Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach

Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach

Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach

Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach


Stylised dance music and music based on dance rhythms pervade Bach's compositions. Although the music of this very special genre has long been a part of every serious musician's repertoire, little has been written about it. The original edition of this addressed works that bore the names of dances--a considerable corpus. In this expanded version of their practical and insightful study, Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne apply the same principals to the study of a great number of Bach's works that use identifiable dance rhythms but do not bear dance-specific titles. Part I describes French dance practices in the cities and courts most familiar to Bach. The terminology and analytical tools necessary for discussing dance music of Bach's time are laid out. Part II presents the dance forms that Bach used, annotating all of his named dances. Little and Jenne draw on choreographies, harmony, theorists' writings, and the music of many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers in order to arrive at a model for each dance type. In Appendix A all of Bach's named dances are listed in convenient tabular form; included are the BWV number for each piece, the date of composition, the larger work in which it appears, the instrumentation, and the meter. Appendix B supplies the same data for pieces recognisable as dance types but not named as such. More than ever, this book will stimulate both the musical scholar and the performer with a new perspective at the rhythmic workings of Bach's remarkable repertoire of dance-based music.


We were aware when the first edition was published that we had not completed our work on dance and the music of Bach. In Bach’s music, it is easy to feel the forceful or at least graceful swing of the dance, not only in his titled dances but throughout much of his other music. In this expanded edition we identify and describe dance qualities in pieces without dance titles but which seem “dance-like,” using the tools developed in the earlier edition. We felt like treasure hunters as we reviewed the fine new recordings of the cantatas and other works, in search of pieces incorporating dance rhythms; indeed, the search was personally enriching as well as productive as we “danced the dances” with Bach.

We made no changes to material present in the first edition beyond the correction of a few minor typographical errors. The new chapter 14 discusses pieces we consider to be bourée-like, gavotte-like, sarabande-like, minuet-like, passepied-like, French gigue-like, loure-like, and forlana-like. Chapter 15 discusses gigas, both Giga I—like pieces which we could tie to a titled giga, and a few Giga II—like pieces though not directly related to titled gigas.

In order to clarify our methods and avoid subjectivity, we list for each dance type the specific characteristics which signal that type of dance when no dance title is present. These checklists are drawn from previous chapters in the book, with a few additions. Drawing on recent research on Bach’s life and work, we have incorporated new dates, facts, and insights as necessary, and have updated the bibliography and index. We have also deleted the old Appendix B and replaced it with a new one which lists mainly pieces mentioned in chapters 14 and 15. Appendix B is not all-inclusive, of course, and our choices are to some degree subjective. In considering the many pieces with dance qualities not included here, we realize that Bach undoubtedly knew and was influenced by other dances, as yet unknown to modern scholars.

We are grateful to friends and colleagues for their continued insightful responses to our questions. Erich Schwandt was particularly helpful in reviewing earlier drafts of the new material, as were George Houle, Don Franklin, and Bronwen Pugh. We profited from presenting a portion of our work at the Cambridge Bach Colloquium held at Harvard University in April, 1999, learning from comments and criticisms of those attending. Our families, as always, deserve high praise: Hilda Jenne, Milt and Louise Jenne, John Little, Tamarack Little, and Bernice Little.

We dedicate this expanded edition to the people of Saxony, in commemoration of the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

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