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Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach
By Meredith Little, Natalie Jenne
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2001 Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne
All rights reserved.
French Court Dance in Bach's World
Germany was still recovering from the severe economic and social disruptions of the Thirty Years War when Bach was born in 1685. The Treaty of Westphalia had officially ended the bloodshed in 1648 by stipulating that the princes of each of the over 300 states and other political units would decide the religion and laws to govern their own areas of control, with free cities, such as Hamburg and Leipzig, excepted. The long period of reconstruction from the civil war was to last over a century, embracing all of Bach's life. Many German courts and cities imported culture from France and Italy as part of a peacetime cultural competition, striving to build brilliant, elegant centers of civility which would outshine those of their neighbors. The standard biographies of Bach contain little about French influence, yet French culture was a forceful presence in most of the places in which he lived and worked.
For example, Bach would have encountered French language, music, dance, and theater while he was a student at the Michaelisschule in Lüneburg in 1700–1702. Though at school he studied traditional subjects, such as orthodox Lutheranism, history, and rhetoric, he shared room and board with the aristocratic young men who attended the Ritterakademie in Lüneburg. Karl Geiringer writes:
The Academy was a center of French culture. French conversation, indispensable at that time to any high-bom German, was obligatory between the students; and Sebastian with his quick mind may have become familiar with a language which he had no chance to study in his own schools. There were French plays he could attend and, what was more important, French music he could hear, as a pupil of Lully, Thomas de la Selle, taught dancing at the Academy to French tunes. Most likely it was de la Selle, noticing the youth's enthusiastic response, who decided to take Bach to the city of Celle, where he served as court musician.
Bach visited the court at Celle many times; it was a "miniature Versailles" in its recreation of French culture, according to Geiringer. As an impressionable teenager, Bach probably encountered Lully's music as played by the excellent French orchestra; the keyboard music of composers such as François Couperin, Nicholas de Grigny, and Charles Dieupart; and possibly ballet and French social dancing as well.
Most of Bach's titled dance music implies a connection to French Court dancing. Minuets, gavottes, passepieds, courantes, sarabandes, gigues, and loures were frequently performed at the courts and in the cities where Bach lived.
French Court dancing, a symbol of French culture, was especially in favor in Germany. This graceful, balanced, refined, and highly disciplined style was "invented," as it were, or given its classic characteristics, by dancers working at the court of Louis XIV from the 1650s on. The technical achievements of this style—for example, turnout of the legs from the hips and the five positions for the feet (Fig. 1-1), and the calculated opposition of arms to step-units (Fig. 1-2)—were an obvious, stunning improvement over any other dance form in Europe. French Court dancing was not a fad, but the beginning of ballet. It was internationally accepted even as it was being invented and codified in France, not only in Germany but in England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Holland, and Sweden, later spreading to Russia and the European colonies in North and South America.
Under the strong, central rule of Louis XIV (reigned 1661–1715), France experienced an especially prosperous and influential period of her history, unlike Germany with its many small, competing states. Louis XIV was a lifelong lover of aristocratic dancing. Even as a youth he and his friends dressed up in fanciful costumes and danced in ballets for their own entertainment. A ballet required the support services of scene designers, costumers, singers, dancers, poets, and musicians. Every year at least one new ballet was presented, most often in the season between Christmas and Lent. It was usual for a ballet to be organized around a theme, such as the seven liberal arts, or an event from classical mythology, such as the birth of Venus. Ballets normally did not have a strong central plot, but consisted of a series of vocal airs loosely organized around the theme. Sung by various characters, these airs were interspersed with dances (entrées) performed by various characters dressed in fanciful costumes.
Aristocrats at the court of Louis XIV also enjoyed social dancing, using the same steps and movement styles as ballet but wearing formal dress instead of costumes. Elegant ceremonial balls were held to celebrate important events of the realm, such as a military victory, the signing of a treaty, the marriage of a socially prominent person, or someone's birthday. They often occurred after an evening of theater or other recreation. But unlike social dancing today, these events were carefully planned and rehearsed, and only the best recreational dancers performed, while the assembled company watched and admired.
The king sat at the head of the room, with members of the court arranged around him according to rank. He and his partner danced the first dance, after which everyone else in the royal company danced, one couple at a time, again in order of rank. The dancing couple began at the foot of the room facing the king; the musicians were usually behind them or in raised galleries on the side of the room. Every dance began and ended with a formal Reverence to one's partner as well as to the king. Almost all of the dances—minuets, courantes, gavottes, and other forms—consisted of special written choreographies which were memorized beforehand; other members of the court had learned the same choreographies and would know if they were performed correctly. Courtiers practiced daily in order to present a graceful picture while they danced. Other spectators might watch the ball from bleachers behind the central area but would not participate in the dancing.
In addition to these "grand balls" there were innumerable occasions for dancing, at court and at the private estates of noblemen. There were masked balls, with gaily costumed participants, at which a masquerade would be presented—a scene from a ballet, or a scene with dancing and singing invented for the party. The jours d'appartement took place on special evenings at the king's palace, with dancing and other entertainments, such as gambling and billiards.
During the six-month period between 10 September 1684 and 3 March 1685, the beginning of Lent, there were at the court alone: 1 grand bal; 9 masked balls; 16 appartements that definitely included dancing; 42 other appartements that almost certainly also offered dancing; and at least 2 evenings of comedy that included dancing between the acts by courtiers.
It was the French dancing masters who created the ballets, ceremonial balls, and masquerades. For ballets they choreographed the dances, rehearsed the ballet corps, coordinated the dancing with the music, and often performed in the productions. For the ceremonial balls, dancing masters were in charge of seeing that everyone observed the rituals, and at the proper time. The short theatrical presentations at masquerades also needed careful production. Dancing masters gave daily lessons to able aristocrats, including the king himself, to ensure that all the participants knew their parts and that the balls and ballets would be as magnificent as possible. In addition to teaching dancing they instructed courtiers in deportment, such as the proper way to bow to a superior or to an inferior, how to do honors in passing, what to do when introduced at court, what to do with one's hat and sword, and so on. There were precise rules which, when followed, resulted in elegance and the appearance of gentility, the height of civilized behavior.
The technique of French Court dancing has been preserved, happily, through numerous dance manuals as well as a notation system which could record particular choreographies. The technique was based on a strongly centered carriage, with the back straight (but not stiff); a long neck supporting a balanced head, which was tilted neither downward in submission nor upward in haughtiness; and arms and legs which moved without hunching the shoulders or bowing the back. The elegant ease and noble bearing of a dancer in motion is shown in Fig. 1-2.
The dance technique emphasized turnout of the legs from the hips because it enabled the dancer to look his best to an audience, and the courtier his best to the court, even in sideways movements which may appear awkward without turnout. The Five positions for the feet (Fig. 1-1) meant that the legs would always move in an ordered, prescribed fashion rather than in haphazard ways. Additional order occurred in duets, where the dancing couple moved through symmetrical, balanced floor patterns, performing the same steps at the same time but on opposite feet.
The ideals of the French style were inspiring. They included douceur (kindness, sweetness), bonté (goodness), honnêteté (integrity, decency), a beautiful body and a beautiful spirit, and "a certain majesty," as well as order, balance, hierarchy, and discipline. Above all these was "nonchalance," which for dancing means that beyond the straight back and balanced head the body is relaxed but at the same time ready for any action or movement. One scholar has called it "an 18th-century cool." As a French ideal it was taught along with dancing.
French Dancing Masters
Many of the competing German courts hired French dancing masters, preferably Parisian, to lead them on the pathway to elegance. The dancing master would give instruction in French dance technique and the latest dances from Paris, and would also teach deportment. These niceties were necessary for anyone who wanted to be presented at court and participate in its activities, because one had to know specific rituals for bowing, taking off one's hat, and other genteel behavior. Bach must have learned these rituals, for he was presented at court many times, and he participated in the activities of numerous courts. The French dancing masters were in demand in German cities and courts as part of the effort to rebuild the economy and enhance the general well-being after the havoc of the Thirty Years War. By teaching gracious behavior as well as dancing they instilled a sense of pride and competence in society, especially as middle-class persons began to use body language as an avenue to a better life. The French dancing master functioned as the Master of Ceremonies for important social occasions in Germany, just as he had in France.
Research by Kurt Petermann has revealed that the Leipzig directory of 1701 listed three French dancing masters, but by 1736 there were twelve, out of a total listing of about 20,000 persons, and there were undoubtedly many others who did not appear in the book. It would also be interesting to have a list of French dancing masters in Germany during the period 1650–1725. In Renate Brockpähler's (admittedly incomplete) list of dancers associated with ballet composition in opera performances in Germany up to 1753, of the forty-seven men listed, two names are Germanic, eight are Italian, and the rest are French.
A better measure of the importance of the French dancing master in society can be found in a book published by Christoph Weigel in 1698. Its 212 plates illustrating the different occupations in Germany at the time are presented in order of rank. The first plate, for example, is of "The Regent." Weigel divides the occupations into three main types: the Regierstand, or ruling and organizing work, such as that of the Regent, the general for war on land, and the admiral for war on water; the Lehrstand, which includes teaching, medical, legal, and business people; and the Belustigenden Künstlern, or peasants and middle-class workers, which include stone masons, pearl workers, printers, foresters, musical instrument makers, etc. At the end, and outside these three groups, is the lowly gravedigger. The French dancing master is in the second group (Fig. 1-3), along with doctors, lawyers, and businessmen; his picture appears next to those of the fencing master and ball-game master. Thus Weigel, an influential publisher, shows the French dancing master to be a respected professional with an important position in German culture by the late seventeenth century.
French Social Dancing
French social dancing was an important cultural event in Bach's Germany. Ceremonial balls and other French forms of social dancing were widely performed in German-speaking courts and cities, including those in Saxony. By the early eighteenth century the custom of formal balls in the French style was beginning to be enjoyed by middle-class persons as well as by aristocrats. Dancing masters in Leipzig, for example, held weekly balls at their studios to give students a chance to perform their choreographies, with the French rules of precedence and decorum strictly upheld. References to such dancing abound in memoirs, dance manuals, travelers' reports, and letters, but at this writing there is no systematic study of French social dancing in Germany during this period. Angelika Gerbes summarizes the ideas of the German dancing master Gottfried Taubert on formal balls:
Balls were gatherings expressly for the purpose of dancing.... [They] were given by high-ranking nobility at their courts, by ministers of state, by lesser nobility, and also by burghers. Since the bourgeoisie strove to imitate the court life, the balls were also imitated as much as possible. These balls could be held either in regular dress or in costume. The latter were considered to be more fun. He who gave the ball was designated King of the Ball, and the lady in whose honor the event took place was the Queen of the Ball. She was presented with a bouquet by the "King" and was the first to be asked to dance by him.
French Theatrical Dancing
The more affluent courts and cities had even more elaborate activities involving French dancers, including works for the theater, such as opera and ballet. Many courts were able to do this by the second half of the seventeenth century, and many more had incorporated such activities by the early 1700s. French ballets and operas require a large assemblage of people for their production, and an even larger audience with the refined taste to enjoy them and to make such an effort worthwhile. Yet many German courts invested in this recreation.
In Württemberg, which includes Stuttgart, Prince Eberhard-Ludwig had a "divertissement à la française" produced at court in 1684, a ballet-opera entitled Le Rendesvous des Plaisirs. It had many scene changes, with dancers chosen from among the ladies-in-waiting; the Prince (age nine) played the part of Eros.
In Celle there was French theater, music, and dance, especially after a peace treaty was signed by Duke Georg Wilhelm and the king of France in 1679. Duke Wilhelm put on festivals and diversions in the style of Versailles, including operas and ballets performed in a 500-seat theater. The court of Celle, along with the courts at Osnabrück and Hanover, supported a band of French violinists, which, when put together, totaled twenty-four, the number of string players chosen by the French Court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully for ballets and operas in Paris. The band played for four months of the year at each court, performing in theatrical works as well as for social dancing. This was first reported in 1669 by Samuel Chappuzeau, a Frenchman traveling in Germany. Ballet at the court of Hanover was highly praised even in Paris; the French journal Mercure galant of April 1681 reviewed the ballet Le Charme de l'Amour, which had been performed at the court of Hanover, and found it admirable because it "imitated so gallantly all the manners and customs of France."
In Kassel both Wilhelm VI (reigned 1649–63) and Wilhelm VII (reigned 1663–70) fostered a strong interest in French culture at their courts. Some of the music used for ballets and social dancing has been reprinted in a modern edition, Ecorcheville's well-known Vingt Suites d'Orchestre. Numerous courantes, sarabandes, gigues, galliardes, and branles are included, as well as a few minuets, passepieds, and a bourée, a repertoire dating from about 1650–68. Both Wilhelms maintained close contact with French culture. Members of their courts danced with great enthusiasm at home and abroad, visiting Paris and other courts often and in turn receiving visitors from all over Europe. In 1664 the Elector of Brandenburg was welcomed to Kassel by a mythological masquerade in which all the court took part. French ballet emerged even near courts under the influence of the Viennese, who officially espoused the Italian culture and opposed the French. In Vienna, ballet was performed at the home of the French ambassador. The music library in Kromèriz (now a part of Czechoslovakia) holds dances composed by Lully for Cavalli's opera Ercole Amante; but, interestingly, the music is entitled "Balletti francesi à 4 del S. Ebner." In other words, this music by Lully, written to accompany the French dances between the acts, is credited to the composer Wolfgang Ebner, the official Italian ballet composer at the court of Leopold I in Vienna.
Excerpted from Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach by Meredith Little, Natalie Jenne. Copyright © 2001 Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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