Music and dance
From the very beginning of the project, I had the intuition there might be a direct connection between certain dance steps and musical gestures in the Bach cello suites, which gave me the idea of making a sort of ‘table of concordances’ to represent this connection.4 As I was learning the dance steps and arm gestures, I tried to relate them to specific phrase segments, or small musical formulae, in the suites. Of course, there can never be a one-to-one correspondence between these elements, since there are always multiple possibilities for attaching a dance step to a particular musical fragment; in the end, I found it more fruitful to use the elements from la belle danse more freely as physical metaphors for musical gestures and phrases.5 Nevertheless, when demonstrated or experienced, certain dance steps and arm gestures provide striking examples that stimulate new insights and new ideas for performing certain rhythms or elements in the Bach suites, and I used these ideas in the fifth part of the ‘exploration’ section of the dance performance. They also provided me with a vocabulary of steps when creating a choreography for the Sarabande of the Second Suite.6
Dance tempos and how to play Bach
Whenever the relationship between music and dance is discussed, the question of tempo inevitably comes up; indeed, for most musicians, this seems to be the only useful piece of information that can be gained by consulting specialists in historical dance (Little and Jenne 1991: 19).7 Though I believe character is more important than tempo, it is evident that speed does have important consequences for interpretation, and I spent quite some time in my project dealing with this question. In the remainder of this chapter, I will show how I related to the evidence from historical sources. These include tempo indications such as pendulum markings (L’Affilard, Loulié, La Chapelle, and Pajot d’Onzembray),8 and the heartbeat-related indications of Quantz (1752: 265, 274–75), as well as descriptions in different textual sources.
It is often asserted that historical dance tempos are too fast to do justice to Bach’s music (e.g., Gelking 2010) and that the musical content would suffer if performed at such tempos. In support of this argument, some contemporary sources seem to advocate slower tempos when performing dance music away from the dance floor.9 Nevertheless, these texts are often cited out of context and a closer look at three of the most frequently quoted sources actually yields a more nuanced picture.
‘An allemande for playing and one for dancing are as far removed as heaven and earth’
In his Beschützte Orchestre from 1717, Johann Mattheson describes a species of the ‘Chamber Style’, which he calls the Symphoniacus Stylus. It consists of all kinds of dances, or suites for keyboard, lute, viola da gamba, violin, and so forth. This type of music, when played alone, belongs to the Stylus Phantasticus (‘Sind sie schwach und bestehend in Solis, so gehören sie ad Stylum Phantasticum’), along with everything that is improvised (‘ex tempore gespielet wird’). He continues:
The above-mentioned dance types, which belong to the symphonic style, are elaborated with great art, and may not actually be used for dancing. They only have somehow the tempo of the above-mentioned dances, but are much nobler dances. An allemande for playing and one for dancing are as far removed as heaven and earth, and so on, the sarabandes somewhat excepted. (Mattheson 1717: 137–38, my translation)10
Mattheson obviously feels that the principal difference between danced and non-danced music lies in the character and complexity of the pieces themselves, rather than in the tempo of the performance.11
‘one must give the tempo a bit slower because of the sanctity of the place.’
The second quotation comes from the 1er Livre d’Orgues published in 1688 by André Raison:12
One must observe the sign of the piece that one plays and consider whether it has a relation to a Sarabande, Gigue, Gavotte, Bourrée, Canarie, Passacaille or Chaconne, mouvement de Forgeron, etc. and play it the same way as you would on the harpsichord, only one must give the tempo a bit slower because of the sanctity of the place. (Raison  1899: 7, my translation)13
Raison here speaks about adapting tempo to circumstance, the solemn setting of a church service demanding slower tempos (he may also be taking resonant church acoustics into consideration). Nervertheless, he does not expressly state that we should modify tempo when playing dances on the harpsichord.
‘there are some minuets for the harpsichord that are ordinarily not played as fast.’
The only source I have encountered that clearly speaks of an instrumental dance being performed slower than the dance tempo is Michel de Saint Lambert’s 1702 Principes de clavecin. In explaining the 3/8 time signature, Saint Lambert (1702: 46–47) writes:
About pieces marked by the sign three for eight … it is the custom to beat this measure only in one, so to speak. … This is how one still beats the dance minuets, even if the measure be three crochets, because one plays them very briskly. I say dance minuets; for there are some minuets for the harpsichord that are ordinarily not played as fast. (My translation)14
This last quotation thus only mentions the minuet (and only some minuets at that); it would be difficult to argue that it is valid for all the other dances.
Thus we see that not even these three oft-cited sources unequivocally indicate that all dances should be slowed down when played outside the context of dancing. We are definitely far from the systematically slower tempos that permeate today’s performance tradition.
This was a good occasion to challenge the ‘Bach tempo consensus’; thus, I decided to try rigorously applying historical dance tempos to selected movements from the cello suites. Since most of these tempos are radically faster than the cellist’s traditional tempos, this required a fair amount of practice; but it was definitely worth the trouble. Table 3 shows each movement, the tempos I used as goals, and my notes. I deliberately chose to test only dances for which historical dance tempos exist.15
As we see, I managed to make five-and-a-half out of nine movements work in historically documented dance tempos. In addition, we can safely disregard the source for the allemande, as the tempo from La Chapelle seems to concern a different type of movement.
A special case: the sarabande
In the course of the project period, I observed that, even in quite complicated movements like the sarabande, my perception of ‘the right tempo’ started converging with the historical dance tempos. For the sarabande (excluding the sarabande vive, or fast sarabande), the historical sources indicate a tempo of MM 68–86, whereas both ‘normal’ and historically informed performances of the Bach sarabandes tend to be slower: roughly MM 32–50. My own interpretations, before starting dance practice, were situated close to this range: I used to play the Sarabande of the First Suite at MM 52. After a year of dancing, I made a list of tempo ranges that seemed possible for each of the sarabandes, marking down 50–72 for this particular one (see table 4). One year later, finally able actually to dance a few sarabande choreographies (Sarabande pour une femme, La Bourgogne), I made a new test, this time noting only the tempo that spontaneously felt natural. For the first sarabande, this now turned out to be 72, with no technical discomfort. It is remarkable that the sarabandes now felt natural to perform at a tempo that seemed the fastest possible the year before. When I recorded the suites a year later I had finished the ‘speeding-up process’; I could back down a little without feeling I lost the dance character.
It is often stated that accompanying dancers limits the liberty of the musician, especially where tempo is concerned; I remember vividly the first time I played with dancers, the choreographer repeatedly having to shout, ‘Don’t slow down at the repeats!’ There does exist a margin for tempo variations in dance music, though, and I have found that whenever musicians and dancers mutually ‘listen’ to each other, this margin can be quite large. From the musician‘s side the tempo rubato needs to be introduced in a way compatible with the dancer’s movements on the floor: if the dance in question includes leaps, skips, or suspensions, there will be a ‘gravitational limit’ to the tempo; however, if the steps are marched, the dancer has more liberty to respond to the musician’s tempo nuances. Ideally this interplay goes both ways: the musician should also be attentive to variations in the character of the dance and echo changes in velocity and energy by giving way, or hasten the pace of the music. If there is a mutual ‘physical understanding’ between the musician and the dancer, even ritardandos before repeats can be introduced with success. To illustrate this, table 5 indicates the tempo ranges observed in the final dance performance of this project.