Recorded between December 1st and 4th, 2000 and June 25th, 2001 at Collegiale du Chateau de Cardona, Catalonia
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The use of a repeated melodic pattern in the low register, as the basis for successive contrapuntal elaborations by one or more parts in the upper register, is one of the earliest forms of instrumental music known in Europe. Most likely its origin lies in an improvisatory tradition developed by instrumentalists involved in the performance of dance music. If you had a ground bass in long durational values, with a steady rhythm, the limited gamut of consonant choices for the upper parts generated a relatively stable harmonic sequence, and in fact this association of a given bass line with a specific rhythmic and harmonic pattern was often the most recognisable characteristic of a particular dance, and the one which helped dancers the most in finding and keeping the right steps to it. Treble instruments could thus freely improvise virtuosic discants on that basso ostinato, as the Italians called it, while its repeated presentation served its purpose of clearly identifying the dance to which it belonged. Even in a context of purely instrumental performance, without any association to dancing, certain grounds circulated widely throughout Europe as ideal vehicles for improvisation, becoming part of a cosmopolitan instrumental repertoire, while others remained in use exclusively in a particular region.
Like much of European instrumental music in the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance, this tradition was left unwritten for a long time, although a few of these ground basses occasionally appear as structural elements in some of the polyphonic songs assembled in Spanish, French or Italian 15th - century manuscript songbooks. But as soon as the first printed methods for such instruments as the organ, the recorder, the viol, the lute or the vihuela appear, in the second third of the 16th century, several of them include highly elaborate examples of diminutions on ostinato basses, and in fact the same grounds are often used by composers of different nationalities, attesting to the previous widespread circulation of this type of material.
A particularly cosmopolitan example of these publications, written by a composer from Toledo, Diego Ortiz, but published in Rome in 1553, is the Trattado de glosas sobre clausulas, specifically intended for the viol but addressing-several general issues of interest to any other instrument, such as a detailed description of the art of melodic diminution and ornamentation. The book ends with a series of nine Recercadas for viol and harpsichord, all of them built on ostinatos ("sobre estos Cantos llanos que en Italia comunmente llaman Tenores", or "on these chants which in Italy are usually called Tenors"), with the indication that the harpsichord can be replaced by a second melodic instrument playing only the bass line. The grounds used are the Passamezzo antico, the Passamezzo moderno, the Romanesca and the Folia, as well as, in the last piece, the Ruggiero. The "old" and "modern" versions of the Passamezzo are two of the most common variants of an Italian dance in duple meter, faster than the Pavan, which appears in many 16th- and 17th-century collections of instrumental music all over Europe. A similar case is that of the Romanesca, well known in France and Italy but associated in the Peninsula to the song Guardame las vacas, a favourite of the Spanish composers for the vihuela, such as Narvaez, Mudarra or Valderrabano. They all share with the Portuguese Folia (to which Jordi Savall has already dedicated an album, AV9805) the general characteristic of being based on repeated sequences of eight root-position triads with a steady rhythmic pulse. A slightly different case is that of Ruggiero, a more elaborate bass melody, subdivided into four successive phrases and with a more diversified rhythmic structure. Among the shorter bass patterns commonly used for 16th- and 17fh-century ostinato variations, the most famous were undoubtedly the Passacaglia and the Ciaccona (or, in Castilian, Passacalle and Chacona), both restricted to a sequence of four basic harmonies each (I-VII-VI-V, in the minor mode, for the former; I-V- IV-V, in the Major mode, in the case of the latter), although other passing chords can be inserted in this elementary pattern. The Chacona, moreover, was originally associated with a light-hearted and somewhat scandalous song and dance which was very popular in Spain from at least the mid-16th century on, some sources suggesting it may have had a South-American origin. Yet another Spanish popular dance pattern to be adopted as a ground bass for instrumental variations in other European countries until the mid- 18th century was the Canarios, or Canary, apparently born in the Canary Islands. Often described at first - not always without a certain degree of fascination, one should add - as being "barbaric" and "immoral", these dances were in many cases gradually transformed into sophisticated courtly items according to the Baroque taste, losing in the process many of their original popular characteristics. But even so they remained at the very centre of the European instrumental repertoire.
Besides Ortiz, many other Iberian composers of instrumental music, writing for the vihuela, the guitar, the harp or the organ, made use of these and other ground basses in their works. In his 1626 Facultad organica, one of the most influential publications of Mannerist keyboard music in the Peninsula, organist Francisco Correa de Arauxo (ca. 1576-1654) chose a longer bass melody for a stunningly beautiful set of variations, Todo el mundo en general. On the other hand, Italian composers of the late Mannerist and early Baroque periods thouroughly cultivated this genre in their solo and ensemble instrumental works, such as Antonio Valente's Intavolatura de cimbalo (1576) or the various collections published in the first half of the 17th century by Salomone Rossi (1570-ca.l630), BiagioMarini (ca.1587-1663) or Tarquinio Merula (1594 or 95-1665), amongst many others.
In England, 16th- and 17th-century composers like William Byrd, John Bull, Thomas Tomkins, and later Christopher Simpson or John Playford, developed a similar tradition of ostinato variations, sometimes choosing the same ground basses as their continental counterparts but often using different ones, each author either inheriting them from previous British musicians or inventing his own for each new piece. Strophic songs on a repeated harmonic pattern, such as the famous Greensleeves, were frequently used for this purpose, as well as independent bass lines with no discant parts attached to them, ranging from merely two notes (as in Bull's The Bells) to lengthy melodies of a complex intern al structure. Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was a keen enthusiast of obligato writing, not only in several of his instrumental pieces, but in many of his vocal arias, the best-known example being Dido's extraordinary Lament on a recurrent eleven-note bass, at the end of Dido & Aeneas (1689).
Variations on a ground bass were written by practically eveiy major composer of instrumental music in Europe until the very end of the Baroque Era, either on such "classics" as the Folia, the Passacaglia or the Chaconne (these last two genres ultimately becoming indistinguishable) or on newly composed grounds, of which one of the most famous examples is the ostinato in the Canon & Gigue in D major, for 3 violins and continuo, by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).
As in practically all genres of instrumental music in the 16th and 17th centuries, we should bear in mind that most of the sets of variations on a ground published during these two centuries were composed by authors who were themselves acclaimed instrumental virtuosos and who wished to present in their publications examples of a technical mastery of their instruments which was generally inseparable from their highly developed improvisatory skills. Not only, as a general rule for the performance practice of this period, were other instrumentalists wishing to play these works expected to add ad libitum ornaments and diminutions to the printed score, but undoubtedly no two renditions of a particular work by the same performer, be it the author himself or any other virtuoso, would be exactly alike. In many ways, a printed version of a Mannerist or Baroque instrumental piece (especially in the case of 16th and early 17th century Iberian and Italian music) can be seen exactly like that - as a version, which does not in any way attempt to present a definitive, authoritative text for that work, and which as such is much closer, to some extent, to a live recording of a jazz performance, with all of its spontaneous improvisatory component, than to the 19th century ideal of an unchangeable Urtext. In a repertoire based not as much on purely formal or contrapunctal considerations as on a succession of free virtuosic elaborations on a pre-existing bass line, the pursuit of true "authenticity" in its modern performance must include the rediscovery of this inexhaustible element of permanent personal creativity. That is why the present recording not only is characterized by a constant improvisatory element in the approach to the works performed but even includes a moment of actual collective improvisation on the ground of Canarios.
- Rui Vieira Nery
University of Evora