or about 600 years ago, Guglielmo Ebreo was born in Pesaro. Along with his master Domenico da Piacenza, he is now considered one of the most important dance masters of the 15th century. His dance culture understands the visible movement of the body as a mirror of the soul. The practice of this art requires “misura”, the concordance of music and movement, “aiere”, the presence and skill in the execution, “memoria”, the attentive attention and internalization of the sequences, and “mayniera”, the artful decoration of the steps. The dance musicians were expected to improvise a piece of music to the step and movement sequences from a simple given basic melody, which would support the dancers and please the ear at the same time.
The interpreters draw on the sources and treatises of the time and create a colorful reinterpretation of the dances and music from the center of the Renaissance around Venice, Milan and Pesaro, in a stylistically confident and partly improvisational way. Three musicians and three dancers create a program that reflects the inner grace of an entire era.
Martin Meier and Christian Tanner – dance | Félix Verry – fiddle, lira da bracchio | Silke Gwendolyn Schulze – recorders, one-hand flutes & drum/percussion bordun, douçaine | Marc Lewon – lute, quinterne, cetra; co-conduction | Véronique Daniels – dance; direction
Italian dancing master – A Foretaste
Véronique Daniels – Renaissance dance specialist
Thomas Christ (TC): Dear Ms. Daniels, you completed recorder studies at the Schola many decades ago. How did the declaration of love for Renaissance dance come about back then?
Véronique Daniels (VD): When I started to study recorder and early music in Strasbourg in 1975, I also started to learn the traditional dances. I attended many workshops and got to know dancers who, in addition to the traditional repertoire, also taught the French dances of the 16th century and the English country dances.
Instrumental and vocal dance music from the 16th century has been handed down to us and was also known to me as a recorder player; I was then interested in being able to play the music for the dancers better by learning the dances. At the same time, dance helped me get closer to the history of an era. So I began to read , the dance treatise by Thoinot Arbeau (1589), the Orchésographie, and learned how to behave when dancing, how a man invites his lady to dance, how the lady behaves towards the man, and on what occasion a pavane or a branle is danced.
Later I became interested in the Italian dances of the Renaissance, searched for dance treatises, ordered microfilms on earlier sources for the Schola and tried to look up a lot of things – but I didn’t know Italian at that time and started to learn and research together with an Italian acquaintance. We started on the first page of Domenico da Piacenza’s handwritten treatise. This was an enormous challenge for both of them, because the texts on dance are put into a philosophical context there with quotations from Aristotle. Exciting it was … but the study still didn’t bring me to practical performance instruction of the dances – and I wanted to dance! So I have been looking for more help. There was hardly anyone who had experience with these historical dances. But when I heard about a course at the Conservatoire Populaire de Genève with Andrea Francalanci, a wonderful journey began for me. Andrea had worked in Italy with Barbara Sparti, he read and explained the original dance sources and had a good musical knowledge, although he was not a specialist in early music. We started to exchange regularly, my Italian got better and better and I could read and understand the texts to the dances more and more and get clear ideas about some choreographies. Since I had a great interest in the notation of music, I could now look for musical solutions for the dances. It was extremely difficult to get hold of working material at that time. I remember the day when Andrea came to visit Basel by car from Florence. In the trunk were two boxes of books, facsimiles (back-magnified microfilms), and technical articles that were hard to find at the time. I was allowed to look at and photocopy everything. It was a feast!
Later, I traveled to Urbino to take a class with Andrea and Maestra Barabra Sparti, the grande dame of Italian dance. And there I was in this magical city, as a guest of Federico da Montefeltro, so to speak. The descriptions of Castiglione in Il Cortegiano came to life and we danced in Palazzo Ducale in the great hall, in the Piano Nobile on the second floor, which is built so that the whole building resonates when there is walking, or dancing.
Understanding the role of dance as part of society has been important to me from the beginning. Dance was also part of the education of the nobility, it reflected the profile of a society, showed the role of women and how a social community functioned. For example, in France and Burgundy, the famous basses danses of the late 15th century always couple dances: a man invites a woman and the couple dances alone, back and forth, always in parallel. Each basse danse begins and ends with a révérence (bowing), the attraction being the mémorisation (memorization) of the irregular sequences of steps. If the king is present in the hall, he tends to watch rather than dance. In Italy, on the other hand, a woman may invite a man, she may lead a ballo, the dances are not only couple dances, many are for three dancers (2 women and a man, or vice versa) or even more, sometimes up to 10 dancers. In the Tesara, a woven dance by Domenico da Piacenza (1420-1475), there are 4 couples plus two additional men. Symbolic figures are created through lines of reference that rise and fall between the dancers, stretching and relaxing, so to speak. The dances begin directly with a free saltarello, without initial riverenza (bowing), and the Italian duca (duke) of a town is usually present and dances along. Later, in the 16th century, all balletti are begun and ended with a riverenza, and a variety of couple dances emerge. Clearly, king, emperor, pope reign in the various regions of Italy and significantly shape the dance styles!
TC: Classical ballet choreographies have known a dance notation for several decades – did similar transcriptions of dance steps already exist in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, or were they only passed down orally?
VD: The first dance sources known to us are those of Domenico da Piacenza (before 1455) and Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (1463). They were not stage dances, they were danced mainly in aristocratic classes, on festive occasions, but also in the palaces in more intimate circles. The choreographies are handed down in texts and there is often a specific melody to go with them in the balli. Guglielmo put these melodies together at the end of his treatise, while Domenico inserted them right before each dance description, and this is how it was done in the 16th century with the dance treatises of Fabritio Caroso and Cesare Negri. The first to use a kind of dance notation was Thoinot Arbeau (1520-1595). He had the melody of a dance printed vertically and wrote the steps horizontally to it. So you can see at which note of the melody, which step to make. However, such simple indications are still far removed from the baroque dance notation of a Raoul-Auger Feuillet (1653-1710) and hardly comparable to it. Nevertheless, Arbeau’s Renaissance records show for the first time a direct, clearly notated relationship between movement and music. They do not yet allow for long textual details; in Arbeau’s work we do not find large choreographies, no described figures, no detailed variations. Unlike his Italian colleagues, he sticks to describing basic forms, chain or circle dances that do not show detailed spatial movements. The distance to be read between the notes and the choreographic indications would be too great and a notated melody would thus extend over many pages.
As for the oral tradition, unfortunately, we know little. We know from documents and report excerpts that the most danced genre among Italians in the 15th century was the saltarello and that the quaternaria was danced by Germans. Were they improvised dances? Was there a certain basic form that was considered the basis? Was that regionally determined? We don’t know.
From the late 15th century, the first dance schools opened in Italy. Dancing masters, like Guglielmo teach there and wrote the first instructions. The dance tracts we know today thus represent an attempt to write down and record movement on paper. They bring dance to the same level as music and document how dancing was done in wealthy families, for example at feasts.
TC: Every professional instrumental musician should also have at least amateur singing skills, is he ideally also a good amateur dancer?
VD: That would be very nice! My renaissance dance classes at Schola are all about making sure that all undergraduate students have at least 1 semester of experience with these dances and their music. The same is true for the baroque dance of my colleague Barbara Leitherer. Students gain experience in the different styles of movement, accompanying each other, guiding and supporting the dancers with the music while being guided by the dancers. Thus it becomes clear that music and dance are inseparable. In performances, I work with musicians that I have accompanied and trained in dancing.
The dancers feel similarly. You can hardly learn the dances without a minimum of musical knowledge. Thus, my fellow dancers Martin Meier as a player of the Renaissance traverso and Chrisitan Tanner as a lutenist have experience with early music and its corresponding notations. Both have been training Renaissance dances with me for many years. Thus, they are accustomed to responding to my numerous interpretive questions, proposed changes, but also scientific doubts, and to adapt with knowledgeable flexibility.
TC: About notation – the music printing of modern times knows clear indications of meter, time and rhythm, these seem to me to be largely missing in the old, original notations. But it was the art of counting, the rhythmic beats that were of great importance in the canon of early music. Can you briefly explain to us what basic rules of counting, pacing, or tempos were followed?
VD: Parallel to dance, I nurture my love for music notation. In general, the development of notation is about rhythm and rhythmic organization. In the case of dances, you know whether one dance genre is faster or slower than another and whether a piece is written in a rhythm of two or a rhythm of three.
We typically don’t have precise information about tempos in the Renaissance. Arbeau tries to reflect the speed of a dance through expressions. He calls the faster dances légères, the slower ones médiocre, and the slowest ones graves, although there are also intermediate levels such as légèrement médiocre, médiocrement léger, or médiocrement grave, and so on. In Domenico’s treatise, we find a tempo scale divided into six sections, each connecting the four different dance genres in sixths. In individual cases, this can lead to quite demanding rhythmic interpretations. Also described is whether the music in a dance, such as the bassadanza, should begin with or without an upbeat. Not much more is often revealed. To be able to decipher dance music, you need experience with both notation and dance. It is quite common around the middle of the 15th century to use no or only a few mensuration marks. The meter (i.e., time signature) is recognized by context, and the dance description usually reveals the dance genre. Within a ballo, the dance alternates between the four different types of dances, which leads to different changes of scale for the music. Some aspects of the notation may not follow the general notation canon of the time exactly – nevertheless, we find elements in the notation of dance music that are very typical in the context of its time (e.g. minima-equivalence, i.e. an unchanging, smallest note value even across changes of scale, and alteration, the principle of notating certain passages in half note values).
TC: You have the privilege of being involved in early music research and performance practice for several decades now. Has there been any change in the interest in dance and especially in its equality with the other branches of musical expression? We have already known the Renaissance Ball in Basel for a few years! Or does the discovery of Renaissance dance even promote the spread of secular Renaissance music?
VD: Today there are more and more people who have experience with the historical dances and who specialize, even on a professional level. (Today I wouldn’t have to search so long to be able to learn these dances, I would even be able to choose who to start with!) The fact that today we are cultivating these dances again has an impact on the musical interpretation of dance music, that is quite clear. We collect all the experiences, continue reading the sources and look for what might be behind the texts. We learn the expression of a different body language in each era. The steps, so to speak the letters of our “dance language”, combine to form words and phrases, we dance in twos, threes and also in multiples, we form geometric figures together, add ornaments and are capable of improvising when the opportunity arises. Informing, interpreting, embellishing, varying, and improvising are terms that are part of our everyday lives, both in early music and in early dance. The study of dance helps us to better understand the language and social context of a cultural community – and ultimately a society.
It is true that together with the Schola School of Music I have created a kind of new Renaissance Ball tradition. Dances as described by Thoinot Arbeau will be performed during about three hours. It is mostly about couple dances as well as chain and row dances, which used to be practiced at civic feasts and banquets. The music for this is often found in the early instrumental prints, so interested musicians can have access and play the melodies. The repertoire of the Branles and the Pavanes is particularly well suited for such dance events – on January 29, 2022, it will happen again.
In the Italian Renaissance, on the other hand, almost every dance has its own choreography, which cannot be easily explained here because of the richly described figures and because of the possible variations. Each dance has its own music, which has been handed down to us from the 15th century either as a melody or was printed as phonetic tablature or is not available at all in the form of sheet music. The musicians* must then recognize the respective musical style and compose, arrange or improvise a dance melody – our trio with Marc, Silke and Félix master this challenge thanks to their many years of experience.
At our “danced concert” in Basel on May 30, 2021, we will present dances by Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro as they might have been performed in the halls of the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino or in Milano.
Off to Paris and the Bibliothèque nationale de France! Here, in the reading room of the manuscript department, you can see three wonderful manuscripts dedicated to courtly dance in 15th century Italy. Taken together, they give almost the complete picture. All three contain music for the dances described: monophonic melodies that appear to be notated mensurally, but raise questions; and one need only add the manuscript of Antonio Cornazano from the Vatican Library to have the entire musical repertoire together.
One of the Parisian manuscripts reproduces the work of Domenico da Piacenza – according to tradition the real founder of this genre; the other two contain the works of Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro and Giovanni Ambrosio da Pesaro. It took some time to find out that the latter two were the same person, who also changed names when he converted to Christianity. The upcoming event is dedicated to the 600th anniversary. Anniversary of his probable birth year 1420 dedicated. (The concert was originally scheduled for May 2020, but had to be postponed to this year for obvious reasons).
All three manuscripts are beautifully written – but the most graceful and complete of the Ballo manuscripts is the one in Siena, immaculately notated on parchment (all the others are on paper). As indicated earlier, however, it is by no means clear what the musical notation is trying to tell us, because all the sources seem to have been written by people who knew more about dance and gorgeous calligraphy than about music. In any case, they do not correspond to the notation principles found in hundreds of 15th century music manuscripts from all over Europe. Over the years there have been a few different interpretations and as far as I know the last word on the matter has not yet been spoken (I’m not even sure if the second to last has been spoken). After all, the information about the dance choreographies is clearer; and it is the task of today’s musicians to create an appropriate framework for these dance steps.
(Translation: Marc Lewon)
I. Domenico, the master
Belriguardo / Belreguardo novo – Domenico da Piacenza (c1400-c1476)
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. ital. 972 (“Pd,” dance treatise of Domenico da Piacenza, c1440), fol. 7v-8v (choreography & music), arr.: Uri Smilansky.
La Ingrata – Domenico da Piacenza
Pd, fol. 10r-11r (choreography & music)
Presoniera – Domenico da Piacenza
Pd, fol. 14v-15r (choreography & music), Arr.: Uri Smilansky
Mignotta vechia / Mignotta nova – Domenico da Piacenza
Pd, fol. 26v-27v (Choreography & Music), Composition: Elizabeth Rumsey
Portuguese – Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474)
Strasbourg, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 222 C. 22 (Zofingen and Basel?, 1410-after 1435; burned in 1870), fol. 108r
Esperance me fait vivre en doulour – anonymous
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. misc. 213 (“Oxford Codex,” Venice?, c1430), fol. 115v
Par droit je puis bien complaindre – Guillaume Du Fay
Oxford Codex, fol. 18v-19r
II Between Italy and Burgundy
Beaulte de Castille / Bialte di Castiglia – anonymous
Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, Ms 9085 (“Dance Booklet of Margaret of Austria,” Flanders c. 1470), fol. 13r (choreography & music) / New York, Public Library, Dance Collection (*MGZMBZ res. 72-254) (“NY”), fol. 28v-29r (without music)
Amoroso – anonymous ballo francese
Choreography: NY, fol. 29v; music: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. ital. 476
(“Pa”, dance treatise by Giovanni Ambrosio, 1474/75), fol. 65v
Rostiboli gioioso – Domenico da Piacenza / Gioioso – Giovanni Ambrosio (= Guglielmo Ebreo, c1420-after 1484)
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. ital. 973 (“Pg”, dance treatise by Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro, 1463), fol. 32r-32v, music: Pa, fol. 66r / NY, fol. 25v-26r (without music)
Ha que ville et abhominable – Antoine Busnoys (c1430-1492)
Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, MS Vanco Rari 229 (“Florence 229,” c1492), fol. 213v-214r
III. Guglielmo, the “Disciple
Pellegrina – Guglielmo Ebreo (c1420-after 1484)
Pg, fol. 26v-27r (without music), composition: Silke Gwendolyn Schulze
Spero – Guglielmo Ebreo or Domenico da Piacenza
Pg, dance: fol. 42v-43v; music: fol. 50r, Arr.: Marc Lewon
Ginevra – Guglielmo Ebreo
NY, fol. 15r-15v (without music), composition: Marc Lewon
Duchesco – Guglielmo Ebreo
Pg, fol. 32v-33r (without music), improvisation: Félix Verry
Principessa – Guglielmo Ebreo
NY, fol. 11v-12r (without music), composition: Marc Lewon, free
adapted from the melody of the Bassedanse La portingaloise,
Dance booklet of Margaret of Austria, fol. 12v
Une mousse de Bisquaye – anonymous monodie
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. fr. 12744 (monophonic chansonnier, c1500), fol. 5v-6r, Arr.: Marc Lewon.
Une musque de Biscaye – Josquin des Prez (c1450/55-1521)
Florence 229, fol. 149v-150r
IV. The consequences
Guglielma Barbara – Véronique Daniels (1992)
Arr.: Marc Lewon, from Falla con misuras (M. Gulielmus): Perugia, Biblioteca Comunale Augusta, MS 431 (G 20), fol. 95v-96r.
Voltati in ça Rosina / Rossina – anonymous
Pa, choreography: fol. 50r-51r; music: fol. 64v / NY, fol. 26v (without music)
El gioioso fiorito – anonymous, reconstruction Véronique Daniels & Carles Mas
Viterbo, Archivio di Stato, Notarile di Montefiascone, Protocollo 11, fol. 15r and fol. 58r (without music)
Italics = instrumental pieces without dance
Basel Historical Museum
Historical Museum Basel
Place still open
Historical Museum Basel