Composer: Anonymous

Piece: Saltarello

Date: 1365

Form: Instrumental Dance

Characteristics: Sectional, with repeats; “A” section as refrain; much embellishment on melodic lines

Character: Fast and lively, leaping dance

Professional instrumentalists of the Middle Ages must have been both skilled and sophisticated, since historical evidence indicates that their earnings were often quite high. Many of them did not read musical notation - they had no need to, for the most part their music making was improvised. Consequently, little of their music has survived. This particular work dates from the 14th century, when it was among several tunes added to the end of a large manuscript of Italian vocal music.


The saltarello is a lively Italian “jumping dance.” This example consists of short sections of varying lengths, alternating the pattern A-B-A-C-A-C-A. Each section is repeated, and new sections use melodic figures from the preceding one. This chainlike construction permits additional repetitions should the dancers have energy for more.


Aside from the melody, everything about this performance is conjectural, resting upon the educated guesses of a knowledgeable and sensitive scholar/musician. The wild, piercing sound of the shawm (used as the solo instrument in this recording) seems appropriate for this energetic, even frenetic dance. The rhythmic backing is supplied by the nakers, tabor, and tambourine while the sustained single note, or drone, is a common feature of folk music around the world. The result is musically convincing, breathing new life into music of which only the skeleton has survived.