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.