Social dancing was widespread and highly valued in the Renaissance, and people of breeding were expected to be expert dancers. In addition to providing healthy exercise, dancing was a way to meet people, interact with them in a formal setting, judge their fitness and social skills, and show off one's own abilities. With dancing a central part of social life, it is no surprise that musicians played and composed a great deal of dance music. In writing dance pieces, which owed little to vocal modes, sixteenth-century composers began to develop a distinctive instrumental style.
Performers frequently improvised dance music or played dance tunes from memory, as in earlier times. Several fifteenth-century manuscripts contain dances, typically in the form of bass lines over which treble instruments would improvise. But in the 16th century, many dance pieces were printed in collections issued by Petrucci, Attaingnant, and other publishers, for ensemble, lute or keyboard. These written works tell us much about improvisatory practice, showing that sixteenth-century performers often improvised by ornamenting a given melodic line or by adding one or more contrapuntal parts to a given melodic line or by adding one or more contrapuntal parts to a given melody or bass line
These published dances also show that dance music served two very different purposes in the Renaissance. Dances for ensemble were functional music, suitable for accompanying dancers, although they were also marketed to amateur performers. In these pieces, the principal melody is typically in the uppermost part, sometimes highly ornamented, but often left plain for the performer to add embellishments. The other parts are mostly homophonic, with little of no contrapuntal interplay. Most dance pieces for solo lute of keyboard, on the other hand, are stylized, intended for the enjoyment of the players or listeners rather than for dancing, and these often include more elaborate counterpoint or written-out decoration.
Each dance form has a particular meter, tempo, rhythmic pattern, and form which distinguishes each one from the others. Dance pieces feature two, or more distinct and repeated sections depending on the dance. Usually the phrase structure is clear and predictable, often in four-measure groups, so that dancers could follow it easily.
The favorite courtly dance of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was the basse danse, a stately couple dance marked by gracefully raising and lowering the body. It featured five different kinds of steps in various combinations. The music can be in triple or duple meter and is usually in six- or four- measure phrases. One example of a Basse danse is Tielman Susato's La Morisque from his Danserye, which contains two repeated sections (binary form) in duple meter, each composed of a four measure phrase stated twice with different endings.
The Basse Danse was usually paired with a pavane, a slow dance in duple meter, and a galliard, a fast one in triple meter, on the same tune. Both had a form with three repeated strains (AABBCC). Similar pairings of dances in slow, then in fast meters was the passsamezzo and saltarello, which was popular in Italy.
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