No. 18.—The Basset Hound.
THE BASSET HOUND was originally one of half a dozen different sizes of hounds used in the hound consorts that were so popular among the aristocracy in Tudor times. The elongated bodies of these hounds were designed to enhance the resonance of their voices. A full consort consisted of six hounds: a sopranino hound, a soprano hound, an alto or treble hound, a basset or tenor hound, a bass hound, and a contrabass hound. Of these only the basset hound and the soprano hound (now better known by its German name dachshund) are still viable breeds.
It may be asked why the other members of the hound consort died out. Hound consorts were still common in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, and William Byrd contributed a few distinguished compositions to the repertoire. But a mania for viols swept through the English aristocracy in the latter Elizabethan period, and consorts of viols became the English gentleman’s leisure recreation of choice. Basset hounds survived only in so-called broken consorts, many of which, to judge by contemporary descriptions, were broken by the dogs themselves. In Germany the soprano hound or dachshund survived among the middle classes on account of its portability, but it was disdained by cultured musicians.
During the early-music revival of the latter twentieth century, there was some talk of recreating the other breeds of the full hound consort by a process of reselection; but the grants intended to fund the project were diverted at the last minute to research intended to produce a more durable and stain-resistant shag rug.
Allegorically, the basset hound represents melancholy. Indeed, each of the members of the full hound consort had its allegorical significance in Elizabethan poetry, and Orlando Gibbons has left us a helpful table of allegorical equivalencies:
Sopranino Hound: Insensibility, or Deafness
Soprano Hound: Good Cheer
Alto Hound: Cheese
Basset Hound: Melancholy
Bass Hound: Influenza
Contrabass Hound: Dense Fog