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Music with a repeated pattern serving as a basis for successive variations is one of the earliest forms of instrumental music. Such a musical work is called a ground in English, ostinato in Italian. When the repeated pattern is in the bass voice, it is then called a ground bass or basso ostinato. The origin of grounds can be found in the earliest forms of polyphony and in the improvisatory tradition developed by instrumentalists in the repeated chordal schemes associated with Renaissance dances. Often a repeated bass line or chordal pattern was the most recognizable characteristic of a particular dance, and certain grounds circulated widely throughout Europe becoming vital parts of the instrumental repertoire. This tradition was mainly unwritten for a long time, but its cosmopolitan nature is made evident in the first printed instrumental music.

The chordal patterns were often named – the Italian passamezzo moderno being one and is usually linked with three similar grounds: passamezzo antico, romanesca, and folia. Ruggiero and Bergamasca are two other chordal grounds that were popular. The passacaglia and the chaconne also come out of Renaissance music, and, though originating as harmonic grounds, developed during the Baroque period with greater emphasis on a melodic bass line.

The name passacaglia comes from the Italian pasar, to walk, and calle, street. Written in triple time, the passacaglia was originally restricted to the chords I-VII-VI-V in the minor mode. In the Italian Baroque, it expanded into innumerable variants. Often the elaborated form would be a descending tetrachord, e.g. i-v6-iv76-V. Also in triple time, the original chord progression of the chaconne (ciaccona), which came to Italy from Spain, was I-V-IV-V in the major mode. During the Baroque era, the features that distinguished the passacaglia from the chaconne became less and less evident. Both become transformed into sophisticated courtly dances by the end of the 17th century, losing many of their distinguishing characteristics. Even so, these grounds remained at the center of European instrumental music throughout the Baroque era of music.

As in practically all instrumental music of the early 17th century, the composers of grounds were usually acclaimed instrumental virtuosos and who wrote music to show their mastery of their instruments as well as their contrapuntal writing skill. Such is the case with Andrea Falconieri of Naples, who was a famed lutenist and chitarrone player. His instrumental music survives in two large collections – one printed, the other manuscript.

Tarquinio Merula was born in Cremona, and after brief tenures in Bergamo and as court organist in Warsaw, settled in Venice. While in Venice, Merula further developed the instrumental sonata, giving it greater structural order and clearer thematic coherence. He eventually returned to his hometown as the cathedral's maestro di cappella. Ruggiero may have served originally as a harmonic pattern over which a singer could improvise a melody for chanting poetry. This connection tends to support the theory that the name derives from the first word of a stanza of Ariosto's epic poem, Orlando furioso, 'Ruggier, qual sempre fui'. The Ruggiero eventually became a standardized ground.

Marco Uccellini was one of the principal movers of violin technique in the middle of the 17th century. He was maestro di cappella to the royal courts of Modena and Parma, but published his collections in Venice. The tune Bergamasca was probably based on folk music, and its name suggests a connection with Bergamo in northern Italy. Widely used for instrumental variations and contrapuntal fantasias in the late 16th and 17th centuries, Bergamasca is usually associated with most simple of harmonies, I-IV-V-I.

The bulk of Giovanni Battista Vitali's output consists of dance music. His opus 7 collection of da camera sonatas is a highly unusual set for the period since it contains only dance movements employing the variation, rather than balletti, correnti and other common dances. This collection includes two capriccios based on composed bass-lines, and three 'Passagallos' all based on a descending tetrachord. The 'Passagallo Terzo' of Opus 7 is written with the two violin parts in common time and the bass part in triple time; each phrase of the repeated chord pattern lasting twelve beats. It is very rare to find examples of these movement-types in a collection published as late as the 1680s, as they had been replaced with the French court dances.

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer was the leading Austrian composer of instrumental music before Biber and made an influential contribution to the development of the sonata and suite. He produced a varied output, but most important are the six sonatas for violin and continuo forming his Sonatae unarum fidium, the earliest publication devoted entirely to solo sonatas in the German-speaking countries. Most of his sonatas rely strongly on the variation principle and consist of a number of short sections in contrasting meters and tempos, but in the solo violin sonatas these sections are extended to allow a greater display of virtuoso technique.

Martino Pesenti was blind from birth and appears to have spent all his life in Venice. He devoted himself almost entirely to chamber music. His passamezzos feature long, flowing divisions emphasizing the bass. Biagio Marini, born in Brescia, was one the most famous violinists of the time, first appearing in records at the age of 15 at St. Mark's. He returned to Brescia, in 1620, traveled to Parma, Neuburg, Germany, and Milan, finally returning to Venice in 1653. His Pass' e mezzo concertato uses standard bass patterns.

Giovanni Antonio Bertoli was probably born in Brescia. His book of nine solo sonatas for bassoon and continuo was dedicated to the cathedral organist of Brescia, Francesco Turini, who may have been Bertoli's teacher or co-performer. It is the oldest know collection devoted exclusively to solo sonatas, a distinction made all the more extraordinary by the fact that the collection is for a bass instrument. Bertoli – who must have been a bassoonist of considerable standing – composed the sonatas at the suggestion of violinist Antonio Bertali.

Capriccio has been used as a title in a bewildering variety of ways. The word first appeared in the second half of the 16th century. Capriccio does not signify a specific musical technique or structure, but rather a general disposition towards the exceptional, the whimsical, the fantastic and the apparently arbitrary. Girolamo Frescobaldi said of his set of capriccios (1624): 'In those passages which do not seem to conform to the rules of counterpoint, the player should seek out the affect and the composer's intentions'. His Capriccio del soggetto scrito sopra l'aria di Ruggiero uses both a Ruggiero bass and the tune "Fran jacopino".

Salomone Rossi "Hebreo" was born in Mantua and spent his life working for the Gonzaga family. We know that he worked in close collaboration with Monteverdi for several years, but his compositions remain on a fairly basic level, unlike those who worked with Monteverdi at St. Mark's. Very little is know about Rossi, probably because he was Jewish, and even the respect in which he was held as a composer did not eliminate all of the obstacles for a Jewish musician functioning in a musical culture dominated by Italian Catholicism.

Johann Michael Nicolai, from 1655 until his death, played the violone in the Stuttgart court orchestra. In several of his numerous instrumental works the lower instruments, such as the bass viol and the bassoon, are contrasted with the violins or viols independently of the basso continuo. In the sonatas, two lively central movements are enclosed and connected by short adagio sections, and the movements of a single work are often based on the same thematic material in varied rhythms.

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