Variations on a Theme and Variations

When one mentions ‘western European art music,’ more usually and less pretentiously called ‘classical music,’ certain notions automatically obtain. Professional composers create music, often with great deliberation, and write it down using notation conceived expressly for the purpose, and professional performers render what the composer has written within a more or less rigid framework Boulogne, ‘Musicians & Soldiers’
Boulogne, ‘Musicians & Soldiers’
(Wikimedia Commons)
of interpretation before a body of listeners, professional or otherwise, who are present solely for the purpose of listening. The older and dustier the music, typically the better. Who has not endured a funereal rendition of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge or a big–opera–corpulent Ode an die Freude that closes Beethoven’s ninth symphony?

Music is one of the most ephemeral and elusive of human pursuits — one troglodyte neuroscientist characterizes it as auditory candy for the brain with no evolutionary value. (Calvinism indeed.) And the ‘western European’ approach is but a single one, nor the commonest: it often takes place within Schönfeld, ‘Wedding at Cana’
Schönfeld, ‘Wedding at Cana’
(Wikimedia Commons)
some social, religious or celebratory function, and is most often made up on the spot extempore — quite literally out of the moment — to suit the occasion. It is exactly for this reason that our historical knowledge of everyday music like folk–songs, story–telling, drinking songs, working songs, dancing and the like, is much fuzzier than the written–down canon of classical music that feeds the conservatory industry.

But improvising does not imply creating something out of nothing. There are certain conventions to be followed if an extemporization is to have any meaning. Asking someone to “play us a jig” assumes that music of a particular rhythm and pace will be forthcoming, with phrases of a certain length and regularity to match the dance steps. The musician’s skill thus lies in how the conventions and mannerisms are manipulated, shown in fresh light, or extended in meaning.

One of the most abundant kinds of formula for playing music extempore during the Baroque period was the pattern bass, a series of bass notes that implied a succession of harmonies — nowadays called chords — over which a song or dance was played. Among the most popular was the Romanesca, evidently hailing from Spain

Romanesca, outline

and its close relative the passamezzo antico.

Passamezzo antico, outline

It is in familiar guise as the scheme behind My Lady Greensleeves, associated (spuriously) with Henry VIII and a tune nowadays commandeered for the Christmas carol.


Hardly less equal in popularity were the bass pattern and chord structure behind La monica (“The Nun,” appearing under various other spellings like monaca or monacha), originally a melancholy song about a girl who becomes a nun against her will.

Une jeune fillette (La monica)

A young girl noble of heart,

pleasant and cheerful

was, against her will, made a nun,

which she deplored,

and thus she lived a life of sadness.

It too proliferated in various forms, at one point showing up as one of the first hymns — in both French and Wyandot — of the New World, another Christmas carol.

Many other bass schemes were in common use and were a natural fit for composers

La Folia


experimenting with the stilo moderno in the form of sets of variations on a popular melody or chord pattern.

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is full of this kind of music, whether so named or not. Closely related were patterns often referred to as ostinato (“obstinate” or “persistent”), wherein relatively few bass notes and an appropriate chord pattern

Ostinato Basses

were repeated over and over. Such works were sometimes referred to as ciaccona or passacaglia, again disclosing their Iberian origins, but as with many terms of the day, the distinction among all these forms was usually blurred. For Italian lutenists and keyboard players especially, both kinds of bass provided ample material for developing a new, idiomatic language for instruments and a middle ground between improvisation and deliberate composition.

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