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Saturday morning quotes 8.22: Song & Dance

July 31, 2021

As we put the finishing touches on our latest recording of French airs de cour it is difficult to overlook the degree to which dance forms combine so perfectly with poetry to form the backbone of this appealing repertory. The dominance of dance forms should be no surprise to the cognoscenti who understand that the magic in much of historical music arises from shapely phrasing, a firm bass, and a steady pulse. What is surprising is the pan-European nature of both poetical themes and dance forms. In this post we examine one example.

“Mes pas semez” is from Adrian Le Roy’s 1556 Second livre de guiterre for renaissance guitar, and is labeled “Chanson a plaisir” as a page heading. Based on other examples of Le Roy’s work, both the poetry and the music were likely purloined from Italian examples, this time employing the Cara cosa ground, a variant of the popular and enduring La Folia.

“The folia is thought to have originated either in Spain or Portugal; it was certainly very popular in Spain, whence it spread to France, where it became known as the ‘ Folie d’Espagne’.”

“The folia has numerous variants, the type known as ‘La gamba’ or the ‘Cara cosa’ being at once the most popular and the kind most frequently found in the English manuscript sources.”

– Ivy L. Mumford, “Musical Settings to the Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt”, Music & Letters , Oct., 1956, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 1956), p. 320.

The poetry to “Mes pas semez” is distinctly Petrarchian in form, and the content of poem appears to be a direct adaptation of Petrarch’s “O passi sparsi” set to music by Italian Sebastiano Festa (c. 1490 – 1524). Festa’s setting is perhaps best known in an intabulation for lute by Le Roy’s mentor, Italian Alberto da Ripa (c. 1500 – 1551). As Mumford describes in the quote above, Italian poetical forms were copied by English poets of the mid-sixteenth century, and it was common practice to set poetry to Italian grounds such as the Cara cosa/La folia. This was also true in France, where Italian musical forms were embraced and employed to accompany the unparalleled elegance of French poetry. Interestingly, Le Roy later recycled a close variant of the tune for “Mes pas semez” as the melody for the chanson “J’aymerey mieux dormir seulette”, which was in turn adapted by Thoinot Arbeau to serve as dance music for a particular galliard, the choreography published in 1588-89 in Arbeau’s collection of dances, Orchésographie, 1589, English translation by Mary Stewart Evans, with Introduction and Notes by Julia Sutton, Dover Publications, New York, 1967.

It is a fascinating diversion to delve into the manifold and minute details of movements common to historical dance, and the galliard was one of the more complex dances. Galliards frequently mixed meters, and dancers developed a series of moves that were synchronized with specific dances to accommodate time changes. One series of steps encountered in the galliard at a point of time change is called the fleuret, and in her commentary to Arbeau’s Orchesographie (1588), Julia Sutton described the effect:

“By superimposing two-beat patterns on music organized into three-beat musical groupings, the fleurets create interesting cross accents.”

– Sutton, Orchesographie, p. 222.

As described by Mumford above, variants of Cara cosa ground appear in mid-16th century English manuscripts demonstrating the English taste for Continental music. Thomas Wyatt’s poem, “Blame not my lute” does not survive in a 16th-century print, but the title is found attached to a setting for lute in the Folger Library MS V.a.159, as detailed by John Ward in Music for Elizabethan Lutes, Clarendon / Oxford University Press, 1992. The musical setting for the poem is basically the Cara cosa ground and bears points of similarity with “Mes pas semez” as set by Le Roy.

“Mes pas semez” presents a challenge in performance: The essential pulse and intricate dance rhythms must support poetry that describes anxiety and despair, but without crossing the line and cancelling the emotional content of the piece. If the pulse is overly languid, the essential energy of speech rhythm is lost. If the pulse is overly quick, it trivializes the meaning of the words. Our performance follows 16th-century practice and adapts Le Roy’s version for four-course guitar (ukulele, basically) to the lute, complementing the sparse arrangement with a fuller lower register and adding an appealing bass line. As with any dance tune, rhythmic vitality is essential but also adds substance to the emotional depth of the poetry.

Our performance of “Mes pas semez” appears on our new recording scheduled for release in September. Watch for it.

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