a fleeting art, and because prior to the 16th century
music notation was a luxury, we have little understanding of how musicians improvised
in medieval and early Renaissance times. While theorists mentioned improvised
counterpoint in vocal music as early as 1412, we have a much clearer understanding of
improvisatory practices in the mid 16th century, when Italian musicians began publishing
instrumental instruction books. These books, probably intended for amateurs, describe
technical and musical aspects of instrumental performance. They also devote much
attention to diminutions — ornaments that embellish and quicken the motion from one
note to another. Through study and practice, performers learned to improvise diminutions,
and these treatises give us insights into how and when musicians improvised.
There were many different contexts for improvising diminutions. The most common
method was ornamenting the melody of famous songs, usually madrigals or chansons.
Some books also show improvisations over repeating bass lines, such as the folia,
bergamasca and chaconne. Others give examples of ricercars: diminutions in free solo
improvisations that had no relation to any pre-existing material. One of the most
innovative ways performers improvised was alla bastarda, in which the improviser was
not restricted to ornamenting a single voice in a polyphonic piece, but rather moved
freely from voice to voice, making up an entirely new line.
Most instruments are well suited, in one way or another, for improvising. The treble
instruments, like the recorder, violin and cornetto, are adept at melodic diminutions
and ornaments, while the continuo instruments, like the harpsichord and theorbo, are at
home with chordal accompaniments and even polyphonic improvisations. Diminutions
were not just for instrumentalists, but were also an important part of artful singing. For
all musicians, good taste was required to know when to add embellishments and when
to leave them out.
Although the madrigal flourished in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century, all of the
improvisation manuals base their diminutions on earlier, mid 16th century madrigals
and chansons. There are two main reasons for this: first, as early 17th century madrigals
became increasingly connected to the text, each word and phrase were given unique
musical gestures. This close relationship with the text created extreme contrasts within
each madrigal. Sixteenth century madrigals and chansons, however, were somewhat
less connected to the text, and displayed a more unified mood throughout. These more
cohesive pieces may have been easier starting points for improvisation. The second
reason musicians improvised over 16th century madrigals and chansons is that the pieces
were so well known. Improvising on such popular tunes made it easier for the audience
to appreciate the performer’s improvisations.
The diminutions described by treatises became increasingly virtuosic and ornate in the
17th century. As the ornamented performances became more abstract and intricate, they
sounded less and less like the original songs on which they were based. These ornate,
stylized instrumental practices strongly influenced the birth of the sonata in Italy
around the turn of the century. Early 17th century Italian sonatas display many of the
patterns and passage work found in diminution manuals. Many of these early sonatas
are so virtuosic that they leave little room for additional ornamentation. By the mid 17th
century, the improvisatory performance practice of diminutions had been superseded
by completely composed forms.
This CD explores the boundaries of improvisation and composition — some pieces are
performed note for note as they were written, others are the inspiration or foundation
for improvisation, and finally, some pieces are completely made up on the spot. Playing
around these boundaries is one of the great joys of performing early music, which allows
and benefits from this freedom.