Diminutions – the Renaissance embellishments that divide or “diminish” long notes into faster ones – were already an important device of both singers and instrumentalists in the earlier Renaissance era. They were developed as a means to embellish the given music. I am particularly fascinated by the different possibilities of improvising diminutions on late Renaissance vocal music. During the transition period, as music moved into the baroque era (circa 1600), these ornamentations were still considered a fundamental part of musicianship, and as we can see, they would be incorporated more and more in the (written) musical score.
Fortunately, we have access to a number of treatises that discuss diminution. Giovanni Bassano, Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, Girolamo Dalla Casa, Silvestro Ganassi, and Riccardo and Francesco Rognoni all wrote important documents that demonstrate how ornamentation could be added to the actual, rather blank score. It is indeed most interesting to study their different personal styles.
Below is a short example of some of these improvised embellishments applied "alla bastarda", that means moving throughout all the four voices, on Cipriano de Rore's madrigal "Io canterei d'amor" on my tenor viola in the manner of a ricercar. (For tenor viola see below "Special instruments".)
LOW VIOLIN POSITION
Another part of my research is focused on the what is called the “low violin position”. By this I refer to how the instrument is actually held by the performer. Before the new french „conservatoires“ started to standardize the violin posture around 1800, it apparently varied considerably from one geographical region to another – and even between individual musicians in the same general location, as can be seen in many paintings and illustrations of the time. Although it is by no means clear precisely how the instrument was held for specific types of repertoire, contemporary scholarship has led us to new technical possibilities and encourages today’s performers to experiment with holding the instrument in different ways for different repertoire. The position against the left breast offers a more natural use of the arm-weight for the right hand, but makes it difficult to change quickly from a high to a low left hand position, and at the beginning it is quite exhausting for the left arm to hold the violin for a longer time. The sound gets naturally louder and fuller without destroying your left ear and leaves still more acoustic space to hear better the musicians playing with you. Moreover I feel better rooted with my whole body and I think this has a good effect on my rhythmic feeling.
FRENCH BOW GRIP
I am also experimenting with the so-called “early French bow grip,” with the thumb under the frog and/or hair of the bow. It was actually used not only by the French violinists, but also by many Austrian, German, and Italian violinists, particularly in the 17th century and even later on. Not all bow models are appropriate for this bow grip, and at the beginning it is not easy to control. However, once the performer gets used to it, this French technique offers a clearer “on-the-string” articulation. I find it particularly nice in combination with the low violin position for 17th century French music and also for some early baroque Italian music.
In order to explore the repertoire of the 16th century, with its immense treasure of extraordinary polyphonic music, I asked Roland Suits, the Estonian luthier, to make me a viola da braccio designed after a woodcut from 1535 in the Abbey of Santa Maria of Finalpia in Liguria. I then took one more step backwards in time and also purchased a soprano rebec. The rebec is an instrument with Arabic and Eastern European origins dating back to the 9th century or even earlier. It was quite popular from the 10th to 16th centuries, and in certain regions such as southern Italy, a similar sort of instrument has survived to the present day and is used in traditional folk music.
The next instrument I have ordered is a viola tenore made by Daniel Frisch. It is tuned one octave below the violin and is therefore very suited to play lines from high bass to low soprano, so it is possible to improvise also “alla bastarda” diminutions jumping between the polyfonic lines. This instrument has a beautiful singing sound and is still comfortably playable “da braccio” not withstanding his huge body.