Today we’re going to listen to some of a 2012 Magnatune release entitled Division Musick, the debut recording of the duo ensemble Pellingman’s Saraband. The ensemble’s name refers to a piece that was composed to mark the occasion of the wedding of Susannah Pell and Jacob Heringman, the performers we hear on this CD. The repertory comprises music drawn from the late medieval to early baroque periods.
Improvised variations on tunes have been around for as long as there have been tunes, though their very nature means that most of them happen once and never get written down, just like many of the greatest moments in jazz improvisation. Luckily, some of these variations did make their way into books and manuscripts. In seventeenth-century England, for instance, amateurs playing the violin or recorder prompted several publishers of music to issue books of pieces with what were called “divisions,” variations on well-known tunes of the day.
In addition of improvising on a tune, skilled musicians were expected to be able to create variations on a repeating sequence of chords, often referred to as a “ground bass,” a cousin, if you will, to the twelve-bar blues. The "Pachelbel Canon" is perhaps the most famous example of a composition based upon a repeating bass line, but ground basses are documented back to the early sixteenth century.
It may surprise some listeners to learn that the beloved tune “Greensleeves,” (which, you might or might not realize, you’ve been hearing in the background), is one that is based on an Italian ground bass. Names of these Italian grounds like passamezzo antico and passamezzo modern suggest that they were used to accompany dancing, as the Italian word passamezzo means literally “a step and a half.”
Four different viols and two lutes are played - (no, not simultaneously!) - by Pell and Heringman, respectively. The different sizes and tunings of the instruments allow them to cover a variety of ranges and offer the listener a large palette of colors to enjoy. Listen, for instance, to the track entitled “Green Garters,” written as a duet for two lutes. Susannah Pell plays one of the lute parts on the tenor viol, which is tuned the same way as the lute, with sustained double stops that lay down a musical ground on which Jacob Heringman’s lute can play comfortably.
The lute and the viol trade places in this set of divisions by Christopher Simpson, with the lute now in the accompanist’s role. The piece comes from a book first published in 1659 called The Division-Violist, which explains in great detail how players can learn to improvise on a ground. At the end of the book Simpson gives a number of examples of divisions on grounds of his own invention. They are pieces that push the bass viol to the limits of its range, and they require a technical prowess that has brought tears of frustration to the eye of more than one viol player.