Alex Baker - 3260275 - supervised by Wouter Verschuren

March 8, 2021

Early Music, viola da gamba

Main subject teacher: Mieneke van der Velden 

Research question: Diminutions, divisions, and doubles are essentially different words for the same practice in viol literature - ornamenting music by dividing notes into smaller notes - so what actually makes them different? 



The viola da gamba player encounters many varieties of ornamentation in their repertoire which resemble each other quite closely–namely, ornaments that divide larger notes into smaller notes. Depending on the repertoire they are found in, they can go by various names: divisions, in English repertoire; diminutions, in Italian or Spanish repertoire; or the double found in French suites. In a literal sense, these are identical to each other in what they accomplish. However, they still remain distinct in their individual repertoires, at least in name. This exposition aims to explain why these varieties of diminution-style ornaments are indeed different from one another, and therefore, that dividing notes in viol repertoire from England, or Italy, or France, should not be the same practice for the modern performer. 

The focus will be on literature specific to the viola da gamba, including Silvestro Ganassi’s Opera intitulata Fontegara (1535), Diego Ortiz’ Trattado de Glossas (1553), Christopher Simpson’s The Division-Viol (1659), and Marin Marais’ five books of Pièces de viole (1686-1725). The umbrella of diminution-style ornaments is divided into three categories, based on region, beginning with diminutions (in the Spanish and Italian sources), divisions (in the English sources), and doubles (in the French sources). This text will focus on three aspects of each body of repertoire, to compare and contrast them: first, the origins and background of the practice; second, how the practice was used in performance; and third, stylistic elements that further differentiate the practices. 

As mentioned, this text will focus on literature specifically for the viola da gamba. There are already several variables to consider here, like individual composers, changing instrument builds, and large time differences. By keeping the instrument constant, further variables like technical limitations of various instruments or other idiosyncratic instrumental practices will be eliminated, so any comparisons drawn will be more valid.

The goal of this research is twofold. The first objective of this paper is to provide a better understanding of how the practice of diminution developed and spread through the continent, as well as how it evolved through the hands of different composers and musicians. The second objective is to demonstrate for modern performers of the viola da gamba that playing diminutions should not be taken with a “one size fits all” approach, and to explain what one can do to make their approach more appropriate and specific to different bodies of repertoire. 



Silvestro Ganassi, of Venice, provides the earliest documented explanation of diminution in extensive and clear detail, in his treatise Opera intitulata Fontegara (or Fontegara, as it will be referred to for brevity), published in Venice in 1535. To explain the significance of this text, it’s important to provide some contextual information first. Preceding Fontegara, a clergyman (Cardinal Bessarion) donated a substantial collection of ancient Greek and Latin texts to the city of Venice, which arrived in 1469. His goal with this donation was “to salvage, after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, the intellectual heritage of ancient and medieval Greece” and the collection included works related to a broad range of topics, including but not limited to theology, mathematics, and philosophy.1 Over the following few decades the complete collection was eventually consolidated, first in a room in the Palazzo Ducale, and finally in the Biblioteca Marciana built specifically to hold these volumes.2 These texts had a significant impact on the musical culture of Venice, and “by the end of the 15th century, the entire corpus of known Greek writings dealing with music was available in the Venetian area causing an impulse to the rediscovery of ancient learning on music.”3

Two of these texts, being treatises on music theory, are of particular interest regarding Ganassi’s Fontegara–Aristoxenus’ Elementa Rhythmica (c. 300 B.C.) and Aristides Quintilianus’ De Musica (est. 300 A.D. or later). Certain elements of music theory as described by these texts bear strong resemblance to Ganassi’s theoretical approach to diminutions. Firstly, they describe music as being built on three main elements–diction, rhythm, and melody. For the purposes of education these three elements can be isolated and studied independently, and ultimately combined to form a complete art.4 Ganassi’s method of diminution contains a corresponding three elements–note values, proportions, and melodic contours. He introduces each element individually, first in their “simple” form (unvaried), and then gives examples of diminutions that vary each of these elements in turn–varied note values, varied proportions, and varied melodic patterns. Subsequent examples demonstrate two of these elements being varied at once, and ultimately, all three being varied at once.

Second, there are remarkable similarities regarding the treatment of rhythm and proportions. In the Greek model described by Aristoxenus, rhythm is built from the smallest rhythmic unit, called the protos chronos (the protos chronos is not a set note value, but rather whichever note value is the smallest in any particular context).5 The protos chronos is placed into groups called the arsis and thesis (or, the “up” and “down”), which form the two parts of the largest rhythmic unit, the foot.6 This is a very complicated explanation for something which may have seemed quite familiar at the time of writing, as it simply dictated rhythmic stresses, similar to speech. The largest mental hurdle for the modern musician is that the Greek model builds rhythm from the bottom up, beginning with the smallest note value, while the sixteenth-century model builds rhythm from the top, beginning with the beat/tactus/measure and then dividing it into smaller values. 

The foot in the Greek model then has a certain rhythmic proportion, depending on the number of note values in the arsis and thesis. Aristoxenus lists through the various possibilities of foot lengths and describes which proportions he considers to be rhythmical, and which he considers to not be. He works through the possible proportions in feet with three, four, five, six, and finally, seven units–three-unit feet being disregardable as a subdivision of the six-unit foot. This then corresponds exactly to Ganassi’s four regole, or the four different proportions/meters which he provides diminution examples for (4/4, 5/4, 6/4, and 7/4).7 Ganassi also stops at seven, and indicates that if the reader wishes to play diminutions in 8/4, they may simply consider it an extension of 4/4 and use his examples from that proportion.8 Broad use of complex proportions like these wouldn’t be seen again until the twentieth century, and its similarity to the Greek texts cannot be a coincidence. 

It bears mentioning that this text is of course a treatise on recorder playing, as well as a treatise on the playing of passaggi (diminutions). The focus now is specifically on texts relevant to the viola da gamba, so it’s important to clarify why Fontegara is included. Ganassi was also a monumental figure in viola da gamba performance, and a later treatise of his–Regola Rubertina, published in 1542–is written for this instrument. This second treatise doesn’t include a section on the playing of passaggi, and Ganassi instead says this:

“I will say nothing about diminutions, because you will find all you need to know on this subject in the other work of mine, called Fontegara, which teaches how to play the recorder and how to do diminutions properly to achieve two effects: first, ornamentation of a composition with consideration for counterpoint; second, drawing praise from the listener, especially if the diminutions are executed with varied and well-planned passaggi.9 

This implies that the art of diminution as Ganassi knew it did not differ greatly between instruments, even between two as contrasting as the viola da gamba and recorder–thus conclusions drawn regarding the playing of diminutions on the viol should still be valid. One must also consider that as Ganassi was writing, the viola da gamba was quite a new instrument and there was no long-standing school or method of viol playing. The large body of viol repertoire that we have today had also not been written yet, so playing diminutions on preexisting music was a remedy to this dearth of viol repertoire. 

Moving to England, it is unclear when the practice of playing divisions arose, but the first to write extensively on the subject was Giovanni Coprario, with his treatise Rules How to Compose, published c. 1610.10 He provides basic voice leading rules to be considered when playing divisions, and gives examples for various intervals. Interestingly, he writes out examples for divisions in four-part music, and the task can fall to either the treble or bass part.11 Giovanni Coprario, despite his name, was born in London and was originally named John Cooper. It is rumored that he changed his name while spending a portion of his early career in Italy, and kept the name he had grown accustomed to after he returned to England. There is scant evidence to definitively place him in Italy, but the conspicuous name change and knowledge of diminution practice are strong clues.12 Next to this, in 1613 the Italian composer Angelo Notari published a set of viol divisions in London, written “bastarda style” on a madrigal by Cipriano de Rore.13 These publications would suggest a path by which the practice of diminution made its way northward to England. 

By far, the most extensive and sophisticated text on the subject is Christopher Simpson’s The Division Viol, published in 1659 (image from The Division Viol, most likely of Simpson, above). The text is in two parts: the first part on how to play the viol, and the second (and much more substantial) part on how to play divisions. The title refers to a specific instrument–the division viol, to be redundant–which was slightly smaller than the typical consort bass viol, sacrificing bass resonance for ease of playing virtuosic passages. This text goes into great detail on the most characteristic English division practice, that being divisions over a ground bass. This begins with a ten to twenty note bass line, which is repeated an indefinite amount of times as a viol player (or possibly, two) improvises a series of divisions above it. While this was an improvisation practice, Simpson includes several sets of composed divisions over various ground basses, for the sake of the learner.14 His examples are striking in their inventiveness and attention to motivic development, as well as their technical difficulty.

The French examples diverge greatly from here. The main practice focused on is of course the double section found in many dance movements. In such a movement, the double is simply a variation with diminutions upon the original dance, to be played following the original. 

One manner in which this practice differs is that the double has roots in Medieval dance. The double originated as part of the sequence of steps in a basse danse, or “low dance” which was popular in French courts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The pas double typically followed two pas simples, as a variation on the stepping pattern (stepping in groups of three, rather than groups of two).15 

Another substantial difference lies in the role of the performer. Diminution and division, as described by their treatises, are improvisation practices, and it is the responsibility of the performer to learn the practice and implement the variations themselves. Fontegara, Trattado de Glosas, and The Division Viol all share the goal of teaching the reader a skill, which can be applied independently. The double, on the other hand, is the task of the composer, and the performer simply performs what the composer has already written. Thus, to study the practice of playing doubles in literature for the viola da gamba, the examples will be musical rather than textual.



To continue, this chapter will discuss the ways in which diminution-style ornaments appeared in the performance of these individual repertoires. Ganassi is not extremely specific about the context in which a performer would use diminutions. He does, however, give the guideline to begin and end a diminution passage on the original note, so as not to disrupt the voice leading of the original composition. The implication is that diminutions were played upon preexisting compositions with multiple voices, perhaps with one solo instrument playing diminutions upon one particular voice while a keyboard instrument played the others. As mentioned previously, as a relatively new instrument the viola da gamba did not yet have the massive body of literature that it has today, and so its repertoire was, in a way, playing diminutions on works already composed for other instruments/voices. 

Diego Ortiz, in his 1553 treatise Trattado de Glosas (image above), is much more specific about performance formats. He describes the three different ways that a violist da gamba can play with harpsichord “the first is fantasy; the second on plain song; the third on a composition.”16 The fantasy he describes is improvised between the two players, following each other in imitation. The second involves the viol player ornamenting upon a plainsong played by harpsichord. In the third method, the harpsichord plays a preexisting piece (a motet or madrigal, for example), while the viol plays diminutions on individual voices. The viol player doesn’t necessarily stay on one voice; they are free to move about the different voices, although preferably not doubled by the harpsichord on whichever voice they are playing. This is similar to the viol diminutions written by Riccardo Rognoni later in the century–a keyboard instrument plays a preexisting madrigal while the viol moves around the different voices, playing diminutions.17 To conclude, sources from Italy in the sixteenth century seem to use vocal music as the basis for diminution playing, and the practice generally involved improvised ornamentations over prewritten vocal pieces. Ganassi said it most succinctly: “all musical instruments are less dignified in relation and comparison to the human voice; therefore, we will strive to learn from it and to imitate it.”18

Simpson is also quite clear about how the practice of diminution appeared to him, saying this:

Diminution, or Division to a Ground, in the Concordance of quick and slowNotes. A Ground, Subject, or Basse, (call it which you please,) is prickt down in two severall Papers: One, for him who is to Play the Ground...the Other, for him who Playes upon the Viol: who, having the said Ground before his Eye...Playes such variety of Descant, and Division, thereupon; as his Skill, and present Invention, do then suggest unto him.”19

He directly equates diminution to his quintessential art of improvising divisions upon a ground bass.  This is the only form of division that Simpson discusses in The Division Viol, but he goes into extreme detail about the various rules and forms of playing above a ground bass. Although he is less clear in this regard, he does seem to differentiate between diminutions/divisions/dividing a ground/breaking a ground versus descant-divisions/Division (singular). The former is tied to the ground bass; the player can vary the rhythm, move around the neighboring tones, or leap to other tones that are concordant to the ground, but must always return to meet the ground at each of its notes, either in unison or at the octave.20 The latter “is That, which maketh another distinct, and concording Part unto the Ground.”21 Breaking a ground is more akin to the practice described by the Italian sources, though slightly less rigid with voice leading rules. Breaking the ground–rather than playing descant–would be useful when dividing a part in consort music, for example, to avoid voice-leading errors.  

Descant, on the other hand, is much more uniquely Simpson and is much more than an ornamentation practice. Of all the sets of divisions that Simpson provided at the end of his book, one would be hard pressed to find even one variation that resembles the diminutions that Ortiz or Rognoni left us. Rather, each variation is a completely new composition, each varying quite wildly in motive, character, and texture. Some are quite simple and lyrical; others are torrentially fast and make use of the full range of the instrument; and others use the viol’s disposition to chordal playing, and display rich three- or four-part harmony. In England, the practice lost its close connection to the voice, and rather took advantage of the abilities of the instrument. After Simpson, two other division books were published in London–The Division Violin, by John Playford (1684), and The Division Flute, by John Walsh (1706). The existence of these books demonstrates that the art of playing divisions became quite specific to the instrument and its abilities–Playford makes use of double stops and chords in his division writing for violin, and Simpson makes use of chords that are only possible with the viol’s tuning, so this music is not transferable to all instruments. 

As mentioned, the double was not so much a performance practice as it was a compositional practice. They occur as the repeated sections of dance movements, as a variation upon the original dance. In Marin Marais’ Pièces de viole, the movements with doubles written out are overwhelmingly allemandes. One can guess why this dance is particularly suited for the practice; it’s lively enough to not have its character disturbed by added notes (vs. a sarabande, for instance), but it’s moderate enough in tempo that the added notes won’t make it fiendishly rapid. 

In addition to the doubles sprinkled throughout the five books of Pièces de viole, Marais wrote a set of variations over an original bassline in his first book, akin to Simpsons divisions on a ground bass. Perhaps it was written as a sort of homage to Simpson; the variations follow his closely in form, with Simpson’s tendency to begin with a slow chordal variation, slowly speed up, return once or twice to another slow variation, and finish with a flurry of 32nd notes. Marais only diverges in that his lightning fast variation is in the middle, while he finishes with a much more pastoral tone, which is typical for his other compositions along this genre (e.g., his chaconnes). In addition, he maintains Simpson’s style of picking one motive/idea and running with it through the entire variation. 

There are also of course less extensive examples of doubles written for the viola da gamba, like those written by Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe for one or two viols, those written by La Sieur de Machy in his Pieces de Violle (1685), or even doubles found in lyra viol manuscripts. These examples are much more sporadic, as mentioned, and time didn’t permit a broad survey of scores written in tablature. 

The following chapter will discuss stylistic elements that further differentiate these regional practices.



Returning to Ganassi: “You must be aware that all musical instruments are less dignified in relation and comparison to the human voice; therefore, we will strive to learn from it and to imitate it.”22 The voice and its characteristics are central to his approach to diminution playing, and it is clear in the examples he provides. He very strongly favors stepwise motion, tending to move up and down in scalar patterns with leaps larger than a third being relatively uncommon. 

With exceptions, he gives this rule: “one should consider that [when] making a diminution there should be a resemblance between its ending and its beginning….this will generate a counterpoint executed [based] upon knowledge.”23 In other words, any diminution upon a single note should generally begin and end upon that same note, which accomplishes two things: firstly, it preserves the voice leading of the original composition, preventing errors; and secondly, it preserves, to a degree, the melodic contour of the original line. Ortiz provides a similar rule, and says this is the “most perfect way” of playing diminutions, because it completely avoids any risk of voice-leading errors.24 Again, it also preserves the integrity of the vocal line, and maintains its melodic quality. 

One striking characteristic of Ganassi’s diminution practice would be of course his four Regole–in other words, the fact that he writes diminutions to be played in 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, and 7/4. This structural quality–seemingly drawn from ancient Greek rhythmic models–can be difficult for the modern performer to imagine in practice. It involves dividing large notes into irrational groups like five or seven, a practice that later wouldn’t be seen with any frequency until the twentieth century. Ganassi adds that diminutions can be “simple” in proportion, or “compound” in proportion, meaning that this division can be constant, or change throughout the passage. Even further, some of his examples from the Regola Seconda and Regola Quarta (those in 5/4 and 7/4, respectively) are quite surprising in their rhythmic complexity (Fig. 1). This rhythmic complexity is all but gone from the diminution samples that Ortiz provides, though not from viola bastarda settings published later. Riccardo Rognoni, for example, made frequent use of rapid syncopated rhythms and (sparing) proportional changes, like duple to triple (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1: From Ganassi’s Opera intitulata fontegara, translated from a German translation by Dorothy Swainson (1956)

Fig. 2: Selections from Riccardo Rognoni’s setting to Ancor che col partire (1592)

Examples from English consort music don’t diverge greatly from these stylistic elements, save for their rhythmic modesty. An example from one of John Jenkins’ trio-fantasias demonstrates this well (Fig. 3). One very significant difference from this sample is that the diminutions are based upon the bass, rather than upon a vocal line. This marks a big turn from the diminution practice from Italy, and the effect is apparent. While this excerpt still shows a tendency towards scalar patterns and mostly stepwise motion, leaps are much more frequent, and the lines seem to be written for the instruments, rather than written in an attempt to mimic the tendencies of the human voice.

Fig. 3: Excerpt from John Jenkins’ trio fantasy in d minor

This turn towards more “instrumental” diminution/division writing is even more apparent in the divisions on a ground bass genre. While the Italian practice of viol diminution playing was dominated by the viola bastarda style, Simpson’s divisions demonstrate influence from the lyra viol. His sets of divisions always include multiple slower variations, rich with chords–often in three or four voices. This kind of writing is extremely reminiscent of earlier English repertoire for the lyra viol, like the works of Tobias Hume, for example. Simpson is also quite fearless of leaps in his division writing, rapidly moving up and down the entire range of the instrument in many of his variations (see Fig. 4 for examples). 

The most unique quality of Simpson’s division writing is his use of motives. His tendency, and his own advice to players, is to start each variation with some sort of motive (or point, as he calls it) in mind–one that can be repeated, like a rhythm, figure, melodic pattern, etc.–and run with it through the entire bass, varying/developing it to avoid excessive repetition. This makes the practice of invention much easier, and according to Simpson “it renders the Division more Uniforme, and also more Delightfull.”25 For example, in variation 2 of his d minor divisions, Simpson begins with the stepwise descending motive  and quotes it throughout the variation, either in full or partially (full quotes in red, partial in blue) (Fig. 5).

Fig. 4: Variations 1 & 7 from Simpson’s divisions on a ground in d minor, from The Division Viol

Fig. 5: Variation 2 from Simpson’s divisions on a ground in d minor, from The Division Viol

Examples of the double in viol literature once again stand somewhat apart. The biggest departure is that while previous examples divided preexisting vocal/bass lines, the double divides a fully-fledged dance for solo viol, meaning that the framework is already much more substantial. Looking at samples from Marin Marais’ third book of Pièces de viole, it seems that he simply “filled in” the notes of the original dance, to impress the listener with an even busier version upon the repeat. There is less need to be extremely inventive, as the original is already quite active, and of course because Marais also composed the original. The dominant textures for Marais’ doubles are scalar passages to fill in the original notes, or string crossing patterns to achieve the same goal (Fig. 6). He tends to transform the dance into a busy, constant flurry of sixteenth notes, with breaks at tense harmonies or cadences.


Fig. 6: Samples from Marin Marais’ Pièces de viole, Book 3, alongside their corresponding measures in their doubles

In summary, the differing applications of each regional practice also results in differing stylistic elements. Stemming from a vocal tradition, the diminutions described in the Italian sources are much more lyrical in shape, favoring stepwise motion and generally preserving the contour of the original line. The complex proportions and rhythms–remnants of Greek rhythmic theory–are fascinating to read about, but it is difficult to imagine how they would have manifested in performance, as Ganassi unfortunately left us very little in the ways of actual pieces. In England, the practice departed somewhat from its vocal tradition and adjusted to the abilities of bowed instruments, reaching new levels of virtuosity and motivic complexity in the hands of Christopher Simpson. The examples from Marin Marais show a practice of “filling in” notes rather than inventing them, as a busier variation upon his own original dance, with tendencies for certain textures and patterns like scales and alternating notes.

The following chapter will discuss what this means for the modern viol player who wishes to incorporate diminution into a performance, with examples to illustrate.



Ganassi, Ortiz, and Simpson all describe a practice that is rooted in improvisation. This practice is the task of the performer to study and learn, and then implement according to their own artistic tastes. Each of these authors also explains to the reader how to proceed with this, to varying degrees of helpfulness. However, in The Division Viol, Simpson also includes a short section titled “Of Composing Division for One Viol to a Ground”, and Ganassi also explains in Regola Rubertina that one goal of playing diminutions is to draw “praise from the listener, especially if the diminutions are executed with varied and well-planned passaggi.”26 27 Thus one could argue that it is valid for the modern performer to plan out their diminutions, however admirable it would be to learn to improvise them. Writing diminutions is also a helpful method to learn the language, thus taking a step towards improvisation. To illustrate this, a set of original diminutions has been composed for this exposition, written upon the same eight-bar phrase in varying styles, with accompanying explanations as to how each example was approached.

Fig. 7: arbitrary line, as a basis for writing diminutions

The eight-bar line found below the diminutions is original (Fig. 7), and it was written such that it could be treated interchangeably as a vocal line or a bassline. For the examples based on Italian sources, the line was treated as a vocal one. To begin, Example A is based upon Ganassi’s Fontegara. Each note was connected using his diminution samples for various intervals, using examples solely from Regola Prima. This passage would thus be “simple” in proportion, as the notes are always divided in the same manner. Example A also demonstrates Ganassi’s “rule” to preserve the intervals of the original line, but that his own examples don’t always adhere to it. Example B is also based on Fontegara, but this passage is compound in proportion, because it uses diminutions from each of the four regole. It is varied quite extremely to demonstrate the possibilities that Ganassi provides, and to show what it could sound like to vary proportion in performance. These first two examples treat this line as if it were a line from a preexisting piece, a madrigal for instance–example C treats the line as a plainsong, following Ortiz’s second method of viola da gamba playing with harpsichord. Ortiz only provides extensive diminution samples for cadences, but the example borrows melodic contours and rhythmic patterns that are common in his musical examples. Some of the most characteristic elements would be stepwise eighth notes, often broken by an octave leap, or the syncopated rhythm pattern [quarter - dotted quarter] that often occurs on downbeats. 

Example A: Diminutions a la Fontegara, simple in proportion28

Example B: Diminutions a la Fontegara, compound in proportion

Example C: Diminutions a la Trattado de Glosas, over a plainsong

Moving on, this line will now be treated as an instrumental bassline. Examples D, E, & F handle the line as the bass part of an English consort piece. The part is now harmonic rather than melodic, so now instead of ornamenting the intervals between the notes, the divisions were written based on the harmony. These examples are comparable to the trio-fantasias of John Jenkins–they don’t directly borrow any specific material, but keep the more “leapy” melodic contour in mind, as well as common rhythmic patterns. Examples G and H handle the line as if it were a ground bass, with two division variations similar to those of Simpson. The first is slow and chordal, in lyra viol style, and the second is rapid and virtuosic, and would probably be found towards the end of a full set of variations. Each division variation has a “point” in mind as Simpson suggests (a rhythmic and melodic motive); each variation returns to this point throughout, but also develops it for variety. 

Example D: English divisions, part one

Example E: English divisions, part two

Example F: English divisions, part three

Example G: Divisions a la The Division Viol

Example H: Divisions a la The Division Viol

Although the same line was used as the basis for each diminution/division passage, it was treated very differently depending on its imagined context–region, genre, and instrumentation. If one is playing diminutions on a line from a piece with multiple voices, they must take care to not disrupt the original voice leading and create errors; in this case it’s useful to stay close to the original line and follow the advice of Ganassi and Ortiz to begin and end on the same note. If one is playing diminutions on a line from a sixteenth-century Italian motet, it could be helpful to consult the samples provided by Ganassi and Ortiz to become familiar with rhythmic and melodic patterns that might be more relevant in style. If one would like to play divisions over a bassline, then it would be helpful to consult a source like The Division Viol that explains and demonstrates the compositional/motivic elements that create an engaging set of variations. 

If one wanted to play variations upon a dance movement, then perhaps it would be useful to take a look at the doubles that have already been composed, also to reference patterns and devices that are typical for the genre. Below are two simple examples to demonstrate this: filling in notes with scalar passages, and filling in notes with alternating note passages (Fig. 8). 

Fig. 8: excerpts from an allemande and gigue from Marais’ Pièces de viole, Book 3, variations newly written

The copy-paste method, using diminutions that are already written for specific intervals, is useful to get started and learn the stylistic language. Of course the ultimate goal of learning this language is for the performer to have the freedom to express whatever they wish–the taste of the individual performer is paramount. Ganassi delivers this promise to his readers: “if you wish to practise according to this useful and brief explanation, as I have described above, you will be truly able to create any diminution that may please you.”29



The most important distinction is that all these different terms for dividing notes, whether it be diminution, division, or doubles, are not interchangeable, and they are very much tied to the region and body of repertoire that they represent. Each of these terms has its own sort of connotation–its own historical context, application, and expressive language, and it follows that the modern viol player would benefit from a more nuanced understanding of these differences. Therefore, the approach to playing diminution-style ornaments depends completely on the music one is working with. Nearly any audience member would be at a loss to explain this themselves and wouldn’t be critical of a performer who also couldn’t, but things like style, intention, and a deep understanding of the music are perceptible by anyone regardless of musical knowledge. 

There remain, of course, a number of questions: what is the role of improvisation in these repertoires, and how can the modern performer learn how to improvise? What role did vocal practices or other instrumental practices play? In what exact contexts is it appropriate or expected to play diminutions, and conversely, in what contexts is it not? What is the role of different instrument builds and sizes and their accompanying repertoire? This paper discusses only the viola da gamba, but still touches on multiple instruments: the consort bass viol, the viola bastarda, the division viol, and the French seven-string viol. These bear mentioning, and hopefully addressing, in the future. 

It goes without saying that diminution ornaments are integral to the viola da gamba’s musical history, and they were part of its performance practice from the very beginning. As the instrument evolved to fit the needs of new repertoire, so did this practice, as documented by hundreds of years of texts and music. While the distinctions may often be subtle, this exposition argues that they are still important to consider - for historical accuracy, but more importantly, for more intentional artistic expression. 


Pavan: "The Cradle" - Antony Holborne

Recorded on November 29, 2020, Lutherse Kerk, Den Haag

Alex Baker, Magdalena Kasprzyk-Dobija, Takumi Hiratsuka,

Stefan Woudenberg, & Anna Lachegyi, viola da gamba


Primary Sources:

Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchésographie. Langres, 1589. 

Coprario, John. Rules How to Compose. England, c. 1610.

Ganassi, Silvestro. Opera Intitulata Fontegara. Venice, 1535.

Ganassi, Silvestro. Regola Rubertina. Venice, 1542. 

Marais, Marin. Pièces de viole, Books 1-5. Paris, 1686-1725.

Ortiz, Diego. Trattado de Glosas. Venice, 1553. 

Simpson, Christopher. The Division Viol. London, 1659.

Secondary Sources/Translations:

Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchésographie. Langres, 1589. Translated by Mary Stewart Evans, Dover, 1967.

Field, Christopher D.S. “Coprario [Coperario, Cooper, Cowper], John [Giovanni].” Grove Music Online, 20 Jan. 2001, www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic.

Ganassi, Silvestro. Opera Intitulata Fontegara. Venice, 1535. Translated by Dina Titan, 2019 ch. 17. 

Ganassi, Silvestro. Regola Rubertina. Venice, 1542. Translated by R. D. Bodig. Manchester, IN: Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America.

Herzog, Myrna. “The Division Viol—an Overview.” The Viola Da Gamba Society of Great Britain, vol. 10, 2016.

Ortiz, Diego. “Diego Ortiz' ‘Tratado De Glosas.’” Venice, 1553. The Journal of the Viola Da Gamba Society of America, Translated by Peter Farrell, vol. 4, 1967.

Rognioni, Richardo. Viola Bastarda Settings for Viola Da Gamba and Basso Continuo. London Pro Musica, 1986.

Titan, Dina Maria de Oliveira. "The origins of Instrumental Diminution in Renaissance Venice: Ganassi's Fontegara." Utrecht University, 2019.