Long before the Harlem shake, swing dancing and even the waltz, there was Renaissance-style dance music. Learn about the music behind the dance, and how dance influenced the future of music.
Purposes of Dance
Don't deny it; you know you love to dance. Even if you're not a great dancer, when you hear that sweet beat thumpin', it's hard to stay still. The groove-worthy pairing of music and dance has been around forever, and aside from making one feel happy, it had significant social purpose during the Renaissance period. Like dancing today, dance in the Renaissance period was often done for entertainment. However, it was also considered a social expectation. Royal court stewards were constantly dancing to prove their worth. In fact, to be taken seriously as a cultivated person, you were expected to have great dance skills. Dancing was often done in pairs, and as such, it was a natural component of courtship. So, it was important to dance properly if one didn't want to be single forever.
It's a fair assumption that dancers need music; it helps the dancers carry a steady beat, provides emotional impact, and confirms that the dancers are not just wiggling around from some nasty rash. At the beginning of the Renaissance, dance music was primarily instrumental arrangements of popular vocal works. The music was often performed by harpsichordists, lutenists, or instrumental groups. As the period progressed, dance and dance music grew increasingly more intricate. Instrumental music started being written exclusively for dances, using specific rhythms to guide the dancers' steps.
One of the most famous collections of instrumental music, called Danserye, was written by composer Tielman Susato in 1551. The collection featured songs to accompany several dances, each composed with the dance choreography in mind. This concept of a set of pieces played in succession was revolutionary, and the concept influenced instrumental music composers through the next two musical periods.
The music written for dances was tailored to the performance of the dance, with rhythms mirroring the movement of the dancers. The steps of the dances also required specific forms. To keep things interesting, a few commonalities developed, such as paired dances. This is different than dancing as a pair. Paired dances meant a slow dance and a fast dance, danced in succession. Typically, the first dance used a two-beat count, like 1-2-1-2, and the second dance used a three-beat count, like 1-2-3-1-2-3.
Two of the most significant paired dances were the pavane and the galliard. The pavane was a slow, stately, processional-style dance in two-beat time, while the galliard was brisk, lively dance with skips and jumps in three-beat time. To accommodate the dancers, the music reflected each accordingly, with the pavane sounding slow and steady and the galliard having a bouncier feel.
Another pairing pays homage to the Italian heritage of the dances. The passamezzo and saltarello were another common two-beat, three-beat pairing. The passamezzo was very much like the pavane, but a bit faster. The dances could be intermixed as well, such as the pairing of the passamezzo and the galliard. This is an often referenced pairing in composer Michael Praetorius' collection, Terpsichore. The collection of over 300 dance songs was published in 1612 and was named for the Greek goddess of dance. This reflected the Renaissance philosophy of humanism and its roots in ancient Greek and Roman cultures.
Eventually, more than two dances were danced together, because hey, who wants to stop the party so soon. This later inspired the suite, which was a popular instrumental music form based on the music of many dances. It was developed during the Baroque period as a result of the compositions made during the Renaissance period.
The dance and accompanying music of the Renaissance were truly a match made in heaven. The rhythms played synced with the dance steps, providing musical guidance for increasingly complex dance choreography. While viewed at the time as a social entity, the dances of the Renaissance period highly influenced music of later periods.
Tielman Susato's Danserye and Michael Praetorius's Terpsichore demonstrated how grouped dance songs could be played instrumentally, and be enjoyable even without dancers. This sparked the notion of exclusively instrumental music at a time when it was considered useful merely for accompaniment. Even the forms of dance songs, like the pairing of the slow pavane and the faster galliard helped to shape the music of future generations, laying the groundwork for what would become the suite in the Baroque period and the symphony during the Classical period.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to discuss the impact Renaissance-style dance music had on future periods of music, including the Baroque and Classical. You may also be able to discuss the different dance forms of the Renaissance era.