There are many diverse authors who have written about the Basse Dance, both among the ancients and among our contemporaries. From this corpus of work we derive our knowledge of the basse dance.
The most famous of treatise on the basse dance was written by an unknown scribe at the end of the Fifteenth Century. This manuscript is written in gold and silver ink on black-dyed parchment and is a masterful work of calligraphy. The black and white reproduction of one page of this manuscript appended to this treatise can scarely do justice to the original. This treatise contains 58 dances, including two Pas de Brabants (a two part dance in which the second part is a miniature basse dance). Most of the remaining dances are notated with a series of blackened (silver) breves with the steps and title of the dance placed below. This manuscript belonged to Marguerite of Austria, from whom it passed to Marie of Burgundy, Queen of Hungary. It currently resides in the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, in Brussels and hence is usually referred to as Brussels or simply B.
Michael Toulouze published a book at approximately the same time containing many of the same dances. Toulouze prints the dances with black breves on a four line staff in a notation similar to that used for chant. The two sources overlap considerably, although Toulouze contains many more errors than Brussels and also contains a number of variants of the tenors or the steps. 43 dances (including the two Pas de Brabants) are found in both treatise and Toulouze gives 5 dances not found in Brussels. There are reasons to believe that both these treatises have a common source, but nobody has found such a manuscript to date. A typical page from Toulouze's book, which is often abbreviated T, is appended to this treatise.
Both Brussels and Toulouze contain a complete description of how to dance each step of the basse dance. Other sources give slightly variant descriptions of the dance. For example, Coplande (writing in 1521) provides a description of the basse dance which is different but regonizably similar to Brussels and Toulouze. These sources provide us with sufficient information to reconstruct basse dance, saving only that we must reconstruct the polyphonic setting of the music from the tenor. If we could but write a descant and countertenor for each dance in these sources, this would yield a library of 60 new dances from the Fifteenth Century.
Cornazano (writing in 1455) describes the Italian bassadanza, which is slightly different in character but musically very similar. Cornazano notes that any dance can be danced to any tenor so longer as the number of breves in the tenor match the number of steps in the dance. He gives three example tenors, Collinetto, Canzon de pifari dico el Ferrarese, and Re di Spagna. The last (found in Toulouze under the title Casulle la Nouvelle) is particularly important because of the large number of famous persons who have written settings for this tune ( La Spagna). These shall be the subject of a later chapter.
Guglielmo Ebreo de Pesaro, another Italian dancing master gives steps for Italian bassadanza and balli which are quite similar to bassadanza. There is also a setting of La Spagna called Falla Con Misuras which is attributed to the dancing master Guglielmo (presumably Ebreo), and thus is a very important historical setting of the tune. It also gives a strong indication of how the music of the dances should be played.
Note that the Basse Dance (or at least a dance of the same name) survived for many years after its height during the Fifteenth Century. In particular, the Basse Dance described by Arbeau (writing at the end of the Sixteenth Century) is very different from that described in the Brussels manuscript or Toulouze's book or even Coplande's book. In particular, the dancers assign one step to four breves worth of music, rather than allocating one step per breve as was done in the fifteen century. The music called ``Basse Dance'' by Attaingant seems to fit this later style of basse dance rather than the earlier style. Thus we must be careful to distinguish in our recreation between the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Basse Dances.
Many modern authors have written about the Basse Dance as well. Perhaps the most important of these is Fredrick Crane. Crane gathers together many sources about the Basse Dances and produces concordances of many version, noting their similarities and differences. He also notes, similarity of the tenors to existing sources such as Chanson tenors (especially those found in the Buxheim Organ Book.) In this he does an admirable job, drawing on what is good of the scholarship of others and rejecting was is bad. I have reguarded his version of the tunes as authoritative.
Raymond Meylan performs a strict mathematical analysis of the tenors of the basse dances, forming rules by which one may justly determine if a given melody is the source for a given tenor. This work has eliminated much idle speculation.
Ingrid Brainard has made a study of the steps of the basse dance, the bassadanza, the balli and other similar dances and has both written and taught about them. Among her students are Baron Patri du Chat Gris, Countess Mara Tudora, Master Justin du Coeur, and my own Lady Maria von Morganrot (Malice). Among their students are many other prominent personages: Master Trahearn and Mistress Jane Lynn (Your Excellencies Own Master and Mistress of Dance), Lord Daniel of Falling Rocks (who has written about his own reconstruction of the basse dance steps) and myself. In this way has the method of dancing the basse dance come to Madrone.
Onward to: Chapter 3: On the steps of the Basse Dance.
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