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The Consort

Caroline Ritchie

Summer 2022

Gaetano Francone:
10 Passagagli per violoncello

ed. Giovanna Barbati, Guido Olivieri
Edition HH, hh521.fsp, Launton, 2021
(pbk, £25)

This beautifully printed edition brings to light a set of divisions for violoncello by the Neapolitan composer Gaetano Francone, which survive in a manuscript dated from 1699 in the Biblioteca dell’Abbazia di Montecassino, Italy. Francone was a player and teacher of string instruments who seems to have been active in Naples between 1688-1717. The surviving biographical details show him to have been professionally employed as a violinist, but these ten passagagli are labelled ‘violoncello’, so presumably he also played and taught the lower members of the violin family, as would likely have been common practice at the time.

The passagagli themselves are all based on a repeating four-bar ostinato in a triple metre, in a I-I-IV-V chord sequence. Above this ostinato, the cello plays a variety of divisions arranged in a way that suggests pedagogical use, possibly in the teaching of improvisation - as the editors suggest, the student would learn a ‘vocabulary’ of figures associated with each chord sequence, developing the ability to combine these in different formats to create musical interest and variety. Francone’s variations tend to concentrate on running passagework and leaping figures in eighth and sixteenth notes, or rapid string-crossing patterns; there are no chordal passages for the cello, or slower-moving rhythmic figures. From a pedagogical perspective, this suggests that another aim of these pieces was to improve general agility and virtuosity. The first eight are arranged in ascending order of keys, but the pieces do not stray into territory beyond two flats or three sharps. The inclusion of a low B flat in the 9th passagaglia leads the editors to suggest that the pieces were intended for an instrument tuned a whole tone below the modern violoncello: a four-string bass violin tuned B flat-F-c-g. The use of this tuning is well documented, and it is interesting to think of it in terms of such solistic and improvisatory material, which is more often associated with the later, smaller incarnations of the violoncello.

An un-figured continuo part is supplied, plus a score with a fairly straightforward continuo realisation - useful to have, but a continuo player might want to add more figuration in performance. Accompaniment and performance in general is not discussed in the preface, and it would have been interesting to have the editors’ perspectives on this matter; clearly chordal continuo is an option, but I could also imagine a context in which two cellists took turns playing the bass and then switching to divisions, one phrase at a time.

The most crucial performance information, however, is hidden at the back of the volume, in the textual notes. Given the assumed B flat tuning of the instrument for which these pieces were written, in order to experience the passagagli with their original left hand position, the performer is instructed to either tune their instrument down a tone, or to use conventional tuning but transpose each piece one tone higher. It is, of course, also possible to play these pieces at pitch on a conventionally tuned cello, as the low B flat appears only once, briefly, in the 9th passagaglia. Most lie quite comfortably in conventional tuning, and I wonder if the B flat tuning really was the only one the composer had in mind. However, this issue could easily be aided by including with the edition a transposed version of the passagagli, for authentic left-hand performance but in conventional tuning. Not all cellists have the skills to transpose easily at sight, and not all cellos can be tuned down a tone successfully. A written-out transposition would make these works more easily accessible to all contemporary cellists, modern and baroque alike. Nevertheless, this is useful and fun material, especially for the historically-informed cellist interested in improvisation, and all additions to the known corpus of early cello repertoire are very welcome.

We are grateful to the The Consort for permission to reproduce this review.

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