Issues in Reconstructing Basse Dance Music

In the process of creating this music I've needed to make a number of decisions about reconstruction procedures, often on questionable and contradictory evidence. In an earlier paper, I tried to lay out the basis of 15th Century counterpoint as it relates to the basse dance. In this page, I attempt to describe and motivate some of the issues that arose and the justification for my approach.

The following issues are addressed here:

Sources of Counterpoint and improvisation technique

There are three types of information related to performance of the basse dance:

  1. 15th and 16th Century manuals on music theory,
  2. 16th Century manuals on improvisation (often as parts of instrumental instruction)
  3. 15th Century settings of La Spanga, and other possible basse dance tunes.

We will take them in order.

Texts on the practice of music

The two most useful texts are Gafurius[1496] and Tinctoris [1477] which are roughly contemporary with the Brussels MS and the Toulouze Imprint. Tinctoris is particularly helpful because he sheds light on two important issues: (1) the relationship between improvisation and counterpoint and (2) counterpoint in perfect tempus.

Tinctoris discusses the relationship between improvisation and counterpoint in the 20th chapter (from the translation by Albert Seay):

But, with two or three, four or many, harmonizing super librum, one is not subject to the other, for indeed, it suffices that each of them make consonances with the tenor with those things that pertain to the law and arrangement of concords. [As opposed to composed music where all parts must follow the rules with each other. --RGA] I do not, however, think it disgraceful, but rather most laudible, if, agreeing among themselves on a similarity of assumptions and arrangement of concords, they sing prudently, or thus they make of their harmonizing a fuller and more sauve [effect --Seay].

Tinctoris takes up Perfect Tempus and Major Prolation in Chapter 26. From his discussion, passing dissonances can occur on the second and third part of the measure and suspensions on the first (provided there was a consonance on the third part of the measure proceeding). Thus ternary counterpoint is a straightforward extension of the binary.

The third important text on practical music theory is Zarlino [1558]. Although it occurs nearly 50 years after B and T, it provides evidence about the extent to which Early 16th Century practice differed from late 15th Century practice. Although Zarlino contains some theoretical advances (particular, naming the major and minor triads) the rules for counterpoint are essentially the same as those given in Tinctoris and Gafurius. Thus it also speaks to the importance of two other sources for basse dance counterpoint: 16th Century improvisation manuals and modern texts on modal counterpoint.

(The modern sources on 16th Century counterpoint were some of the first that I studied in pursuing this project. The "Palistrina style" which musicians have tried to emulate since the time of Fux consists of both harmonic and melodic rules. The harmonic rules closely follow Zarlino and are hence applicable. The melodic style, however, results in a smooth line which is more appropriate to the Sistine Chapel than the dance halls of Phillip the Good. Following those rules too closely explains why some of my early attempts at composition were far too bland. Since then I've tried to borrow melodic ideas from both 15th Century settings of La Spanga and from the early 15th Century Chansons which were the sources for the basse dance tenors.)

A paper I wrote for a Bardic Championship contains a summary of 15th Century counterpoint.

Manuals on improvisation

Now that we know that the late 15th and early 16th century styles are similar harmonically, we are free to look at the large number of instrumental instruction manuals which were printed in the 16th century. Many of these authors, such as Ortiz[1553], Ganassi and Bassano provide instructions and suggestions, for ornamentation and improvising over a cantus firms.

Ortiz is particularly interesting because the cantus firmus he chooses is La Spanga, although he sets it in imperfect tempus and minor prolation. His example improvisations follow Zarlino's rules for counterpoint. But perhaps more important than the harmonic content of his improvisations, are the melodic ideas. For example, the cambiata figure is very common in his improvisations, in part because the consonances and dissonances in that figure fall naturally in their proper place against the tenor.

Existing basse dance settings.

Clearly the best sources for melodic ideas related to improvisation over basse dance tenors are period examples of such improvisation. Of these, settings of the La Spanga tenor are the most numerous (Gombossi [1955] lists 241 settings ranging from the 15th through the 17th centuries). If Tandernaken is a basse dance it provides another substantial body of musical examples. The Buxheim Organ Book provides yet another example of written out improvisation over a cantus firmus (often several examples for the same cantus firmus) and so is yet another source for melodic ornament. Finally, the Chanson originals of the basse dance tenors (and the whole early 15th Century chanson repertoire) must have been familiar to the musicians improvising above the tenors and hence a source of melodic ornament.

Of the settings of La Spanga, my favorite is the three part setting by Isaac which appears as the second Agnus Dei of his Missa La Spanga. As this is the only place in the entire mass in which the complete Spanga tenor appears and it is notated in perfected breves. For this reason I believe that it was a conceit of Isaac's; a basse dance setting within the mass. The fact that is appears in a textless edition separate from the mass indicates that it was used for instrumental performance, perhaps even as a dance. If my thesis is correct and this was a deliberate attempt by Isaac to emulate the basse dance, the setting of this piece might reveal more about how the basse dance was performed than any other settings. It does not hurt that this piece is both easy to perform by intermediate level musicians and easy to dance to.

The second most important setting is the two part Falla con misuras or La Bassa Castiglia setting by Gulielmus given in Bukofzer [1950]. Bukofzer identifies Gulielmus as the dance master Guigliermo Ebreo (later Ambrosius), one of the sources for the Italian bassedanza.

The Buxheim Organ Book is a wealth of information about improvisation over a cantus firmus. It contains improvisations over the tenors for La dolce Amour, Colinetto, Une fois avant que morir, Venise, and Languir en mille distress (or at least settings based on the chanson original) as well as the possible basse dance Longus Tenor. If nothing else this gives us a rich source of melodic motifs for improvisation over a cantus firmus. London Pro Musica has put out both the keyboard settings and a collection of the corresponding chanson originals.

The rhythm of the basse dance

In both B and T, the tenor of the basse dance is given in blackened (silvered) breves, indicating that they are to be perfected. It is obvious from all sources that these breves are meant to each hold six minims, however, according to Renaissance theory, there are two ways those minims could be grouped. The six minims could be grouped into three imperfect semibreves each consisting of two minims in Tempus Perfectum cum Prolatio Minor (roughly equivalent to modern 3/4 time) or they could be grouped into two perfect semibreves each consisting of three minims in Tempus Imperfectum cum Prolatio Major (roughly equivalent to modern 6/8 time).

The evidence provided by the 15th Century Italian authors is quite ambiguous. Sparti [1993] (p 66, in her introduction to the Ebreo translation) gives a table of the descriptions of the major authors. The entries for basse dance are as follows:

mazor imperfecto (Sparti reads this as meaning tempus perfectum cum prolatio minor)
Guglielmo (Ebreo/Ambrosius)
pefectto magiore
perfectomagiore in ragione di canto

The use of the symbols in the musical examples is similarly clear. By far the most commonly used symbol for the basse dance section is the incomplete circle with a dot indicating tempus imperfectum cum prolatio major, although the complete circle both with and without the dot are used to indicate basse misura in some of the balli music. Cornazano uses the incomplete circle with a dot to notate his example basse dance tenors, however, he could well have intended these to be doubled to the length of breves giving perfect breves as required.

Thus the evidence for setting the basse dances in tempus perfectum rather than tempus imperfectum is quite ambiguous. Furthermore, in the early 15th century chansons from which so many basse dance tenors come, modulating between tempus perfectum, prolatio minor and tempus imperfectum, prolatio major was a well known devise (Elizabeth Mead found enough material here for a master's thesis). Hence, it is most likely that there was a considerable amount of regional and temporal variation in the tempus of the basse dance. Thus, Gombassi's classification of all dances in three as Salterellos and those in six as basse dances is probably far too rigid.

There are some good arguments for setting the basse dance in tempus imperfectum cum prolatio major. The strongest is probably the melodies for the dances in B not given in blackened breve notation. Both the Dance de Cleves and the Dance de Ravenstain are given in a notation with six semibreves to the double step. These most naturally fall in groups of two. The basse dance section of Roti Boully Joyeulx is given mostly in black breves, except two breves which are subdivided into two semibreves (corresponding to two single steps). Beaulte de Castile also occaisonally has a divided tenor, but here each breve corresponds to six minims (it is unclear whether the music is in perfect or imperfect tempus).

On the other hand, there are also good arguments in favor of tempus perfectum cum prolatio minor. In particular, both the Isaac Agnus Dei II (the fourth minim is on a dissonance, indicating tempus perfectum) and the Falla con misuras dance (which modulates near the end to tempus perfectum, prolatio major indicating the author must have thought of it as tempus perfectum) both seem to be in tempus perfectum cum prolatio minor. The last argument is the evidence of my feet. According to Brainard [1971,1981] the double step of the basse dance is done with three equal steps. This is most easily accomplished when the music is in tempus perfectum.

For this collection, I have chosen to set my basse dance tenors in tempus perfectum com prolatio minor. I do this for the good and simple reason that that is how I learned to dance the basse dance (in the Brainard style). I recognize that there are other interpretations which might prefer other types of settings for the tenors (I have heard that Barbara Sparti has a different reconstruction for the basse dance double step which uses unequal steps, but I have not seen it). I would welcome links to anybody who was making a similar collection using a different editorial decision for this step.

The first and last measures

There are two other musical decisions I made in my settings of the basse dance tenor which deserve special note. The first is how the dancers should get the tempo of the dance and the second is how the final note (usually a longe) is treated.

Starting on the upbeat

Joseph Casazza, in a posting to the RENDANCE mailing list, made a remark that the basse dance should start en voudo, meaning on the diastolic part of the beat (the upbeat). [I should go back through the archives and try to see what he meant. Cornazano refers to starting the step of the basse dance with a voudo so I could have been mistaken about the movement.] Although neither the Isaac nor the Guileirmus settings of the Spanga tenor start in this way, many of the possible basse dance tunes in the Buxheim Organ Book do.

Starting on the upbeat was probably another factor in the performance of the basse dance which was the subject of considerable regional and temporal variation. It does, however, solve one important technical problem: how to give the tempo to the dancers without the drum. I have decided to start one of my countertenor voices on the upbeat (usually with a four eighth note figure in 3/2 time taking up 1/3 of a breve). Some of my earlier settings do not have this introductory ornament.

The final longe

How to set the end of the dance for dancers similarly presents a problem. The natural cadence in Renaissance music has the tenor descending by a tone while the cantus ascends by a tone to form an octave. However, the last two notes of almost all of the tenors in B and T are the same tone repeated first as a breve and then as a longe. (The longe in this position does not necessarily mean that the note is held twice as long, but merely that this is the end of the tune. It served much the same function that the fermato at an end of a modern piece of music serves.) Thus, the natural point of cadence is at the penultimate note of the dance; the dancers need to perform the final two steps (usually a démacrche and bransle without any indication of tempo from the musicians.

A second problem in setting the ending of the dance is whether or not to provide music for the final congé of the dance. The musicians may have repeated the final consonance of the piece for this révérence or maybe not; we have no indication from the sources. However, as the final note is a longe, the musicians may have known to hold it twice as long for the final congé.

My solution to this problem is to allow all of the voices to cadence on the penultimate note of the tenor, but have one of the voices (usually the cantus) make a small cadenza at this point, joining in the final cadence at the final longe. I also add a restatement of the final consonance for the congé (not unlike the Amen after a hymn), often re-arranging the voices. You may, of course, omit the music for the final congé if you don't think it is appropriate.

Instruments and voicing

From pictographic evidence, we have come to believe that the dance band of the 15th Century consisted of two shawms (probably a soprano and an alto or two sopranos) and a sackbut (trombone) on the tenor line. Other combinations are certainly possible (strings were very likely for smaller halls). In the Shawm and Sackbut ensemble the Sackbut certainly played the tenor part while the other instruments improvised a melody above it.

In the early 15th Century, many chansons were written in three parts: the cantus giving the melody, the tenor providing the harmony and structure and the countertenor weaving around the tenor and filling in harmonies. The cantus was usually pitched an octave above the tenor and countertenor which were at approximately the same level. Ockaghem began using two counter voices: a countertenor bassus which lied below the tenor and took over its harmonic function and a countertenor altus which lay between the tenor and cantus and filled in harmonies. This style became more and more prevalent during the latter part of the 15th century and early 16th century when four part harmony became the norm.

There seem to me to be two styles appropriate for setting the basse dance. The first is to imitate the 15th Century Chanson style and add a countertenor at roughly the same range as the tenor. Many of the basse dance settings in the Buxheim Organ Book take this approach. The second is to have the two countertenor voices both lie substantially above the tenor. Both because of the harmonic difficulties that a voice below the tenor would create when improvising super librum (see Tinctoris' remarks above) and because the soprano and alto shawms would naturally lie above the sackbut in voicing, two voices above the tenor was probably the most frequent for improvised music.

In my collection of tunes, I have tried to use a variety of settings. Both one and two voices above the tenor and occasionally one voice below. (As I go along, I may try some four or more part settings). Generally, I have tried to vary the setting orchestration within sets of basse dances of the same length (because, of course, substitutions can always be made within that list).

I have assumed that the band would consist of a sackbut (or other tenor instrument), an alto shawm (or recorder) in G or F, and a soprano shawm (or recorder) in D or C. For four part pieces, I assumed a bass curtal or Shawm in F. As I did not have my shawm when I started this project, I gave some the the pieces a quite wide range (it is playable, but the shawm player needs good chops). Incidentally, having a sackbut or other instrument making a strong attack is really necessary for the basse dance, as the dancers (and musicians) are listening for the change of the tenor. Delbert von Strassberg kindly recorded a number of my basse dances settings using a synthesizer for the Letter of Dance, but many of them were difficult to dance to, in part, because the synthesizer did not have a strong enough attach on the notes. Finally, I have assumed the ensemble would not have a drum (the drum beat for the basse dance given by Arbeau is 100 years after B and T).

Finally, I want all musicians to realize that they should treat my music as they would any other 15th Century piece of music. They should add dynamics and musica ficta as they feel appropriate. Furthermore, they should feel free to add or subtract from the melodies as they feel appropriate. Remember, my settings are suggestions for what would have been an improvised performance. Have fun with them!

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Last modified: Sat Mar 15 17:39:38 1997