The basse danse is a stately courtly dance whose origin can be traced to Burgundy. It was enthusiastically taken up at numerous courts throughout Europe and flourished for a century long from the middle of the 15th century onwards. That courtly dance existed before this is clear: for example, a description of the basse danse can be found as early as ca. 1320, in a poem by the Toulousain priest, friar and troubadour Raimon de Cornet. No information however concerning its choreography can be found until the early 15th century.
The Brussels (Bibliotheque Royale de Belgique, Ms 9085, ca.1470) and Toulouze (L'art et instruction de bien danser , ca. 1496, by Michel Toulouze) manuscripts are the two most important musical sources of the French basse dance; although both manuscripts are dated to the late 15th century, stylistically their music resembles the earlier decades of the century. These manuscripts, along with a few additional sources, contain around fifty cantus firmi , varying in length between twenty-four and sixty-two notes, notated in slow semibreves without rhythmical variation. It is assumed that the cantus firmi of these basse danses notated in long semibreves provided a monophonic basis for polyphonic instrumental improvisation. Evidence for such a practice can be found in some polyphonic examples written out on the tenor-melody Re di Spagna. Regarding performance-tempo, Daniel Heartz points towards the relation between the music and the actual choreography in his study concerning the basse danse: according to Heartz, each semi-breve of the basse danse-melody corresponds to one figure in the dance. Each figure consisted out of four movements equal in length, while the musical accompaniment took up six beats. Thus, the dancers moved fluidly on their toes in a three-to-two proportion to the music.
An explanation to the origin of the basse danse's name can be found in the Brussel manuscript and refers to the character of the dance: "Et se nomme basse danse [...] pour ce que, quant on la danse, on va en paix sans soy demener, le plus gracieusement que on peut." Thus, the dance consisted of nothing more than calm striding, as graceful as possible without further gestures.
The first reference to the bassa danse in the poem by Raimond de Cornet mentioned in the first paragraph stated: " An enchanter quickly memorized stanzas and small versus, cansos and basse danses." By mentioning the basse danse in one breath with some sung genres, could suggest that the basse danse was originally performed vocally, although no examples of such a practice still exist.
That a connection can be made to vocal music, is suggested by the present recording. Inspired by Frederic Crane's research on the basse danse, this CD contains a number of cantus firmi and fragments of cantus firmi, which show striking resemblance to the ‘tenors' of some contemporary chansons, turning the question of these cantus firmi's origin into more than just mere speculation.
The ‘tenors' Maitresse and Triste Plaisir, for example, share a few notes with their associated Chanson L'ami de ma Dame and Triste Plaisir. The tenor Portugaler shows a greater resemblance to Dufay's chanson Or me veult de bien esperance mentir (which shares the same tenor as Dufay's Portugaler) in that the first eight notes are similar. Unlike most basse danses that show resemblance with the tenor-lines of their associated chansons, the basse danse Filles a marrier shows almost complete similarity to the Cantus of its chanson.
However it is not just the origin of the basse danses that arouses speculation, but also their performance practice. Few examples of composed diminutions over basse danse tenors have survived from the second decade of the 15th century (presuming that our tenors are indeed meant to serve as such and not as a completed composition). The style in which Grand Désir performs the basses danses has therefore been determined by several factors such as basic knowledge of the basse danse choreography, some surviving examples of diminutions written over basse danse tenors as well as the style of diminutions used in several 15th century sources of intabulations (such as Conrad Paumann's Fundamentum Organisandi and the Buxheim Organbook).
Apart from Filles a marrier, the chansons presented on this CD have been composed by Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, two of the greatest composers of the 15th century. The musical forms of the chansons follow the traditional poetical forms of the so called formes fixes and their chansons show an extreme variation of texture, mostly due to complex rhythms and motives.
A contemporary answer to the 15th century basse danses, the chansons and their intabulations, was composed by the Greek composer Aspasia Nasopulou - the title Ballad already referring to a narrative song known since the middle ages. Originally the term Ballad referred to dance-songs, but Nasopulou's Ballad is a solo-song with accompaniment.
Like the composer Gilles Binchois, the Greek composer also used the lyrical poetry by Christine de Pizan (ca. 1364 - ca. 1430) for her compositions. Pizan was remarkable for being one of the first women with a professional literary career. Nasopoulou used Pizan's subjectively coloured poetry combined with early instruments as a source of inspiration. This allowed for the creation of a new point of view towards various elements. Quoting the composer herself, she was led by the emotions and images of the poetry, but also by the pure sounds of the instruments.
The archaich and tranquility immanent in the compositions by Nasopulou do not contrast vigorously to the early renaissance music. With her polyphonic meander, the Greek composer remained close to early music. This is especially evident in the first Ballad in which she used several medieval modi . The second Ballad presents a pleasing contras with its polyphonic character. In spite of this, both Ballads sound contemporary: flowing rhythms and pungent tonal material breathing the half-spoken, half-sung chansons reminiscent of a dreamt past.
Grand Désir's artistic directors Anita Orme Della-Marta (Recorder, Harp) and Anne-Marieke Evers (Mezzo-Soprano) met at the beginning of their musical studies at the Conservatorium of Amsterdam in September 1997, where they specialised both in contemporary music as well as medieval and renaissance music. Later in their careers, their paths led them to pursue further studies in medieval music at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Switzerland, where they met the other ensemble members of Grand Désir. Grand Désir performed their première in the ‘Fringe' programme of the Utrecht Early Music Festival 2005. The ensemble has given numerous performances and radio recordings since in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Australia. In July 2009, Grand Désir won the audience award during the York Early Music Festival Young Artist's Competition 2009.
Grand Désir likes to work with different musicians for each individual programme, thus creating the flexibility to obtain the perfect instrumentation for each project. The large repertoire of Grand Désir, as well as their interest to combine contemporary and medieval music, makes Grand Désir a unique ensemble both for early as well as contemporary music.