The Baroque dance suite originated from a set of dances popular during the late Renaissance, and was further developed during the early baroque period. When early Baroque French lutenists began to collect dance music to perform they organized them based on their common key relationships. Often these collections, or suites (in French), would be preceded by a Prelude that would introduce both the key and the music that would follow. It is important to note that even these early baroque dances were not intended to be danced to. However, they were often based (even if only loosely at times) on social popular dance forms. Thus, in this article we’ll look at both the social dance forms as well as the musical forms that arose from them.
How does all of this relate to the classical guitar? We classical guitarists play a lot of baroque dance music on the guitar. Certain sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, the cello, violin, lute, and keyboard suites by J.S. Bach, cello sonatas of Antonio Vivaldi, keyboard suites of G.F. Handel—all of these have been arranged for guitar and are quite popular. And most all of them were based on baroque dances. Having a better understanding of both the physical dance forms that gave rise to these pieces of music (even if they were never intended to be danced to) and the musical forms themselves can help us better understand how to perform them. So let’s dive in.
The Baroque Dance Suite
By the time of the later Baroque (J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Georg Friedrich Handel) the ordering of the dance suite had become somewhat fixed—though there are always exceptions to this. A common order for the dance suite was the following:
Between the Sarabande and Gigue, composers and performers would add other dances, which came to be known as the “galanterie,” due to their free and light-hearted character. Many of these dances were still being danced at social dances and so the music retained the essential forms of the dances. The galanterie included the Gavotte, the Bourrée, and especially the Minuet. Likewise, by this time some of the much older dances, especially the Allemande, Sarabande, and Gigue, were no longer danced at social dances. For this reason these were the most musically stylized pieces in the suite and at times highly abstracted from their original dance forms.
Early baroque French lutenists and harpsichordists were the primary architects of the prelude. It was not technically a part of the suite, but was instead an introductory opening to the suite, giving the performer (especially the lutenist) the opportunity to tune their instrument to the key the rest of the suite would be played in as well as to introduce some of the ideas the dance pieces would develop. As such, the prelude was a much more improvisatory piece of music, unlike the highly structured and often symmetrical dance pieces that would follow. French composer Louis Couperin (uncle of François) even wrote a series of preludes that were “unmeasured” (lacking any measures/bars) to indicate their highly improvisatory nature.
The Baroque Dances
The Allemande (French for “German”) developed out of the earlier Renaissance dance bearing the same name (variants include: Alman, Almaine, and so forth). Here are some common characteristics of the baroque Allemande:
- The Allemande was a German dance in 4/4 meter;
- While some consider it “moderate” in tempo, its tempo actually varied to a great degree because of its highly stylized musical form, and because it was no longer tied to a physical/social dance form;
- The Allemande is most often in binary form—containing two equal sections, each of which repeat;
- Allemandes almost always begin with a short anacrusis, or pickup;
- Each section of an allemande often concludes with a coda: a short tagline after the final cadence.
The Courante (meaning “running”) was originally either a French or an Italian dance (taking the name “corrente” in Italian).
- The Courante was in 3/2 meter;
- The Italian variant, “Corrente,” was usually a very fast dance, while the French “Courante” was more moderate in tempo;
- It was also in binary form;
- It relied heavily on dotted rhythms;
- Courantes also usually began with an anacrusis, or pickup.
Initially it is thought that the Sarabande was a fast dance from Spain that has been described as being “salacious.” However, during the course of the Renaissance it developed into a stately processional dance, taking on a more serious, somber tone.
- By the time of the baroque period, the sarabande was almost always a very slow dance;
- It was usually in 3/4 or 3/2 meter;
- The Sarabande was also in binary form, with a usually longer second section;
- Sarabandes do not usually have an anacrusis;
- The Sarabande has a slight stress on the second beat.
The Gigue developed out of the earlier Renaissance dance in Britain called the “jig.” Like the Allemande, this was a highly stylized musical form abstracted from the actual dance form and so it took on many variations. By the time of the late Baroque era the Gigue (or Giga in Italian) was often a very quick and exciting dance that served as a “conclusion” to the suite.
- The Gigue was often in a triple meter and frequently in compound triple meter (like 6/8 or 12/8);
- The Gigue was usually a quick dance in tempo;
- Often gigues featured counterpoint, with the development of multiple independent voices (while the Italian Giga was usually a bit more straightforward with simpler voicing);
- Gigues are almost always in binary form, usually with more equal length of the two sections;
- A common rhythm of the gigue is “long-short-long-short-long” in different variations.
Between the Sarabande and the Gigue earlier French baroque lutenists would also insert other more free and light-hearted dance pieces. These included the following:
- Chaconne and Passacaglia
We’ll look at just a few of these below.
The Minuet (or menuet in French) is a French dance in origin and likely derives its name from the dance form itself: pas menus, meaning small steps (especially on the downbeat). Here are some further characteristics of this most popular baroque dance:
- The Minuet was in a triple meter, usually 3/4;
- Minuets were binary in form and often coupled with a second minuet (later the second minuet would become the trio, leading to the ternary form: minuet-trio-minuet). When combined, the two minuets would be played in a ternary form: A (Minuet I) – B (Minuet II) – A (Minuet I), with each of the three still maintaining a binary form with two sections that repeated. Thus the final form was: A1-A1-A2-A2-B1-B1-B2-B2-A1-A1-A2-A2. Later in the nineteenth century performers would remove the repeats from the first minuet the second time through.
- Like most other dances in the galanterie (and unlike the more serious, highly developed musical forms of the Allemande, Sarabande, and Gigue), phrases were symmetrical (often eight measures in length) and equal.
- Tempos vary; the more Italianate form of the Minuet (often featured in the keyboard suites of Handel) were much faster than the German and French counterparts.
The Bourrée was a lively French dance, very similar to the Gavotte—so you’ll notice some overlapping characteristics.
- The Bourrée was in common cut or 2/2 meter;
- Bourrées begin with an anacrusis or pickup, usually of a quarter note in length—though sometimes it could be an eighth- or even a sixteenth-note pickup;
- The Bourrée, like most of the popular galanterie dances, was in simple binary form with equal, symmetrical phrases;
- The dance featured a sequence of rapid steps that were known as the “pas de bourrée“;
- The rhythm is “dactylic,” in that it features one long note followed by two shorter notes.
The Gavotte was a French dance that was still being danced all the way through the 18th century and so even a late baroque composer like J.S. Bach most likely would have been familiar with the dance form. The Gavotte has the following characteristics:
- Typically the Gavotte was in the quick, common cut or 2/2 meter, which would sometimes be rendered simply “2.” Occasionally it could also be found in common or 4/4 time;
- The Gavotte characteristically began with a half-measure (usually two full beats) anacrusis, and thus there was a distinctive stress on beat 3. This also meant phrases would end in the middle of the measure;
- Gavottes usually were in simple binary form;
- The Gavotte, like the Minuet and Bourrée, often came in pairs, and the second gavotte was frequently a “musette.” The musette featured a drone note below a florid, ornamented upper line, mimicking the French bagpipe, the musette de cour that farmers would dance to in the fields on breaks. The two gavottes together, again like the Minuets and Bourrées, would then take a more ternary (A-B-A) form.
Chaconne and Passacaglia
Both the Chaconne and Passacaglia are Spanish dances in origin and musically feature a ground bass and a series of variations. The two forms are intimately related and not easily distinguished.
- Much like the Sarabande, the Chaconne was initially thought to be a quick dance, but later developed into its slower form;
- “Passacaglia,” or “Pasacalle” in Spanish, means “walking down the street” and is thought initially to have been an interlude between other dances; in the early baroque the passacaglia developed into the slower ground bass with variations;
- The Chaconne and Passacaglia are both in triple meter, usually 3/4;
- Both often begin on the second beat of the measure
- The initial “ground bass” (simple slow bass line) is usually four measures in length for both;
- What follows after the initial ground bass / theme is a set of variations.
The Loure was a French dance named after a type of musette (a French bagpipe discussed above in the section on the Gavotte).
- Another common name for the loure was “gigue lente” (slow gigue) because it is very similar in form to the gigue, but much slower;
- Thus, the loure also features long-short rhythms (often dotted rhythms);
- Often the loure begins with an anacrusis, which then places the stress on beat 1;
- The Loure was a slow dance often in 6/4 meter;
- As a dance it had a lilting quality and was very light.
We hope this overview of Baroque dances and the Baroque dance suite has been informative! Connecting the music we play with other art forms, like dance, especially when that music has a deep and intimate relationship with dance, helps us better understand how to perform the music.
Click the link below if you would like a cheat sheet with notes on all of the dances we went over above!
Thank you, Simon, for covering this topic. Very informative, I learned a lot!
Glad you enjoyed it, Aiko! I actually wrote this one. :)
Dave B (CGC team)
Oh, Dave! Sorry and thank you for letting me know! As a matter of fact, after I sent my comment, I was thinking and actually realised it may have been your work. I especially appreciated the video of Louis Couperin’s unmeasured Prelude. So beautiful.
No need to apologize at all, Aiko! I didn’t list an author on this one.
L. Couperin’s unmeasured preludes are amazing. You might also want to check out the unmeasured preludes of Sylvius Leopold Weiss on lute—they are equally incredible!
Dave B (CGC team)