Conductor Leonard Slatkin described Ron Nelson (b. 1929) thusly: “Nelson is the quintessential American composer. He has the ability to move between conservative and newer styles with ease. The fact that he’s a little hard to categorize is what makes him interesting.” This quality has helped Nelson gain wide recognition as a composer. Nowhere are his works embraced more than in the band world, where he won the “triple crown” of composition prizes in 1993 for his Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H). An Illinois native, Nelson received his composition training at the Eastman School of Music and went on to a distinguished career on the faculty of Brown University.
Nelson wrote Courtly Airs and Dances in 1995 on commission from the Hill Country Middle School Band in Austin, Texas, and their director Cheryl Floyd. It is dedicated to that same group. About the piece, Nelson writes:
Courtly Airs and Dances is a suite of Renaissance dances which were characteristic to five European countries during the 1500s. Three of the dances (Basse Dance, Pavane, and Allemande) are meant to emulate the music of Claude Gervaise by drawing on the style of his music as well as the characteristics of other compositions from that period. The festival opens with a fanfare-like Intrada followed by the Basse Danse (France), Pavane (England), Saltarello (Italy), Sarabande (Spain), and Allemande (Germany).
Ron Nelson on Wikipedia.
There are some great, free educational resources on Courtly Airs and Dances, including this article and analysis, this vocabulary sheet, and this quiz. It is also featured on the Wind Repertory Project.
The San Francisco School of the Arts Wind Ensemble in a live performance:
Nelson uses a different Renaissance style for each movement. The Intrada is entrance music, designed to begin a suite of music or serve for an entry procession. This performance of an Intrada by German composer Christoph Demantius captures that spirit:
Nelson based his Intrada on Claude Gervaise’s Fanfare allemande (more on that later).
Nelson took his Basse Danse almost verbatim from Gervaise. Here is another arrangement of it by the Belgium Brass:
The pavane is similar to a basse danse, being a slow and stately dance, but in duple meter and often faster. Again, Nelson borrowed fairly directly from Gervaise:
The dance would have looked something like this:
The saltarello was a lively jumping dance whose specific steps have been lost. Nelson wrote an original melody for his Saltarello, not relying on Gervaise. Here is what a Renaissance saltarello may have sounded like:
The sarabande appears to have originated in the Spanish colonies in Central America before returning to Spain itself. It was declared obscene and banned there in 1583. It was in 3/4 time with the second and third beats often tied together, giving the rhythm a step-drag feel. Nelson’s Sarabande relies on original material. This sarabande example comes from the Baroque era, but it still demonstrates the rhythmic characteristics of the dance:
The allemande was a dance named in France for its supposed origin in Germany (the name means “German” in French). It was a moderately fast duple meter dance that may have looked something like this:
Nelson again borrowed from Gervaise for this movement. Here is a children’s flute choir version of Gervaise’s original: