Dance Music for Listeners

Most dance music for lute or keyboard was stylized, probably intended not for dancing but for the entertainment of the player or a small audience.

—Barbara Russo Hanning

Although lutes were frequently used for accompanying dance during both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a solo practice came into being as well. Certain regular groupings of allemande-courante-sarabande can be found in French lute music from around 1630. A few years later, both French and German keyboard composers similarly started to group their stylized dance-based pieces into suites, adding a sometimes florid prelude as introduction and a gigue as a conclusion. Most of the dance-based pieces had traditional binary forms—that is, two separate sections, each of which would be repeated.  As the music historian Barbara Russo Hanning points out:

Although none of the movements [musical sections of the suites] would have  been used for dancing, the steps and associations of the dances were known  to the listeners and influenced the rhythm and style of the music.

Usually the various movements of a keyboard suite would be written in the same key. Sometimes they would share a little thematic material. Later on, keyboard suites tended to be made up of individual, unrelated movements. A common order for English suites came to be pavane-courante-sarabande-gigue, with a choice of these forms inserted before the final gigue: bourrée, gavotte, menuet, or passepied. By the time of Bach, Baroque suites often consisted of prelude-allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue, with again a varying choice before the gigue. Handel liked to start with an extended allemande, followed by a courante then sarabande then something else before a final gigue.

In the prior time of Lully at the French court, it had become popular for the composer to collect some excerpts from his theatrical works—including the ballets—and perform them purely as orchestral works for people to listen to in social settings. After the Baroque era suites went out of style for awhile. But modern audiences are familiar with suites extracted from certain ballets: for instance, Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Nutcracker Suite or Stravinsky’s suite from Firebird. No dancers in sight; just orchestral musicians playing for audiences sitting in seats and enjoying listening—or maybe wishing for dancers to show up!

Dancers did show up when 20th-century American choreographers Agnes de Mille, and Richard Tanner separately chose to use music from the Renaissance and early Baroque lute suites as orchestrated by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). The composer called them Ancient Airs and Dances, and they are lovely settings that employ varied timbres available in the modern orchestra. These individual pieces are by various composers (including one by Vincenzo Galilei, the composer/father of the astronomer Galileo) and so the “suites” were Respighi’s creation. They include: gagliarda, villanella, saltarello, rustic dances, passacaglia and bergamasca.

Apparently the first balletic setting of Respighi’s suites was arranged a year after his death, by his wife Elsa Respighi (1894-1996). A singer and a composer in her own right, she also wrote her memoirs, and perhaps researchers in Italy will someday be able to tell us a little more about those dance settings that she created.

Meanwhile, we do have definite information about the two American ballets. Agnes de Mille called her 1941 story ballet Three Virgins and a Devil. Writing about a 1983 revival of this, New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff called it “one of the most hilarious ballets in the international repertory.” The original American Ballet Theatre cast included Agnes de Mille herself as a priggish virgin; Lucia Chase as a greedy virgin; Annabelle Lyon as a lustful virgin; Eugene Loring as the devil; and young Jerome Robbins as a youth. The devilish plot will not be given away here, but it can be read in Balanchine’s book of stories.

In 1992, Richard Tanner just kept the name of the music as the title for his non-narrative choreography. Commenting on this setting of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times pointed out that:

Like the composer, Tanner comments on Renaissance and Baroque dance forms from a 20th century perspective. And yet the choreography is not a gloss on pre-classical dances but a neo-classical work that freshly restates the roots of theatrical dance through patterns that refer to rituals, chain formations and figure dances.

notes and explorations:

The two quotations from Barbara Russo Hanning, Concise History of Western Music, 5th edition, pp. 224, 225.

Respighi suites: Ancient Airs and Dances, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Rico Saccani, on Naxos CD, 1995. This is an online audio performance of the same CD, just Suite I.

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Neville Marriner, on EMI, 1976. is online mounting of just Suite I from the CD. Suite II. This is Suite III. Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa plays the first suite. Slower opening tempo! This is the second suite.  Their recording of the third suite. A tantalizingly brief excerpt from Three Virgins and a Devil. The voice-over comments are by the choreographer herself.  Review by Jerry Hochman in of 2015 revival by New York Theatre Ballet, performed at Pace University.  Anna Kisselgoff writing in The New York Times called Richard Tanner’s choreographic setting of the Respighi suite his “finest ballet.”  Offers brief notated themes for all the movements from the three suites, plus audio files to hear.

Variations for English Virginals

Beginning in Elizabethan times in England, virtuoso musicians who played keyboard instruments named virginals delighted in making florid solos based on dance types, but not intended for real dancing. Just for their fingers! (Virginals were small harpsichords that had just one keyboard and one set of strings that ran at right angles to the keyboard, with pluckers made of quills.)

The sizable repertoire of virginal pieces includes many that grew out of the custom that dance musicians had to practice, of making up variation after variation so that they would not have to keep repeating the same music over and over again while people on the dance floor were finishing their movement patterns. Mostly, with a few exceptions, practical music created for dancers was not written down, and in the early days of printing, even what was duplicated sometimes had the composer indicated as Anonymous.

What happened with musicians who had more composing-oriented careers is that they did write down variations based on popular known dance tunes as well as on melodies of their own creation. Initially there were many pairings, especially of pavanes and galliards.

The pavane was a slow dignified couple dance of Spanish origin, with  processional qualities for dancers to present themselves before hosting nobles. The derivation of the name is actually thought to be from the word for “peacock,” suggesting showing oneself off! In contrast, the livelier galliard included strong kicks, hops, and little jumps. Often the galliard used the melodic material of the preceding pavane, but transformed from duple time into a triple meter.

Later on these and other dance types were elaborated on by composers for keyboards—and then grouped into suites to be published and sold to other professionals and to amateur keyboard players. This was music intended just for listeners’ enjoyment. But the basic ingredients of style, meter, and distinct rhythms continued to be recognizable for the various kinds of dances.

One of the first collections of virtuoso English keyboard music that has survived is My Lady Nevell’s Booke of Virginal Music, dating to 1591, devoted entirely to the compositions of William Byrd (1542-1623). Music printing had been a little slower coming to England than on the continent, and for whatever reason, the composer did not publish this particular grouping of pieces, which had been assembled as a personal family manuscript collection. Among the exuberant examples of his variations is “Have With Yow to Walsingame” with 22 sections based on the same theme! The composer Byrd, like many others of his time, set popular melodies, such as “Sellinger’s Rownde,” which also went by the name “The Beginning of the World.” Witness to the fact that this tune itself was used by generations of dancers was its inclusion in John Playford’s editions of The English Dancing Master, which he started publishing after 1650. Country dance groups of our own time continue to enjoy moving to this tune.

But also included in the 16th century collection are ten pairs of slow pavane and faster galliard, titled in this manner: “The Passinge Mesures: the Nynthe Pavian” followed by “The Galliarde to the Nynthe Pavian.” The pairing of these two dances was the most common among the Elizabethan keyboard pieces, but individual “almains’ and “correntos” also appeared, as well as “gigges” and “daunces,” not yet grouped into extended suites.

An indication of the esteem in which Byrd was held is the fact that even though he was Catholic, in 1569 he was given the very British title of “Gentleman of the Royal Chapel,” and composed sacred works for both Catholic and Protestant use. Commenting on the impetus of Byrd’s secular keyboard works, however, the late harpsichordist Blanche Winogron wrote:

The radical advance effected in virginal music by the fusion of the old style with the new can be observed at its highest point in the many examples of court-dance and variation-form, brought at the outset by Byrd to a pitch of excellence that was never surpassed, the latter in its many aspects perhaps the most significant of the virginalistic forms that then attained instant popularity.

The same harpsichordist also touched upon the general tone and sounds possible on the older instruments:

It must be remembered that the character of the virginal was totally different from the modern pianoforte. The sixteenth-century virginal was a much smaller and slighter instrument than the harpsichord, which developed later from it: the tone—obtained by the plucked string, distinct from the struck string of the early clavichord and the modern pianoforte—was clear, slight, and sweet. Sustained tone and legato as we know it on the modern pianoforte was impossible. On the other hand, rapid passages and florid ornaments, shakes and trills were all brilliant and effective in a characteristic way that we cannot imitate on the piano.

The fact that there are 72 keyboard pieces of William Byrd’s in the unique collection of 300 in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book attests to the popularity of this composer in his own time. The manuscript probably dates to the early 17th century. The introduction in the modern publication is worth reading, including one theory about a certain Francis Tregian and his family. He was imprisoned for 24 years (apparently related to the fact that he was Catholic), and his son by the same name, 11 years. Some think that perhaps the younger man copied these more than 900 pages of music while in prison (since perhaps there were periods when he was outside and able to collect music). Other historians totally discount this account. However, it is known that by 1783 the collection was owned by Lord Fitzwilliam, after whom the publication was named when it was finally set in modern notation and printed for sale in 1899. Again, the introduction is worth reading if you are going to attempt to play these pieces, because there are many questions about how to execute the ornaments.

Another questionable story about the collection is that it was for a time with Queen Elizabeth, and that she played some of the music. But one memoir-writer remarked that: “if Her Majesty was ever able to execute any of the pieces that are presented in the MS…she must have been a very great player, as some of the pieces are so difficult that it would be hardly possible to find a master in Europe who would undertake to play one of them at the end of a month’s practice.” Pianists of today would probably agree—and dancers of both those days and these days would probably agree that the pieces in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book were too complicated for general dance use.

There are individual pieces of variation, including 30 variations by another outstanding composer, John Bull (1562-1628) on “Walshingham.” Another of the best-known tunes was The Spanish Pavan. Also in the Fitzwilliam collection is John Bull’s set of eight variations on that melody, typically beginning in the stately duple meter of the court dance style, progressively adding countermelodies moving in faster subdivisions, interspersing a triple meter (in the  modern edition indicated as 12/4) and climaxing in a grand chorale-like version.

So this combination of dance-based forms with variation techniques provided a rich performing repertoire for late Renaissance solo keyboard players.

In the subsequent Baroque era, composers for keyboards (by then mainly larger harpsichords or early pianos) greatly expanded the practice of using dance-based forms for their original concert pieces. Additionally, they wrote extended suites for other instruments—especially violin and cello. Again: music to challenge the performers and provide listening enjoyment for others. Nevertheless, centuries later, some choreographers used such Baroque suites effectively to partner theatrical ballets in various modern styles.

notes and explorations:

published music:

My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music by William Byrd, edited by Hilda Andrews. (New York: Dover Publications 1969 republication of the work originally published in London in 1926.) The manuscript itself dates to 1591. Set in modern notation, with an introduction by Blanche Winogron (1911-2002) plus information and advice about all the ornaments. Unfortunately, Winogron’s own recordings seem to be available only vinyl. The quotations from her historical notes are from pp. xxv and xxxiii.

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, edited by J.A. Fuller Maitland and W. Barclay Squire, two volumes. (New York: Dover Publications, 1963 republication of work originally published in 1899 by Bretikopf and Hartel.) The quotation about Queen Elizabeth is from p. v.

In their book Instrumentalists and Renaissance Culture 1420-1600 the authors Victor Copelho and Keith Polk don’t answer the question about the true source of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, but they do give reasons for raising questions, including the copyists’ writing and the kind of paper. (Cambridge University Press, paperback ed. 2018. p. 123.)

“Sellinger’s Round, or The Beginning of the World” is presented as melody with suggestions for harmony, plus directions for the dance, as well as a reproduction from a 1656 broadside for this “round for as many as will.” p. 96 , The Playford Ball (Pennington NJ: Princeton Periodicals, Society of Dance History Scholars, 1990). The music in the book is presented in modern notation as edited by Cecil Sharpe and others.


Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, performed by Pieter-Jan Belden, 6 separate CDs on the Brilliant Classics label. Some of the tracks can be purchased online.

Volume 2 (on the Brilliant Classics label) is a 2-disc set consisting entirely of music composed by William Byrd. The virginal played for CD #2 is a 6-foot restored spinet dating originally to 1604! The sounds and the performances are quite lovely.

Pavana: The Virgin Harpsichord is a CD on Astrée label with Elizabethan music played on virginal, clavecin, and harpsichord by Skip Sempé; some pieces on clavecin and harpsichord performed by Olivier Fortin and Pierre Hantai. Composers include Byrd, Richardson, Bull, Gibbons, Dowland, Tomkins, Philips, Morley. Tuning was done in quarter-comma meantone temperament. Instruments used were built in the 20th century.


Pieter-Jan Belden mounted his entire volume 4 album. The sound of the instrument is really quite beautiful and gentle. Pieces by Giles Farnaby and John Bull. Playlist and timing included.  Performance of Byrd’s Grownde, played on an original 1604 Ruckers virginal by Aleksander Mocek.  Rare opportunity to hear the sound of this instrument. Especially interesting to hear the clarity of the florid passages near the end.

further information:

Pamela Palmer Jones mounted her entire doctoral thesis about the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, written at the University of Utah in 2009. She particularly questioned the 1899 choices of the publishers in regard to ornamentation and some other things.

The earliest piano is generally credited to Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1709. You can see one of his instruments today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (And the Museum’s bulletin of 1989 highlights their keyboard collection.)

Another book based on a museum exhibit (now alas taken down) is John R. Watson, Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America 1700-1830 (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2013). The author wrote from his perspective of curator and conservator of Colonial Williamsburg’s instruments displayed in the DeWitt Wallace Museum. He provides beautiful photographs and clear explanations of the differences between plucked instruments and those struck. A very fully-packed film in which John Watson talks about the Colonial Williamsburg collection, with images and explanations of the attributes of the different kinds of keyboard instruments.

about variation techniques:

Burkholder-Grout-Palisca history, p. 275 states that “the form known as variations or variation form is a sixteenth-century invention, used for independent instrumental pieces rather than as dance accompaniment.” Going on to describe some basic techniques, the authors observed:

Variations combine change with repetition, taking a given theme—an existing or newly composed tune, bass line, harmonic plan, melody with accompaniment, or other musical subject—and presenting an uninterrupted series of variants on that theme. The goal was to showcase the variety that could be achieved in embellishing a basic idea. Variations served both to entertain the listener or amateur performer with fresh and interesting ideas and to demonstrate the skill of the performer and composer.

some possible procedures:  Though there are more ways to change a melody or basic material used in musical variations, here for starters are a few:

add parallel instruments or tone color stops on a keyboard
double the melody
change the tempo
change the meter
switch octaves (higher or lower)
repeat a section
change articulations
change harmonic chords
change a few of the melodic pitches
present material in retrograde (backwards)
use a different rhythm
use different subdivisions of the basic beat
add or change accents
imitate with canon
switch mode (major to minor)
add or take away instruments or couplers on a keyboard
change the figurations
add a drone (sustained tone)
add embellishments (ornaments like trills)
add percussion
double or shorten time values (augmentation and diminution)
play theme in the bass line
add breaks or rests in the theme
add syncopation
change texture (homophonic to polyphonic or monophonic)

meaning of “variation” for ballet dancers:

It should also be noted as clarification, that much later, in classic ballet, the term “variation” came to be used simply to indicate the male and female solos in pas-de-deux sections. In the classical repertoire we know, the music for male and female solos is totally different, and so are the physical dance movements (with the ballerina often on pointe and the danseur showcasing his virtuoso leaps and turns). And unlike musical variations (which can go on for a very long time) in ballet, the respective male and female solos will not be very long, because they are usually quite demanding and virtuosic and often considered the highlights of an entire ballet.

If there is any suggestion of “variants” on brief movement motifs, these might sometimes be seen as developments of—for instance—certain bravura leaps and turns on the part of the male partner, or pointe work patterns by the ballerina. But unlike musical sets of variations, which are normally identical in the phrase structure of sections, this does not apply in terms of the dancers’ choreography. Their “variations” are free-flowing in relation to the length of any original movement motifs.

Renaissance and Baroque Ballroom Dances

Before considering the Baroque dance suites of Bach and Handel, it seems a good idea to briefly characterize the actual court and ballroom dances which were the inspiration for such stylized instrumental works. The common denominator for most is that they were binary in form (two separate sections, each repeated), and phrasing was generally in 4 or 8-bar groupings. The following five forms were expected in this order.

allemande:  moderate in tempo; flowing and contrapuntal in style, with non-stop sixteenth-note motion, in 4/4. As developed in suites (especially in Handel), phrasing was more apt to be irregular. Originally a graceful dance with partners holding both hands, the allemande came to be the expected first piece in Baroque suites.

courante: with a name derived from the word meaning “running,” this was a very lively dance in triple time in France from around 1533. Before that, known as the corrente, it originated in Italy. By the late 17th century, instrumental courantes became complicated, alternating suggestions of both triple and duple meters. In suites, courantes usually came second after allemandes.

sarabande: third in the usual order, this was a dance of Spanish origin that apparently was very sensual and accompanied by castanets. As a French court dance in triple time, it became solemn, and featured both beautiful melodies as well as the distinctive rhythm of quarter note-dotted quarter-eighth note. Both the music and the dance movements were slow and stately.

gigue: a lively folk dance born in Ireland and England, continuing popular with fiddle players and traditional dancers to this day. With melodies written in triplets, there were often imitative entries in other parts as accompaniment. As used more formally in European suites, the gigue was the expected final section.

As suites were expanded over time, it became the custom to insert some of the following forms before the final gigue movement.

bourrée: a lively and vigorous dance in duple meter, beginning with a quarter-note upbeat. Accompaniments to the melodies were more chordal rather than contrapuntal. Its origins seem to have been with peasant clog dances in wine-making regions of France, where the workers actually sang and danced in their wooden shoes or bare feet as they crushed the grapes!

gavotte: more moderate in tempo than the bourrée, this was also a duple dance, but with an upbeat of two quarter-notes. The name derived from what people from the French Alps region of Gap were called: gavots. Apparently one feature of the peasant dance patterns was the expectation of kissing at certain points!  A middle section called a musette was often inserted before a repeat of the first section. (Suggesting the drones of bagpipes.)

menuet (or minuet): the most popular of refined court dances, fashionable from the time of Louis XIV. Both the music and the dance were graceful, but while the music had three beats per measure, the dance step patterns were counted in six over two bars. A contrasting trio section was followed by a repeat of the first menuet’s two sections.

In America, the importance of menuets in 18th-century public life is demonstrated in the “Dance: Our Dearest Delight” programs at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. When performing before ruling officials, couples would begin an evening by formal bows followed by the dignified steps of a menuet as notably taught by the dance masters such as William Fearson. It was very important socially to make a good impression in this!

It should be mentioned that the popular form of the menuet, found so often in Baroque suites, went on to have an important presence in orchestral symphonies and instrumental sonatas of the Classical period when Mozart and Haydn were active. Menuets frequently appeared as the third movement, following an opening fast allegro and a slow movement, and followed by a concluding very fast presto. Later on, in 19th-century Romanic symphonies such as those by Felix Mendelssohn, the stately menuet was no longer in favor, displaced by the more light-hearted and faster scherzo (a purely instrumental genre).

passepied: a light, gentle dance in triple time. Sometimes suggesting a sweet pastoral feeling.

rigaudon: another light dance, with an upbeat of two eighth-notes, in duple time. The physical dance movements included running, hopping, and turning.

In Handel’s orchestral suites written to be played outside, there are several dance forms particularly associated with English music: hornpipe and country dance. The hornpipe came to be particularly known as a sailor’s dance that could be done by a single man performing fast footwork in a small space. In duple time, it got its name from  instruments made by sticking musical pipes into cow horns. Various country dances were collected by John Playford and published starting in 1650 in England—and they continue to be enjoyed by people who attend country song and dance society events in both the U.S. and Britain.

Among the extra forms found in Bach suites is the loure (in six-four time), slower and a bit heavier in feel than gigues; and forlane, a moderate 6/8 graceful dance with a dotted rhythm.

Finally, in both suites and dance sections of operas, surely the grandest forms were the chaconne and the passacaglia.Sometimes difficult to distinguish, both were structured as variations upon a repeating short bass line—but as time went by, in the chaconne, the common thread in the variations was often simply the harmony of the original statement. And in chaconnes, the original bass line might appear in any part.


notes and explorations:

Readers who are interested in further details might consult Louis Horst’s very readable book Pre-Classic Dance Forms (Princeton, NJ: Dance Horizons 1987 republication of the original 1937 edition published by The Dance Observer). A composer and teacher for the early generations of modern dancers in the U.S., Horst provided not only descriptions of the historical music and dance forms, but also indicated modern composers who were using the same forms that could inspire new choreography. The book is now also available as an ebook, and can be read online on a web browser.

Also a good reference is Norman Lloyd’s one-volume Golden Encyclopedia of Music. Since he also worked closely with modern professional and student dancers, his short entries on the various dance forms are particularly helpful.

Though contemporary choreographers are not apt to use the physical movements of historic court dances in tandem with the music of the past, yet there are other ways that the older music—Baroque suites in particular—can influence today’s musicians for dance. For example, the late composer-collaborator Norma Reynolds Dalby used to suggest that pianists study all the allemandes in Handel’s keyboard suites, internalize the kind of constant flow and qualities of the melodies in those pieces—and then try to improvise fresh music that would have similar kinetic qualities, but cast in the usual “square eights” required for pliés, the nearly universal first barre exercise in ballet and dance classes.

Bach’s Suites

Though there were a number of members of the Bach family who were well-known composers in their own time, when we use just the last name, it is understood we are talking about Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whose music was not widely known after his death, but who is now widely considered among the most outstanding European composers of art music who ever lived. He made his living in Germany by writing an incredible number of sacred works for church services, beginning in his youthful position as organist and concertmaster in Weimar. Indicative of how subservient life was for composers in Baroque times, it seems that Bach did not get along particularly well with the Duke of Weimar and at the age of 32 accepted a position with Prince Leopold in Cöthen. The Duke responded by throwing Bach into prison for a month as punishment for the composer not asking his employer’s permission to move on!

Though he had previously focused on religious works, the change of venue unleashed Bach’s creativity in writing secular music—including some enduring masterpieces of stylized instrumental suites based on ballroom dance forms, set for keyboards, solo violin, and solo cello, plus four exceptionally beautiful ones for orchestra. The noted music critic Eric Salzman called Bach “the last and greatest master of the Suite.” And though his suites were essentially stylized music for listening audiences, modern choreographers have found in Bach’s works a source for the musical component of their theatrical dances.

the orchestral suites:

Written when he was at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (from 1717-1723), Bach’s four orchestral suites are “easy listening.” Within each suite, all the movements are in the same key. All four begin with overtures in the French manner, opening with stately dotted rhythms, progressing to fugal sections, and returning to stately style at the end.  The dance-based forms are different for each. For Suite I, courante, gavotte, forlane, menuet, bourrée, and a final passepied. For Suite II, rondeau, sarabande, bourrée, polonaise, menuet, badinerie (which features a virtuoso part for flute). For Suite III, an air, gavotte, bourrée, and gigue. And finally, Suite IV, bourrée, gavotte, menuet—ending with a unique title, “Réjouissance.” The instrumentation is not standardized: Suite I calls for oboe and bassoon plus violins I and 2, viola, and basso continuo. Suite II is scored for transverse flute, violins, viola, and basso continuo. Suite III introduces three trumpets, timpani, two oboes and usual strings and continuo. Suite IV is similar, with an additional third oboe.

Bach suites for keyboard:

The keyboard suites were published with different titles: partitas; then French and English suites (with the national identifications not attributed to Bach himself).

Bach issued his six Partitas separately starting in 1726, and in 1731 they were all printed together, the very first music that he ever had published, at the age of 46. By then, he had long been a mature composer, and signed himself as director of choir music at the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, as well as Kapellmeister for the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weissenfels—positions he had held since 1723. The latter title apparently was largely honorary, but in addition to the reams of sacred vocal, organ, and orchestral music (over 300 cantatas in Leipzig alone) he somehow found time to compose music for students and amateurs.  In  the first published edition, he wrote (in German of course) that his preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes, gigues, menuets and “other galantries” were “created for the spiritual enjoyment of music lovers.” And indeed they have offered precisely that for over three centuries and counting.

All six partitas begin with a non-dance movement, respectively for each: a prelude; a sinfonia; a fantasia; an overture; another prelude; and a toccata. The second and third movements for all six partitas are allemandes and courantes. Next in four come sarabandes; the other two offer an aria and an air and then sarabandes. Next to last are either menuets or a rondeau, a passepied, a scherzo, or a gavotte. All but the second partita end with a gigue.

The so-named “French” and “English” Suites follow similar procedures. All six of the French Suites begin with allemandes, courantes, and sarabandes and then end with gigues. The fourth and fifth movements vary: two menuets; an air and menuet; two menuets and an anglaise; a gavotte, menuet, and air; gavotte, bourrée and loure; and for the last suite, polonaise, bourrée and menuet. The English suites all begin with preludes and follow a similar order. One has a passepied; others have bourrées or gavottes; and all end with gigues.

These are not like gigues that would be danced in a ballroom or other social gathering. One even has fugue-like procedure, actually two fugues since the second half is an inversion of the thematic subject! Many of the sarabandes are introspective, with intricate rhythms far removed from the dotted pattern of the original dance forms. Some of the menuets could conceivably accompany court-style dancing. We don’t know if they did in Bach’s own day.

the cello suites:

Professional hosts at New York’s radio station WQXR reported this ecstatic reaction to hearing cellist Carter Brey perform Bach’s Suite No. 6 for Cello: “He makes you see God and want to dance.” To hear and see this wonderful cellist playing the first two suites on his Baroque style instrument, see links in notes.

A contemporary choreographic setting of Bach’s third cello suite is titled Falling Down Stairs, which Mark Morris set for his dance company, working in tandem with the well-known cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the film-maker Barbara Willis Sweete. The result can be enjoyed on a DVD, which includes a documentary story of the collaboration and clips of the dancers learning their parts. (See notes). Except for the prelude, the sections are all older dance-based forms: allemande, courante, sarabande, bourée, and gigue.

Yo-Yo Ma (b. in Paris 1955 to Chinese parents) began playing the six Bach unaccompanied cello suites at the age of four. In addition to collaborating on the film with the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1995, he performed the other cello suites to make the DVD set Inspired by Bach. One of the six films documents his unusual collaboration with an outstanding Kabuki dancer; another, with ice dancers.

Jerome Robbins also choreographed A Suite of Dances for Mikhail Baryshnikov, to four movements from Bach’s cello suites.

the violin suites:

Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin were not published during his lifetime, when students and performers would have had manuscript copies. Nowadays, as with the cello sonatas, every serious student of the instruments approaches these works, and the Chaconne from the D minor partita has to be counted among the greatest masterpieces in all of classical music.

A dance unfortunately not available for viewing in full is Twyla Tharp’s setting of Bach’s Partita in D minor for Unaccompanied Violin, including the overwhelming chaconne. In reviewing the 1983 premiere by American Ballet Theatre with Dennis Cleveland as violin soloist, dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote:

Miss Tharp thinks amazingly big here in every sense of the word. For the first time, she has attempted a true neoclassical ballet whose movement is rooted in ballet’s academic code rather than her own modern-dance idiom with incorporation of ballet steps. “Bach Partita” then is Miss Tharp’s first real ballet, done totally straight.

Here, a solo instrument in the music contends and then finds a perfect meeting ground with a stage filled with dancers—in this case three pairs of principals, seven pairs of soloists and a female corps of 16….Repeatedly—and this is the brilliance of this extremely sophisticated work—Miss Tharp’s own formal patterns and structures find a dazzling parallel on stage.

the question of “period” instruments

Throughout some of these essays and notes, mention is made of groups that play on “period” instruments, or reproductions of older types. Some performers opt for using modern instruments and making adjustments according to what is possible now. Other people observe, for instance, that the sounds of clavichords and harpsichords were vastly different from modern concert grands, or that the Baroque bow for strings was much more flexible…and so on. It is interesting to listen to CDs of the same pieces played on historic instruments or reproductions and then on modern ones. A general quotation on the subject is worth considering, from the Burkholder-Grout-Palisca history:

For performers trained on modern instruments, learning about past practices can be like learning a new language. Perhaps the most important, studying past practices can open up new ways of thinking about and conceiving music in performance….Learning the variety of ways in which performers in earlier centuries departed from the written notes—embellishing melodies, filling in harmonies, adding ornamentation—can empower performers today to unleash their own creativity within the range of available options. From this perspective, knowing the history of performance is liberating, and just as applicable to performers on modern instruments and of any repertory.

And then, of course, there is the added question when choreographers and performers are trying to present an historical style of dance, of whether or not it is important or feasible or affordable to seek out musicians who can provide music on period instruments.

notes and explorations:


The comment about period instruments is from Burkholder, Grout & Palisca, p. 305.

To be more specific about Bach’s aristocratic patrons: in 1708 he was court musician for the Duke of Weimar; music director for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen in 1717. Then in 1723 he moved to Leipzig where he was civic music director in addition to doing much composing and organ-playing for four churches—for the rest of his life.

The translation of Bach’s inscription to his Partitas is from the writer Eric Salzman’s liner notes to the 1989 CD of all the Partitas performed by Joao Carlos Martins on the Tomato label; also the quotation about Bach being the last and greatest master of the Suite.

the orchestral suites online:

There are quite a few performances mounted on You Tube. Here are two for openers: An online offering of all 4 suites, on Brilliant Classics label: Virtuosi Saxoniae, conducted by Ludwing Guttler. This CD is not currently available, so good to access it online.

orchestral CDs:

Yehudi Menuhim as conductor with the Bath Festival Orchestra, just Suites 1, 3, and 4, on Seraphim label.

Trevor Pinnock, English Concert, 1996, available streaming, with samples and option of purchasing by track. Archiv label.

Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, on Philips label. Samples, and option of purchasing by track. Set also includes the Brandenburg Concertos.

online dance settings of a Partita: An hour-plus long 2014 documentary of choreographer Emery LeCrone’s two commissions to Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor. One based on classical ballet, the other contemporary. Interview conversation about the works and performances by dancers (in a workshop mode). Very interesting to see!

Keyboard CDs, Partitas:

The 2-disc set by the Brazilian pianist Joao Carlos Martins is highly recommended, on the Tomato label. The basic approach is a suggestion of more gentle instruments of yesteryear rather than the concert grands of today, and the style is very appealing. Martins set out to record all of Bach’s keyboard works.

Another fine recording, by American pianist David Korevaar, is on Musicians Showcase Recordings, 2-CD set, also available by track online.

A Video Artists International CD offers Rosalyn Tureck performance recorded at a private home. Listeners had different opinions, but she was one of the great interpreters of Bach. Partitas 1, 2, and 6 only.

To hear the Partitas played on harpsichord, there is Gustav Leonhardt, on Erato label. You can sample tracks and buy individually online, or whole CD.

Landowska’s comment:

The eminent harpsichordist Wanda Landowska made some Bach recordings dating from 1928 and the 1930s, compiled on an English Pearl disc to include the first partita and several English suites plus the last French suite. The liner notes tell the anecdote that while chiding another harpsichord player, Landowska said “There are many ways to play Bach. You play Bach your way, and I shall play him his way.” Her way included making use of coupling devices on instruments with two keyboards, so that she could add octave or stronger sounds. Also there are a few levers or stops to change the plucking/damping sounds. And finally, she opted artistically to change timbres not only from section to section, but also sometimes from phrase to phrase—a departure from other interpreters who liked to keep the same setting for a section.

The French Suites:

Bach French Suites, Andras Schiff on Decca, 1993. Can be sampled online & purchased by track.

Murrary Perahia is a favorite of many listeners for his Bach, on Deutsche Gramophone.

Bach’s English Suites:

Again, one might investigate recordings by the same names as above: Joao Carlos Martins, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

If listeners want a harpsichord sound, there is Peter Watchorn’s 2006 Omnia CD. Can sample online and order by track or entire CD.

the cello suites: Brief commentary by radio station WQXR about modern choreography to Bach. Carter Brey talks about the suites, bows, and instruments. Part 2.

An absolutely beautiful performance by Carter Brey playing the first two cello suites was mounted online by the New York Philharmonic;  may be available in their archives. Brey playing prelude from Suite #3, on his Baroque style cello. Sarabande. the courante. the allemande. With thanks to Jacob’s Pillow Interactive, here is a bit of Falling Down Stairs, with Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach cello suite for Mark Morris dancers.

Boxed set of 3 DVDs with Yo-Yo Ma performing all the Bach suites, with various collaborators including Mark Morris Dance Group and a master Kabuki dancer. On SONY Classical, “Inspired by Bach.” This is an excerpt, the Sarabande, of Falling Down Stairs.

The DVD of Falling Down Stairs can be purchased through Mark Morris website.

A modern suite for solo cello that was specifically written for Yo-Yo Ma and choreographed by Mark Morris is Rhymes with Silver by Lou [Silver] Harrison. It includes dance types of ductia, gigue, musette, Romantic waltz, fox trot, and round dance plus other movements. Recording available on New Albion Records. Marc Cassidy in the Jerome Robbins setting, Suite of Dances, with cellist Louise McKay. Another excerpt, performed by Manuel Legris of Paris Opera Ballet, with especially beautiful cellist (not identified).

Bach cello CDs:  These are notes from Oxingale Records about the younger cellist Matt Haimovitz (b. 1970 in Israel but raised in the U.S. from age 5), with mention of his 2000 “Bach Listening Room” tour, during which he played in unlikely venues with great acclaim. His recording of the six cello suites was issued in 2000, all recorded in one week. The cello he plays was made in 1710—time of Bach! (And the suites were thought to be composed between 1717 and 1723.)

On a remastered Warner CD, late master cellist Pablo Casals playing all six suites.

Mstislav Rostropovitch performing all six suites when he was in his 60s, available on Warner Classics DVD released in 2004.

Also suggested is cellist Janos Starker’s recording, released in 2-disc set in 2010 by SONY Classical. Tracks can be sampled online and purchased individually.

unaccompanied violin online: This is amazing 1955 recording by Henryk Szeryng of the Bach unaccompanied violin Sonatas and Partitas. Two hours! This is Szeryng playing just the famous chaconne. 13 minutes. If you want to follow the notated violin music while listening. Itzhak Perlman playing just the Chaconne—unfortunately split into two sections, but good to listen to.  Ballet Frankfurt in Part II of Artifact,  William Forsythe’s stunning ballet setting of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor for solo violin, played by Nathan Milstein.

CDs of Bach violin solos:

A 2-CD set of Itzhak Perlman playing all the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. Can be sampled online and individual tracks purchased. Warner Classics.

Nathan Milstein’s recordings are still spoken of with awe. Deutsche Grammophon released a 2-disc set of this violinist’s 1975 recordings of the Bach suites.  EMI released a disc of just the first three works, digitally remastered from the 1954-56 recordings.

Joseph Szigeti’s version can be heard on a 2-disc Vanguard release.

Tharp’s choreographic setting: Brian Seibert’s review in The New York Times of Twyla Tharp’s setting of the unaccompanied partita for solo violin, as performed by American Ballet Theatre. This is Anna Kisselgoff’s review of the 1983 premiere of Tharp’s setting.

opinions about Bach and dancing:

Unlike the moment-to-moment documentation of peoples’ lives today, Bach’s every action and thought were not written down during his lifetime. So we can only wonder about whether he danced himself; whether any of his composing was originally intended for dancing; and whether during his lifetime any dance masters or musicians used any of Bach’s wonderful suite movements for teaching or informal dancing. Such questions were posed to members of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance, who replied with some thoughts worth considering. Here are just a few of their responses:

Composer/pianist Alan Terriciano of the University of California wrote: “I don’t think Bach was composing for the social hall as much as exploring the spirit of the dance type.”

Studio pianist/teacher Douglas Corbin of Florida State University called to mind the book by Meredith Little and thought that she made “a credible case years ago that Bach was quite more in touch with French court dancing than we typically like to think; that he knew several French dance masters employed in Saxony.” [See Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne, Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach, (Indiana University Press, 2009).]

And Greg Presley, former pianist for Martha Graham and music director for dance at Florida State University; now teaching at Gonzaga University: “My own opinion is that Bach knew how to dance every dance that he wrote music for, or at least how to dance the basic steps of the dance—just as I feel certain that Chopin and Tchaikovsky knew how to waltz. The reason I believe this is that the rhythmic impulses in their dances and in fact the ‘choreography’ of the physical gestures involved in playing their dance music reflect a deep understanding of how the body moves and how much musical energy is needed to motivate movement….

“It makes me a little nervous (though it might in a strict sense be true) to hear people say  that Bach’s pieces were never intended to be danced to, because that greenlights a lot of performers to play them at any tempo they please, and with alterations of the articulation or even the basic pulse!

“Although it’s clear that many Bach pieces from the keyboard suites were not written with the explicit intention that they be danced to, nonetheless my answer to the question would be, yes and no. Certainly the Gavottes could have been used exactly as they are, because the majority are ‘square’ [meaning in regular dancers’ counts of 8 or 16].  Many, if not most of the minuets are square as well, and the Sarabandes almost always fall in 4 measure phrases, although the total might not always add up to 32. The Arias (airs) are also inevitably square. Chaconnes, Polonaises, Passepieds—square, or 4 measure phrases. This leaves Allemandes, Courantes, Gigues, and some Bourrees as the non-square dances Bach composed….

“Since dance master manuals of the 18th century are often illustrated with the dance master playing the violin, I suspect that those teachers appropriated tunes which had the right rhythmic qualities to play as they taught the steps and the choreography to their students—nobility and the landed gentry. They might well have grabbed some Bach tunes if they knew them, but of course would square them off according to their needs. I wouldn’t be surprised if in some households where there were keyboard players of enough skill, impromptu dances for the teens of the house might have used some Bach music—because what we do know is that dance lessons were a daily occurrence for members of the nobility in almost all of Europe between about 1690 and 1770. It makes sense to me that people would practice the dances they were learning, and there would be hunger for a variety of music to make the practicing of the dances less boring. But since Bach was not widely known in his time, this would have been limited to the regions of Germany where he lived and had enough students with copies of his music to teach to their students….

“One thing that might be worth adding is that dance music of the early 18th century did “get around.” Anna Magdalena’s little notebook is filled with dance tunes that Bach had appropriated—from Petzold and other composers—minuets, musettes, polonaises, and so forth. So, somehow before the internet and the music publishing business, people seemed to be busily copying dance tunes down.”

* * *

In reference to the book by Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne, it can be noted that actually these authors are very careful when it comes to not giving any definite facts about Bach dancing or having verifiable work or specific contacts with dance masters. Maybe such information just isn’t known for sure. In their preface the authors use words such as “would have…may have…could have…probably…implies…” and on p. 13: “Bach knew personally or knew the work of three eminent French dancing masters in Saxony.” And on p. 14: “Clearly, Bach had ample opportunity to see, to know, and to appreciate French dancing and dance music.” That said, perhaps we should just assume that yes, in at least some ways Bach became familiar with French style court dances…and go on from there! The book cited is a musicological study and for musicians who are interested, considerable details of analysis are presented.–KT

A performing artist’s recent view can be read at
September 2023 program notes by choreographer Catherine Turocy for the Dallas performances of “Dances in Bach and the Dance” by the New York Baroque Dance Company.

Modern vocal partita is used for ballet!

On January 27, 2022 New York City Ballet premiered a new work by its resident choreographer, Justin Peck, set to Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices. To hear this unusual music go to:  Roomful of Teeth vocal ensemble of 4 women and 4 men performing Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices at Music on Main in Vancouver, 2016. Comments from listeners online were ecstatic!

The American composer Caroline Shaw (b. 1982) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for her Partita. She had collaborated with dancers some years before when she played violin for ballet classes at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and other studios—harking back to the usual accompaniment for dance lessons in both Europe and America for several centuries since the early days of court dance and ballet! Before the upcoming setting of Justin Peck’s ballet, she commented in The New York Times:

 I didn’t literally imagine it being choreographed, but it felt really visual and as if I were choreographing with sound rather than dance…I was accompanying dance classes all over the city. So all those counts and rhythms were swirling around in my brain at the time. I truly fell back in love with music through dance….

I was playing a lot of Baroque violin pieces at the time, and Bach used all these dance forms, so it felt like a great jumping-off point. Each movement in “Partita” does relate to the original Baroque dance, but they are abstractions, holding seeds of those original meters and feelings, but quickly moving further. It was a playful experiment with form, and a conversation with the past.

Here is the entire article by Roslyn Sulcas about Justin Peck’s ballet,  with eight New York City Ballet dancers all wearing sneakers to perform:

In a rather overwhelming overview about 21st century musical styles, both popular and concert [wrapping up the 10th edition of A History of Western Music,  pp. 1005-6]  J. Peter Burkholder offered his own reaction to Caroline Shaw’s modern composition:

Partita continues the twentieth-century trends of exploring new sounds and techniques; incorporating aspects of non-Western music, here elements of singing styles from Korea in east Asia, Tuva in the Siberian steppes, Georgia in the Caucasus, and the Inuit peoples in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska; and evoking the past of Western music, with sections that echo the sounds and styles of Gregorian chant, imitative polyphony, William Billings [early American composer] and shape-note singing, among others. The title recalls the partitas of J.S. Bach, which were suites of dances, and each movement is named for a Baroque dance or instrumental genre: Allemande, Sarabande, Courante, and Passacaglia….weaving together dance traditions of two continents and four centuries….The piece is a compelling fusion of Baroque, modern American, and non-Western elements with the modern classical tradition.

The composer has her own website:  with clips from some of her other works, and here is a profile of her written by Jonathan Gharraie and published in the March 2021 issue of The Atlantic:

Finally, here is a review written by Gia Kourias, critic for The New York Times,  only a few hours after the premiere performance of Justin Peck’s choreography for New York City Ballet!

DVD: Now Hear This, available from, telecast in 2019 on Great Performances: virtuoso violinist/conductor of Mexico City Philharmonic Scott Yoo in program titled “Riddle of Bach” explores the unaccompanied suites, travels to German sites where Bach composed, and finally in Paris bravely takes a Baroque dance lesson. His opinion: musicians should understand the lightness of the dances then in order to perform the music now. A most enjoyable program.

Handel, Foreign Favorite of Royals

A contemporary of Bach, the composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) had a much more cosmopolitan career, and though every choral singer has probably performed in The Messiah, yet sacred music was a lesser part of his output than his secular compositions. First going to London in 1710 and shortly afterwards moving permanently to England (where he was much appreciated especially after his German elector patron became King George I of England), Handel became an English citizen in 1727. His orchestral suites Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, written for spectacular outdoor performances for royalty, are played regularly by orchestras today, and at least one historical dance company has performed dances to the musical sections.

An observation about the stylistic closeness of such orchestral suites to their indoor dance cousins was made by the music historian Paul Nettl:

They are expressing that most delicate and refined taste for recreation music, which was cherished by the upper classes of German society, after the pattern given by the French. When Mendelssohn in 1830 played the overture to the first of his D major Suites for the ageing Goethe, the great poet seemed to see a long line of elaborately dressed people slowly and pompously descending a magnificent staircase. And it is a fact that all these pieces by Lully…Handel and Bach are deeply bound up with the social habits and customs of the period. The stately, though at times somewhat chattering overtures, the dances of various kinds and emotional colors, reflecting national types and characteristics, this sometimes unregulated and inorganic sequence of movements (which unlike that of the suite for stringed keyboard instruments)—all this is a true mirror of its age and state of mind. It is indeed extrovert music, for the entertainment of others, to picture and to serve them.

Handel’s three Water Music suites continue to be his most popular. First heard on July 17, 1717 by the lucky people aboard boats floating on the Thames or by other people standing along the riverbanks between Whitehall and Chelsea, those sounds were evoked in 2003 in a film made for BBC and available on DVD. Musicians wearing wigs and period costumes played period instruments, including wonderful Baroque horns, trumpets, bassoons, and oboes along with strings, as they traveled by decorated barge on the Thames. Apparently during the original trip King George I was so pleased that he had Handel’s music played three times—with presumably some of the quieter movements during their destination dinner.

The Water Music on its original trip had an overt political purpose, to publicly underscore the power of the German-born monarch (and it is interesting to note that the celebration was financed by Germany). Yet focusing on the artistic aspects, many of the movements are dance-based forms: menuet, bourée, hornpipe, rigaudon, sarabande, and gigue.

Another suite for outdoor performance was Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, at the request of King George II in 1749. And what sounds there must have been from this wind band: 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, contrabassoon, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, and 3 pairs of kettledrums! There were some dire mishaps with the fireworks, including the pavilion catching fire, but the music survived and was revised subsequently by the composer for full orchestra. That is the version one is apt to hear nowadays, though concert bands also enjoy performing all of Handel’s outdoor suites.

Handel’s theatrical ballet music

Nowadays some of Handel’s true theatrical ballet music is heard extracted from  his operas as orchestral suites purely for listening. But during his own time in England, Handel composed many operas in the Italian tradition, some that featured ballets with the famous Marie Sallé and her dancers. They performed in all of Handel’s operas presented in the 1734-35 season.

Among the successes was Alcina. Touching on it in his history of dance music, Paul Nettl called it one of Handel’s most beautiful operas, worthy of remaining famous if only for its ballet music:

[In Alcina], which was written in 1735, and altogether one of the most imaginative and charming operas of all times, Handel comes very close to the French ballet-operas by Rameau because of the numerous pieces for dancing as well as because of its melodies—graceful as befit dance tunes, and yet so vigorous. This opera very obviously is one of the most impressive of Handel’s works. Already the overture, a composition in four sections: Pomposos, Allegro, Musette, and Minuet, is a ballet. Were dances performed during the overture?

Nettl doesn’t answer his own question, but goes on to describe the dances within the opera itself: a round dance, a gavotte, a sarabande, minuet, and another gavotte “so tender, so enamored, and so noble and dignified.” The historian continues his enthusiastic description:

How longing is the sound of the flutes in the sarabande, answering the violins like an echo! And when, in the second act, Alcina…throws away her magic wand. Thereupon appear all the Ómbres pallides” (pale shadows), the “Songes agréables, songes funestes” (agreeable and deadly dreams) in dream visions and dance their rounds to those wonderful dance airs which—partly by abundant melodies and partly by colorful illustrative passages—evoke these visions till they arrive at complete ecstasy. And then the end of the opera…features enchanting dancing pieces, which transport the melancholy of this unhappy love into celestial spheres.

Fortunately we can do more than read these tantalizing words of Nettl. There are available several DVDs of Alcina, plus CD recordings of the ballet music from this opera as well as Handel’s Terpsichore section from his opera Il pastor fido—for openers! Music originally meant for dancing now extracted from theatrical ballets to comprise suites aimed at listeners!

the keyboard suites

If Handel’s orchestral suites were extroverted, the keyboard suites, as touched upon already concerning those by Bach, are more personal and introverted, even if the forms are ostensibly based on dance types. As pointed out by the CD reviewer Don Satz when talking generally about the Handel keyboard suites:

His supreme gift for melody is readily apparent in his keyboard works, just on a smaller scale than found in his orchestral and vocal works. Be it poignant Sarabandes or super-charged Gigues, Handel’s suites are life-affirming and beautiful creations.

a masterpiece to Handel

This is not about suites; this is not about ballet. But there is one modern choreographic work that is so unusual it must be at least mentioned to draw the attention of readers. Worth putting on one’s lifetime list to watch someday!

Perhaps the most ambitious setting to Handel ever is the Mark Morris full-length work L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, premiered in 1988 in Brussels. The music was originally an oratorio written by Handel in 1740 to the verses of John Milton (rearranged in order by Handel’s collaborators Charles Jennens and James Harris with an additional “Moderato” part). As choreographed, there are 32 sections, exploring contrasting evocations of the active mind and the contemplative mind. This is a masterpiece well-worth viewing—and fortunately, there is a DVD available as well as a book containing the libretto, essays, and magnificent photographs plus reproductions of William Blake’s art illustrating Milton’s work. (See notes.)

Handel’s setting was for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. As far as the instrumentation is concerned, what the listener mostly hears is a predominate string sound, with harpsichord. But there are also notable wind highlights: for instance, a melodious flute for the “bird” section; horn sounds for the “hunting” scene; and a bassoon highlight late in the work. Appropriate organ music is heard for the chapel evocation; there is a cello solo for the “hermitage” section; and festive trumpet sounds underscore the joyful finale to the text “These delights if thou canst give, Mirth, with thee I mean to live.”

Speaking about his source of inspiration, Mark Morris stresses that he choreographed the work because of the music as well as to the music; that he considers music Number One in his life; and that he personally found this resulting theatrical work to be one of hope and joy. Though the dancing is totally contemporary, Handel would surely have loved this setting which has been so widely seen and felt! Indicative of the depth of reactions is this comment by the editors of the book about L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato:

For two hours L’Allegro’s twenty-four performers dance through time and space, and in so doing, have the ability to move those of us watching them to ask ourselves the deepest, most profound questions about what it means to be given life, and to consider how we choose to live that life.

And in a formal review, the late critic Dale Harris of The Wall Street Journal wrote:

It is Mr. Morris’ great achievement to have further intensified the composer’s eloquence by expressing his lyric energy in powerfully expressive bodily movement, and moreover, to have done so with such naturalness that the music sounds as though the composer had intended it to be danced from the beginning.

notes and  explorations:

Quotations about Alcina are from Paul Nettl, The Story of Dance Music (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947) pp. 196-97. Although this book seems to be available now only in a used copy of the 1969 reprint by Greenwood Press, it is worth searching for. Delightful reading and full of information. The comments about orchestral suites by both Bach and Handel are taken from pp. 197-99.

DVD of Water Music:

Handel’s Water Music: Recreating a Royal Spectacular. A film made on the Thames River with the English Concert directed by Andrew Manze. Opus Arte, 2003.  This DVD is a delightful documentary that provides a sense of what the original occasion might have been like. Musicians are in 18th-century costume, and narration is by Peter Ackroyd. Multi-angle feature option displays view of London as it might have been in 1717. Obviously there was no dancing on the water, though the suites contain dance-based movements including menuet, bourrée, gigue, rigaudon, sarabande, and hornpipe. Reproductions of period instruments, including those wonderful natural horns.  An 18-minute excerpt of the above performance.

online dances to Water Music:

The following are extracts from “The Banqueting House,” a VHS film by Trillion Pictures, 1987, with the English Bach Festival Orchestra directed by Christopher Hirons. Dances were choreographed by Belinda Quirey, performed by the English Bach Festival Dancers. Certainly proof that although Handel’s Water Music was composed for an event on barges, yet the music works beautifully for ballroom dances:

online concert:  Orchestral concert by Berlin Academy for Old Music, 2016, conducted by Georg Kallweit. Musicians stand. Notice the period instruments.  54 minutes of Water Music.

outdoor suites on CD:

Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields recorded both Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Available on an Argo  CD or by individual track.  

Just the Water Music, performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Sir Walter Mackerras. Available on Telarc CD or by track via amazon.

If listeners want to hear Fireworks in original instrumentation, there is an Archik CD by The English Concert under Trevor Pinnock. (available by track via amazon.)

A 2-CD set with both works performed by the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood is available also by track or MP3 on Editions L’Oiseau-Lyre.

And there are many other recordings.

online, ballet music in Handel’s operas: Complete music only of Handel’s opera Alcina.  Delightful Animated Guide to Handel’s Alcina, by Roderick Swanston. (very short!) Tafelmusik—all musicians stand and play from  memory, just two movements from the House of Dreams section from Alcina.  details of cast and brief clips from Almira production. Review of Almira production. Handel wrote this opera when he was 19!

Handel opera on DVD:

Alcina on 2011 ArtHaus DVD. Vienna State Opera. This is a splendid performance, and highly recommended that those interested acquire the 2-disc set. Choreography by Sue Lefton; dancers of the Vienna State Ballet. Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, conducted by Marc Minkowski. Main cast: Anja Harteros, Vesselina Kasarova (in the role originally written for a celebrated castrato); Veronica Cangemi, Kristina Hammarström. The arias are beautifully expressive, with sometimes solo musicians onstage (one in particular, a cellist becomes a duet with the sister of the sorceress). The ballets are all performed by men—some as colorful courtiers to the sorceress, later as victims who had been turned into stones etc. but at the end become human again. The entire opera staged by Adrian Noble is a play-within-a play, set in an 18th-century drawing room, with only one additional scene change effected by a sliding panel: grasses in the background. All in all, a stunning performance. Bonus interviews.

Handel composed some 40 operas! So there are DVDs of at least some of them—some done in historic style, some modernized with cigarette smoking etc. See amazon listings.


Ballet music from Alcina, Il Pastor Fido, Terpsichore. English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. Erato label, 1985. Marie Sallé must have enjoyed setting her own choreography to these diverse and lovely pieces. 

Handel’s keyboard suites:

Ottario Dantone, harpsichordist, plays first four Handel suites on a lovely-sounding instrument. Available on his two CDs on Arts Music label. This is a review praising Dantone’s recording of the Handel suites and comparing other versions.

 Murray Perahia played Handel Suites 5, 3, 2 and Chaconne, on piano. From the SONY CD, now unavailable new, but it can be streamed online via amazon. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter, on EMI recording now pretty much unavailable, yet considered “the recording of the century.” Excerpts only, not complete suites, but playlist included online. Nearly two hours.

EMI remastered a CD by Sviatoslav Richter and Andrei Gavrilow, suites 1-8 but unavailable new. However, you can purchase individual tracks or streaming via amazon.

2011 CD on ECM label of the Eight Great Suites, performed on piano by Lisa Smirnova, recording of 2009. Very impressive!  Expressing her own emotional reaction to these pieces, the pianist added some comments in the liner notes:

Before my ears there appeared a universe of timeless beauty, a universe in which joy and bravery of experimentation outdid themselves with incredible energy and passion. If the fast movements abounded in virtuosity, the slow movements were overwhelming in their great clarity and depth.


Mark Morris setting: This Bel Air DVD offers a truly magnificent performance to Handel’s L’Allegro Il penseroso ed il Moderato, choreographed by Mark Morris and performed by his dance group, filmed at the Teatro  Real in Madrid with Jane Glover conducting the orchestra and singers. There is also an illustrated book documenting the dance. Here is information about both book and DVD:

The book is Mark Morris’ l’allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato: A Celebration, edited by Jeffrey Escoffier and Matthew Lore. (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2001). The quotation above is from p. 14. Mark Morris offers an exceptionally informative  nine-minute talk about this Handel work that he set, with clips from the dancers performing and sharing their own experiences. The dance work is a masterpiece that both dancers and musicians are sure to enjoy, based on the poems of Milton. Morris speaks of it as a work of hope and joy, with everyone having their own value through varying emotional hues. These interviews are included also in the DVD, from which the brief mention of the choreographer’s inspiration is drawn.

The Dale Harris quotation was drawn from a 1990 review. Mireille Radwan Dana mounted her complete 2017 thesis about this Morris work, for University of Wisconsin degree. The author, trained in both music studies and Vaganova ballet, auditioned for the Mark Morris Group in Brussels and was in on the ground floor of the creation and performing of L’Allegro, over time progressing to being rehearsal director! She went on to teach for more than 16 years as part of the Mark Morris outreach program on “Dance, Music, and Literacy.” The thesis includes charts comparing outlines of Handel’s work with sections of the choreographed work. Given the author’s years of experience, the detailed analysis of the piece is particularly of interest.

other Baroque suites, by a woman composer:

A much less-known set of Baroque suites, by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729), played quite beautifully on harpsichord by Elizabeth Farr. Naxos CD.  Allemande from Suite 1, performed by Elisabetta Guglielmin on a double keyboard harpsichord. Her recordings are available online at amazon via MP3.

This composer (who was at the court of Louis XIV) also wrote a ballet, believed lost until 2016: Cephale et Procris. Several excerpts forming a suite from this work were recorded by the Four Seasons Orchestra under Carolyn Waters Broe, accessible at this writing as below:  –andante maestoso  –loure –march Website for Ars Femina Archive, specializing in music by women composers written 1500-1900. A most succinct and interesting introduction to the music of this composer, given by the “Classical Nerd” Thomas Little in 3 minutes 33 seconds. Worth a visit!