Our Bach piece
Dance music is in the DNA of classical music, and composers have continually returned to forms that originate in rhythmic movement: Mazurkas, Marches, and all those Waltzes just to name three.
That’s no coincidence. Both music and dance are such inextricably intertwined art-forms, you cannot actually fully imagine one without the other. Many cultures possess the same word for music and dance, seeing no need to distinguish between what they see as essentially the same thing.
This works planet-wide. Every social-anthropological study has show that music and dance are intrinsic to every tribe and culture across the globe. Every one. This isn’t writing, or sculpture, or football. This is truly international.
And yet, when we think of Classical Music, how often do we really think of the free abandon of dance?
On the Dance Floor
The composer, Maurice Ravel, got the beat (and the title) of this piece from a Spanish dance, the Bolero. But when you go to hear the Bolero performed, you sit down and you sit still.
People used to dance to what we now term ‘classical music’. But it’s been some 150 years since society’s betters twirled their silks and satins to the latest Strauss waltz. Since then, classical music has become a bit of a dead-end for the dancing public.
There’s the ballet, perhaps. But if you really fancy a boogie, you’re scarcely going to rush for tickets to Swan Lake.
At this point I should say that from personal experience, you can dance to classical music, but from personal experience you’re best advised to do so in the privacy of your own home.
So why has classical music become so divorced from dance?
Or to reverse the question: how has classical music managed to maintain such a dominant position in our culture despite keeping its audience so physically caged?
The simple answer is that is is music that is so good, you simply have to sit and listen to it to take it in.
Unless, of course, you’re making the noise…
Lord of the Dance
When you see a symphony orchestra live, you immedately appreciate how much movement and motion there is in classical music. Which is one reason why experiencing live classical music can so enhance it.
When you see a full orchestra in action, you see the pulse and movement of rhythm everywhere. For starters, many of the players can’t stop moving. Here a trumpeter points their trumpet higher in the air as he plays a higher note. There an oboist weaves as they wind out a melody. The players themselves move alot. And watching them can be fun, but can also tell you more about the music.
That’s particularly true when you watch groups of instruments moving together in a full symphony orchestra. A section of players lifting their instruments together ready to play – the uniform rise and fall of violin bows – the simultaneous rustle of hurriedly turning pages.
It gives an excellent visual reference for the music itself.
The string sections are best for this, as the rhythm of the music matches the bowing. You can actually see a musical phrase rippling through the string sections, a dance of bows that gets repeated in the different sections as the phrase is repeated. I’m pretty sure a completely deaf person can get a sense of a piece of classical music by watching the orchestra playing it.
Now look at the person at the centre of this musical maelstrom: the conductor.
Watch him at work, and you’ll see rhythm personified: the swirl of the baton, the frenetic gesticulations of body.
If you’ve always assumed classical music occupies some higher plane to the dance-floor, maybe ask yourself a question:
How come he’s the only one allowed to dance?
- For the link to my contribution to that huge prestigious genre – the dancing conductor mashup – go here
- For a full version of Ravel’s Bolero, go here