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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

We have seen written traces of instrumental dance music going back to the thirteenth century (Fig. 4-8). But of course dance music, being an eminently functional genre, was one of the slowest to “go literate” in any major or transforming way; and when it did, it did so piecemeal. The earliest extensive manuscript collections of instrumental dances come from the fifteenth century and were devoted to the noblest and courtliest ballroom dance genre or the time, a processional dance for couples known in Italian as bassadanza and in French as basse danse. The English equivalent would be “low dance,” the adjective referring to the dignified gliding steps—low and close to the floor—that the noble ballroom dancers employed. The lower the steps, one might say, the higher the social rank of the dance. Peasant dances—oftentimes mimicked by the nobility for their fun and games—were the ones for leaping and prancing.

The appearance of the music in the early bassadanza collections was strange, and for a long time it succeeded in misleading historians. It consisted of long strings of unaccompanied square notes that looked for all the world like Gregorian chant, arranged over weird strings of letters (Fig. 15-8). Comparison with a few scattered polyphonic bassadanza settings finally cracked the code: what the collection contained were bass lines (or rather, in contemporary parlance, tenors) over which musicians trained in the specialized art of dance accompaniment improvised discant by ear. (The letters under the notes in some sources represented the dance steps.)

Dances Old and New

fig. 15-8 Il re d’Espagna, from Michel de Toulouze , L’art et instruction de bien dancer (Paris, 1496); here it is titled “Casulle la novele” (“New Castile”).

Although an unwritten practice, this sort of ensemble improvisation by reed and brass instruments was a high art indeed. The standard ensemble, as depicted in Fig. 15-9, was a trio consisting of a pair of shawms (early oboes) and a slide trumpet or trombone. This little band was called the alta capella, a term that (confusingly enough) means “high ensemble,” even though it was used exclusively for accompanying “low” dancing. (As usual, there is less paradox here than meets the eye: when applied to instruments, the terms “high” and “low”—alta/bassa in Italian, haut/basse in French—distinguished loud from soft; the alta capella was thus a “loud” ensemble.) “Alta” musicians formed something of a guild and treasured their techniques as guild secrets; no wonder there is no written source of instruction in their craft. It was passed along for generations by “word of mouth”—by example and emulation. As far as we are concerned, it is irrecoverably submerged in that unheard and unhearable “iceberg.” We don’t have any theoretical guide to it; all we have are a few written specimens (or imitations) of the practice, few of them actual dances.

If not dances, then what? Carmina, bicinia, lute intabulations—even Masses! From these chance survivors we know that the most popular bassadanza tenor of all (the one shown in Fig. 15-8) was traditionally called Il re d’Espagna (“The King of Spain”) or simply La Spagna. That may even be why Ortiz, a Spaniard working abroad, selected it for his specimen improvisations. But long before Ortiz, Henricus Isaac had taken it into his head to flatter and amuse his bassadanza-loving patron, the magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici of Florence, with a Mass built over the Spagna tenor as cantus firmus.

Dances Old and New

fig. 15-9 Loyset Liedet, Ball at the Court of King Yon of Gascony (Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Manuscripts Français 5073, fol. 117v).

For the most part Isaac hid the dance tune behind a thicket of paraphrase and polyphony. But all at once the second Agnus Dei gives away the game. Convention decreed that this middle section of the last part of the Mass Ordinary be cast as a “tenor tacet” setting, in three voices, and so it is. But very whimsically and unconventionally, Isaac transferred the tenor tune to the bassus voice, where it is laid out in a series of even breves just as it would be in a bassadanza collection. And it is accompanied by the superius and the altus in a polyphony so rough and ready—glorified antiphony, hocket-like exchanges, sequences that track the tenor down the scale—that it simply has to be a sly send-up of an actual alta capella, caught in the act of improvising, perhaps even drawn “from life” (Ex. 15-10).

Ortiz provides six different recercadas over the Spagna tenor, the idea being that after having mastered them the pupil can then go on to make up his own. Ex. 15-11 shows the beginnings of all six. This is another way in which the written can suggest to us the unwritten, although Ortiz was not training anyone in the art of dance accompaniment. Like virtuosos both before and after him, in a tradition that continues to this day, he appropriated a sublimated dance style—dance music, not for active dance use but for receptive listening—as his vehicle for a display of dexterity.

Dances Old and NewDances Old and NewDances Old and New

ex. 15-10 Henricus Isaac, Missa super La Spagna, Agnus II

Dances Old and New

ex. 15-11 Diego Ortiz, Tratado de glosas (1553), six recercadas on La Spagna

The same principle operates in the final portion of Ortiz’s book, which gives another sort of peek into the world of the unwritten, and a truly momentous one. “The better to complete this work,” he writes, “I thought I’d include the following recercadas on these bass lines (cantos llanos) that are usually called tenors in Italy, but that are mainly played as written here, in four parts, with the recercada over them.”16 What follows is a series of recercadas in which the model solo improvisation is accompanied not by a single cantus firmus line playing itself out in abstract long notes from beginning to end, but rather by short, very rhythmic ostinato chord progressions: harmonic templates or frameworks that are repeated as often as necessary to fill out the time required for the improvisation (as in “real life” they were repeated as often as necessary to fill out the time required for dancing).

Ortiz’s instruction method for viol players is the earliest written source to contain these “tenors,” for which the standard historian’s term is ground bass (or simply ground). Five grounds, all quite similar in their harmonic structures, were in especially widespread use; they are given, together with their traditional names, in Ex. 15-12.Theduple-metered pair called passamezzo—old (antico) and new (moderno)—were the ones most closely associated in Ortiz’s time with actual ballroom dancing: the passamezzo (from passo e mezzo, “a step and a half”) was the somewhat livelier couples dance that replaced the bassadanza at sixteenth-century Italian courts. “Composed” passamezzos first appeared in lute tablatures in the 1530s. But the Spanish violist’s frozen improvisations were the first written compositions to suggest the traditional use of these repetitive cadential formulas, which were employed in Italy not only to accompany dancing but also to guide the extemporaneous singing of popular poetry since at least the beginning of the fifteenth century (as we may learn from any literary account of court life, such as Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier).

Dances Old and New

ex. 15-12 Traditional ground-bass tenors

Dances Old and New

ex. 15-12b Romanesca

Dances Old and New

ex. 15-12c Folia

Dances Old and New

ex. 15-12d Passamezzo moderno

Dances Old and New

ex. 15-12e Ruggiero

Until Ortiz published his handbook in 1553, all of this activity had gone on behind the curtain of the unwritten. Ortiz brought it comprehensively into the visible world of notation for the first time, whence it proliferated hugely in ways that would in time utterly transform literate practice. We have only to observe that the Italian word for poetry sung over a ground bass like the Romanesca (Ex. 15-12b) or the Ruggiero (Ex. 15-12e) was aria, or that the harmonic scheme itself was then called an aria per cantare (literally a “space for singing”), to realize the extent of that transformation, since from the seventeenth century onward the aria has been one of the ubiquitous genres of “art” music in the West.

But the creation of new genres is only a part, and not even the most important part, of the revolution in Western music-making wrought by the use of grounds. For grounds are the first indisputably harmony-driven force in the history of Western music-making. They are the first musical frameworks, in other words, to be defined a priori in harmonic and cadential terms, hence the first musical structures to which the modern term “tonal” can be fairly applied. Their tonality in the mid-sixteenth century was not yet precisely congruent with modern major-minor tonality. The passamezzo moderno progression employed by Ortiz in his Recercada segunda (Ex. 15-13) is still unmistakably “Mixolydian” in its use of a triad built up over F, a note that is not even part of the modern G-major scale. And yet it makes its cadence through a modern G-major dominant chord (even preceded by the subdominant), for which purpose a leading tone (F♯) had to be imported from outside the “pure” modal scale. Ex. 15-13 shows the first two of six run-throughs of the ground.

Dances Old and New

ex. 15-13 Diego Ortiz, Recercada segunda (on the passamezzo moderno)

That F♯, by the way, is no longer to be explained by the old rules of musica ficta, which were based on rules of discant voice leading. There are no longer any “voices” to speak of in that sense; harmonies are now functioning as independent perceptual units produced by strumming strings or striking keys, quite unconfined by counterpoint. It seems virtually certain that harmonic progressions as such were developed on—indeed, right “out of”—strumming and striking instruments for which no notation existed at the time. A leading tone strummed or struck within a chord belongs to no particular voice. It is a harmonic free agent, a necessary component in a closing formula that by recurring regularly articulates a structurally significant span of time.

But what makes the cadence recognizable as a closing formula, hence grammatically effective, is not just its regular recurrence but the way it “telegraphs” its ending—that is, the way it signals its ending in advance. It does this not only by the use of the leading tone but also by means of an increased rate of chord change—what modern theorists call an accelerated “harmonic rhythm.” Harmonic rhythm as a structural articulator is an eminently “tonal” concept, not a modal one. We seem poised right on the cusp, as it were, between the older modal system, with a different scale species on each final, and the modern tonal (or “key”) system, with only two scales, each of which can be transposed to any pitch (the transposition itself defining the pitch as a final or “tonic”).

Yet it should not be thought that the “tonal revolution” was a sudden thing, just because it has swung so suddenly into our historical purview. That is an illusion created by our source material, which is of necessity confined to the literate sphere. What is suddenly made literate and visible can be cooking behind the curtain for centuries, and in this case certainly was. For all that time, literate music-making had been proceeding on a discant basis and a modal one, while much unwritten music had surely been operating on a strophically cadential basis and a tonal one. The watershed that now looks to us like a “tonal revolution” was in fact the meeting place of two long coexisting traditions.

The meeting could only take place because the traditions were now both at least partly literate ones. It was because his “Treatise on Embellishments” was the first overt act of “tonal insurgency” that Ortiz (otherwise hardly known as a composer) looms so large in the present discussion. It was a giant step in the direction that now seems favored by history. It was a step, however, that neither the author nor any of his contemporaries could have known he was taking. That, of course, is not because he or they were in any way obtuse. Nor is it because we see things more clearly than they could. It is merely because the “step” can only be perceived as such in hindsight. The step as such is something created by our perspective.


(16) Translation adapted from Peter Farrell, “Diego Ortiz’s Tratado de Glosas,” Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America IV (1967): 9.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 15 A Perfected Art. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015013.xml