For the most part we do not have polyphonic settings for the Basse Dances. The exception is the tune La Spagna also known as Il Re de Spagna (Cornazano) and Casulle Nouvelle [a misprint for Castille Nouvelle?] (Toulouze). This tune was a favorite for over two centuries and was given polyphonic settings by a large number of composers in both the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries including Josquin des Prez and Heinrich Isaac.
Gombossi lists 241 settings for this tune. Many, granted, are not basse dances settings: either they lack the proper meter or else their tenor is not measured in even breves. Many, however, are proper basse dances and from them we can learn about the sound of basse dance settings.
One of the earliest settings of the tune, is an anonymous polyphonic setting called Falla con Misuras ascribed to the dancing master Guglielmo [Ebreo?] and second copy is titled La Basa Casiglya (the Castillian Basse Dance). It is unclear whether this piece was actually written by the famous dancing master, or possible was written for him and distributed by him so that musicians would know the correct manner of playing the basse dance. In this case, the music is written in perfect tempus and imperfect prolation.
As this setting of the tune provides the best clues as to how basse dance music sounds, I have appended a copy to this treatise (La Spagne). From a contrapunctal analysis of this dance, it is plain that the composer is following the rules of counterpoint as set forth by Gafurius or Zarlino except that the suspension or syncopated dissonance is not used.
The famous composer Heinrich Isaac used this tenor as the cantus firmus of his mass Missa La Spagna. His treatment of the tune in most of the mass shows much of the variety with which cantus firmi were treated at the time (Sparks discusses these treatments). However, the second Agnus Dei of that mass is particularly worthy of note. Its tenor is written as a isometric series of perfect breves and other parts are written in perfect tempus and imperfect prolation. Thus it forms a ``basse dance'' within the mass. Just this piece of the movement, without the rest of the mass, is available from other contemporary German sources. It is given by Gombossi, although he does not recognize its source as Missa La Spagna. (La Spagne).
This part of the movement is for three voices. The bass has the cantus firmus (transposed down a fifth). The tenor and superious voices sing a countertenor and descant above the cantus firmus. Isaac follows the rules for counterpoint of the day (or is it the other way around, and the theorists codify the rules that Isaac, Josquin and other composers were using). He uses the syncopated dissonance freely between the two higher voices, but not with the cantus firmus.
Finally, there are the settings of the La Spagna tenor given by Diego Ortiz in his 1553 book on improvisation. In his second book, he gives six Recercada sobre el mesmo canto Ilano. These are examples of improvisations over a cantus firmus; the cantus firmus in question is the famous La Spagna. Ortiz gives his recercada in imperfect tempus and imperfect prolation, so they cannot be danced as a (Fifteenth Century) Basse Dance. On the other hand, they do provide a valuable clue about the relationship between improvisation and counterpoint.
In particular, a contrapuntal analysis of Ortiz's recercada shows that he is strictly following the rules of counterpoint as expressed by his contemporary Zarlino. Again, noticeably absent is the suspension dissonance (the recercada are only two parts), except that he uses it during the final cadence of some of the recercada.
Finally, the contrapuntal analyses of these versions of La Spagna have another benefit. Often they reveal motifs which harmonize well with the cantus firmus. Particularly frequently occurring is the pattern 3-4-5-3 or the variant 10-11-12-10 in various rhythmic patterns. Here only the 4th (11th) is considered a dissonance and hence this motif blends well in a number of places.
Therefore, they wa our forefathers treated the basse dance La Spagna provides us with the instruction we need to create our own settings for the other basse dances. In particular, they followed the rules of counterpoint as set forth by the theorists of the age. Therefore, in order to recreate the basse dance we must turn our attention to the rules of counterpoint.
Onward to: Chapter 6: On Descant, Counterpoint and Divisions.
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