Sylvestro Ganassi's Fontegara

Paul de la Ville
St. Vitas Dance & Music Weekend
Politarchopolis, 2015

Sylvestro Ganassi's Fontegara, published in Venice in 1535, instructs recorder players on technique of playing the instrument and of improvising on a ground by means of divisions. Sylvestro Ganassi was court musician to Doge of Venice Andrea Gritti, to whom the book is dedicated. He also wrote two books on viola da gamba technique.

I am working from the 1956 English translation by Dorothy Swainson. Scans of the original and the translation are available online for free, be sure to look in the "Translations" tab for the translation:,_Sylvestro)


Ganassi instructs that the aim of the recorder player is to imitate the human voice. Playing may be lively (vivace) or tender (suave), as though singing words that are happy or sad.

Breath pressure

Initially practice with moderate breath pressure, then experiment blowing gently or strongly. Ganassi refers to this as "dexterity".

When playing softly, a finger hole may be slightly uncovered to stay in tune.


Ganassi gives three basic forms of tonguing:

1. teke teke teke
2. tere tere tere
3. lere lere lere

The first form is hard and sharp, the thrid form is gentle and smooth, and the second lies between.

"Teke" may be familiar as a way of playing fast passages, because it alternates forward and back in the mouth. Actually, Ganassi says all three of these forms are like this, alternating a direct and reversed stroke of the tongue. At speed, the tendency in forms two and three is for them to become like "ter ter ter" and "ler ler ler".

Other vowels may be used.

Comparison to other sources

In two songs in the Ivrea Codex from the 14th centurty, various instruments are imitated in song (Hasselman & McGown, 1983). Trumpets go "po po po". Drums go "ton titi ton titi ton". Cornemuses go "ture lure ture lure". All together they go "lirili lirilido".

Arbeau's Orchesography gives syllables next to drum beats. Slow beats go "tan tan tan tan". Faster beats go "tere tere". Very fast beats go "fre".

These may or may not have any relation to tonguing of instruments.


Ganassi gives fingering tables. Fingering is quite similar to the baroque fingering system we currently use, however with some alternative fingerings and half-holing.

Fingering tables are given for six different keys. Sometimes the fingering differs subtly between these tables for what we would consider the same note.

Ganassi also notes that there may be variations between recorders from different makers, especially in the highest notes.


Trills are employed in elegant and graceful playing. Trills may be of a semitone, tone, or third. They are produced by trembling a finger above a hole. Ganassi gives a table of trill fingerings, showing which finger to tremble in each case.


Starting with a ground, a series of notes of equal length, we divide the ground notes into smaller notes. (Division is sometimes also called diminution.)

Ganassii uses divisions of original notes into 4, 5, 6, or 7 crotchets, i.e. there is a choice of time signature. These crotchets might be further divided into quavers or semiquavers, and dotted notes are also used, in more elaborate divisions.

The first of the smaller notes retains the tone of the ground note (it may be transposed by an octave if you wish).

We might need to look at the next ground note to make sure our melody progresses nicely to it. For example a G in the ground which is followed by an A might be divided as:

Ganassi distinguishes between simple and compound division in three different respects.

Rhythm Each ground note is divided evenly, into notes of the same length, such as a semibreve into four crotchets. Each ground note is divided into a mixture of notes of different lengths, such as crotchets and quavers.
Melody The same melodic fragment is used each time, simply transposed so the first note matches the ground note. Different melodic fragments are used to divide each ground note.
Time signature The same time signature is used throughout. Different bars use different time signatures. The duration of the ground note is retained, but it may be divided into 4, 5, 6, or 7 "crotchets".

Division tables

The bulk of Fontegara is made up of example divisions.

Divisions into time signatures of 4, 5, 6, or 7 crotchets are given. Within this, division of a ground note followed by a step up or down of a second, third, fourth, or fifth are given. Examples are given for each note in the scale. (Some examples of division of a ground followed by a unison are given, as something of an afterthought.)

Divisions of a final cadence are also given.

The example divisions range in complexity from basic to extremely elaborate. They are a mixture of simple and compound rhythms.

Attempt at application

I applied the division tables to produce an "improvisation" on the tenor line for Collinetto, a 15th century bassedance piece given by Antonio Cornazzano (Smith, 1995).

This tenor seems to have a structure of 9 sections each with 8 notes. To highlight this structure, I used only a very simple division of the eighth note of each section.

I've divided each note into six quavers, using the simplest divisions given by Ganassi. In Ganassi's scheme this improvisation is simple in rhythm, simple in time signature, but compound in melody (each pair of successive notes gives a different melodic fragment from the tables).

I transposed the divisions down a fifth so that the key signatures matched, otherwise the process was largely mechanical. A couple of C# accidentals, approached and departed by semitone, add some color to the piece, and I did have to pick out divisions from Ganassi's table that were similarly semitone steps and transpose them appropriately.


Arbeau, Thoinot. 1589. Orch├ęsographie. Translatied by Mary Stewart Evans, 1948. Dover Publications.

Ganassi, Sylvestro. 1535. Fontegara. Translation by Dorothy Swainson, 1956. Robert Lienau.

Hasselman, M.P. & McGown, D. 1983. "Mimesis and woodwind articulation in the fourteenth century." In Studies in the Performance of Late Medieval Music, edited by Stanley Boorman. Cambridge University Press.

Smith, A.W. 1995. Fifteenth century dance and music. Pendragon Press.