About dance, oral tradition and pedagogy

Hi List friends,

Nice to see the new platform, thank you so much, Andrew. You don’t spare your time and your energy !

The better side of the Coronavirus infection is : there is plenty of time to think, to read, to play and even to record.

I’m spending some time recording every 2 or 3 days some pieces I’m pleased to show because of some interpretation questions they raise.

And mainly dances.

The relationship between elaborated music and dance is a book that largely remains largely to be written

This is just a contribution. As musical « mouvement » (Bewegung, « how, in which way »)) is usualy confused with « tempo » (how fast). Everybody knows about the expression « Les Caractères de la Danse »., but discussions are mostly about tempo and interpretations often say : I actually don’t really know how far this has something to do with dance. Treatises give some tempo indications for dances. But the mouvement cannot really be explained : it’s something people feel in their body, it’s in the air . Non si può spiegare…

When I’m working (conducting, teaching) with ensembles and orchestras, the main problem is usually to get the right and common sense of the mouvement (Bewegung, motion) of the « mouvement » (a piece based on an unifying « mouvement » or motion). Once this is solved, everything becomes easier if not easy, logical, self-evident, and, like in repertoires of oral tradition, several musicians play after a short while well together.

The other way is to solve many small, particular problems, explaining a lot, and usually, this makes things much more difficult and sometimes we don’t really reach the goal - though its sometimes interesting, if not exciting, or funny.

Early music spends hours, books and huge efforts explaining before one is allowed to play through, because the most important is to be « Highly Informed ». Reaction against musicians of later repertoires who just play first… (actually it’s not true). This is, deliberately, kind of a caricature (not sooo much - but it’s such good news to see how much the art of improvisation is developing among early musicians, in Basel e.g… This sheds a new light on another way of approaching early music.

It’s interesting to notice that, when we perform Monteverdi, Bach, Couperin, even Mozart, we are reading from parts without numbers or rehearsal marks, with very few dynamics and phrasings. And musicians often didn’t rehearse a lot (parts of the Ouverture of Don Giovanni were completed some hours before the première, but the change of tempo is supposed to be 1/2, that makes it feasible with few words before playing). It was a kind of oral tradition, everybody was aware of the style, like Tango or Walzer players in Argentina or in Vienna. Reconstructing it needs to think, to write on the score (what people didn’t do), but as soon as possible, to be able to forget theories, marks, temperaments and, according what Leopold Mozart says : you need to c onsider Character, Tempo AND Mouvement (« die Art der Bewegung » : dance, dance-like motion, dramatic gestures etc) AND PLAY, once the base, the project are clear. And, like in baroque grounds, in folk music, in jazz etc, people « just speak, play » because they feel a clear structure, they are breathing the same air. It’s in the air.

My concern is : when listening to « HIP » performances today, it seems to me that the basic structures of baroque declamation, versification and dance (that have very much in commun) are drowned under mountains of discourse on aspects that are not essential (though interesting discussing) for the interpretation of great works. And, like about philosophy, sociology, or languages, our understanding of the past OR of the present state depends a lot of the comparison and relation we are able to find out between earlier and later evolutions, because there are constant principles that underlie the evolution and allow a better understanding of diversity according to the epochs (mutandum est mutanda. But if you think everything’s different, in another time and you need to forget everything, even of later periods, you throw the baby out with the bathwater. Relation between music and dance and theater and verses are constant since Aischilos, and until the beginning of the 20th century, and are still present in oral traditions.

This is, I think, what we need to investigate further. It will change the way we perform Frescobaldi, Scarlatti, Couperin, Bach and even the classical and the romantic repertoire (actually : I never heard a pianist who was totally wrong by playing Hungarian dances or Chopin’s Polonaises : why are we happy with sarabandes that are just very slow 3/4 pieces that have nothing to do with the motion, the typical gestures, the character of a sarabande ? But comments on : articulation, the hps, the tuning etc.

This makes me propose some readings in order to make clear, as far as possible, as well as possible as for homework, my experience of the relations between dance and music, and how the rhythm of dance shapes the whole Baroque language, and how it affects even Bach’s most elaborated works (in the Partitas, but also in dance-like pieces, cantatas, since Bachs was obsessed by syncretism.

We are at the beginning of this project. I hope I’ll have time to develop it as much, as long I’d like. I am at home like you, maybe, but I also retired from regular teaching. So…

A blog will come later.

Sorry for being long (just today), for my approximate english.

Vivete felici !

and take care.

please go to :

the quality of the sound will be better and better !

There are more exemples in my recording of Bach’s Partitas. But the late Bach should be the final step.

This is another problem of pedagogy : we are often starting with the last variations, the most elaborated ones (that’s what Bach is in the evolution : the most complicated state, the most intricated one, which accustoms young (who become older !) to read the music as closely as possible to the text, as children recite prayers as best as possible whilst forgetting or without always understanding what it is really about). Since in some way, it’s often difficult to find the theme in the last variations (Godberg, Beethoven !), but we like to admire complexity and sometimes forget that there is a simple and clear base that makes things much more understandable, and… not as difficult as we believed : the theme, the structure of the song, the dance…


Hi colleagues

Please have a look at this.
A “lockdown time” fancy. Surprise.
Related with the “dance” topic.

You’ll find more music within the same youtube chain as it is evolving rather quickly.
Don’t hesitate to do any remark that should arise.

As you will see : it’s not about “complete works of…” which is a quite usual way. But another approach, a complementary one, which will, I’m sure, shed another light on pieces we are supposed to know well.

Happy Easter

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Wow! That is quite a feat of Baroque dancing!

F. Couperin, Courante & Sarabande, by Martin Gester. I love the clear and stylish contrast between the detached inégales and the slurred Lombard.

Dear Martin,

I am THRILLED with this discussion as I have always been in search of the music, beyond the notes, beyond the theory, the life, the air, the breath, the movement of music from all periods. I struggle a bit with this in my own group, very well academically trained musicians, but thankfully they seem to respond, mostly, when I demonstrate a passage to free it of the bondage of rigidity.

Keep it up! Thank you.

Dear members

This is just to tell you that my readings of Sarabandes & alia goes on.
There are some new exemples.

Open to your remarks if there are.

(As a reminder : it is about doing an “Etude de Caractère”, specially the Sarabande, that singles out a very basic problem in baroque performances : “les Caractères de la Danse” tha pervade the whole baroque (and classical !) language.

When I’m auditioning musician she (hps, strings, winds), I always ask as compulsory piece a Sarabanda (or a Chaconne). It shows almost everything (also inegales), and It’s decisive.

All best

Interesting Martin. When I wish to know whether a harpsichordist is really conversant with inégales and associated articulation, and ornamentation, I select one of the three Allemandes by Rameau.

Hi members

Some new Sarabandes here.

All best

1 Like

Lovely performance, Martin!
Here is my take, amateur recording a few years ago prior to a recital. Which shows that we can both play in style, yet produce very different results! :slight_smile: Based on what I (and others) see as historical evidence, in F: Couperin’s Sarabandes I prioritise a strict 1-2-3 beat for a Sarabande, reserving all the flexibility for the quavers, and I refrain from adding any further ornaments in the repeats. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDSo2jeBCsk

Hi Claudio,
Thanks for your compliment.
Your version is interesting indeed.

Here a new link : it’s international Dance Day, today.
So… some Rameau

Dance music with dance, like film music with the film…

All best

More about dance - and harpsichord music, of course :

Some experiment with an unusual Sarabande…

All best
Martin G

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Replying to myself - since there are no reactions to my previous posts.

To those who understand more or less French - sorry fo not translating so far…

About the sarabanda of the IIIth Partitas, dance and “Caractères de la danse” inter alia.
Best wishes.


Hi Martin, you are the second person who has had to reply to himself on this forum due to lack of interest.

Come on people, don’t we have anything to say, especially now all at home? I wonder about the value of this as it is a lot of work to sustain and maintain and care and pay for for this technical platform. If people won’t use it, I question the value.

I apologise for this very late reply, somehow I missed this one! (I was away during those days). Martin is surely one of todays leading harpsichordists, and I much like the masterly way he plays this piece. He rightly calls it “unusual”, and it certainly is. In his article in French Martin outlines many exceptional style juxtapositions of this piece and unusual features. I would like to stress a simple matter: most French Baroque Sarabandes have inégales, they never have triplets and hardly ever use counterpoint. Therefore the title of the piece should better be “Tempo di Sarabanda”: it is certainly not in French but rather in Italian style.
(apologise for the edits, as I went back and forth between Martin’s article).

Dear Claudio
Thank you so much for your kind and interesting answer (it’s never too late !)

Just about styles : though there are hardly mentions of it, along with French and Italian styles, a Polish style exists, specially in German music around Telemann (mainly), the Saxon composers and at the Polish Court of Dresden.
Interesting reading (not specially about harpsichord) : Polish Style in the Music of Johann Sebastian Bach by Szymon Paczkowski.
I also recorded a nice Telemann Program « Ouvertures Pittoresques & Concerts Polonois » for BIS. There are many typical Polish pieces, characters and dances (but not only).
Relations between (say) aristocratic music and popular styles are still to be explored. A very interesting matter that sheds interesting new lights on our repertoire.


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Message parfois dicté / possibly dictated…

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Very interesting your Polish observations Martin. By no means am I denying that influence. I just note that in harpsichord literature the use of counterpoint in dances and the diminutions in triplets are both typical Italian features.

I fully agree that “relations between aristocratic music and popular styles are still to be explored.” A few months ago in Facebook somebody (cannot recall now) discussed the amount of certainty (or lack thereof) we have about Baroque performance customs. There was agreement that, while “on average” we have a very good knowledge through the many extant documents, this knowledge vanishes when we wish to explore specific regional features (e.g. performance styles), because then the information is much more scarce.

Thanks for your very interesting remarks, both here and in the article.

Dear Claudio,

I was thinking on our conversation by reading this :

The artistry with which Telemann combined the French and Italian, and also the English and Polish, with the German style was frequently described as one of his most distinctive skills.12 Telemann described this in his own libretto for a 1721 cantata:

The flattery of Italy’s pieces,
That unrestrained liveliness

That flows from French songs;

Britain’s leaping, obliging nature;

Yes, Sarmatia’s [Poland] exquisite pleasure,
To which the notes’ jesting is devoted:
German diligence combines all this
To the honour of its country,
All the more to please the listener here
Through pen, mouth and hand.

Quoted here
page 5

About Bach’s A-minor partita, which I’m considering in the « buffo » or burlesque style. with his Sarabanda fancydressed as a polonaise, his menuet as a « Burlesca » , and so on.

Best wishes

1 Like

Excellent Martin thanks!
And certainly nobody better than Telemann to describe his own approach.

Quite offtopic now, in the work you quote, I take issue with the use (certainly not a novelty in this PhD Thesis of 2014, as it has been in use for decades) of the word “galant” to describe Telemann’s style, and a comparison with a composer one generation younger, C.P.E. Bach.

My point is that, while both J.S. Bach and Telemann kept composing in the traditional Baroque style until their death (with just a handful of post-1740 late works that announce the new style), at the same time C.P.E. Bach (I think of the Württembergischen Sonaten of 1741-2) was already composing in a completely different sturm-und-drang (later dubbed “classical”) style, shortly to be followed (by his own admission) by Haydn and Mozart. Some Scholars consider this hiatum between Baroque and Classical the sharpest change of style in musical history. Therefore, I find issue to what is said in the same p. 6 shortly after your quote, where it is implied that Telemann and C.P.E. Bach shared the same style.

Thanks again for your contribution!

The PhD thesis you quoted is certainly interesting. Unfortunately, I have found that it heavily relies on the decades-old publications by Frederick Neumann. Different scholars (and the PhD author quotes a single case) have shown fundamental flaws in Neumann’s thought process. In a book of mine I show that his fallacies are not only so deep, but also at a point it appears that Neumann is aware of this and tries to mask the error, something I found abhorrent. Hardly any present-day scholar agrees with the attacks of Neumann, trying to disprove historical facts proven by modern musicology and agreed upon by virtually all scholars (I am thinking of his pre-beat trills and mordents, non-upper-auxiliary trills and else).

Could you refer us to some reliable refutations of Neumann’s writings on ornamentation? Thanks!

Kevin Lawrence