Renaissance Jam Session


Level of Authenticity: Work in progress.  Good enough to have some music-making fun with, but with plenty of room for further research!

Who: Renaissance courts employed professional musicians, but courtiers were also expected to show musical skill, and several English Queens were noted musicians.  As usual, complicated gender and class politics governed who could honorably play what instrument and in what company.  Later in the sixteenth century following the spread of printed music, people of all classes began to participate in music-making as a social activity.

What: My jam session class focuses on four traditional ground bass progressions, often called tenors in period literature: the passamezzo antico; passamezzo moderno; romanesca, and la folia.

When: The first “composed” examples of music written over these grounds appears in the 1530s, but various lines of evidence indicate that musicians and courtiers were improvising on these grounds to accompany dancing and to guide improvised singing of poetry since at least the beginning of the fifteenth century.  The practice of improvisation over tenors for the purposes of dancing appears to trace to an even earlier tradition.

Where: Evidence for this practice comes mainly from Spain and Italy, though a slightly out-of-period English source (the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) contains several examples of “composed” passamezzi.

Why:  These grounds sometimes formed the framework for a performance style, in which a virtuoso professional musician could show his or her musical dexterity and skill.  At a less advanced level of musical skill, groups of musicians might improvise over a ground in order to accompany dancing.  It also appears that participants might sing popular poetry to an improvised tune over a ground.  In these cases, the music-making is less of a performance and more of a participatory exercise.


Instruments: As indicated above, complicated class and gender politics governed who ought to play what kind of instrument and in what company.  Generally, wind and brass instruments were thought more suitable for lower-class musicians, while higher-class musicians, if they were going to play instruments rather than sing, ought to play bowed or plucked stringed instruments such as viols and lutes.  Keyboard instruments were so typically associated with noble women that the English language name for this class of instruments in this time period is “virginals”.

In the sixteenth century, it had not yet become standard practice to specify which instrument was to play which line or lines of music.  In this time period, a variety of musical instrument groupings were common (not counting groupings with one or more vocalists):

  • solo performance: the most common instrument mentioned for solo performance is the lute.
  • “alta capella”: more typical in the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance periods than in the sixteenth century; a trio of professional musicians to accompany dancing, consisting of two double reed instruments and a brass instrument.
  • “consort”: a set of instruments all of the same type, usually viols or recorders, and possibly all made at the same time by the same instrument maker to ensure pitch standards.  The accounts of rulers such as Henry VIII of England and Cosimo I de Medici of Tuscany show that music-loving patrons might accumulate or commission multiple consorts for their collections.
  • “broken” or “mixed” consort: a grouping of instruments of various types, such as wind, string, and keyboard together.  The type of grouping this class is likely to consist of.

I could bore you with details of pitch standards and keyboard instrument mechanisms, but let’s get on to the music instead.

Division of Labor:  I’m primarily a keyboardist, and when I give this class I’ll be leading it from the keyboard.  By the Baroque and Classical eras, it had become customary for the group leader to lead either from the keyboard or from the first violin chair.  I don’t know if we have enough information surviving from the sixteenth century to determine whether this was yet standard practice, or even if a standard practice had yet developed.

Music-Making: This is an improvisatory style.  It seems that, in practice in the Renaissance, a given ground bass might be repeated until the dance or poem it accompanied was over; or until the solo musician improvising on it decided to end it.  Here I propose that we repeat each pattern until every musician who wants to has been given a chance to improvise a melody over the pattern.  The first time I ran this class, I provided only the bare bones of the ground basses plus the harmonies I as the keyboardist intended to play as a backdrop for the other musicians, plus a couple of elaborately figured composed variations.  It turned out that contemporary, classically-trained, literate musicians, including me, don’t really know how to proceed when we are just given a bare harmonic skeleton to improvise on.  This time, I’ll first present the four traditional basses with suggestions of notes that harmonize well with each of the notes in the ground.  As a musician, you could choose to play any of the suggested notes in any octave you like.

All basses – traditional; all harmonizations – S. Ward


Some musical treatises from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries provide suggested melodic formulae for moving between notes at various intervals from one another.  I have not yet had a chance to get my hands on any of these.  Instead I have gone through the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and picked out some common rhythmic and melodic figures that feature musicians should feel free to try out during this class.  Both the composed examples of ground basses I’ve seen, as well as other instrumental music of this period, tend to employ sequences of several of the same figure to move up and down the scale or move around in the harmonic framework.

Figures in 4 (note each bar represents one figuration):


Figures in 3 (note each bar represents one figuration):



Further Reading: At this stage, most of my information has come from Richard Taruskin’s  “Oxford History of Western Music: Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century”, with musical examples drawn from that work as well as from the Revised Dover Edition of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.  I have many plans for further research beyond these works though as I think there is a lot of space for growth in this project.

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