Musical Form – Medieval Era: Saltarello

Saltarello. Illustration by Bartolomeo Pinelli.

The saltarello was a lively, merry dance first mentioned in Naples during the 14th century. The music survives, but no early instructions for the actual dance are known. It was played in a fast triple meter and is named for its peculiar leaping step, after the Italian verb saltare (“to jump”).


The saltarello enjoyed great popularity in the courts of medieval Europe. During the 15th century, the word saltarello became the name of a particular dance step (a double with a hop on the final or initial upbeat), and the name of a meter of music (a fast triple), both of which appear in many choreographed dances. Entire dances consisting of only the saltarello step and meter are described as being improvised dances in 15th century Italian dance manuals. (The first dance treatise that dealt with the saltarello was the 1465 work of Antonio Cornazzano.) This step and meter do not appear in 16th century dance manuals, except in passing. During this era, the saltarello was danced by bands of courtesans dressed as men at masquerades. The saltarello gave birth to the quadernaria in Germany, which was then fused into the saltarello tedesco (German saltarello) in Italy.

Saltarello rhythm


Saltarello as a folk dance

Although a Neapolitan court dance in origin, the saltarello became the typical Italian folk dance of Ciociaria and a favorite tradition of Rome in the Carnival and vintage festivities of Monte Testaccio. After witnessing the Roman Carnival of 1831, the German composer Felix Mendelssohn incorporated the dance into the finale of one of his masterpieces, the Italian Symphony. The only example of a saltarello in the North is saltarello romagnolo of Romagna.

The saltarello is still a popular folk dance played in the regions of Southern-Central Italy, such as Abruzzo, Molise (but in these two regions the name is female: Saltarella), Lazio and Marche. The dance is usually performed on the zampogna bagpipe or on the organetto, a type of diatonic button accordion, and is accompanied by a tamburello.

Medieval saltarelli

The main source for the medieval Italian saltarello music is a late 14th or early 15th century Tuscan manuscript at British Library labelled “Add. 29987”. The musical form of these four early saltarelli is the same as the estampie. The most renowned opus of the manuscript is the second saltarello in the collection.

Saltarello by Arany Zoltán

Saltarello in classical music

  • Tielman Susato included a Saltarello as part of Danserye (1551)
  • A guitar piece entitled “Saltarello” is attributed to Vincenzo Galilei, written in the 16th century
  • Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy used the Saltarello for the 4. movement of his Symphony No.4 “Italian”
  • Charles-Valentin Alkan used the Saltarello in his “Saltarelle” Op. 23, and in the final movement of his Sonate de Concert Op. 47 for piano and cello, “Finale alla Saltarella”
  • Berlioz used the Saltarello in the Carnival scene of Benvenuto Cellini which was reprised in the Roman Carnival Overture.
  • One of Frank Bridge’s Miniatures for Piano Trio is a Saltarello (No 5).
  • Jules Demersseman: Solo de Concert, Op. 82 No. 6 for Flute and piano. The closing movement is entitled Saltarello

Saltarello in conmusic

Besides ensembles for historically informed performance, within the last 20 years this piece was also arranged by several rather modern ensembles of gothic, metal, neoclassical and romantic medieval music. One notable example is the song Saltarello from the Aion album by the alternative-romantic band Dead Can Dance, which might actually be a misinterpretation as the song uses a common time rather than expected 6
8. Interpretations by the Polish jazz pianist Leszek Możdżer and English guitarists John Renbourn and John Williams can also be found.

Interpretations by Italian musician Angelo Branduardi can also be found in his songs “Il trattato dei miracoli”, “Pioggia”, “Saltarello, Lamento di Tristano e Rotta”. Composer Jesper Kyd also composed a track called “Meditation Begins” for the Assassin’s Creed score that is a saltarello-type arrangement with an ominous overtone, a sample of which can be heard at the page for the score. In the game’s sequel it can also be heard in the carnival part of Venice.
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