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The Art of Diminution

This week on Harmonia we explore examples of how instrumentalists created diminutions out of music by Palestrina, Crequillon, and others.

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portrait engraving of man

Photo: Anonymous

A detail image of Cipriano de Rore, whose madrigal "Ancor che co’l partire" was used to improvise upon during the Late Renaissance.

Instrumentalists have been imitating the human voice for hundreds of years.  During the Renaissance, a cornettist or violinist would have gone even further by taking a popular song and improvising diminutions on it.  These diminutions were created out of the music from composers such as Palestrina, Crequillon, Cipriano de Rore, and others.

Giovanni Bassano, Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, Francesco and Richardo Rognioni, and Diego Ortiz—five men who published instruction manuals for instrumentalists who wanted to learn to create diminutions: an art form that sought to take a melody and divide it in many ways through improvisation.  Being good teachers, all of them included written examples using some of the most popular polyphonic pieces of the late Renaissance.

On their 1992 recording Music am Prager Hof Kaiser Fudolfs II, ensemble Dialogo Musicale, directed by Leo Meilink, performs the Madrigal, Vestiva i colli, by Palestrina.  Also, on the 1988 release, …per Flauto: Italian Recorder Music of the 17th Century, the Ganassi Consort of Cologne performs diminution settings of the same madrigal by Francesco Rognoni and Bartolomeo di Selma y Salaverde.

A popular work that was used in writing or improvising diminutions was Thomas Crequillon’s French chanson Oncques amour, a piece that was highly praised in its day.  Cornettist Bruce Dickey, along with the ensemble Tragicomedia, recorded this chanson and a diminution on it by Giovanna Bassano.  Another popular song in its day, Clemens non Papa’s Frais et Gaillard, is recorded both in its original form and with diminutions by Bassano on the 1989 CD, The Art of the Recorder, featuring Marion Verbruggen with the Trio Sonnerie.

One of the most famous tunes to be used was the Italian madrigal Ancor co’l partire, composed by Cipriano de Rore.  The twelve written examples of diminutions that survive can attest to the work’s popularity at the end of the Renaissance and beginning of the baroque.  One composer even set it twice using different words…

A diminution setting for viola bastarda by Richardo Rogniono is performed by Sophie Watillon, viola da gamba, on the 1994 CD, L’art de la viola bastarda.  Another interpretation is found on the 2002 release, La Golferamma, in which William Dongois interprets Bovicelli’s version on the cornetto.

Italian writers weren’t the only ones to have written down instructions on how to improvise on a given melody.  In fact, one Spaniard had done it by the middle of the 16th Century.  Diego Ortiz published his Tratado de glosas in 1553 where he gave the reader comprehensive instruction on the art form.  Gambist Jordi Savall recorded a number of pieces by Ortiz in the 1990 release entitled Recercadas del Tratado de Glosas.

The new release of the week features the music of Claudio Monteverdi by well-known vocal soloists, including tenor Topi Lehtippu, with Le Concert d’Astrée, under the direction of Emmanuelle Haïm.

Music Heard On This Episode

Claudio Monteverdi: Più lieto il guardo
Le Concert d'Astree (Emmanuelle Haïm, dir.) — Combattimento (Virgin Classics , 2007)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Più lieto il guardo
Le Concert d'Astree (Emmanuelle Haïm, dir.) — Combattimento (Virgin Classics , 2007)
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G.P. Palestrina: Madrigal Vestiva i colli
Dialogo Musicale (Leo Meilink, dir.) — Music am Prager Hof Kaiser Rudolfs II (CD 2) (HM/IOM , 1992)
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Francesco Rognioni/G.P. Palestrina: Vestiva i colli
Ganassi-Consort, Cologne — …per Flauto: Italian Recorder Music of the 17th Century (MD , 1988)
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Bartolomeo di Selma y Salaverde: Madrigal Vestiva i colli de G.P. Palestrina
Sophie Watillon, viola da gamba, and Friends — L'art de la viola bastarda (Lidi , 1994)
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Thomas Crequillion: See notes
Bruce Dickey, cornetto, and Tragicomedia — Quel lascivissimo cornetto…: Virtuoso Music for the Cornetto (ACC , 1991)
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Giovanni Bassano/Clemens non Papa: Frais et Gaillard, chanson with diminutions
Marion Verbruggen, recorder, and Trio Sonnerie — The Art of the Recorder (GAU , 1989)
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Cipriano de Rore; Richardo Rogniono
Sophie Watillon, viola da gamba, and Friends — L'art de la viola bastarda (Lidi , 1994)
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Cipriano de Rore/G. B. Bovicelli: Ancor che co'l partire
Le Concert Brise (William Dongois, dir.) — La Golferamma: Musica Italiana 1600-1650 (Carpe Diem, 2002)
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Diego Ortiz: Recercadas sobre tenores
Jordi Savall, viola da gamba, and Friends — Recercadas del Tratado de Glosas (Astree , 1990)
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Claudio Monteverdi: Tempro la cetra
Topi Lehtippu, tenor, Le Concert d'Astree (Emmanuelle Haïm, dir.) — Combattimento (Virgin Classics , 2007)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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