Ornamentation and Divisions

One of the important aspects of historically informed performance of early music is the use of appropriate ornamentation. Musicians during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would treat the written or printed notes as a starting point, improvising elaborate decoration around the tune in an analagous way to modern jazz musicians. Many treatises on ornamentation were published at the time, and these give us clues on how to improvise ornaments in an appropriate style.

In the late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries, the main form of ornamentation was known as Division or Diminution, because it springs from taking long note values and breaking them up ("dividing") into smaller durations, resulting in florid passagework around the original theme. Sometimes the divisions were so elaborate that the tune became unrecognisable - although ideally the aim of ornamentation was to give heightened expression to the music.

An example of diminution is shown below - this is taken from Girolamo Dalla Casa's treatise of 1584, "Il Vero Modo di diminuir con tutte le sorti di stromenti di fiato, e corda, e di voce humana..." (The correct way of playing divisions on all types of wind and stringed instruments, and with the human voice...). Dalla Casa, himself a virtuoso cornettist working in Venice, presents an example of how he might improvise divisions on the chanson "Petite fleur coincte et jolye" by Thomas Crecquillon (only the first few bars are shown).

Ex.1 - Original madrigal by Crecquillon

Ex.2 - Ornamented version by Dalla Casa

More on Renaissance Chansons
Back to David Jarratt-Knock's Home Page