What do you picture when you read the words “classical music” and “dance” in the same sentence? Ballerinas on pointe? Sugar Plum Fairies and Black Swans? I would wager most people’s minds immediately conjure up these balletic images and the Tchaikovsky-esque soundtrack that no doubt accompanies them. But what about symphonies? Or Bach’s Cello Suites? How about a pianist sitting down at the keyboard in a lavish drawing room? Instrumental music’s connections with dance go far beyond danced genres like ballet.
Instrumentalists accompany dancers in this engraving from 1490
Some of the earliest evidence of instrumental music in Europe was meant for dancing, much of it preserved in dance manuals dating from the 15th century. These surviving records indicate it was common to juxtapose contrasting styles of dance, often a slow one based on graceful, stately maneuvers paired with a fast, leaping dance. In time, these conventions became (somewhat) standardized and dances came to be performed in “suites,” collections of expected dance types in an expected order. The most common dances in these suites were the allemande, the courante, the sarabande, and the gigue, often in that order. Though tracing the origins of the individual dances is difficult, they came from a variety of backgrounds. The allemande, for example, was likely of German extraction (hence its French name, which translates to “German”), while many scholars believe the gigue originated in England. The specific dance styles, and the suite generally, enjoyed a broad popularity across Europe that was due in large part to diplomatic and royal ties between various nation-states, as well as the nobility’s penchant for international travel. Perhaps the best example of this cosmopolitanism is the sarabande. Its earliest roots lie in 16th century Latin America, where it was originally a sung dance known as the zarabande. It was popularized in Spain as an instrumental dance before being exported to Italy as part of 17th century Italian craze for Spanish guitar music. Italy’s close ties with France, as well as its reputation as a sought-after travel destination for people across Europe, meant the sarabande was not long confined to Southern Europe.
Over time, these suites and their components gradually lost their connection with the physical act of dancing. By the 1620s, dance suites were mostly written for solo or group instrumental performance rather than as an accompaniment for dancers. (However, just because they weren’t intended for dancing doesn’t mean they lost their connection with the traditional dance styles. In fact, the individual components of the suite typically kept their unique stylistic conventions. Put another way, the music usually still matched the old dance moves, even though the composers and musicians didn’t intend for any listeners to actually cut a rug.) The varying styles of the different “dances” allowed for great contrast between the individual movements of a suite, an attractive quality for both composers and performers. In this form dance suites were among the most popular types of composed instrumental music for over one hundred years and were among several inspirations for other instrumental genres like the concerto, sonata, and symphony.
Let’s recap a bit, shall we? Dance suites were an international craze that drew inspiration from multiple countries and traditions, that at one time involved dancing, then didn’t, but that kept its association with specific individual dance styles. Clear as mud? Good!
Bach’s six Cello Suites are a perfect example of this in action. The Bach Cello Suites all contain an allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet/bourée/gavotte (this movement varied), and gigue, in that order. These are all dance forms, although Bach would have written them as vehicles for instrumental performance, not dancing. But Bach’s suites, like those of many of his contemporaries, all begin with a prelude. Since preludes weren’t connected with a tradition of dancing, they were much more freely adaptable in terms of style. In fact, it wasn’t at all uncommon for a musician performing a suite to improvise a prelude on the spot. The prelude to Bach’s Suite No. 5 in C minor, which you’ll hear today, begins in the style of a French overture. While it isn’t of supreme importance for you to know what a French-style overture is, it is yet another example of the mixing of various musical types/genres across setting (stage music in a solo instrumental suite) and geographical boundaries (a north German composer drawing inspiration from French styles).
French dancers boogie to the allemande. It’s all the rage!
J.S. Bach definitely not dancing.
Although it isn’t a suite, and with apologies for the 200-year time jump, Nino Rota’s Sarabande e toccata also pairs one of the most traditional “dance” forms with a non-dance-related genre. In this case, that other genre is the toccata, originally a type of keyboard work intended as a vehicle for improvising and showing-off. Just as in the original dance suite, though, this piece is about variety, with the sarabande acting as a slow and beautiful contrast to the virtuosic section that follows it.
The association of dance suites with dancing is something we’ve long since put to bed, but the story of how the suite—and the dances it typically contained—emerged from actual dance traditions functions much like a history of European-style art music in microcosm. Genres that begin with a purely utilitarian purpose (to accompany dancing or church, for example) become appreciated for their aesthetic value and oftentimes gradually lose all connection with their original purpose. It’s why we don’t give a second thought to listening to a Bach cantata in a non-religious context like a concert hall, or why Bach felt no qualms about writing “dance” music for unaccompanied cello. On today’s program, only the Spanish Dance No. 5, Andaluza by Enrique Granados foregrounds the dance tradition, which certainly makes sense given the context of a Spanish composer exploring his national heritage through music. Still, Granados’s Danzas españolas weren’t actually meant to be danced, so make sure you keep your seat while you’re listening.
– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West
David Fuller, “Suite,” in Grove Music Online
Richard Hudson and Meredith Ellis Little, “Sarabande,” in Grove Music Online