Introduction to French Baroque Dance: Muffat on ‘Vrai Mouvement’

This article was written for a course on HIP for Harps taught for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It offers a very brief introduction based on Muffat (1698) and focussed on the typical movements of baroque suites.

Period discourse about music around the year 1700 was much concerned with contrasts in National Style, specifically Italian and French. Italian style (imitated also outside Italy, of course) favoured drama and virtuoso display in such genres as Opera, Toccata, Sonata & Concerto. French style (also imitated abroad) preferred descriptive character pieces to abstract sonatas and celebrated above all the noble art of Dance.



French theatrical music (especially Ballets), chamber music (in particular, Suites) and social activities were unified by the elegance and energy of dance, and depended for variety on the contrasting characters of distinctive dance-types. As modern-day performers of these repertoires, our understanding of the music is enormously increased if we know something of the dancing that inspired it.

I strongly recommend every student of Historically Informed Performance to go to class and learn some dances from the appropriate period of music. It isn’t necessary to become a great dancer: right from the beginning you will start to notice from the inside what it feels like to dance the music you love. No amount of teaching or demonstration can replace this personal, embodied experience.

At the very least, watch as much baroque dancing as you can, so that you have a clear visual inspiration to guide your playing. Play for dance rehearsals, in order to learn what their art requires of your delivery. The ideal in this period was that the music should appear to be produced by the action of the dancers’ feet striking the floor. Strong moments in the dance move upwards, preparatory energy is gathered by sinking in order to expand and rise again. And watching good baroque dancers, we can imagine that our sustained notes are similarly suspended in the air as if weightless, like a elegantly poised dancer, balanced and seeming to float almost off the ground.

Watch here 1: Introduction

Watch here 2: Suite

Watch here 3: Minuet etc

For a more substantial audio/visual introduction, I warmly recommed Paige Whitley-Baugess’ Introduction to Baroque D ance videos, available here.  

French period sources suggest that many subtleties of le bon gout – Good Taste – can only be acquired by studying with a fine teacher, born into the culture of Louis XIV’s France. As foreigners from the 21st century, we can all be thankful for Georg Muffat’s (1698) systematic analysis of French style, describing le bon gout in terms of a coherent set of principles, just as grammar-books describe the use of language. Indeed, this concept of a collection of rules is precisely how Art itself was defined, in this period. Read more about period philosophy of art here.


Muffat’s First Observations on the French style of playing dance-tunes according to the method of Monsieur Lully are presented in four languages (Latin, German, Italian, French) as the introduction to his second Florilegium collection, available free online here. The four versions are not identical, and it is worth studying fine points of detail across all four texts. David Wilson’s English translation is here. My summary below follows the French text.

For an alternative path through Muffat & French Baroque Dance, see my 2020 article here.

 

“Here you can discover the principal secrets in a few words”

 

“Two functions admirably well linked together:

  • “To charm the ear
  • “Simultaneously, to mark so well the movements of the dance, that one recognises immediately which type each tune represents, and one feels irresistibly inspired to dance.”

This is Muffat’s reworking of the classic Three Aims of Rhetoric: to delight, to explain and to move the passions. The musician’s purpose is literally to move listeners’ feet, and thereby to affect their emotions.

The word mouvement has a wide semantic field that includes the physical movements of dancing, contrasting formal sections (e.g. the movements of a suite), the speed of the music, the emotional Affekt of the music and the dancing, and the rhythmic structure of a particular dance-type. All these elements are interdependent.

“Five requirements:

  1. “To play in tune”
  2. “Bowing”
  3. “To keep constantly/constant the True Movement of each piece”
  4. “To observe certain usages of repeats, notations, style and dancing”
  5. “Ornamentation”

Muffat’s insistence on le vrai Mouvement  – True Movement – goes further than simply keeping the beat and maintaining constant tempo. This mouvement is also what a jazz musician would call the ‘groove’ of the dance, a characteristic rhythmic pattern, not necessarily strictly mathematical (often the first beat of the bar needs to be long), but established from the beginning and maintained until the end, and strongly linked to the particular physical movements and emotional Affekts associated with each dance-type.

For example, the Chaconne is usually a celebratory, festive, theatrical ‘party’ dance often marking the happy ending of a music-drama, or associated with the comedy clown, Harlequin. It is usually constructed in double-units of four-bar phrases featuring a descending bass-line, with hemiola at significant cadences, and a groove running across the bar-lines: 2 3 1, 2 3 1. The first beat is long, giving space either for a breath between mini-phrases, or for an expressive dissonance on the first beat resolved on the second.

The Minuet is a formal social dance, often marking the presentation of a couple to the assembled company. It is usually constructed with a great deal of symmetry: four-bar and eight-bar phrases; eight-bar or sixteen-bar repeated sections etc. The basic unit is two bars, which corresponds to one minuet-step. The groove mixes, often alternately,  rhythmic patterns of crotchet-minim [short-long] and minim-crotchet [long short].

Both these dances are usually notated in 3/4, and could plausibly be played within a similar range of tempi according to circumstances. In this, they might appear very alike. But once you’ve played a few of each type, and (ideally) learnt to dance them too, you will be able to distinguish them from the very first few notes, just as Muffat writes. This is the significance of vrai mouvement, much more than just ‘constant speed’.

“Play in tune”

Muffat singles out the diatonic semitone mi-fa as the usual source of problems for inexperienced players. At an elementary level, violinists have to learn to position their fingers to create a narrower spacing for the semitone than for the tones. Failure here is a serious assault on the listener’s ears.

At a higher level of sophistication, Muffat’s hint to raise the mi may be linked to the ongoing transition from the pure thirds of Quarter-comma Meantone towards the slightly wider thirds of Sixth-comma Meantone, as the accepted practice for ‘being in tune’. Most 18th-century ‘circulating temperaments’ (for keyboard instruments) were derived from Sixth-comma Meantone, so it is highly plausible that slightly wider thirds became generally accepted.

Muffat also mentions that ornaments should not be false. Sometimes ornaments require chromatic alteration to fit within the local harmonies, and whichever notes one chooses to play, they must be in tune, of course. Playing an ornament in the wrong place also offends the ear. Squeaks and noises are also to be avoided.

In contrast to the lengthy debates amongst today’s Early Musicians on the subject of Temperament, Muffat writes that there is only one accepted way of being in tune. He deals with the whole subject in 14 lines.

Bowing

Muffat devotes about 100 lines – more than two pages, plus two pages of musical examples to this crucial topic. Bowing for string instruments corresponds to tonguing syllables for wind-players and fingering for keyboards, harp, lutes and guitars. Strict rules of style create characteristic patterns of articulation: Good and Bad notes, legato or separation between one note and the next, contrasting qualities of onset-attack for individual notes.  

Muffat states that unanimity of bowing is essential. This translates for harpists and others into a requirement for intense scrutiny of note-by-note articulation patterns.

In this French style, the first beat is always given a down-bow, even if the previous note was also down-bow. This creates silences of articulation before some down-beats. But Muffat marvels how, “in spite of so many down-bows and retakes” (lifting the bow up again, to facilitate two successive down-bows with the very short French Baroque bow), “one never hears anything disagreeable or coarse, but rather a wonderful combination of speed and the length of the bow-strokes; of admirable equality of measure and diversity of phrasings; of tender sweetness and vivacity of playing”

What I have translated here as ‘phrasings’ is yet another appearance of the word mouvemens, here suggesting the movement of the bow, as well as of the notes and of the dancers’ feet, and of the emotions that all these work together to produce.

This rule of “first-beat = down-bow” takes precedence. After this, Good and Bad notes get down- and up-bows respectively, as far as possible. In triple metre, three crotchets to the bar (for example), the last note could be taken down-bow (in slow tempo) or up-bow (in fast tempo). Two successive up-bows can be divided – craquer – to articulate the final note clearly. In very fast tempo, a group of notes can be played ‘upside-down’ if necessary.  In a passage of dotted notes alternating with short notes, one should not slur short-long, but might slur long-short.

If you have any skill at all on the violin, it’s worth playing through Muffat’s examples to see how they feel and sound. If not, you can create a similar effect by singing Frank Sinatra style with dooby-doo. Use ‘doo’ for a Good note, down-bow. Use ‘bee’ for a Bad note, up-bow. Advancing in sophistication, you can imitate craquer with the syllables ‘beeper’, making more or less of a seperation between ‘beep’ and ‘per’ as you judge appropriate.

Muffat avoids down-bow on the second beat, so the combination crotchet and two quavers at the beginning of a bar forces you to craquer the two quavers. Thus the famous Minuet from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notenbuch would not go “Doo dooby dooby / doo dooby” but (more elegantly) “Doo beeper dooby / doo beeper”, when played in the French style. 

 

 

Muffat gives a few examples of how Italian violinists played Minuets, often starting with an upbow on the first note. The Anna Magdalena Minuet comes out very nicely with alternate bows, starting up-bow, but sounding very different in that Italian style: “Bee dooby dooby / doo-bee-doo”

Groove

The mesure (a bar, yes, but also the time-span measured by the regular down-up movement of the Tactus hand-beat) can have different mouvements. A jazz-musician might express this by saying “a steady count can have all kinds of different grooves”. 

Muffat gives “three requirements:

  1. “Understand well the vrai mouvement  – the groove – of each piece
  2. “Once you’ve understood it, be able to keep it for as long as you play the same piece, always with the same regularity, without changing, slowing or rushing it.
  3. “Give certain notes some swing, to make it sound more cool.”

“To understand better the groove of each piece… knowing how to dance is a great help. Most of the best violinists in France are very good dancers, so it’s not surprising that they are so well able to find and maintain the groove of the beat.”

“Having understood and started the beat, not everyone is able to keep it precisely constant for the entire duration of the piece.”

Muffat does not accept playing the whole piece slower or faster one time than another [his next paragraph suggests that this refers to playing a dance several times through consecutively, rather than to separate performances on different occasions] He also disapproves of alterations to the groove bar by bar or note by note. 

  1. “Reject the abuse of playing whatever kind of piece the first time very gently, then gradually faster and faster, and the last time very fast and rushing”
  2. “Don’t wait at the cadence more or less than the note-values indicate”
  3. “Don’t rush the ending”
  4. “Don’t panic when you see short note-values”
  5. “Don’t shorten the last note of the bar”

Playing for dancers is an excellent way to learn how to ‘phrase-off’ and ‘breathe’ at cadences, without disturbing the vrai mouvement. Muffat’s 5th rule is equivalent to ‘Don’t crowd the downbeat’. 

Muffat defines precisely – “diminutions of the first order” – which note-values should be ‘swung’, with examples for various metres. A succession of short notes written as equal are performed long-short, approximately as if the first, third, fifth note etc were dotted, and the following notes shortened accordingly. We should keep in mind that a Baroque Dot is itself a variable quality, according to context we might over-dot or under-dot. The appropriate amount of swing varies with the dance-type: more vigorous for a fast dance with popular origins, more subtle for a slow, courtly dance. 

I consider that Muffat’s insistence on conserving the vrai mouvement implies maintaining the same swing for the duration of a particular piece, as jazz-musicians tend to do nowadays. Many of my illustrious colleages disagree with me on this, but it must be said that most of them choose not to maintain vrai mouvement at all. Muffat makes it abundantly clear that vrai mouvement must be maintained: but there is room for legitimate debate as to whether the ‘swing’ of notes inégales comes under this rule or not.

The complete rhythmic identity of a given dance – its characteristic vrai mouvement – is thus constructed on several levels. The slow count of Tactus, the mesure, is steady (as in all Baroque music, with the exception of préludes non mesurées and plainchant). The principal division of the bar (into two or three) also carries the groove. So a Gavotte typically has two minim beats per bar, and the principal division structures the groove as short-short-long (crotchet crotchet minim). If you tap your feet and clap to this groove, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to sing We will, we will rock you! The quavers are swung – waving your banner all over the place. The emotional power comes from the dance-energy, which is stoked by maintaining the count, groove and swing steady from beginning to end. Temps di Gavotte Anglais (1977) here.

Because they experienced Lully’s airs as dance-music, violinists of Muffat’s time were more likely to rush towards the end. Modern-day early musicians regard Lully as art-music, and are more in danger of applying inappropriate 19th-century rallentando. Muffat is crystal-clear: keep the vrai mouvement from beginning to end. And just as I do here, Muffat repeats this point many times (otherwise, he rarely repeats any of his remarks).

 

Good Delivery

  1. “Finish tuning before the audience arrrive.”
  2. “Dont make noise” nor practise your party pieces before the show starts
  3. “French pitch is a tone, or for opera a minor third, lower than German pitch”
  4.  “Balance up the band”, “don’t have everyone play first violin!”
  5. There are usually two viola parts: “viola 1 is better on a small viola than on a violin”. Viola 2 is played by a large viola. Muffat approves adding a double-bass, but the French were not yet using double-basses in dance-music in 1698.
  6. “Observe the repeats” (notice the French habit of a short repeat – petite reprise – at the end of the last section)
  7. “It is very useful for keeping the precision of the mesure to give each [downbeat] with a small movement of the foot, as the Lullists do.”

 

It is interesting to notice how difficult modern-day players find it, to tap their feet on the down-beat (and only on the down-beat). I recommend it to students, and frequently request it from my ensembles, just as Muffat does. 

Ornaments

Instrumental ornaments for dance-music are mostly derived from vocal ornamentation. There are many more than one would imagine, and Muffat gives only a brief introduction. Nevertheless, this is the largest chapter of his essay, occupying three pages of text and another three pages of music examples.

Pincement – lower mordent, starts and ends on the written note, usually descending by a semitone, usually short, usually without additional repercussions.

Tremblement  – short trill from above, starts from the upper auxiliary, can be simple, or turned, may end early or continue into the next written note

Both these are played on the beat.

Muffat describes many more ornaments and how to execute them. He then addresses the question of where each ornament-type can be applied. His ten detailed rules depend on whether the note is Good or Bad, ascending or descending, moving by step or leaping, with exceptions for a mi and special conditions for the first note of a piece, of a significant section, of an ascent or descent. At cadences certain notes require a tremblement, others refuse it.

He gives some examples of diminutions (improvised variations), and warns that two tremblements are generally not used in succession, though he lists specific exceptions to this rule.

Muffat asserts that the whole secret of French ornamentation is codified in his 10 rules. These ornaments bring the “sweetness, vigour and beauty” of the Lullian method. 

“The melody suffers if ornaments are omitted, inappropriate, excessive or badly executed. Omission leaves the melody and harmony naked and undecorated; inappropriate playing is rough and barbaric; excessive ornamentation sounds confused and ridiculous; poor execution sounds heavy and constrained.” 

“The slightest failure in ornamentation betrays the would-be Lullist as inexperienced in this style.”

Muffat’s approximately ten ornament types (it depends how you count the sub-types) and ten rules are an amazingly concise encapsulation of the bon gout of the subtle and elegant French Baroque style. And if you apply his rules to Lully’s (sparsely marked) orchestral scores, the result is strongly consistent with (very detailed) ornament-markings in D’Anglebert’s harpsichord transcriptions of those same scores. 

See also Quantz on ornamentation, here.

The Suite

Many Suites are not intended to be danced. It is acceptable to take a different speed (a complex piece of chamber music may need to be played slower than the corresponding movement would be danced), but whatever the chosen tempo might be, it is maintained throughout. In late 17th-century England, Mace details a practice of making pauses and then an a tempo conclusion to (fast) Sarabandes, but otherwise there is no period evidence to support the application of tempo rubato to Baroque dance-music.

The Allemande that begins many Baroque suites was not danced. I speculate that the title refers to a German way of playing with arpeggios (the modern term is style brisé) dance-music of the type that the French used for Entrées. Characteristic figures include the short upbeat “Ta-dah!” found as a head-motive in many dance-types, alternations of dotted and short notes, and a three-note upbeat figure.

The Courante was an old-fashioned, noble dance – ‘the dance of Kings’. It has the most complex rhythms of all, contrasting, combining and creating ambiguity between 3/2 and 6/4, with a “Ta-Dah” opening; groups of crotchet, dotted crotchet, quaver ambiguously accented on first or second note; and a decisive shift to 6/4 at significant cadences. 

The Italian Corrente is different, with continuous running notes in the melody, and without the complex cross-rhythms of the French type.

The Sarabande was a fast dance that slowed down over the decades. Choreographies are characterised by held balances and sudden spins or leaps into a new pose. Often the music has a similar sharp contrast in note-values and amount of activity. The groove has a strong and/or sustained second beat of three.

Gigues vary in speed and groove – see Quantz and others for details. French Gigues often begin with imitation between treble and bass, and have a strong sense of the upbeat. The Italian Giga tends to flow more continuously, and without marking the upbeats. 

The Loure is a slow-motion Gigue.

The Passpied is a high-speed Minuet.

Bourée and Rigaudon might have had their origins in popular, rural traditions, but had become a highly sophisticated, courtly protrayal of Pastoral. Looking at the musical notation, it is impossible for us to distinguish between the two types, but in the period they were sharply differentiated: we don’t know how. Two quavers on the upbeat, groove (often in the bass) with three crotchets and a rest, final bars with crotchet, two quavers, crotchet (or four quavers & crotchet) over that groove; all of this with strong duple (minim) count and vigorous swing on the quavers.

Period writers disagreed as to whether Passacaille and Chaconne could be distinguished, and if so how. You are in good company if you consider Chaconnes to be major mode, Passacailles minor, but perhaps the most famous Chaconne of all is from Bach’s D minor Partita. 

The Musette is a courtly imitation of a pastoral bagpipe tune, usually in 6/8. The Tambourin imitates a tambourine. 

The Sicilienne is a slow 6/8 with groups of dotted quaver, semiquaver, quaver. The Canarie is a fast 6/8 with the same rhythmic grouping.


Conclusion

If you are studying a dance-movement, I strongly recommend that before starting to “interpret” the particular piece at hand, you first become familiar with the general characteristics of that dance-type. So before going too deeply into Bach’s famous violin Chaconne, first play lots of (simpler) Chaconnes (and Passacailles), watch Chaconnes being danced, learn to dance one yourself, and generally make yourself at home with the identity of the Chaconne as a dance-type. 

Work through Muffat’s 10 ornament rules and apply them to your particular piece. 

You will now have a much clearer idea of how Bach’s composition resembles all Chaconnes, and where its particular individuality lies. Above all remember Muffat’s two essential functions: the listeners have to recognise the dance from the very first notes, and they have to feel inspired to dance themselves. Even in such complex and profound music as Bach’s, this spirit of the dance must live, energised by the constant flow of vrai mouvement.

It’s some 20 years since I recorded dance-music from Feuillet’s (1700) Chorégraphie. CD here. My research for that recording started me on the paths that I have followed since, of Rhythm & Rhetoric; Tactus, Text, Gesture and Ornamentation. And in the intervening years I’ve had the opportunity to play this repertoire with fine orchestras (both modern and early), and see it danced by experts. Nowadays, I would play some of the movements a little faster, and most of them with more dance energy, a little less chamber-music reticence, and with – I hope – a stronger and truer sense of mouvement.  

Writing this article also gave me the opportunity to re-read Muffat, and glean a little more detail of his bowing rules, resulting in ‘Doo beeper dooby’ above and a rewrite of the discussion of the same Minuet in my 2020 article, here. It’s always worth re-reading a source that you think you know already. What you have discovered since the previous reading will have changed your viewpoint, and you may well notice something that you previously overlooked. 

 

 

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