People have been dancing as long as we can remember. Medieval children ringing round the roses of the Black Plague, Renaissance nobility processing to the stately basse danse, city folk courting to the steps of the pavane, and the already pregnant bride in Brueghel's painting The Peasant Wedding, all danced their way through the rituals of life; courtship, marriage, political intrigue, harvest, and the final Dance of Death which we must all join regardless of social status, wealth or position. Just as their choreography balances delicately between the strict restraints of convention and the ingenious flourishes of spontaneous florid motion, its music weds strict and unchanging patterns with kaleidoscopic permutations of musical invention.
Our title 'Ciaramella: Dances on Moveable Ground' plays on the fact that we live in Southern California, where the ground might roll or shake below our feet at any time. But dancing on shifting grounds is also a musical concept that serves as a unifying element in this recording. Grounds are the repeated chord progressions and melodies that lie at the heart of Renaissance and Baroque dance. Some, like the passacaglia, contain ostinato patterns which repeat only four descending notes and their harmonies. Others, like the passamezzo antico, moderno, and romanesca, consist of four-chord progressions with open (unresolved) and closed (resolved) endings, a musical question and answer.
These grounds form the basis of almost all dances of the early modern era. Players would improvise melodies and variations, alternately called diminutions, divisions, or diferencias, beginning first with simple melodies, and gradually adding increasingly florid and virtuosic variations to show off their skill and invention. Variations on a ground thus represent a marriage between a never changing ground and ever changing "airs" (songs or melodies) above it.
Most dances of the sixteenth century outline one of several repetitive patterns. These tend to fall in the category of "moll" progressions like the passamezzo romanesca. The term "moll" refers to the soft rounded "b" in the key signature that we would now associate with a musical Minor mode. Patterns based on "dur," or "quadro" progressions-with the hard or square "b" of Major mode-include the passamezzo moderno, also called moresca and bouffons, which became associated with Moorish characters and Commedia dell'arte clowns poking each other with swords, and with English Morris dancers with their bells and swords. The simple I-IV-V-I chord progression of the canarios accompanied one of the more complex choreographies of the period. The name of the dance originates in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
Andrea Falconieri spent his career in Parma and Rome, before returning to his native Naples to become maestro di cappella at the royal chapel. His Neapolitan heritage places him at the nexus of Italian and Spanish musical culture. Naples-second in size only to Paris-remained under Spanish control until the eighteenth century. Falconieri's trio-sonata for recorders and elaborated ground base accompaniment, entitled Passacalle, sets variations over a Spanish chord progression that takes its name from the words "to step" and "street" and sounds very much like Malaguena, a signature Spanish theme.
Falconieri's L'Eroica begins with a fugue over a series of short ground-like cadential progressions, modulating through fifths and thirds, a hallmark of the early Baroque trio-sonata. It ends with a Spanish dance originating in the New World, the ciaccona, consisting of a four-chord progression similar to the 1961 hit "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler. This dance held both devilish and sacred associations during the Baroque period. As a wild dance from the new world with syncopated rhythms and rousing speed, it was associated with exotic themes and bizarre texts. Known as the most sexually implicit of all the dances in seventeenth-century Spain, the ciaconna included graphic lyrics and suggestive hip gyrations and was consequently banned by the Church. If one were convicted of dancing the ciaconna during the Spanish Inquisition, one could be sentenced to 200 lashes. Naturally, the Church's antagonism greatly increased everyone's interest in this exotic dance.
Falconieri's Batalla de Barabaso yerno de Satanas ("The Battle of Barabbas, Son-in-Law of Satan") links religious allegory to programmatic battle music. Like countless similar works, the trio sonata imitates trumpets, fifes, drums, canons and guns, ending with a victory march derived from the melody and ground of La Girometta, a popular dance song.
In his 1553 treatise Trattado de Glosas, Diego Ortiz provides systematic rules and examples for creating variations over cadential patterns and melodies with florid settings over French and Italian songs and grounds. His Recercada ottava adopts the famous Spanish folia ground bass pattern, while his Recercada secunda sets the passamezzo moderno, commonly associated with dances and morescas. To this famous chestnut, we have added additional voices.
Native Italian composers embraced the tradition of improvising on grounds. A virtuoso lutenist and teacher, Alessandro Piccinini, came from a distinguished family of lutenists in Bologna. His collected compositions include detailed rules for playing the instrument and descriptions of his improvements to the instrument. Piccinini's Chiaccona in partite variate, his most famous set of variations, explores the idiomatic techniques of the chitarrone, or theorbo.
Maurizio Cazzati also penned a finely crafted ciaccona for string players in Bologna. As maestro di cappella of San Petronio, one of the largest churches in Europe, he belonged to a generation of great violinist composers from Northern Italy exploring the expressive range of the instrument and the inventive possibilities of grounds. Another great violinist, Marco Uccellini, spent much of his career in Modena, where he was director of instrumental music for the Este family and maestro di capella of the cathedral. Uccellini's sonatas revel in variations over popular songs and dances like La mia pedrina. The first phrase of this song was known in England as "the Italian ground," and its second phrase shares striking resemblances with the second half of Thomas Morley's Sing We and Chant It.
To these compositions we have added our improvised versions over the passacaglia and canarios in the style of the period. The boundary between historical arrangement, improvisation, and composition is at once narrow and open to broad interpretation, and its crossing can sometimes only be seen in hindsight. Our Moresca-not unlike many Renaissance dances-teeters between improvisation and composition. It consists of a moderno pattern which then repeats a fifth higher, dressed with syncopated rhythms typical of sixteenth century dance songs.
English composers and performers avidly embraced the concept of the ground. Books like Christopher Simpson's The Division Viol (1667) presented rules for dividing melodies into smaller note values, providing numerous examples for amateur and professional musicians to emulate. The famous Greensleeves melody fits perfectly over the Italian ground Passamezzo romanesca. Our version hails from the series of solo variations in John Walsh's The Division Flute (1706). We have added an improvised voice in Ciaramella performaces so often that it has essentially become a memorized composition with slight variations.
The Fisher and The Fox presents variations over two dances inspired by Playford's famous 1651 collection The English Dancing Master. "The Fisher" and "The Fox" explore the affinity between the opposing Minor and Major modes of the common ground bass progressions, the romanesca and the chaconne. The opening "Exordium," in trio-sonata style, is modeled on English pavanes of the early seventeenth century. Although the themes and variations are newly composed, I have tried to remain true to seventeenth-century English practice, albeit under the influence of the Italian composers. I named this work after Karen Fisher Fox, who commissioned it for the 2006 Madison Early Music Festival.
More Spanish Grounds:
The pavana, or pabana, known elsewhere in Europe as Pavane d'Espagne, contains elements of three different patterns. My own version titled Diferencias sobra Pavane d'Espagne for two recorders and guitar was inspired by Michael Praetorius' seventeenth-century variations on the same dance. Another popular Spanish dance pattern can be heard in the strains of the Spagnoletta on the following track. Although first notated in the early eighteenth century, Sardanas adopts a venerable combination of three basic chords, a I-IV-V-I progression still known today in Mexican folk dance as the Matachines.
Plucked instruments like the guitar and vihuela held pride of place in Spanish music, and the works of Gapsar Sanz help explain the popularity of Spanish dances like the ciaccona throughout Europe. Jácaras represents the consummate blend of Spanish strumming, Arab musical influence, and New World rhythm. This tune outlines a common falling fourth associated with the malaguena, with syncopated rhythms, and the intense virtuosity of the flamenco-like bulieras rhythm, in which the accents fall on up-beats. As a circular form, two different versions of Jácaras begin and end our program, a beginning and returning to the same ground.
Adam Knight Gilbert