Vrai mouvement – Introduction to French Baroque dance-music

This is another in a series of posts following up a course on Early Music for Modern Harpists that I am teaching for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, but it should serve any performer as a first introduction to French baroque dance-music and the movements of the Suite. See also Introduction to 18th-century Ornamentation, Principles & Practice, and Online Resources.


To a great extent, Baroque dance-music is French, and French Baroque music is dances. French style is also associated with the delicate subtlety of ornamentation, so that the energy and physicality of the dance co-exists with the intricate sophistication of precise control. As Muffat writes for violinists in Florilegium Secundum (1698),

‘In spite of so many retakes and down-bows, one never hears anything harsh or crude, but on the contrary one finds a marvellous combination of great speed and long bow-strokes; of an admirable consistency of Tactus and a diversity of movements; and of a tender sweetness and vivacity of Play.’

Muffat’s essay, originally printed in French, Latin, Italian and German, is probably the best period Introduction to this style, which he associates with Lully’s violinists. In spite of the preference of modern opera houses and baroque orchestras for Rameau (1683-1764)  and Rebel (1666-1747), Lully’s music remained the reference in 18th-century France. And the instrument most associated with the noble style of French baroque dance was the violin: the dancing-master’s minature pochette or the 24-strong violin band (with all sizes of violin-family instruments).

Even if you are not a string player, consideration of the implications of Muffat’s rules for Lulliste bowing is a fast-track to creating appropriate short-term phrasing (what Early Music players call ‘articulation’) for French dance-music on any instrument.

Each dance-type has its own characteristics, and in performing this repertoire, getting a feel for the family resemblance between all Menuets (for example) is more important than trying to ‘interpret’ the particular minuet at hand. Muffat again:

Concerning the different dance-movements, three things are required. 1: To know well the true movement of each piece. 2: Having recognised it, knowing how to keep it as long as one plays the same piece, always with the same consistency, without change of slowing or accelerating. 3: To adjust and compensate for the value of certain notes, for greater beauty.

Muffat’s vrai mouvement is much more than just the speed, though finding a suitable speed is important. Quantz (see Online Resources) gives tempi based on a notional MM 80 ‘pulse’ for various dance-types in Versuch (1752) from page 268 , and Saint-Lambert (Lully’s father-in-law) calibrates his indications to an average walking pace, see Les Principes du Clavecin (1702).

The French term mouvement also implies the Affekt, the emotional character, and (as Muffat’s requirements indicate) this depends on finding rhythmic subtleties and maintaining them consistently all the way through each piece. So in addition to the regularity of Tactus, in dance-music we have additional consistency of patterning within the Tactus. And this patterning is subtle – every note is not the same, smaller-note values may be unequal within the beat – but it is maintained consistently from bar to bar. We can think of this as the rhythmic “groove” of each dance-type: the pattern is distinctive, possibly assymmetrical, often subtle, and this pattern is established from the outset and kept strongly throughout.

There are four levels of rhythmic patterning. Often the whole bar corresponds to the early 17th-century concept of Tactus, and you can beat time one bar down, one bar up. This beat is equal and regular, though with the subtlety of arsis/thesis, see The Practice of Tactus.

Phrases are nearly always symmetrically organised in 4-, 8-, 16-bar groups, with repeats of each section. Don’t omit repeats, and don’t vary them either. Rather play the whole dance a second time, with repeats again, but in a varied version – French sources call this a Double.

Within the bar, the individual beats (often crotchets) have a characteristic organisation of good/bad and join/separate. So in a Sarabande beats 1 and 2 are Good; in a Chaconne one links together beats  2-3-1. These beats usually correspond to dance-steps, and the connection between feet and beat in French music led to a concentration on this level of rhythmic organisation. So the Menuet can also be beaten with an unequal (but reguarly maintained beat), 1-2 down, 3 up.

At the next subsidiary level of rhythmic organisation (often quavers), equally-written note-values are performed unequally, pair-wise, usually long-short. The amount of swing in this inégalité is crucial for establishing (and maintaining) the character of each dance: robust country-dances get a vigorous swing, sad noble dances get a very subtle swing. The bible of baroque swing is Betty Bang Mather Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque (1997).

Muffat’s word mouvement also reminds us that Baroque dances were not just music: there was dancing, too! The best way to understand any dance-type is to learn to dance it, even if you think you have two left legs! I would regard an introduction to historical dancing as an essential element to any HIP musician’s training – and as great fun, too! The standard introduction to the physical embodiment of this music is Hilton Dance and Music of Court and Theatre (1997).

Court and Theatre were the principal milieux for the noble style of dancing, but many of these dances had their origins in the street or the countryside. Mattheson describes the contrasting characters of various dance-types. You can develop your own feeling for the area of emotions associated with each dance-type by reading song-texts set to particular dance-metres, and simply by playing many examples of the type you wish to study.

For each dance-type, you need to have a feeling for tempo, metre (duple or triple), groove, social milieu, area of Affekt and typical dance-steps. Some dances are essentially stylised walking, others are mostly leaps, others mix leaps, spins and held balances. The New Grove Dictionary entry on a particular dance-type can be a good jumping-off point for further reading.

Dance-music was often published and performed as chamber-music in Suites, linked by a common tonality. The core of the baroque suite is the AllemandeCouranteSarabande group, often with a Gigue afterwards. A Chaconne might be added at the end; a Prélude or Ouverture at the beginning; Bourée, Rigaudon and other country-dances towards the end; and theatrical or programmatic pieces were introduced for variety. For social dancing, long sets of a single dance-type (especially minuets) were often needed.

Handel’s first opera, Almira (1705), listen here has a ball-room scene, set at a French-style Assemblée, in which a sequence of dances is interspersed with conversational recitatives and arias, a theatrical presentation of social dancing at court.

Case-study: the Menuet

The Menuet was a court dance, each couple would have to dance their formal minuet in front of the judgemental gaze of their aristocratic superiors, as they entered the hall of an Assemblée. The step is a stylised walk, and the dancers’ paths trace out geometrical patterns on the floor. There are also many theatrical minuets, and many pieces that feel minuet-like, even though they are not actually dances: the slow movement of Handel’s Harp Concerto would be an example.



Muffat’s rules for violin-bowing can help us find the vrai mouvement, the ‘groove’ of this dance, and I take Christian Petzold’s well-known menuet copied into the Anna Magdalena Bach Notenbuch as a case-study.



Baroque violins have lower string-tension than modern instruments. And French baroque violins had even lower string-tension. French violins were significantly smaller, but had lighter strings and were tuned a tone or a minor-third lower than in Italy. All these differences combine to produce very low string tension: it’s like playing on rubber-bands!  And to coax these slack strings into sound, they had very short bows.

Long & Short notes

At this point, you can experiment for yourself, by using a pencil as an imaginary, short French-style violin bow. To sustain a long note, you will have to be very sparing with the bow, and the string will take some time to ‘speak’. The result is a very drawn-out messa di voce, with a lot of intensity and a sensation of tension waiting to be released as you hope that you can get through such a long note with such a short bow.

For a short note, you’ll have to move the bow with a sprightly action, to get the floppy string to speak promptly – it’s almost like a bowed pizzicato. So the first result is that long and short notes are utterly different from one another: a long note is not just a short note sustained, it’s a completely different animal!

Bowing and inégalité

Muffat’s detailed bowing rules can be summarised as

1. Down-bow on the down-beat;

2. Down/Up bows for Good/Bad notes, respectively.

So French violinists would take the first note of Petzold’s minuet with a down-bow (Italians would play it Up). The next note is a Good, so it might seem also to require a Down-bow.  With a short bow, two successive Downs will require lifting the bow back Up again in-between (what violinists call a Retake), and this necessarily shortens the first note, creating a staccato effect. Nevertheless, this is acheived with elegant lightness, like a dancer leaping high but landing lightly.

However, in the fine detail of Muffat’s bowing rules, he gives precisely this rhythmic pattern (crotchet quaver-quaver) at the beginning of the bar, marked ‘down up push’. The preference for up-bow on the second note of the bar outweighs the desirability of down-bow on a Good note. Nevertheless, the downward leap of the fifth d’-g supports a detached first note.

The quavers that follow would be played pair-wise long/short, good/bad and down/up, quite legato within each pair, but with a small separation between one pair and the next. Within each pair, the second note is unaccented – the swing is gentle and elegant, not spiky!

Groove: le vrai mouvement

We  can beat Tactus bar by bar, down/up. This gives us the first level of equal movement, corresponding to the dotted minims that we find in the bass from bar 2 onwards. In general, we expect to find the fundamental rhythmic structure in the bass, and subdivisions in the treble.

We can also beat Tactus in crotchets, 1 2 down, 3 up. This gives us minim-crotchet unequal movement, that we see in the bass of the first bar and elsewhere.

The harmonic rhythm of bar 15 is the reverse of this: crotchet-minim. The mixture of these two patterns, long-short and short-long, is characteristic of the Minuet.

Baroque theorists linked these structural patterns, often heard in the bass-line of dance-music, with the metrical “feet” of poetic scansion. Long-short is Trochaic, and short-long is Iambic: the combination of these two feet creates the essential structure of the minuet’s vrai mouvement.

In the melody, the initial leap followed by stepwise movement produces a crotchet-minim Iambic structure for the first bar, with the minim sub-divided into swung quavers. So in this bar, the minim-crotchet, Trochaic bass has one of the Minuet’s two typical structures, whilst the melody has the other.

In bar 2, the bowing would be Muffat’s standard: down-up push. This might tend to create a joining between beats 1-2, and a separation before beat 3. But the downward leap again suggests a detached first note. Although I’m accustomed to hearing this bar structured Trochaically minim-crotchet, perhaps the downward leap should encourage us towards Iambic crotchet-minim again.

Bars 3-4 have the same structure in the melody as the first two bars. The ornament on the second note of bar 3 confirms the Iambic crotchet-minim structure of this bar, so similar to bar 1.

The next three bars have the note-values of the first bar, but without the initial leap. This suggests more legato between first and second note, whilst the harmonic shift on the second note of each bar implies a crotchet-minim Iambic structure.

In bar 8, Quantz’s rule for Appoggituras tells us to make the ornamental note two thirds of the length of the written note, and to resolve quietly and smoothly into the written note. The structure is therefore Trochaic minim-crotchet, breaking the pattern of the previous 3 bars. There are couple of bars with swung quavers all the way through in the melody and a Trochaic minim-crotchet structure in the bass, and the harmonies show the structure of the penultimate bar also to be Trochaic minim-crotchet.

There are no other patterns in this minuet. Muffat’s strictly maintained mouvement can be understood by superimposing all the allowed patterns, and ‘weighting’ them according to how often each is heard. You can listen to the result here.

As you listen, imagine yourself dancing with elegant steps and graceful balances along the floor, in smoothly curved patterns, wearing 18th-century courtly dress, and with the assembled aristocracy looking on, and subdued conversation in polite French, with period pronunciation of course. By now you are well on the path towards developing a feel for the vrai mouvement of the menuet.


Beyond Versailles


We find French dances in English, German and even Italian music, and of course in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, see Jenne & Little Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach (1991/2009). Their first publication addressed works by Bach that bore the names of dances―a considerable corpus. In the second, expanded version they study also a great number of his works that use identifiable dance rhythms but do not bear dance-specific titles.

There is a glossy online Introduction to French Baroque Music presented in English by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. Their view appropriately contrasts French and Italian approaches, but they seem unaware of the richness of Spanish dance-culture, which brought together Old and New World, even African music, popular and courtly styles.

Hispanic culture contributed one of the most famous dances of Baroque France, Les Folies d’Espagne as well as the Canaries dance-type. As in France, so in Spain, Portugal and the New World, standard dance-types and (more than in France) the ground basses associated with them defined the territory for much chamber, theatrical and (also more than in France) even sacred music. Ribayaz’s 1677 book Luz y Norte offers a ‘guiding light and North star by which to explore all Spanish music’ – listen here.

English late-17th-century Country Dances became well-known in the 20th-century folk music revival. With simple steps and formulaic group choreographies, they were much, much easier for amateur dancers than the technically demanding solo dances in which French aristocrats emulated professonal theatre dancers. Country dances became popular in France as contredansesLes manches vertes is Greensleeves.

This article can only be a brief Introduction. The next step is to become familiar with various dance-types, by reading more about them, and – even better – by playing and dancing them.

For a slightly different take on Muffat and French Baroque Dance, see the 2021 approach to this subject here.

3 thoughts on “Vrai mouvement – Introduction to French Baroque dance-music

  1. Pingback: Baroque FAQs for Modern Musicians | Andrew Lawrence-King

  2. Dear Andrew

    Great article, as usually, really ! Thanks It cannot be clearer

    just a correction if I may

    Jean-Fery Rebel :  1666 – 1747 As for the title : Le Vrai Mouvement (sometimes « vray » , but no « e » which is feminine)

    As soon as i write what I’m about to do (but I’m by far slower than you), I’ll tell you. Your approach is excellent and inspiring. There are some complementary things I have to explain according my experience as a player/leader/teacher (like you, but also in later repertoire, including Chopin, Brahms, which have a lot in commun, mutatis mutandis, as they are still strongly related to dance)

    All best Martin


    • Dear Martin,

      Thank you for your kind words, and especially for your eagle-eyed but gentle corrections! I spent yesterday typing with one hand and half a brain, whilst trying to nurse my girlfriend’s family’s beloved dog, who gave every appearance of being at death’s door. Between trying to persuade doggy to lick a few drops of water from my fingers, “le vrai” and Rebel c1700 [of course!] escaped my attention.

      I’m very interested to read your remarks, also about later repertoires. Dance-rhythms, with their links to popular culture and to physical movement, and their tendency to remain only partially notated, are a fascinating study.

      In the meantime, thanks again for your support and assistance. Greatly appreciated, in difficult times!

      All best wishes, Andrew

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