Dances of the Suite for the Baroque Era

Dances of the Suite for the Baroque Era

Choosing and playing the appropriate tempos for the Dances of the Suite in the Baroque Era is crucially important; however, performers need to be aware of the differences between French and Italian Baroque music.

French music was much more conservative than Italian music, having preserved Renaissance musical practice into the eighteenth century. It represented delicacy, decorum, elegant melody and graceful agréments (a French term for ornament or embellishments). Meanwhile, Italian music stood for passion, extravagance, virtuosity and florid ornamentations or passaggi (transitions between the registers are known as passaggi in singing). Twentieth century performers  often failed to respect these differences, performing Italian music with inappropriate restraints and French music without refined performing conventions.

The most common dances of the suites are Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue, often being played with alternating tempo: Slow, Fast, Slow, Fast.

Through the Baroque Era, the French were the leaders of the dance fashion. French dancing masters taught the aristocracy of most European countries. Composers all over Europe followed French models when writing their own dance music.

In Italy, Allemande and Courante presented the simple rhythms and harmonics of late 16th century dances. The music was often marked ‘Allegro’ or ‘ Presto’ and was to be played two-in-a-bar and one-in-a-bar respectively.

By late 17th Century, the French Courante was usually written in minims with a graceful alternation between 3/2 and 6/4 time signatures.  Performers these days often fail to distinguish between French and Italian patterns, playing French Allemande and Courante much too quickly. Eventhough French-style Allemande were written in semiquavers, they should never be hurried. The less common Allemande were written in quavers which were much faster and lighter.

This confusion was further compounded by J.S.Bach, Handel and Corelli who included both examples in their suites, although Bach often distinguished between Corrente and Courante in his composition.  French Courante were written in irregular lengths, mostly in quavers, with elaborate agréments, with unsettling combination of time signature between 3/2 and 6/4.

The Italian Corrente is usually notated in semiquavers, faster,  more settled with regular length and less ornamentated.

Italian Gavotta often starts on the 1st beat of the bar, sometimes marked as ‘Allegro’ while the French Gavotte normally starts on the half bar, should be played lightly and elegantly but not too quickly–usually has at least 4 chords a bar.

The following Dances of the Suite applied to both Nationalities:

Sarabande

  • Wild and licentious dance of the early 17th Century
  • Simple music with 1 or 2 chords in a bar
  • To be played one-in-a-bar
  • By 1730, it had become a slow and stately dance, often marked as ‘adagio’ or ‘lent’ and harmonised with 6 chords in a bar.
  • Elaborated ornamentation
  • Richer chord and more melodious

Minuet

  • Started with one-in-a-bar in Bach and Handel’s time, then sped up in the 2nd half of the 18th Century to serve as the model as Scherzo in Beethoven’s time.
  • Earlier type, with one chord a bar that should clearly be played much a faster than three-in-a-bar
  • Quantz wrote that the latter is played springily, the crotchets being marked with a rather heavy, but still short bow-stroke

 Gigue

  • The earlier types (6/4 or 6/8) with predominant dotted rhythms must have been played more slowly than the motto perpeto (one in 12/8 or over 24/16).
  • French Gigue is jerky with dotted rhythms with steady and faster pace while Italian  has fast flowing triplets.

Bourrée and Rigaudon

  • Both are the fastest duple-time dances of all Dances of the Suites.
  • Quantz wrote in his ‘On Playing the Flute (1952)’, they should be played gaily with a short light bow-stroke.

Loure 

  • Sometimes labelled ‘pessament’ (heavily), it is a sort of a rustic version of Courante
  • Should be played slowly but extremely strongly, with a marked accent on the 1st beat of the bar.

Chaconne 

  • Like Sarabande and Passacaglia, they were wild and fast in the early 17th Century and later became slow and stately.
  • Chaconne is usually in the major key, more lively than the minor mode Passcaglia

Passiepied

  • Usually played in 3/8 rather than 3/4
  • According to Quantz, it is played ‘a little more light and slightly faster’ than the minuet.

Composers such as Bach, Handel, Purcell, Rameau, Couperin and Handel expected that performer to understand the tempo for each of the dances. They did not need to indicate an intended tempo as most performers was expected to know the practice. Failure to observe this is a grave error for not respecting the stylistic convention.

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