In spring 2019 I choreographed a dance in the style of 15th century Italian balli. This dance, Il ballo d’Eleanor con quatro Fettuccie per Cinque, or Eleanor’s Ribbon Dance for Five, was inspired by a friend and regular to my dance practice as well as by watching some people dance the existing ribbon dance, Tesara. I’ve already written about the process of creating this dance on this blog, and there is now a page here with directions and music for it. I thought I would tell you more about the thought process of composing the music for this dance.
My main goal was to write something very danceable and earwormy – something the dancers would sing the steps to and find themselves humming afterwards. I wanted my dance to have several sections using the different misura, much as the balli of Masters Domenico and Ambrosio do. With that in mind, I choreographed the dance with sections that would work in quaternaria, bassadanza and saltarelli misure and then came up with tunes for each. (These were 3 of the 4 commonly used time signatures in 15th century Italian dance music, roughly equating to modern 4/4, 6/4 and 6/8.)
In creating my tunes I thought about what I knew of medieval vs modern music theory and the fact that the 15th century was very much a time of slow transition out of medieval modes towards the more modern understanding of music. I wanted the tune to reflect that transition, as well as modes/keys commonly used in 15th century dance music. To help with that, I composed on my gemshorn, an instrument of the time rather than on my modern flute or baroque recorders. I also played through several existing melodies of 15th century dances before I started, trying to put my mind in the right framework.
Composing the 3 Melodies
Section A – 4/4 or quaternaria misura
Quaternaria was used a lot in the balli, including for sections where the steps were piva, even though piva technically has its own misura. I chose to do this rather than create a piva misura melody. Initially, I tried to compose this melody in F major (relative to the D minor melody I already had for the B section), but it just did not want to resolve into something I liked. I started noodling on my gemshorn in D major and somehow having the F# made it work. I don’t know, sometimes tunes just want to be in a certain key.
D major was less common than F major in 15th century dance music but not unknown. (F major was used as F Lydian but in the 15th century even though they called it Lydian, they regularly made the B flat anyway.) It was very popular in Baroque music, so in a way this section is looking forward to where the music was going.
The tune is supposed to be happy and bouncy to go with the piva steps mostly done to it. The version marked descant is what I originally wrote, and then when I started arranging I decided that I wanted a melody that would be easier to pick up and sight read. That melody still gets the main idea and the bouncy feel across but should be more doable for a dance band that hasn’t encountered this music before.
Section B – 6/4 or bassadanza misura
The bassadanza was known as the “queen of measures” and was the slowest of the misure as well as being seen as the most refined. Although there was a genre of dances entirely in bassadanza, it was also used in the mixed-tempo balli. The melody for this section came to me first – we often sing what we are doing to the tune of a dance and in the first use of this melody Eleanor does a voltatonda del gioioso, which she refers to as the “really slow and boring turn”. I sung that to myself and it became the origin of the B melody.
I wanted the bassadanza section to particularly reflect the medieval origins of the music, and so I chose to push back against my initial instinct to focus on thirds and instead emphasize the fourth and the fifth in the D minor scale that it decided it wanted to be in. This is why it jumps from D to A. (I guess because a “slow and boring” turn shouldn’t be major?) It could also technically be in the medieval Dorian mode, because although standard Dorian has a B natural, it could be flat at times.
Unlike the quaternaria section, my initial melody is what became the main melody. I actually wrote the descant for this section last, after having done most of the arrangement. I wasn’t completely sure that it needed a descant, but I remembered that that was very common for bassadanza music. In fact, often the tenor part was what was written down and the soprano instrument improvised a descant based on that. I looked over the few bassadanza melodies that we do have to get ideas for the descant on this one.
Section C – 6/8 or saltarelli misura
Saltarello misura, along with piva misura, was considered one of the “historical” or “common” tempos- something that everyone knew how to dance to automatically. It was less refined than bassadanza. Saltarello misura might be written in the equivalent of 6/8 or 3/4 and often had more syncopated rhythms than quaternaria. I decided to put this melody in the same key as the A melody. This one came to me pretty quickly as I was noodling around once I decided on a key because I knew the bouncy feel that I wanted. Like with the quaternaria section, the initial melody that I wrote is what became the descant, and then I created a slightly simplified melody from that for ease of sight reading.
A lot of the balli that switch between misura will include an extra measure or half measure at the beginning of the saltarello section for the dancers to do a little hop and prepare for the saltarello step, especially if it is switching from the slower bassadanza misura. I chose to write a full measure introduction for the saltarello section for that purpose.
In arranging this, I wanted to bring in a medieval feel to the harmonies at times and not solely rely on modern arrangement strategies. I also wanted to use the harmony and bass instruments to provide rhythm to cue the dancers, which is what would have been done in period as dance ensembles often did not have a drum. A lot of ensemble music that would have been played for dancing would have used a lot of straight octave differences between instruments more than the chord-based modern use of harmony. I used a mixture of both, but made sure to emphasize the octave in opening and closing of many of the sections, especially having unison play at the end of the whole dance.
Jennifer Nevile: The eloquent body: dance and humanist culture in fifteenth-century Italy. If you want to understand more about the 4 misure or time signatures, Nevile’s book is the key that really unlocked my understanding of it. This is an expansion of her work for her doctoral dissertation.