March 2007

On Wednesday, we began exploring the improvised aspects and possibilities in Baroque ornamentaion and figured-bass realization.  The entire class had been asked to write out the violin and basso continuo parts for Corelli’s Violin Sonata, Op. 5 No. 9, using Neal Zaslaw’s wonderful article, “Ornaments for Corelli’s Violin Sonatas, op. 5”,  from the February 1996 issue of Early Music as a source.  The article has an illustration of the first half of Op. 9’s opening movement as Corelli originally published it in 1700 and seven sets of subsequently-published ornaments.

The International edition of the sonata was passed around to show how we so often are given a Baroque sonata to study: an unornamented solo part (with perhaps a trill or two added in) and a piano part, fully written out, with no figures, and, of course, a number of dynamic markings;  nothing indicates what are editorial additions.  It’s an anachronistic performing edition.  We also looked at the Performer’s Fascimiles publication of Estienne Roger’s edition which has not only the solo violin and figured bass line, but also an additional ornamented violin line, which Roger claimed were “Corelli’s graces” and about which there has been suspicion for 300 years. As Ken Slowick pointed out to me once, whether they are by Corelli or not, they are an example of contemporaneous practice.

So we saw the sort of manuscript people actually played from way back when.  And then with the assistance of one of the pianists in the class, I played the first movement unornamented, and then with my own rather simple free ornaments.  After a bit of discussion, a number of class members tried their hands as well: trumpet, viola, trombone, French horn, and piano.

What was interesting, among other things, was that the basic melody is so simple that it can be played by any melodic instrument.  The character of the piece changes greatly with both the instrument and the player.  Ornaments can be adapted to the idiomatic possibilities of the instrument.

We also began analyzing the chords indicated by the figured bass.  Rather than a functional, Roman-numeral analysis, we began the process of writing in the letter name of the root of the chord as well as the quality.  Whether one is augmenting the figured bass or improvising over it, it’s essential to know the chord as a practical, rather than theoretical, concept.

Friday all but two class members were either in or on their way to Atlanta for the School of Music showcase concert at the Woodruff Center, so we had no class.

Monday it was back to Corelli.

But first, some free/focused improv.  We began a joint ostinato based on an A major chord and after most people seemed pretty much warmed up, I had just piano, bass, and cello continue the ostinato (or groove, as I was calling it). Then various class members did A-major solos over the ostinato.  After about half the class had played or sang a solo, we switched the groove to 4 beats of A major alternating with four beats of E major (I – V), and even had a duo or two after that.

What I really wanted was to immerse ourselves for a while in an exploration of the possibilities of elaborating a harmonic sequence. For those not used to playing over chord changes, this was a good introduction.

Copies of a scholarly performing edition, showing the figured bass and a simple realization, along with Geminiani’s published ornaments for Op. 5 No. 9, had been passed out.  As a reminder of what was, until recently, standard practice, a student pianist and I played the first movement, sans ornamentation, with the slightly soupy International Edition piano part, and me vibrating as widely as possible.  Then I played a recording of the Locatelli Trio playing the same movement–with harpsichord and cello continuo, Baroque violin, sparse ornamentation on the first time through, and elaborate ornamentation on the repeats.  How extraordinarily different!

We discussed those differences, and the difference between the sparse realization in the scholarly edition we viewed and what we heard on the recording.  The point was made that the realization was provided not as “the” way to perform the work (as the International Edition implies is the case with its performing part), but as something for those lacking skills to do their own realization.  And the Geminiani ornaments show a way to ornament the reprises, not the way.

The class found it especially interesting to note that the realization was different on the reprise.  And that in the right hand of the harpsichord we could hear ornaments, and even counter melodies.  So the good keyboard continuo player needs to know both harmony and counterpoint!

And then we went through the first half of the first movement and analyzed all the chords together.   Wednesday, we’ll do more experimentation with our own ornamentation, discuss the historical context more fully, and begin looking at Quantz’s material on ornamentation.

Here’s what I found myself writing while gathering my thoughts for our Baroque unit. (Note they continue–click on the “more” link.)

We started the semester off by discussing, among other things, Christopher Small’s concept of “musicking.” In his book Musicking: the Meanings of Performing and Listening (we read a lecture presented before the publication of the book), Small gives the following definition of musicking:

To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composition), or by dancing.

Those of you who find yourself annoyed by our occasional dance sessions, take that!

Small also asserts,

[P]erformance does not exist in order to present musical works, but rather, musical works exist in order to give performers something to perform.

He also tells that the question, “What is the nature or meaning of this work of music?” is an insufficient one, so “trapped in the assumptions of the modern Western concert tradition” that “it will give us answers that are at best partial and even contradictory.” The more useful question, Small argues, is “What does it mean when this performance (of this work) takes place at this time, in this place, with these participants?

These issues can be argued ad infinitum. Small is rebelling against a hundred years or more of intellectual tradition which views music through the nineteenth-century western European “work concept” (as Lydia Goehr has named it). As rebels tend to do, he takes a firm, one sided stand. Works exist for performers, not the other way around as it is usually assumed.


. . . as you prepare to write your essay, have a oral-exam conversation with me, or do whatever it is you will do to synthesize your learning so far.

Music for People:
Music for People improv techniques:
Music for People “Bill of Musical Rights”:
Other Music for People articles:

My online book draft: (it is searchable, so you can look for material on various subjects we’ve discussed).

Christopher Small’s “Musicking” lecture:

This blog. Some posts are categorized. And you can also search for a particular term and see what I’ve written in a class synopsis or a class member has posted in a comment.

Grove Music Online
Improvisation article
Division article

Imaginary Museum of Musical Works
Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, wrote a review a few years back in which he gave an excellent summary of Lydia Goehr’s thesis, which also informs the rest of his review.  You can read it on his blog at .

In class today, we:

  1. We did free movement to a recording of “La Sonnerie de St. Geneviève de Paris” by Marin Marais (1656-1728), a French Baroque composer who was renowned as a viola da gamba performer. The piece is a great example of melodic development over a simple ground bass (in this case, G – B flat – A), a Renaissance technique which carried over into the Baroque. We also sang the ground as we moved/danced.  (There’s at least one nice recording of this on the Naxos site, but I can’t link directly to it.  You can find by searching on “Marais.”)
  2. We drew names from a hat to create at-random small groups, who dispersed to various locations to improvise for about 25 minutes.
  3. The instruction for the small-group improvising was to do 5-10 minutes of free improvisation, then experiment with melodic division technique, a common Renaissance practice. Friday’s handout with examples of divisions over ground bass (from the Grove Online articles on “Improvisation” and “Division”) was to serve as a reference. I asked that each group create its own short ground bass, and then use the same ground as a melody to divide, so to speak. The handout shows (among other things) three seemingly simple approaches: begin and end on the original note; begin on the original note and approach the next note by step; and finally use the melody as an outline and “divide” more freely, not necessarily playing all the original notes.
  4. We regrouped in 152 and discussed the small group exercises and the upcoming test/alternative project.

Each group reported that doing divisions on a melody is harder than it looks. Even our virtuoso jazz players found it challenging. Each group tried doing it, found it frustrating, and then moved back to free improvising. Each group reported that the final free improvising really “clicked.”

So was the brief experiment with melodic division technique a failure? After all, no one did it “well.”

That was no failure, I pointed out (or declared, or some combination of the two). We have discussed on and off all semester that idiomatic improvisation skills take a long time to develop. First, you need to learn a vocabulary of musical gesture and internalize them. Then you can freely make music. As Clark Terry has been widely quoted, “imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

So idiomatic Renaissance improvisation is not something you can pick up in 15 minutes. Why, then, would we do it for just 15 or 20 minutes? Because we can also use improvisation as a mode of learning. Reading about (and usually quickly forgetting) a concept is very different than actually giving it a try. Even a small taste is a more effective experience than reading, say, a restaurant review. And it seemed to me that everyone agreed that even this brief attempt at dividing a melody Renaissance-style gave a different insight into what many Renaissance musicians did.

The free improvisations which followed the division experiments worked well, everyone reported. Now the energy had shifted from trying to “follow a rule” to expressing yourself and connecting with others in your group using your own musical vocabularies. Additionally, the experiments which had just disintegrated gave the free improvisations a creative focus. Each group reported that some element of the division experiment carried over.

There’s something magical about struggling with a new technique and then doing free improvisation. In one workshop I attended, we named this approach “rigor and surrender.” Even if the free improvisation has nothing to do with the technique experimented with, the free improvisation has a sharper focus.

Class plan for Wed. 3/7:

9:00 AM  Meet in 152, then break into 4 small groups (in 152, Thompson, 122, and 16) for free improv and further experimentation with division techniques.  I will draw names from a hat (as per Chris’s suggestion) to form groups.

9:30 AM regroup in 152 for discussion of small-group improvs and test/test alternative

Friday 3/9:

No class–use the time to work on your test/project.

MUS 390 Spring 2007

Guidelines for Test or Alternative Project Covering Material in Weeks 1-6

Your traditional-format essay, private oral-exam discussion with me, or creative alternative project, should show that you have a basic understanding of the following:

  • different types of/focuses for improvisation (i.e., improvisation as mode of learning, improvisation as a mode of self-expression/healing, improvisation as part of an idiomatic, nonidiomatic, or polyidiomatic performance or recording);
  • the “work concept” as described by Lydia Goehr in The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works;
  • Christopher Small’s concept of “musicking”;
  • the Music for People philosophy as embodied in the MfP “Bill of Musical Rights” and basic MfP improvisation starting points such as one-quality tones, freely improvised melodies, melodies over drones, and melodies over ostinatos;
  • improvisational aspects of historical Western music making up through the Renaissance period, as experienced in class and/or described by Ferand and in the Grove Online “Improvisation” article.

Click the link to read the rest:


We were back down in rm. 16, having vacated 152 for audition activities. Joining us were about half a dozen prospective students, most of the cellists.

As a warm up, we sang a drone on D, and then sang and played D Dorian scales. We then introduced ourselves to our visitors, singing in the Dorian mode. With a number of cellos and Adam on bass, we had quite a drone going.

We discussed the subtitle of the course: “Musicking before, during, and after the (dominance of) the work concept.” This served not only to create a context for the visiting students, but also to help review for the test/test alternative. As an example of classically-trained professional musicians creatively “musicking,” we listened to selections from the Baltimore Consort’s CD “La Rocque n’Roll,” which features improvised/newly composed instrumental accompaniments to and arrangements of popular French songs of the Renaissance. Here we have contemporary, post-work concept musicians creating music (musicking) using pre-work concept techniques.

We then discussed the Renaissance technique of creating melodic divisions over a ground bass. I passed around two volumes of “The Division Violin,” an English 17th-century publication that is a good document of late-Renaissance, early Baroque practice. We experimented with division technique, with Adam playing a ground bass (D-E-F-G-F-E, repeated over and over), and members of the class and guests trying their hand (or voice) at varying the rhythm of the ground and/or using some of the division techniques in the handout I gave out in class on Friday.

At the end of class, I played one of the composed sets of divisions from “The Division Violin” while Adam played the ground bass. A very important point is that highly-trained, professional musicians in the Renaissance were expected to be able to improvise divisions, including imitative counterpoint such as canons. Imagine improvising a canon with another vocalist!

Books such as “The Division Violin” would have been of interest to professionals as a source of tunes and accompanying grounds, but many would have improvised or composed their own divisions. Amateurs, however, would have been a market for these mostly easy-to-play pieces.

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