Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 3 Research: Zortziko

While searching for musical forms to use for quintuple time signature, I came upon a traditional dance-song rhythm of the Basque, called zortziko. (Fig. 1)


Fig. 1. Zortziko rhythm

Jean Bergara, the famous Basque flutist said “I don’t know why, but I feel we [Basque people] are born with this rhythm.” (2008: 479) Although the above 5/8 measure with a dotted pattern on the second and fourth beats is the most often encountered type of zortziko today, that largely represents the Basque culture, there are many controversies surrounding the subject.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the publications like Revista Musical de Bilbao and Euskalerriare Alde gave rise to the discussion. Some music critics began to assign to the zortziko an exotic origin, like Gascue, who regarded it as of Celtic origin, writing that it was neither as old nor as frequent in Basque music as was claimed. Aztue, investigating the subject, saw that the presence of zortziko in old songbooks was scarce, and geographically only appeared in Cantabrian area. These sung zortzikos he found (Fig. 2a) didn’t have dots and showed similarities to some of the Gavaert’s examples of classical Greek tunes, like the First Delphic Hymn to Apollo written in 5/8. (Fig. 2b) Although, unlike Gascue, he didn’t directly propose the Greek origin. Either way, there is no substantial proof to either theories.


Fig. 2a. Vocal zortziko in 5/8


Fig. 2b. First Delphic Hymn to Apollo

The name is also unclear. The most common interpretation is that the word zortziko comes from ‘of eight’, however, Urbeltz proposes a different meaning – a soldier, and deduces that the dance and the melodies were proper to the young people of age to be soldiers and compares it with other military dances. This is often dismissed by scholars, like Ansorena, who says that if zortzi means a soldier then it is related to another word, zortziarena (similar to idiarena) and not zortziko.

The meaning ‘of eight’ also has several contrasting opinions regarding what it refers to. One of these is that eight denotes eight measures of musical phrase. However, many of the western dances and their tunes of the time consisted of eight bars of phrases, all of which would thus be encompassed under the name zortziko, but more importantly many of the actual old zortziko tunes would themselves often vary irregularly in the number of measures.

Another view is that it denotes the denominator 8 and to Santiago it provides to be the only link between various rhythms that one actually comes across in zortzikos. The refutation of this theory is clear, as Gascue writes, denominator is hardly a characteristic feature and that any piece of music may be measured in eighth notes. There is also another problem to this theory – there are zortzikos written in other time signatures including those in 2/4.

This brings us to another important point. There is a difference between zortzikos for dancing and zortzikos for singing. Before the dance emerged, zortzikos were vocal pieces, composed to be sung with verses. In this sense, zortziko is linked to poetry, where we have zortziko nagusia, which consists of eight long lines and zortziko txikia which consists of eight short lines. The only thing different polemicists agreed on is the origin of the vocal zortzikos from these eight-line stanza.

The most often of these found in music are the melodies of zortziko txikia, written in 2/4, which are similar to minuet or counterpas placed in the 2/4 measure. (Fig. 3) Iztueta, the pioneer of the compilation of the traditional Basque music in 1826, and also Humbolt in his famous Diary (1924: 120-121) highlight the importance of this stanza.


Fig. 3. Vocal zortziko in 2/4

Some of these zortzikos in 2/4 later became used for dancing, like the zortziko in soka-dantza – aurresku, a series of dances par excellance that became a part of the ceremonial dance, from the Mountain of Navarra in Leiza, or in Alsasua or Huarte Araquil. This demonstrates the regional differences and variations of the dance.

Although these dances appear under the name zortziko, some scholars mark them with different names, like father Olazaran that calls them belautzikoak, and Aztue gave them the name contrapas. This is because zortziko gradually lost its original meaning in the second half of 18th century, slowly shifting from vocal music to designate instrumental compositions free from lyrics. In this fashion, folklorists later fully imposed zortziko as pieces written in 5/8, which represents the biggest part of the debate.

In dancing, as Iztueta noticed, rhythmic aspect was more important than the strophic. The dance with its acrobatics and jumps altered the original measure and brought about the emergence of syncopation and dots, which appeared in the instrumental accompaniment to ease dancers’ performance, resulting into assimilation of other measures. Many of the other Basque dances also show this characteristic of irregular or sometimes almost free rhythm, such as sagar-dantza of Arizkun or Erregelak of the Merindad of Durango. The instruments used are txistu , a kind of fipple flute and tamboril, a tabor drum. (Fig. 4) This is another version of the pipe and tabor pairing I mentioned in another post.

txistu difu248741.jpg

Fig. 4. Txistu and tamboril

What is surprising is that, in the first compilation of Basque folk music by Iztueta, the danced zortzikos appear with the 6/8 time signature. One of the opinions regarding the emergence of 5/8 zortziko is that the rhythm is an erroneous interpretation of the 6/8 measure. Gascue argues how Iztueta’s compilation demonstrates how zortziko was danced and played originally in 6/8, and that the change to 5/8 was most likely caused because of practical difficulty in conducting a bar of two equal parts, and how the second half ended up being a bit shorter. His opinion is that this shortening brought about the emergence of 5/8.

But, it’s important to note that even before Iztueta’s compilation, there are examples of zortziko tunes in 5/8. For examples, the three zortzikos dating from 1802, in Papeles de la Collectanea linguistica by Humbolt, and Donostia, who did one of the two modern master compilations of Basque folk musical pieces, discovered two versions of dotted zortziko (Fig. 5) in 5/8 of as early as 1813, one by female composer Antonia de Moyua Mazzaredo or by her daughter, Juana, and one composed even earlier by Count Penaflorida (1723-1785).


Fig. 5. Zortziko from 1813

Azkue, who I mentioned before, did the other of the two master compilations, gives a contrasting explanation on the subject and writes how 6/8 was only a notational solution, since the melodies were transcribed around 1820, when 5/8 was less known, and that the dances and music were in fact performed in 5/8. 6/8 of course didn’t impose any problems, as its rhythmic units are similar to the familiar ones from the Western tradition, such as baroque Sicilian music and the barcarola of the romantic era. But more than being less known, western music was based on symmetry and as Humbolt says, the non-symmetrical time signatures like 5/8 would bring a “very bad effect.”

With the raise of folkloric influence in the Romantic era, this changed. Even Pedro Albeniz, who transcribed the melodies for Iztueta’s compilation changed his mind regarding the notation. In a letter almost thirty years later in 1855, he writes how the alternation between 2/8 and 3/8 (thus 5/8) would suit zortziko better.

Near the end of the 18th century, vocal zortzikos according to the txikia zortziko verse appeared in 5/8, although very scarce, still undotted and soft in nature, like the ones from Cantabria that Aztue referred to. (Fig. 2a) Not long after, in the 19th century, truly new vocal melodies appeared in 5/8 that harmonized the strength and agility of the dances and their rhythmic innovation, such as the characteristic dot. Especially in the 19th century, when the Spanish and French governments abrogated Basque freedom by suppressing their ancient rights and laws, the melodies in the new zortziko rhythm gave new hope and inspiration to those who had suffered much in the Carlist Civil Wars. In trying to find their identity, new rhythm became stereotyped and added in musical elements from romantic era: bimodality, chromaticism, modulations… etc, and gradual changes in speed like rallentando and accelerando.

Jose Maria de Ipparaguirre is an example of this. His anthem to the Tree of Guernika, a symbol of Basque freedom, remains one of the foremost patriotic hymns. This anthem established zortziko rhythm as a symbol of Basque identity and gave raise to its popularity.

Generally, most of his zortzikos are in 5/8, composed according to the verse of txikia zortziko, although Ipparaguire also composed three interesting zortzikos in 6/8, like Ume eder bat. Unlike, Albinez, he didn’t write them as such because of the notational conventions, but to suit the longer, nagusia zortziko stanzas.

With the great success in public, the stylistic devices of 5/8 zortzikos were repeated and adopted by classical musicians like Sarasate, who used zortziko for interpretation in bourgeois domestic environment with piano accompaniment, for example his Zortziko Adios montanas mias, op. 37, then Zortziko of Ipparaguirre, op. 40 and Miramar Zortziko Op.42. In this form, many examples of zortziko appear in the main media of the time – magazines. For example, Euskal-Erria between 1880 and 1899 published 45 pieces and half were zortzikos in 5/8.

One of the pieces by Sarasate is very peculiar – the first part of Caprice Basque. The rhythmical pattern clearly shows us that it is zortziko, but notated in ¾. It might have been adapted this way for easier interpretation or to fit the form. It is written a bit earlier than his zortzikos, perhaps another reason why ¾ was used. Although adding one eight note, he still preserved the triple subdivision of the 5/8 meter – 1+2+2.

Perhaps the most unique and authentic occurrence of zortziko in classical music is given by Alkan. His fascination with quintuple time is evident as he used it in other pieces, like the 13th of the Preludes Op. 31, “J’etais endormie, mais mon Coeur veillait…”, where he enveloped the sentiment of the biblical Song of Solomon in one of his most charming miniatures – a seductive lullaby, and also in his 12th of the Etudes dans les tons majeurs Op. 35 in 10/16, and little fantasietta alla moresca. His zortziko is notated in 5/4 and marked lourd – sluggish, heavy, dragging, giving it a very different, stately and grave character. It has “an archaic aura”, with “ritualized gestures” and “mesmerizing repetitions.” It is curious and gothic how Alkan leads us “…to the rustics, recreating, in reclusive solitude and with psychic sensibility, the solemn motions of a remote and mysterious people.” This piece belongs to his period of rhythmical research, when he played with many time signatures. In his letter to Fetis, he writes how a Spanish friend, maybe Masarnau, demonstrated zortziko, on txistu and tabor. His three airs a 5, also show characteristics of zortziko.

Composers like Charles Bordes and Gabriel Pierne will also play part in domestication of zortziko. Ravel’s zortziko from his Piano Trio in a minor is also characteristic, as it seems to be linked to the poetical txikia zortziko in syllabic correspondence, which is why it is written in 8/8 (3+2+3) instead of 5/8.

Going back to the traditional folk forms, Ansorena and Equiza relate the 5/8 zortziko with another traditional Basque form with rhythmic alternations, usually 6/8 and ¾ – ezpadantza. Ansorena observes how the ezpadantza begins with rhythmic idea of syncopated double accent, which is also in zortziko, and how both rhythms have the same rhythmic figuration. According to Sanchez Equiza, in the processions and parades, singing 5/8 zortzikos would be used when dantzari would be strolling and not dancing, but when dancing, they would prefer a faster rhythm, which transcribed into the alternation of 6/8 and ¾. In fact, in different moments of dance, they would use different transcriptions of time signatures. (Fig. 6) An example of this would be in Kaixarranka de Lekeitio, which like Aurresku (soka-dantza) consists of several parts.


Fig. 6. Ezpadantza transposed to 7/8

Also, the free rhythm of the dances I mentioned before, appearing in measures like 9/16 or even 17/30, maybe also played a role in the development of zortziko rhythm. Beside the aforementioned time signatures, Aranzadi found a zorziko of Ezkongaitan in 3/4 and Gascue found zortziko of Onate in 7/8. All the confusion regarding the measure demonstrate the many difficulties there are in transcribing zortziko dances and melodies, and how the attempts to translate them into western patterns may actually fail. Thus, some, like Sabin Bikandi, write the same melody according to the interpretation and moment of the dance in different measures like 8/8, 3/8, 11/16, etc.

To conclude, zortziko went though many changes, not only from vocal to instrumental music, but also from oral to written tradition. This brought many versions, but also confusions surrounding them. Despite everything, the principal and most important zortziko rhythm today remains to be the one in 5/8 with the dotted 2nd and 4th beats. Next, take a look at my next post for my Zortziko fantasia.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Zortziko rhythm

Fig. 2a. Vocal zortziko in 5/8

Fig. 2b. First Delphic Hymn to Apollo

Fig. 3. Vocal zortziko in 2/4

Fig. 4. Txistu and tamboril

Fig. 5. Zortziko from 1813

Fig. 6. Ezpadantza transposed to 7/8


The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 1 (2008) New York and London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

Urbeltz, Juan Antonio (1989) Música militar en el País Vasco: el problema del “zortziko”


Humbolt (1924) Diary Papeles de la Collectanea linguistica by Humbolt

William, Alexander Eddie (2017) Charles Valentin Alkan: His Life and His Music. New York: Taylor & Francis

Smith, Ronald (1976) Alkan: The music. Kahn and Averill

Smith, Ronald (2000) Alkan: The Man, The Music, Volumes 1-2. Kahn & Averill

Smith, Ronald (1977) Alkan: The Enigma. Crescendo Pub.


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