Partita 3's Burlesca: a puzzling remark by Peter Williams

In the recent fascinating and otherwise very sound treatise Bach: A Musical Biography by the later renowned Bach-scholar Peter Williams, on p. 320 I read:

“Keyboard Partitas … the original minuet of No. 3 becomes a burlesca on publication, possibly influenced by a movement so called in Couperin’s Troisième Ordre of 1722. The change of name must imply something new, either in the piece itself or in the way it is meant to be played.”

I find this sentence surprising for two reasons:

  1. The minuet is (but for a few Italian exceptions) a French genre, typically in quavers inégales. Rarely in French minuets this inégalité is suspended by structural (as opposed to occasional) diminutions in semiquavers as in this piece by Bach: he changed his name simply because, in spite of the initial title, he realised that this was not really a minuet.

  2. I cannot recall and cannot find any movement in any of F. Couperin’s ordres called burlesca or burlesque.

Suggestions are welcome.

Email doesn’t seem to be working… Apologies if they do wake up out there and my reply arrives twice:

  1. I cannot recall and cannot find any movement in any of F. Couperin’s ordres called burlesca or burlesque.

Add to that:
3) Couperin’s Troisième Ordre was published in 1713 and not in 1722. The Troisième Livre, published in 1722, does contain, in the Dix-Neuvième Ordre, a piece marked “dans le goût burlesque”: Le Gaillard-Boiteux.

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Thanks Dennis! Oh, by the way, it is in the DixHuitième Ordre …
Anyway, this is not what Williams referred to, because he alluded to a piece in Minuet metre (bar consisting of 3 crotchets subdivided in quavers) that was not a real Minuet,
while Le Gaillard-Boiteux has one of the Gigue metres (bar consisting of 2 semiquaver triplets).
Guess we will never know what Williams referred to …

Just in case, I “googled” and either “clavecin” or “harpsichod” and “burlesque” and, other than Couperin’s Le Gaillard-Boiteux, the only other piece is by Telemann, but is an Overture, and is dated 1732, so we got nowhere fast …

Is it of any relevance that the Krebs Partita II in Bb has a Bourlesca followed by Menuet I and Menuet II and even Menuet III? The Bourlesca is in cut common time and the Menuets in 3/4. Not really sure if this information is pertinent. But note the spelling - this may give some further clues for searching.

As we can conclude from title change (a menuet is finally called a Burlesca) the dance and the character are 2 distinct notions.

Every dance is supposed to be, at times, in distinct characters (grace, lamento, airiness, tenderness…) and the burlesque character is an important part of the renaissance and baroque repertory of characters. So that every dance in the baroque era is likely to have it’s burlesque version.

Telemann was a champion in musically characterizing a wide range of characters. Cf his portraits of Nations, his comical Overtures, and especially his Overtures in “burlesque” style (ouverture Burlesque, Burlesque de Don Quixotte where all mouvements are the burlesque or comical version of dances or genres like the “soupirs” or a “sommeil”…) that he often associated with popular dances and… Polish style.

I’m convinced that Bach considered his a-minor Partita as an equivalent of Telemann’s comical Overtures. And that the whole 4th Partita has to be played in the burlesque style. Hence the typical A-minor tonality. Which implies disgracious gesticulation and funny dance.

Let me partly quote the description I made in my recording :

« The meaning of this partita swiftly becomes clear on interpretation of its “character pieces;” a Scherzo, the twin of the famous Badinerie (it too sets a “Polish” context, in B minor this time for the purposes of the traverso) and an impish Burlesca, originally named Menuet. These pieces belong to the comic, popular, rural category which is often identified with the key of A minor (musettes, Polish and Turkish-style music, music by Telemann, Couperin, et al., also refer to the prelude in A minor of WtC 1, which is as farcical as can be). They enlighten us to how to decipher the other movements by means of concentric circles: Sarabande (starting with an anacrusis, but we find this with Couperin too) is disguised as a Polonaise (the polonaise is one of the most featured dances in Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena), and makes use of the similar rhythmical pattern (suspension or emphasis on the second beat: a sarabande can be danced to this polonaise and vice versa, if desired); the stirring Corrente is like Harlequinade from a Telemann suite, without openly acknowledging it; the Allemande, which in this light seems to be surprisingly interspersed with leaps, intervals, combined with luthé features. The Gigue finally showcases a double fugue based on a contorted theme ending with a pirouette. Lastly, Fantasia (formerly entitled “Prelude” in the first version), whose name was undoubtedly chosen only for variety’s sake, could well be taken here in the literal sense of the word: Invention with two voices, in which the seemingly normal parts undergo curiously complex and disjointed transformations ».

The problem, today, is that we hardly identify - and thus hardly characterize properly - such very different characters, because we focus on too many diverse technical aspects that are important, but sometimes not fundamental.

An important aspect here is the influence of theater and of dance (that’s why Telemann often uses “Harlequinade” : Arlecchino’s Corrente, or Menuet, or Loure etc). Dancers are teaching a very elaborated art of behaving, dancing comical, burlesque style.

Another aspect is the fact that Bach, unlike Telemann or Couperin, but like e.g. Georg Muffat, tended to always make styles and techniques merge into a more (or very) complexe whole. And the Partitas do it in an extreme way, systematically.

And that is our problem : as we say here, often, the trees are hiding the forest. We have to solve so many problems in order to be historically correct, so that we became myopic by being extremely cautious…

Let me add a little burlesque dance which I’ve recorded (I’m not playing) in a recent concert in a church. Whatever the place, the instrument and the playing, it is interesting : you can imagine the whole Partita in A-minor by this dancer ( an excellent specialist and researcher in Baroque dance, Hubert Hazebrouck), in this style.

And this is “my” Burlesca, but I suggest you to listen to the whole Partita, the « Burlesque Partita »…

Le 13 oct. 2021 à 04:30, Andrew Bernard via The Jackrail noreply@jackrail.space a écrit :

\ 45x45 andro Andrew Bernard
October 13

Is it of any relevance that the Krebs Partita II in Bb has a Bourlesca followed by Menuet I and Menuet II and even Menuet III? The Bourlesca is in cut common time and the Menuets in 3/4. Not really sure if this information is pertinent. But note the spelling - this may give some further clues for searching.

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Dear Andrew and Martin. Indeed, my question was what Peter Williams was referring to in F. Couperin, not about the meaning of burlesque.

Anyway, thanks a lot Martin for your very thorough explanation! After which I expected your interpretation of the Burlesca to be something extreme in either beat or articulation, but on the contrary I find that you got precisely the meaning of the score. Once again, my heartfelt compliments!

I am so incredibly excited by this. Thank you Martin! I have long suspected such aspects but not having background in the relevant dance of the period, I had no basis for my thoughts and interpretations! Interestingly, we play the Burlesca in a very similar manner, based only on my sensibility.

Marvelous.

Anne

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