Chapter 4: On the Music of the Basse Dance.

Both Brussels and Toulouze provide the music for the basse dance in the same form, as a series of blackened (or silvered) breves. The blackening and the descriptions written elsewhere indicate that these are perfect breves, each taking three semibreves . The music of the basse dance is furthermore in imperfect prolation, so each semibreve is divided into two minims. The musician may further subdivide the breve as he pleases for the purposes of ornamentation. [Readers unfamiliar with white mensural notation should see Appendix III.]

Gombossi claims that it is the semibreves which should be perfected and not the breves. This scheme still gives six minims to the breve; however, I prefer the perfect tempus and imperfect prolation as the primary feel of the dance is in three not two. Cornazano says:

The Fourth is the Bassadanza, the imperial measure where each note is redoubled and the three are worth six, and the six twelve. But in dancing all these measures one finds variations in their tempi other than breadth as is apparent above.

This reading is ambiguous, but from the evidence of the music, I feel that he means tempus perfectum cum prolation imperfectum as I have claimed. However, typical 15th Century style would use frequent shifts through hemiolas and other syncopation to imperfect tempus and perfect prolation. These shifts would cause the music to swing between two and three beats per measure (although not necessarily corresponding to the steps of the dance), but always maintaining six minims per breve.

As was shown in the previous chapter, each step of the dance is assigned to one breve of the tenor. Thus, from the number of notes of the dance one can derive the number of steps of the tenor and visa versa.

This regular pattern of the tenors holds with 6 exceptions. The two Pas de Brabants--- L'esperance de Bourbon and Roti Boully Joyeulx---each consist of a Pas de Brabant notated using standard white mensural notation (as described by Gafurius), followed by the basse dance in the black breves. The dance Beaulte de Castille, is figured in white breves and other smaller notes; the steps of the dance still correspond to the tenor, each step taking a breve's worth of music. The dances Franchoise Nouvelle, La Dance de Cleves [some pages are out of order on this dance] and La Dance de Ravestain [incomplete fragment] are notated in white mensural notation as a series of white semibreves and other notes of smaller value with six semibreves given to a step of the dance.

The tenors of the basse dances were taken from many sources, popular chansons (songs) of the day, bits of chants or motets, or the imagination of the authors. For some of these tenors, modern editors such as Crane and Meylan have found chanson originals. For many others there was either no original or no originals have been found. Crane also notes several other pieces of music which may have been a basse dance or be derived from a basse dance for which no choreography has been found.

Although the tenors of the dances are all the music which has been given to us by our forefathers, there is ample evidence (both written and pictorial, c.f. Crane) to suggest that the basse dance was usually played by an ensemble of three musicians, often a sackbut and two shawms. Presumably the sackbut played the tenor cantus firmus, while the two shawms improvised countertenor and descant parts above the original. There are almost no polyphonic arrangements of the basse dance left.

The Buxheim Organ Book does provide some keyboard settings of tunes related to the basse dances. However, these are more likely to be polyphonic settings of the chanson prototypes from which the basse dance tenor was derived than actual basse dance arrangements. There is one exception to this rule, and that is the tune La Spagna (to which is danced Casulle la Nouvelle and several of the Italian dances). This tenor was very popular in both the North and South, and many famous composers wrote settings for this piece. As such, it provide an important clue about how the Basse Dance must have been played by our forefathers. The next chapter explores this in more detail.

Onward to: Chapter 5: Music for the Basse Dance La Spagna.

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