Lawrence Zbikowski

Music and Dance in the Ancien Régime

In 1777, Johann Philipp Kirnberger paused in the production of his monumental Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik to publish a Recueil d’airs de danse caractéristiques. That he should do so reflected the belief that a thorough knowledge of dance types was essential for the young composer. Thus the preface to the Recueil refers the reader to a forthcoming volume of Die Kunst des reinen Satzes, and the latter makes explicit reference to a knowledge of dance forms that could only come through an intimate familiarity with the dance traditions of the late 18th century.

Musicologists of the late twentieth century took note of the role of dance types in Kirnberger’s account of musical composition and used it as evidence for the importance of dance topics to composers of the 18th century. As shown by Kirnberger’s Recueil, the majority of these dance types derive from the dance traditions of France’s ‘ancien régime’. In this paper I shall explore the contribution French noble dance made to the topical universe available to composers in the latter half of the 18th century. The first portion of the paper will offer a brief review of the dance culture of the ‘ancien régime’ and the dance notations used by choreographers of the period, as these shed light on the relationship between the steps of a dance and its music. The second portion will illustrate this relationship with an analysis of the steps and music for a bourrée, the choreography for which was published in 1700. I shall conclude with a brief overview of the role of dance topics in musicologists’ analyses of the instrumental music of the later 18th century.