Improvisation is one of Jazz’s distinctive features. One of the more recently recovered practices of Renaissance music, however, is also improvisation. As with a jazz band that plays a theme and then gives opportunities to the saxophone, drums, or double-bass to improvise some riffs in between, ensembles of musicians in the 16th century would also have been skilled improvisers, playing well-known themes ornamented with spontaneous variations.
A popular song often invites simultaneous reactions of delight when recognized or disgust at overuse. In the Renaissance, famous “pop songs” of the day often underwent “remixes.” As jazz saxophonist Louis Armstrong said, “Never play anything the same way twice.” Those Renaissance men had the same idea. Because musicians provided a well-known theme or melody, a musician could show off his creative skill when he played variations, while listeners could have the joy of hearing a familiar tune.
Today, musicians are rediscovering improvisation in the context of early music. Two of my favorite albums utilizing improvisational and “remix” techniques are headed by the Norwegian lutenist Rolf Lislevand: Nuove Musiche and Diminuito, both available on all standard streaming platforms. If you are interested in finding better music to listen to, I can hardly recommend a better place to start. Engaging, energetic, lyrical, these two discs are a fusion of Renaissance, jazz, and traditional folk music sure to delight listeners of many different tastes.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
A few of Lislevand’s tracks deserve analysis and comparison with their originals so you can appreciate them better!
- Susanne un Jour—This 16th-century French poem recounts the story of Susanna and the Elders from the book of Daniel. Set to music by numerous composers, Orlando di Lasso’s version became wildly popular—a setting for five voices, which you can hear “plain” here.
Because of its popularity, numerous arrangements were made for various instruments like keyboards, viols, or lutes, and it became a popular theme for diminutions. A modern singer using historical variation techniques to create a new variation can be heard here.
However, in the hands of Lislevand and his musicians, the themes of Susanne un Jour are transformed by plucked instruments into a fantasia and joined with another piece. Occasionally, the soprano voices enter to state the theme before fading into the starry sky of plucked harmonies or modulating into another piece.
- La Perra Morra—This simple instrumental refrain forms the basis for semi-improvised interludes. A bass lute thumbs the bass line first and then forms the framework for subsequent harp and lute variations over the same bass lines.
- Così mi disprezzate (Passacaglia cantata is Lislevand’s version)—This is a stupendously lyrical aria of a despairing lover. The original is scored simply for soprano and generic “basso continuo” accompaniment—little more than the equivalent of today’s guitar chords on a lead sheet.
This gives the lutenist freedom to play an intro and accompany with strumming, complex plucking, and other interesting decorations (as in this recording). Or it can be rendered more simply but with more instruments (as in this performance, with harpsichord and theorbo). However, Lislevand takes the piece a bit slower and adds some more instruments: a plucked upright bass, a nyckelharpa playing a harmony line, along with the lute.
- Apeggiata Addio—This breathtaking piece takes a simple solo lute chord progression and draws out the harmonic implications contained therein. Here is a version of the original played by Brandon Acker; beautiful arpeggiated chords, but really quite a simple piece. Then listen to Lislevand’s version; he reinforces the changing harmonies with other plucked instruments, adds percussion textures, and has Arianna Savall sing a vocal line above the progressions. Using her voice like an instrument, Arianna soars on vowels instead of singing words, as if she were a violin or flute. Some may find the overall effect weird; give it time.
- Home Again, Market Is Done (Passacaglia Celtica is Lislevand’s arrangement)—This is a very simple English lute song when played “plain.” Lislevand takes it to a new level, emphasizing the beat and giving it what I think many listeners would call “a celtic sound”. Here is another version Lislevand recorded on another album, with less percussion.
Here, then, are a few samples of what “Renaissance Jazz” sounds like. My hope is that you will become “hooked” on these lively and creative musicians and their wonderful music. These are the albums that made me want to play the lute myself growing up; may they inspire and give others the joy and delight I have found in them.
For those of you interested in more technical and historical details, Elam Rotem’s excellent “Early Music Sources” YouTube channel has a great episode on improvisation, as well as an analysis of an improvisational theme and variations. Although few videos of Lislevand’s concerts exist, a good one can be found here, where he is playing with his son. Give it five minutes and see if you are not enthralled!
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles explaining great works of music “in a nutshell.”