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About the Baroque Dances Suite: a European medley

Dernière mise à jour : 17 févr. 2018

Listen to the Prelude of the Suite BWV 996:

The Dances Suite is one of the oldest instrumental musical forms, and one of the most frequently used during the Baroque period (which lasted from 1600 to 1750). It consists in a succession of several instrumental or orchestral pieces, based on the same melody or at least written in the same main key, all of them following a two parts structure (a part A written in the main key and a part A’ in the dominant or relative key). However there are differences between those dances in the type of measure or time it uses (ternary or binary measure or time), in rhythms patterns, and in tempi or feeling, depending on the region or country it comes from.

To describe those dances, the word “Suyte” was already used in France in the middle of the XVIth century, by the printer and bookseller Pierre Attaingnant. In Germany, the title Partita is used, which means “a part of”. In France we can find the name Ordre, in England the term of Lessons, whereas Italian people called it Sonata da camera (XVIIth).

At the beginning, those pieces were played on the lute to be danced (in group), and had popular origins. At that time, it was called the “Pair of dances”, in which the first dance was in a slow tempo and in binary time or measure (the Pavane), the second being in a faster tempo and with a ternary measure (the Gaillarde, which was also called the 5 steps).

However, the same melody was used in the two dances, of course with some rhythmic changes. The idea of improvisation on a theme comes from French walked dances of the XVth, called Basses dances, the predecessor of the Pair of dances.

At the end of the XVIth century, Italian lutenists began to write down those popular dances for their instrument. Throughout the XVIIth century, harpsichordists did the same (one of the first was the French composer Champion de Chambonnières). That’s how those dances gradually became pure instrumental works, and already, at the time of Bach, weren’t danced anymore.

It was at the end of the XVIth (around 1580) that composers began to add several other dances to the Suite, which came from different European countries: the Sarabande and Passacaille (from Spain), the Passepied (from French Brittany), the Rondeau (a round dance from the XIIIth) and so on. At that time, all of them gained some recognition and were practiced in royal courts.

From the XVIIth century, the Pavane and the Gaillarde were replaced by the Allemande (from Germany) and the Courante (from Italy). However, alternation between a slow and a fast tempo, which was a tradition of the Renaissance lutenists and dancers, and other characteristics of each dance were maintained during the Baroque era.

These developments led to a first order of dances. We can find it in several works, for example in those of the German composer Johann Jakob Froberger: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Jig (a ternary dance imported from Scotland by the lutenist Jacques Gaulthier). In Arcangelo Corelli’s pieces, the Suite includes the following dances order: a Prelude and then the Courante, Sarabande and Gavotte. The Prelude can either be a French overture (first in slow tempo and then a fast fugato), an Italian overture, or in free tempo, without specific melody.

From the second half of the XVIIth century, the Chaconne, the French Bourrée and Menuet are added to the Suite. Those Dances were played in second last between the Sarabande and the Jig.

Moreover, German composers such as JS Bach were used to add variations called Double after the Courante.

Here are the main characteristics of each dance:

As many information coming from historical research, don’t forget some of the remarks below may be questionable and can’t sum up every cases. The length of the melody, the rhythm and repetitions depend on the number of step of each dance.

Pavane: a 4/4 measure, starting with an upbeat.

Gaillarde: a 3/4 measure, starting with an upbeat.

Allemande: comes from Germany, in medium tempo with a binary measure and time, begins with an upbeat.

Courante: from France and Italy, with a 3 times measure, starting with an upbeat, king Louis XIV used it as an opening dance.

Sarabande: first from Latin America and then south Spain (in the XVIth), it originally was a fast dance forbidden by Philippe II, king of Spain, then it spread in France and became a slower dance in a 3-4 measure with a solemn feeling. It begins without upbeat, the first part may be of 4 or 8 measures, the second of 8 or 12. Examples can be found in French operas of the XVIIth and the XVIIIth century.

Gavotte, Bourrée: replaces the Branles double of the Renaissance period, a French round dance (in the city of Gap), with a 2 binary times measure, starting with an half measure upbeat, with a syncopated rhythm, which melody can be divided in 4 measures (with a breath in the fourth), in fast (Bourrée) or medium (Gavotte) tempo, can consist in 2 parts of 8 measures.

Loure: from France, has got peasant origins, in a 6-8 ternary time measure, in slow tempo and solemn feeling, starting with an upbeat, may look like the Courante, using the ambiguity between the 6-8 and the 3-4 measure, in which first times are accentuated. Moreover, nowadays French musicians still use the word “lourer” to describe some kind of accentuation.

Menuet, Passepied, Branles du Poitou: from France (the Poitou region), fast and happy, in a 3 times measure and with ternary feeling (but with binary times), will be used as a third movement in the symphonies of the Classic period.

Chaconne, Passacaille: from Spain (« pasar en la calle »), sometimes looks like the Sarabande, in a 3 binary times measure, in slow tempo, danced in royal courts from the middle of the XVIIth, with an ostinato in the bass line, a short theme and its variations (motivic embellishment in different melodic lines), with verses and a chorus (Passacaille), starting on the second time of the first measure (Chaconne), in the Passacaille the bass ostinato can be played in melodic lines, good examples are in tragic operas of the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (Amadis, Armide), in minor key and slow tempo (Passacaille), or major key and faster (Chaconne).

Forlane: from Italy, in medium tempo, in a 6/8 ternary time measure.

Musette: from France, with 2 melodic lines in imitation (or Canon, Fugato) and a pedal bass, in a 2 or 3 times measure, with a rural, pastoral and happy feeling, used in tragic operas as a shepherd dance, looks like a slower and rural Gavotte.

Rigaudon: from south France (in the end of the XVIth), in fast tempo and happy feeling, in a 2 times measure, can start with an upbeat.

Jig: From Scotland, in fast tempo, in a 6/8 ternary time measure, with a process of imitation, starts with or without an upbeat.

Among great Suites composers are Georg Friedrich Heandel (water music, Music for the royal fireworks), Jean-Philippe Rameau, François Couperin, Marin Marais, Robert de Visée, Jean-Baptiste Besard, J-B Lully (orchestral or ballet Suite), Gaspar Sanz, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Mattheson, Georg Philipp Telemann, J-S Bach, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Ernest Gottlieb Baron, Arcangelo Corelli, Ludovico Roncalli…

With their thematic and tonal unity, their local features (type of measure and rhythm) each dance represents a country or a region of Europe, and are a cultural legacy. Dances Suites disappeared with the Baroque era around 1750. They’ll sometimes be used again in Classic Symphonies or string quartets (like the Menuet or the Musette), and in Neo-Baroque pieces (for example by Maurice Ravel in Le tombeau de Couperin), as a memory of a time when there still was a link between popular and classical music.

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