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MP3 The Folger Consort - Playing with Fire: The Art of the Renaissance Instrumentalist

Improvisation, traditional tunes and dance music from Renaissance Europe. Cheerful, with an engaging lack of pretension.

36 MP3 Songs
CLASSICAL: Early Music, CLASSICAL: Renaissance

Fiery improvisations on the popular tunes and dance music of the 1500s, and masterpieces of instrumental contrapuntal complexity

Robert Eisenstein - viols, recorder
Christopher Kendall - lute, harp
Scott Reiss - recorders
Tina Chancey, Renaissance violin, viols
David Douglass, Renaissance violin
Grant Herreid, lute, Renaissance guitar
Tom Zajac, bagpipes, pipe and tabor, triangle, transverse flute, recorders

It is not surprising that a program like this is popular with players such as ourselves. Renaissance instrumental music is fun to play. There is a big element of improvisation involved, and we choose our own instrumentation. Most of it is cheerful, with an engaging lack of pretension. These things are part of the attraction of early music in general for many of us -- we, as early music performers, have the opportunity to put a good deal of ourselves into our performances, in ways that players of later repertories really cannot. With the trend in early music performance tending toward greater specialization in repertoire, and narrower acceptance of what is historically "authentic" in performance practice, it is good for us to remember these informally enjoyable aspects of our chosen repertoire.

We will never know as much about the art of Renaissance instrumentalists as we do about the art of their vocal colleagues. The old medieval musical hierarchy continued to hold authority in the Renaissance. The term musices, or musician, is reserved for the theorist, he who speculates on the harmony of God''s spheres and its resonance in the ratios and proportions of earthly music. Next below the theorist is the singer, who glorifies God''s name in song in church, chapel, or cathedral. At the bottom of the ladder is the lowly instrumentalist, whose sole purpose is to provide sounds to be danced to or otherwise enjoyed on this earth. Also, the great musical forms of the Renaissance -- the cyclical Mass and the great motets -- are purely vocal forms. Much of the excitement of Renaissance instrumental music does not survive in any written form -- a large part of the Renaissance player''s art was his or her skill in improvisation.

There are several different sorts of improvisation represented on this recording. First, there is plenty of simple melodic ornamentation on most of the dances recorded here. A few of the pieces are written-out divisions by the players, such as David Douglass’ florid setting of Filles a marier for fiddle. Then there are the true improvisations, such as the pas de brabant version of Filles a marier and our version of Tregian''s Ground. These are made up out of whole cloth, without notation. Finally, there are the improvisations on tunes. Our version of the Playford country dance Stingo is one of these -- we changed the plan for this tune in the recording session, and Tina Chancey came up with a terrific fiddle version on the spot.

This emphasis on spontaneity in a musical style is hardly surprising. In most cultures, instrumental music depends on aural tradition and improvisation. Even in our own age of instrumental virtuosi with an established canon of acceptable great printed works, there are schools of playing, such as Afro-American music, that depend for their excitement and energy on improvisation and other means of dissemination than musical notation. Our appreciation of these contemporary styles is immediate. Many of us listen to jazz with the familiarity and ease born of growing up and living with the style, and we find it natural to revel in the freedom of a soaring solo over the harmonies of a standard tune that we know well. It must have been the same for listeners in the Renaissance. The trick for modern players interested in recreating a little of the excitement and freedom of Renaissance improvisation is to learn how to achieve familiarity and ease in styles we did not grow up with, but consciously set out to study. Fortunately, there are surviving clues. A certain number of pieces, in various Renaissance styles, are modeled on the kinds of things players would improvise, and we can learn a lot from these examples. And by the mid-sixteenth century, players began to address the needs of students with printed manuals and tutors, often centered on the art of diminution or embellishment. These manuals also contain samples for the practice of learners.

Because of the importance of improvisation to Renaissance playing, we made it a theme of this recording. But it is not the only theme. Much of the surviving Renaissance instrumental music is dance music, and there is plenty of that here as well. And we did not wish to forget the little abstract instrumental gems printed in some quantity throughout the sixteenth century. At the end of the disk, we have crossed over into the seventeenth century for some of the delightful English country dance tunes suitable for our instruments. Finally, we did not wish to neglect the tantalizing glimpses available to us into the traditional and folk tunes of Renaissance culture. These tunes often became models for improvisation and even frameworks for the great structures of cyclical masses. What we have compiled on this recording is a combination of all these things -- improvisation, great compositions, traditional tunes, and dance music, overlapping and combining in many ways.

Thomas Mulliner, an English composer of the mid-sixteenth century, was responsible for preserving the first three tunes on this recording. Mulliner''s anthology of keyboard works includes arrangements of songs which sound like folk tunes. We have extracted the tunes called La Doune Celle, Shymyze, and La Bounette from their keyboard settings.

Henry VIII (1491-1547), especially in the earlier and less troubled years of his reign, was a great patron of music. He was known to play the organ, lute, and virginals, was "much delighted to synge," and, considering his other duties, did fairly well as a composer of instrumental consorts. Actually, the Tandernaken setting ascribed to him borrows heavily from a setting by the continental composer Erasmus Lapicida. There are many consorts in the manuscript we call Henry VIII''s Book, a collection of secular pieces enjoyed at the English court. He was probably responsible for bringing the first viols to England, and maintained a substantial collection of instruments of all kinds. William Cornysh, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, is represented in Henry VIII''s Book by Fa La Sol and other pieces. Unlike his patron, he was decidedly not an amateur composer. Fa La Sol is an extended instrumental work for its time, and is a masterful and complex piece of chamber music.

Next we visit the fifteenth and very early sixteenth centuries, when the opulent courts of Burgundy and Italian cities supported large musical establishments, including instrumentalists. The first Burgundian piece heard here is appropriately titled Dit le Bourgignon, and is preserved in Petrucci''s seminal Harmonices Musices Odhecaton A of 1501, the first printed collection of part music. Of course, one of the instrumentalists'' main functions was to play for dancing. Dance bands, whether composed of loud wind instruments (shawms and trombones) or the softer, more intimate ones heard here, followed the same performance procedure. One player held the tenor, a slow-moving and regular framework to enable dancers to feel the measure of the music. Other players, usually one above and one below the tenor, improvised counterpoint to the tune, often of great rhythmic interest and complexity. We have chosen a couple of the most popular tunes on which to present our own improvisations as well as masterful composed settings from Italy, Spain, and Flanders. Filles a marier is a melody which survives in Burgundian sources, both as a basse dance tenor and as a polyphonic composition. It is originally a popular tune, so we present it first in a reconstructed "traditional" setting. There follows a florid version for two fiddles, a pas de brabant or lively dance improvised by the players, and an anonymous composed setting from a fifteenth-century manuscript of French chansons.

La Spagna, a bassa danza, is one of the most popular of the fifteenth-century dance tenors. Unlike Filles a marier, it is not a song at all, and probably never had an independent existence as anything but a danceband improvisation framework. In one of the interesting cross-overs with which this recording abounds, there are several wonderful composed settings that utilize this tenor. The first version is indeed Spanish, by Francisco de la Torres, from the Cancionero de Palacio. The second setting, performed here on two recorders, is from an Italian manuscript and makes use of some wonderful rhythmic gearshifting. Finally, there is a driving setting of La Spagna in four parts by the Netherlands composer Johannes Ghiselin, who like many of his countrymen made his career at an Italian court.

From the 1520s to the end of the century, a thriving industry of music publishing made it possible for amateur musicians among the growing middle classes of the towns to enjoy the kinds of dance arrangements performed by professionals. The dances performed here from the collections of Gardane and Phalese are typical. In many cases, the printed scores were to be taken only as frameworks for varied and embellished performance. The lovely Tant que vivray by the Parisian composer Claudin de Sermisy was a favorite subject of instrumental attention in the 1520s and -30s. Another of the enterprising printers of the time, Pierre Attaignant, published decorated versions for lute and keyboard. We present here our own divisions (on the tenor part of the chanson) for viol and lute.

Social dancing was a pervasive pursuit in sixteenth-century Italy, so it is surprising that only a couple of collections of dance music for instrumental ensemble survive. Of course, professional musicians probably had no use for printed collections. They knew how to play in this style, knew the tunes, and were capable of making up their own arrangements. The few prints we have were likely intended for amateurs, and contain simple arrangements of standard dances that were performed with much embellishment by the pros. Giorgio Mainerio''s collection of dances current in the 1570s is no exception. Most of the dances, including the pass''e mezzo and salterello, are types that were current for much of the century and changed little from earlier prints. Mainerio also included a few more outlandish dances like the Schiarazula Marazula in his book, with very simple accompaniments that may point to a more popular origin.

The Fantasia for two lutes by Francesco da Milano is an example of one of the main types of instrumental music to develop in the sixteenth century, known variously as fantasia, recercada, ricercare, and so on. These pieces are not dances, or even dance-inspired in most cases, and so represent the beginnings of a real abstract instrumental style separate from both dance and vocal beginnings. In fact, the sixteenth century saw the development in many directions of instrumental style and virtuosity.

Of course, improvised performance of dance music was prized as much in the sixteenth century as it was in the fifteenth. As the basse danse types gave way to other sorts of dancing, a few common bass patterns came into use. In practice, these bass ostinatos are performed as chord progressions by the accompanists, supporting melodic and contrapuntal improvisations. One of these patterns is the Ruggiero bass. Diego Ortiz, a Spaniard working in Rome, included divisions on the Ruggiero progression as well as others in his Tratado de glosas sobre clausulas y otros generos de puntos en la musica de violones published in 1553. This valuable treatise on extemporaneous playing starts with a veritable cookbook of ways to ornament any interval or cadence. Ortiz then demonstrates, with well-written examples, how to write or improvise a part over an old-fashioned tenor, how to ornament a madrigal or chanson, and how to make divisions to the standard chord progressions. His examples assume a developed technique on the part of the performer, especially when one considers that the viol was hardly fifty years old when Ortiz published his manual. The tradition of ornamenting a part in a pre-existing chanson or madrigal continued to be practiced throughout the second half of the sixteenth century, with ever more elaborate and virtuoso embellishments. Bassano''s division on Frais et Galliard is a good example. Its virtuoso nature and rapid passagework obscures the original melody. These elaborate divisions are a good way along the path from merely decorating vocal models to creating a truly instrumental genre of virtuoso performance. La Gamba is a capriccio by Vincenzo Ruffo. Ruffo was the first to apply the term to an instrumental piece. His Capricci in Musica a tre Voci, published in 1564 "for the pleasure of virtuosi," are full of energetic rhythms and imaginative counterpoint.

The great theorist and composer Michael Praetorius lived from 1571 to 1621. Praetorius was one of the most versatile Lutheran musicians of his day, writing a variety of sacred settings in German and Latin ranging from two parts to giant Venetian-style polychoral pieces. Praetorius'' Terpsichore, a collection of dances, is an invaluable source of information about the French dance music of the time. The cosmopolitan Praetorius was able to obtain the tunes from many French court dances, and publish them in arrangements in Terpsichore. The dances performed here are from this collection. Incidentally Syntagma Musicum, a theoretical treatise of his last years, tells us much about instrumental practice in the early Baroque, and includes some of the only usable drawings of many instruments of the time.

Thomas Morley (c.1557-1606), was a pupil of the great William Byrd. He was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a composer, theorist, writer, and publisher. Morley was one of the most interesting and important musical figures in Elizabethan England. His lute songs, consorts, and canzonets with their familiar "fa la la" refrains are well known and often performed. With Christes Crosse, we have an entirely different type of piece by Morley. It comes from his great theoretical treatise, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, which was published in 1597. This book is set in the form of a dialogue between Philomathes, embarrassed by the fact that he cannot hold a part in social singing, and Master Gnorimus, who agrees to instruct Philomathes in the art of singing, descanting, and composition, from the ground up. The whole book is delightfully readable, and is probably still the best explanation of late Renaissance theory around. Christes Crosse is one of the examples in the book, in this case intended to demonstrate the use of metrical proportions. It certainly does that -- just about every possible subdivision of the beat is present here, resulting in 6 against 4, 5 against 3, 7 against 8, and other decidedly difficult rhythms. We have taken William Byrd''s Tregian''s Ground and improvised our own divisions over it.

John Playford''s collection of 1651 called The English Dancing Master, or Plaine and easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with the Tune to each Dance, were popular dances on all levels of Elizabethan society, being a "darling diversion from court to cottage." No fewer than eighteen editions of this book were issued by 1728. Many of the dances in the 1651 collection are much older -- a number of them go back at least as far as 1560. Unlike the dances in French court tradition, which are always for couples, these country dances (or contredanses) are danced in "squares," "rounds," or "longways." In other words, they are for groups of people dancing together. The tunes are simple, memorable, and timeless. Many have a characteristic minor but merry flavor, some are exuberant, others may be ballad tunes. Their popularity for so many years attests to their quality. Although Playford printed these dances as simple fiddle tunes, we have arranged them, as Elizabethans surely did, for the instruments at hand.
Robert Eisenstein

A leading early music ensemble, in-residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library for over 30 years, FOLGER CONSORT presents music from the 12th through 21st centuries, with a focus on the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Artistic Directors Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall are joined by wonderful guest artists, including the world’s leading vocalists and instrumentalists in the field of early music at the Folger and other venues. With twelve recordings commercially available, Folger Consort continues to add to the interest in and knowledge of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. Visit https://www.tradebit.com for more on Folger Consort.

Folger Shakespeare Library is a world-class center for scholarship, learning, culture, and the arts. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection and a primary repository for research material from the early modern period (1500–1750), Folger Shakespeare Library is an internationally recognized research library offering advanced scholarly programs in the humanities; a national leader in how Shakespeare is taught in grades K–12; and an award-winning producer of cultural and arts programs.

Gail Kern Paster, Director, Folger Shakespeare Library
Janet Griffin, Executive Producer, Folger Consort
Donnajean Ward, Manager, Folger Consort
Curt Wittig, Recording and editing engineer
Jeanne Krohn, Graphic Design
Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St., SE,
Washington, DC 20003, 202.544.707, https://www.tradebit.com

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