10 Types of Baroque Dances in Violin Music with Examples

by | Jan 19, 2024 | 0 comments

Discover how the allemande, minuet, gavotte and sarabande that you play in baroque partitas and suites were danced and how they differ:

In the Baroque era, music was inseparably linked to dance.

Many musical forms that now stand on their own such as minuets, allemandes, and gavottes originally developed alongside dance forms.

Most violinists have played these forms ever since they first started, but are you able to tell the difference between them? Moreover, how much do you know about the dance forms themselves? Why are loures slower than gigues? How can you tell the difference between chaconnes and passacaglias? In this article we’ll discuss how you can understand these questions and appreciate the history behind your baroque repertoire.

#1 Allemande

Let’s start with the dignified allemande, one of the most popular baroque dances. The French are responsible for its courtly development, but they derived it from a 16th century German dance. (“Allemande” is simply the French word for Germany.) It is a stately couple dance in 4/4 time. As you will hear in the attached Bach example, an allemande is almost entirely sixteenth note patterns throughout. There is one specific thing that makes it easy to tell whether a piece is an allemande. It will always have a pickup at the beginning, either an eighth note or three sixteenth notes. Can you hear the pickup in Bach’s allemande below?

If you listen to a lot of Mozart and Beethoven, you may have heard allemandes in ¾ time and been confused. This is a completely different musical form that started around that time. Traditional baroque dance allemandes were always in 4/4

#2 Minuet

“Minuet” comes from the French word for “small”. Minuet movements have a very specific form. They are always in ¾ or sometimes ⅜ time. Minuets have two main sections: the minuet and the trio. The trio is actually a second minuet inside the first one, because traditionally they would alternate between two minuets. The pattern for performing minuet is always the same: the first half contains two phrases that are both repeated. Then you play the trio, which has another two phrases, each repeated. Then you go back to the top and play the first half again but without repeats. It’s hard to explain in writing, so see if you can hear what I mean in the famous minuet below.

#3 Gavotte

Faster and livelier than the allemande, the gavotte was popular in 17th century France and England. Like many baroque dances, it was adopted from a peasant dance and changed slightly for the sake of elegance. For example, the peasant dance would end with couples giving each other a kiss, but that was later changed into exchanging flowers. Gavottes involve more skipping, bouncy steps, and are danced in a round or in fours instead of with just one couple.

#4 Sarabande

The Sarabande has a fascinating history. It originated in 16th century Spain as a lively dance with castanets. However, it was not considered a civilized dance and was actively repressed. It later spread through Italy to France where once again they turned it into a slow, elegant dance. It remained popular in France and is often included in Baroque dance suites. One of the musical traits of the sarabande is that the emphasis is on the second beat.

#5 Gigue

This is one of the fastest, most upbeat dance types. There are different forms of this dance, as Italian gigues are faster than French ones. The word “jig” derives from this form, although like all baroque dances it is elegant and complex. Gigues are always in a compound meter such as 12/8 or 6/8. When performed without dancers, musicians will often play gigues much faster than they could be danced. Check out Hilary Hahn playing Bach below, then compared to the dance example.

#6 Courante

Courantes often follow allemandes in a Baroque suite. This dance in particular has several steps that you may recognize from classical ballet. “Courante” literally means “running”. The renaissance form of this dance was very fast with small, jumping steps, but in the French baroque court it was the slowest dance of them all. The Italian form of this dance is much faster. Bach wrote pieces in both forms and used the words “courante” and “corrente” in the music to differentiate between the two and mark the tempo. This distinction has largely been lost in translation over the years; the second movement of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor was originally marked by Bach as “corrente”, but most violinists now call it a courante.

#7 Rigaudon

This lively, duple meter dance also originated in France. It is quick with many small, hopping steps. It was popular in both France and England, but the minuet replaced it by the end of the 18th century. The dancing video below gives a good idea of the original steps. Kreisler’s Sicilienne and Rigaudon is a flashy showpiece that is based on the rigaudon form but is not at all meant to be danced to.

#8 Loure

This dance gets its name from a type of bagpipe native to Normandy. Despite this apparent connection to the French countryside, composers often marked loures as Spanish dances, and Johann Mattheson, a 17th century German musician and music theorist, stated that the Spaniards loved the loure. Thus, it is difficult to pin down the dance’s origin for certain. The loure is a member of the gigue family, but in a moderate tempo. Loures may be in either 3/4 or 6/4 time and utilize hemiolas. (A hemiola is a rhythmic device where you can shift the metric pulse by changing where the downbeats are felt. For example, a normal 6/4 measure would have two groups of three-quarter notes, but a hemiola would have three groups of two quarter notes.) The loure had two forms at the French court: a stately symmetrical couple dance, or a more difficult version performed solo.

#9 Chaconne

A chaconne consists of several variations on a short, repeated bassline in ¾ time. The bassline usually descends from the tonic to the dominant of the scale. (For example, if you are in d minor the bassline could go D, C#, Bb, A.) The chaconne has an interesting history, and unlike some of the forms listed here it changed dramatically over the years. The most famous chaconne for violin is the fifth movement of J.S. Bach’s Partita in D Minor. You have most likely heard this piece: it is solemn, elaborate, and heartbreaking. This is vastly different from the chaconne’s origin. It started as a lively, mischievous dance in 16th-century dance. The song often had jolly, sometimes irreverent lyrics. The dance was disparaged by Spain’s moral authorities. In the 17th-century it came to France, where they made it appropriate for courtly consumption. Rameau and Lully frequently used it in stage dances. Our dance example comes from the final act of Rameau’s opera Les Indes Galantes, hence the unusual costumes.

#10 Passacaglia

On first listen passacaglias sound very similar to chaconnes because they are both comprised of variations over a repeating bassline. So, what are the differences? Like the chaconne, passacaglias or “street songs” also originate from Spain. Tradition says that guitarists would go from house to house improvising over short chordal patterns. Chaconnes, especially those used for dancing, can be in the major mode, but passacaglias, being more somber and introspective, are usually in minor keys. The repeating pattern in passacaglias can appear in any voice; for chaconnes, it can only be in the bass. My favorite passacaglia is the final movement of Franz Ignaz Biber’s Rosary Sonatas. It is not only a beautiful example of this form, but it is also one of the earliest known compositions for solo violin.

The Baroque era provided us with a cultural richness that is still echoing through the artistry of today. Do you have a favorite baroque dance or musical form? This is not an exhaustive list; what other forms are you interested in? Leave any questions and thoughts in the comments!

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