'Not for a thousand ducats':

Historical improvisation at the intersection of memory and creativity

Catherine Motuz, speaker, voice and Renaissance trombone, McGill University (Canada)
Josué Mélendez, speaker, cornetto
Maria Morozova, organ

Session introduction
Historical improvisation has long been a meeting place for music theory and performance, and the last decade has witnessed a blossoming of theoretical and practical explorations of the field. However, the virtuosic levels of improvisation of counterpoint and ornamentation documented in historical sources far surpass what twenty-first century musicians have attained so far. We seek to investigate why, and to propose solutions grounded in historical sources, studies of music cognition, and practice-based research.

Critics once asserted that basso continuo players could never have improvised accompaniments at a level worthy of performance: “the method of accompanying by figures” would always be “attended with the continual trouble of calculation,” such that “in ninety-nine instances out of a hundred the performance of accompaniments must have been of a very inferior kind.” (Cummings, 1880). The revival of basso continuo as a practice successfully challenged this assumption, showing that the need for “continual calculation” can be overcome through repeated and embodied practising of patterns. Singers and players of melody instruments have been reticent to engage in the level of memorization and drilling that have given keyboard players their improvisational fluency; instead, they continue to use the analytical, rule-based methods they learned in music theory classes to calculate new counterpoints and new ornaments—efforts that often result in “paralysis by analysis.”

In order to displace this theory-based approach to improvisation, we begin by questioning the modern view of improvisation as a creative practice. Musicians generally consider the invention of new material to be the essence of improvisation (Bent 1983), and are therefore wary of memorizing patterns: faced with fifty examples of ornaments, our first reaction is to try to come up with number fifty-one. Renaissance thinkers, on the other hand, never used the word “improvisation,” but understood creativity as dependent on the ability to combine existing material in new ways—an ability for which having quick access to many examples in one’s memory was essential (Carruthers, 1990). This understanding permeates historical music treatises that not only advise memorization, but provide copious quantities of material for the musician to learn by heart, developing their musical vocabulary and sense of syntax along the way. So generous are these treatises that composer Costanzo Porta complained upon the publication of Zacconi’s 1596 Prattica Musica: “Not for a thousand ducats would I have given away the secrets this friar has divulged!”

In this session, Catherine Motuz and Josué Mélendez explore the intersection of memory and creativity though historical approaches to improvised counterpoint and ornamentation, taking the advice of treatises to learn by internalizing examples rather than rules. Beyond their primary goal of mastering improvisation at a high level in order to perform and teach it effectively, they also seek to challenge aesthetic assumptions about how music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth-centuries may have sounded, by bringing elaborate and exuberant ornamentations back into practice.

This session will feature performances of Renaissance and Baroque improvisations as well as the pieces that inform and inspire them, including a sonata by Dario Castello (c.1590 – c.1658).