Letter: Saltarello, Saltarello, come si fa il Saltarello: or, Can we hop yet?

[ This article appeared in volume 2 of the Letter of Dance. ]

An opinion stuffily expressed by Messer Sion Andreas o Wynedd

At the coronation of TRM Dag and Ilsa of the Midrealm in CE 1990, I saw the Saltarello Regina for the first time. It has since been published in the Letter of Dance, but at the time it was a revelation, because I was seeing my third reconstruction of the saltarello for that year. Considering the fact that no good contemporary description of a medieval saltarello survives, and only sketchy descriptions for the 15th-century saltarello are extant, I wondered what the justification of this particular version of the saltarello, not to mention those of the other two, could be.

Just for confusion's sake, these three versions of the saltarello were:
From Saltarello Regina and Melusine Wood:
1 2 3 4
Step, step, step, hop (basic allemande)

From Ingrid Brainard:
1 2 3 4
Step, hop, step, step

From Barbara Sparti:
and 1 2 3 4
Hop (on upbeat), step, step, step

"Garrgh," do I hear someone in the audience opining? Tell me about it; but reconstructions, if Providence smiles on us, don't just appear with no justification. That said, what then are the justifications for these reconstructions?

Barbara Sparti has researched the saltarello as it has survived to the present day as a folk dance among the Italians. She has also gone after iconographic research in Italy that we could only dream and drool about seeing. After a strict reading of Domenico and consultation with several musicologists in Italy, she teaches that the 15th-century Italian dance steps begin on the upbeat, and that the doppio, or double, is the basic dance step. If the saltarello is in fact shorthand for a presumed "doppio in saltarello," a "double with a little leap," then one can see why logic might decide that the hop must be on that upbeat. (Incidentally, this means that the step ends on the third step, not with another hop, and so she teaches.)

Melusine Wood identified the saltarello with the allemande and taught that the saltarello step was the allemande step from Arbeau (and that this all came from making the Burgundian Bransle step a progressive rather than a round dance step). To be sure, there was a dance which the Italians identified as the saltarello tedesco, a German saltarello, but that is where the matter must logically step, as the evidence ends there as well. Unfortunately, the allemande as a dance form cannot be dated much before 1540 according to the book, The allemande, the Balletto, and the Tanz. Wood's name has been essentially mud for some time in American dance research, but her theories were taught so widely in the early years of the Society, that they keep popping up whether we will or no.

Ingrid Brainard in her book, The Art of Courtly Dancing in the Early Renaissance, notes that Sparti's version of the saltarello is technically correct, but also notes that Cornazano can be read to suggest that the hop may occur internally. After reviewing occurances of the saltarello in 15th-century dances, usually in the intrada, Brainard prefers to place the hop on the second beat, unless the music so overwhelmingly demands a different placement that it cannot be denied.

Of course, all this 15th-century evidence aside, since we lack any good contemporary evidence we will not ever really know how a medieval dance step was done, unless a miracle occurs and a better medieval description of the dance comes down to us, and that does not look like a safe bet right now.

Timothy McGee notes in his book, Medieval Instrumental Dances, that the music for the saltarello presents a wide variation in length and complexity of design, although it shares enough elements with the Estampie that McGee contends that the difference between the two must have been the dance steps, not the musical form. As to what these steps were and how they were done, McGee does not hazard a guess.

I have often had a feeling, when reading the dance books, that no matter how precisely a dance step is described, there is always some latitude left to the dancer as to how that step might be performed. Even in the late Italian manuals, the music demands that at different times a Seguito Ordinario should be done differently. In the periods wherein such rigorous descriptions and prescription of the step execution is lacking, I wonder if it is lacking on purpose, because it did not exist.

There is one aspect of 16th-century dance which we very seldom stress in the Society, and that is improvisation. McGee conjectures, Mistress Urraca Yriarte de Gamboa concurs, and I tend to agree with them both, that the early dances, especially those of Italy, must have been specially choreographed pieces. We know that there were dancemasters before Domenico, of course, but we cannot be certain what their impact on their art was. It is quite possible that improvisation was an important part of their dancing. Mistress Urraca has maintained that this practice of improvisation to the music, which in Italy seems to have been highly irregular, is the reason that choreographies will be very rare. Respect for improvisation can be seen contemporarily in other arts, so there is no reason to believe that it was not important in dance at those times as well.

So, leaving off all this beating around the bush, where do I think the hop goes? (After all, this is an article on where the hop goes in the saltarello.) Then for the record: the hop of the saltarello will go wherever a committee composed of the dancers, the music and the holy spirits of symmetry and improvisation determine it should go -- this time. Or in other words, just about anywhere. I am learning to try not to be surprised any more.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (lindahl@pbm.com)