During the Renaissance, the performer and composer shared an active collaboration in musical performance. The composer would provide a framework, a musical skeleton with clues that were idiomatic to a shared artistic language. The musician knew when to add accidentals (ficta) and on what notes to do so. The performer had an understanding of text underlay. (Text was often provided scrunched up in the beginning of a line, rather than what we have today with specific syllables and notes matched up.) Instrumentation was up to the performer, as well. Dynamics (loud and soft), articulations (smooth and soft notes), and other musical decisions were also left to the performer. Most importantly, musicians improvised by adding musical material. Whereas today’s improviser is often relegated to the realm of jazz , gospel, and old time music, the Renaissance musician was expected to be able to improvise.
Ever since the Middle Ages, theorists explained how to add one or more contrapuntal lines to a melody, such as a plainchant. Part of basic musical training was learning to improvise on a cantus firmus (chant). It was also normal to improvise on chord progressions, similar to modern-day blues music. The Ortiz Recercada is an example of this, with a simple repeated chord progression of g minor – F Major – g minor – D Major.
Sixteenth-century ornamentation is explained in ten major books.
Instrumental Treatises (manuals):
• Silvestro di Ganassi 1535 (viol & recorder) at S. Marco in Venice
• Diego Ortiz 1553 (viol) Spanish player in Naples
• Girolamo dalla Casa 1584 (wind band) in Venice
• Richardo Rogniono 1592 instrumentalist in Milano
• Giovanni Camillo Maffei 1562 in Naples
• Giovanni Luca Conforto 1593 Rome
• Giovanni Battista Bovicelli 1594 Milano
Vocal and Instrumental Treatises:
• Giovanni Bassano (two treatises) 1585 & 1591
• Aurelio Virgiliano c.1600
Types of embellishments:
• Gorgie, passaggi, and diminutions (fast notes substituted for long ones)
• Graces - one note ornamented
• Groppo – cadential trill
• Tremolo – rapid alternation between main note and upper and lower (whole step, half step, or by a third).
The tremolo was considered the easiest of ornaments, appropriate for both voices and instruments. In 1592, the theorist Zacconi wrote, “the tremolo is the true door for entering into the passaggi and for mastering gorgie; for our ship moves more easily once it has been set in motion than when it must begin to move at the start of its journey.” Ganassi wrote that that a half step tremolo was sweet and soothing, a tremolo over a third was lively, and a whole step tremolo was neutral.
Ornamentation signs were very rare in Renaissance, although they were occasionally used in German keyboard music and in several volumes of lute music. When a melody was repeated, new ornaments would be used to obscure the tune.
Treatises gave examples of melodic formulas to fill in intervals. Most had less than twenty examples, although Ganassi gave 175 examples for one simple cadence. Ideally, one would practice and memorize the provided patterns to be able to incorporate ornaments naturally, supplying improvisatory clichés.