Jamming together: Recreating improvised seventeenth-century musical divisions

We are delighted to host this guest post from Nina Kümin, a PhD candidate in music performance and baroque improvisation at the University of York.

The pleasure of your company is requested for a seventeenth-century jam session!

One of the main forms of music making for English middling society in the seventeenth century was consort music. Small groups of families, friends or neighbours would gather to play music together in several parts. While at the beginning of the seventeenth century, viols were the most popular instrument for this, as the century progressed the violin also grew in popularity. Of this music making, one of the most elusive traditions was that of playing “divisions”. This was the practice of adding florid ornamentation to printed music and improvising variations (making them up on the spot) taking inspiration from a popular printed theme. At the middle of the century, Playford, a publisher based in London and member of the Stationers’ Company, turned to printing collections of such example “divisions” on famous tunes which is testament to the tradition’s existence and growing popularity. His attempt to materialise an essentially immaterial art represents an increased demand from the growing amateur market; the divisions he provides are teaching materials, once accustomed to the art and with some general technical ability, Playford encourages the players to improvise their own. Through improvisation, the players moved from recreating works to being the creators, in control of the emotional development of the piece, the technical difficulty and the length. These published divisions, therefore, acted as an intermediary, temporary material form. Thanks to Playford’s publications, including Christopher Simpson’s The Division Viol of 1659 and Playford’s own The Division Violin of 1685, and through practice-led research, we can begin to reconstruct what it might have sounded and felt like to play or hear improvised divisions in the early to mid-seventeenth century, making the journey from immaterial sound and oral tradition through Playford’s material representations to the immaterial nature of improvisation again.

Each theme in Playford’s division manuals is set to a bassline which repeats all the way through called a “ground bass”. Let’s take “Faronell’s Divisions on a Ground” from Playford’s Division Violin as an example:

To the improvising musician, the bassline reveals which chords occur at which time. This ultimately reduces the number of possible notes an improviser can choose from as each chord change must be accompanied by a consonant (right sounding) note at first. The task of the improviser is then to find an interesting way to get between each of these important consonant notes.  The theory of consonance and dissonance was widely discussed in composition treatises at the time (English examples include Morely 1597; Mace 1676 and Matteis 1682) and is evident in many compositions over ground basses such as passacaglias as well as all of the examples in the Division Viol, Division Violin and Division Flute (a later collection by John Walsh from 1706). For this particular set of divisions, the harmony is as follows: Dm, A, Dm, C, F, C, Dm, A, Dm, A, Dm, C, F, C, Dm A, D. To the improviser, this means that you can chose one of the follow notes to start each chord:

Dm:      D, F, A

A:         A, C#, E

C:         C, E, G

F:         F, A, C

These, however, can be anywhere on the instrument and thus there are many possibilities even if there are only three named notes available for each chord. The materiality of the instrument, therefore, comes into play here too. As the violin, for instance, has four strings, only a maximum of four notes can ever be played together at any one time. In addition, the player has to be able to technically execute their ideas. It is therefore not realistic to pick notes which are at the extremes of the violin to jump between repeatedly; music tends to move by step or in smaller jumps. This reflects the vocal tradition in which singers also find large leaps difficult. Other considerations include the timbre (sound qualities) achievable. The lack of a shoulder and chin rest on the baroque violin also makes shifting, which facilitates the comfortable execution of large leaps, difficult. For each instrument, different strings will have different timbres due to the make of the violin and the material and winding of the strings but also the player’s technique and experience, not to mention the acoustic. This all also applies to viol playing and all of these factors might have a bearing on which of the options the improviser chooses. 

Finding interesting ways to get between these notes has its roots in ornamentation. This was common practice in all music of this time. This meant that musicians would not just play what was written on the material page but add their own little flourishes and touches between printed notes. These could include trills, scales, arpeggios, repeated notes, turns, chords, vibrato and mordents, just to name a few. For example, here is the theme from the same set of Playford variations played without any ornamentation and then with:


The results are really quite different. This illustrates the frustration of music publishers and composers in notating their works as all printed notation only materialises a small amount of the sounds heard (Kuijken, 2013). Interestingly, contemporary writers sought to rectify this by providing lengthy treatises on composition and performance which attempted to explain these practices (some English samples include Morely, 1597; Simpson, 1659; The Burwell Lute Tutor,1660; Mace, 1676 and Matteis, 1682). The musician, therefore, has an interesting relationship with the material form of the music in that this does not represent an absolute but rather a set of guidelines or suggestions; the musician was free to follow the score or deviate from it as they saw fit. Of course, this opportunity still exists today but current common musical practice does not allow any creative licence in the form of added notes unlike the conventions of the Baroque. By reading these treatises and experimenting on period instruments, performers can attempt to ornament in a stylistic manner.

Adding to these structural harmony notes and ornamentation, each variation in the division publications is in a different character. These have their roots in the “affects” (emotions) and dances. Certain keys and intervals were viewed as evoking certain affects. While the key for divisions is already established through the ground bass, players can experiment with different intervals to create different emotional effects. In addition, English music took inspiration from the French tradition of Baroque dance using their forms and rhythmic characteristics. This use is evident in notated compositions but also in the dance melodies in Playford’s The Dancing Master (1651). For instance, this set of Playford variations is actually based on a sarabande; the opening theme contains the characteristic crotchet + dotted crotchet + quaver rhythm and is in triple time. It can actually be danced to as I demonstrate here…

Middling musicians would also have been familiar with the different dance styles and characteristics not just from playing music based on dances but also through learning to dance themselves. The rhythms and playing styles associated with each dance style aid the dancer by stimulating lift, poise, energy or impetus, all of which these musicians would have been accustomed to and internalised through the physicality of dancing. Many of Playford’s variations use these to add variety and interest as the harmony remains the same throughout. It is therefore highly likely that improvised divisions would also have included dance inspired variations. There were opportunities to escape the repeating harmony in other musical forms such as the fantasia but a characteristic of the division practice was this repeating “ground bass” so variety and interest came from creating these different characters. 

Combining research into the intermediary material printed examples by Playford along with the advice in other treatises and the study of notated compositions in Playford’s The Dancing Master and those by his contemporaries, a set of guidelines can be produced for the modern performer seeking to improvise their own stylistic divisions:

  1. Begin each chord change with a consonant note, then find interesting ways to get between these structural notes
  2. Keep in mind the technical possibilities and characteristics of your instrument and performance space
  3. Create variety and interest through adding/ considering:
    1. Ornamentation
    1. Intervals to create different affects
    1. Dance rhythms and characters

Through practicing and experimenting in this manner, it is possible to improvise some stylistic variations. Therefore, I would now like to invite you to a virtual seventeenth-century jam session by encouraging you to pick and mix from the following variations, choosing however many you like and in whatever order you like, each video plays one example improvised variation. By playing them after each other you can build your own set of improvised divisions and therefore experience the improviser’s task of making decisions between key structural points. In this way, you can orchestrate your own structure and each time will give you a different result. This in some way mimics the excitement and variety of improvisation; they would never have played the same variation twice and were in control of the development and length of the piece. These variations were taken from a longer recording of my continuous improvised divisions over the ground bass of this same Playford piece. If you would like to hear them in their original order, this is also provided below.

Playford’s attempt to materialise the immaterial tradition of improvised divisions through his published examples, whether for viol or violin, not only recognised the existence of this tradition but allowed for a greater engagement with this by amateurs, a large number of which were middling recreational musicians, transforming their domestic cultural engagements. Musical improvisation is also deeply rooted in the material, however, as the performer’s relationship with their instrument determines a large proportion of the compositional decisions as well as the limitations of the technicalities of the instrument. The variety, creativity and individuality performed by these middling musicians would have been exciting to experience but Playford’s materialisations allow modern performers to also experiment with this practice.

Nina Kümin

Nina Kümin – Improvising Violinist – YouTube

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