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Regency Era Country Dances - Music
Contributed by Paul Cooper, Research Editor
One of the most common questions asked about Regency era Country Dances is how quickly they were danced. Were they slow and elegant, lively and vigorous, or did they vary in tempo? In this paper we'll explore the music for Country Dances of the Regency era and the timing of the dancing, using material from 200 years ago. If you're interested in wider subject of historical social dancing music, we have discussed the music for 18th Century Cotillion dancing in a previous article.
I should emphasise at the outset that I am not a musician. I have no musical training, and a poor understanding of musical terminology... I'd therefore like to apologise now for the inevitable mistakes I'm going to make in writing this paper. This paper relies on the published works of two Regency era dancing masters to investigate this subject, Thomas Wilson and John Cherry; they both emphasised that the printed music for Country Dancing is often erroneous or misleading, and that musicians must play in a style suitable for dancing, avoiding a blind devotion to the printed score. Their observations illuminate the entire subject of social dancing in the Regency era, and influence the modern interpretation of those same dances.
Figure 1. Musical Characters with References, from Thomas Wilson's 1820 Complete System of English Country Dancing
We've previously written about the Country Dancing industry in the late Regency, and explored some of the distinctive figures used in early 19th Century Country Dancing, this paper explores a related aspect of the Regency dancing style. I'd like once again to repeat a note of caution: the Regency was a period of world history spanning roughly a decade, it's unlikely that the experience of that diverse population was uniformly the same. We only have limited evidence from which to reconstruct our theories of the past, so the results will inevitably be skewed; it's likely that there was a far greater diversity in the experiences of social dancers 200 years ago than can be determined from printed sources today. If you prefer to dance historical Country Dances in a different fashion to how they're described here, please do so; it's likely that someone 200 years ago shared your preferences.
In this paper the references to John Cherry refer to his c.1813 A Treatise on the Art of Dancing in the Ball Room, and a reference to Thomas Wilson refers to the 1820 edition of his The Complete System of English Country Dancing, unless otherwise noted.
Note: this paper is part of a series on Country Dancing. The full collection consists of:
Strains and Bars
A Country Dance tune is normally arranged in groups of 8 bars, referred to as
From the point of view of a dancer, it's convenient to consider Country Dancing music to be universally composed in 8 bar strains; but the reality isn't always that simple. Cherry further explains (page vi):
Musicians may perhaps think it strange, that I should, in the course of my work, assert that there are only eight bars to a strain of country dance music, when sometimes there are sixteen:- the fact is, that when there are sixteen they are played in the time of eight, and only operate as half bars in the division, and I thought it useless to trouble dancers with that on which musicians themselves disagree, therefore merely alluded to the eight divisions in a strain, which would always seem what they are, (bars) if correctly marked.
This fascinating remark is made in the preface of Cherry's book, it demonstrates that he considered many country dancing tunes to be printed in an imperfect form. He could refer to
Wilson also described the musical strains in country dancing music:
From the outset we're faced with two different techniques for working with the music. Cherry normalised his musical references into a
Figure 2. An example of music written in 2/4 time that should be in 4/4 time, from Thomas Wilson's 1820 Complete System of English Country Dancing
A subject related to the number of bars is the
Wikipedia describes the time signature as follows:Time is of two kinds Common and Triple. Common time is also called equal time, because it is divisble into equal parts, and it is denoted at its commencement by a large C... itindicates the amount of a Semibreve, or four Crotchers in each Measure.
An important observation is that the time signature doesn't indicate the speed at which a given note is played, just the relative duration of each note compared to all of the others in the music. This observation brings us to another area of confusion with Country Dancing music. Wilson explains:
He continued this discussion further, providing other examples of how the music might be written to use exotic time signatures, without affecting how it is played at all. The important observation is that whether you have 2 beats to a bar, or 4 beats to a bar, the amount of time needed for dancing is approximately the same. So the musician must play the music based on the requirements of the dancing, not a mechanical insistence that music in a particular time signature should always be played at a particular speed. Figure 2 shows an example that Wilson himself published, the tune markedIt must be remarked, that many Tunes that should be written in Common Time, are frequently written in 2
No 8is written in 2
4 time, but could be rewritten in 4
4 time; if rewritten it would occupy the same number of bars and could be played in the same duration of time, but the semi-quavers would be replaced with quavers (and so forth for the other notes).
We now have two strategies by which music can be normalised for dancing: 16 bars can be shrunk to 8 bars just by ignoring every other bar line and changing the time signature accordingly; and time signatures can be changed without affecting the number of bars simply by changing the types of notes used. Neither of these changes need affect the music as it's played and heard, they're just changes to the notation itself.
As a dancer, I personally concur with Cherry; I find it useful to speak of 8 bars in a Strain, and to discuss the duration of each bar in seconds, regardless of the time signature. The published music may not have been written to match this fancy, but it can be normalised to do so. This personal preference can be confusing to anyone with access to un-normalised music, terminological care is required to avoid unnecessary confusion.
Long and Short Measure Tunes
Figure 3. A selection of tunes in different measures, with bars per strain noted. College Hornpipe and Ye Yo are from Wilson's 1816 Companion to the Ball Room.
Thomas Wilson identified a further problem that often occurs with Country Dancing music. Put simply, the printed music can be too 'thin' to dance to - there are insufficient beats to a bar. He invented the terms
He described long measure as:
A Strain of long Measure consists of eight Bars Common Time, of which theCollege Hornpipeaffords an example, each Strain of which unrepeated is a Strain of long Measure. In Triple time, eight Bars in 9
Long Measure is the usual arrangement of music for a country dance, most forms of which have 8 bars in a Strain, as dancers would expect. The exotic 12
There are many Tunes in long Measure, in which the first Strain will consist of eight, and the last Strain of sixteen Bars, and therefore, when these Tunes are played as Country Dances, and considered as two part Tunes, the first Strain should be repeated, and the second played straight through; but to consist of three parts or Strains, the first and second Strains to be repeated, and the third played straight through, &c.
If taken literally, Wilson has informed us that even if the printed music is missing some repeat markers around the shorter sections of the music, it should be played as though they were present, such that each section is of equal duration.
Short Measure is more complicated, it's typically written with four bar strains, Wilson described it as:
A Strain of short Measure consists of four Bars in 9
Example tunes written in Short Measure include the first tune in Figure 2 (8 bars in 2
Wilson attempted to categorise long and short measure tunes based purely off the time signature and the number of bars, but it's not always that simple. He went on to admit:
There are instances where Music, from the fantastic style in which it is written, asYoe, Yoe,and some other Tunes that contain eight Bars in Common Time, instead of being written in 2
His example of a short measure tune in a
In summary, for some printed tunes the musical strains need repeating to provide sufficient music for dancing to. Wilson provided guidance about how to recognise this, but ultimately it's an issue of taste; whoever is arranging the music must decide whether to play it as written, or whether to repeat the strains (or to ignore repetition markers!). Figure 2 shows two tunes, both written with 8 bars in 2
This issue can be both subtle and complicated. It's quite possible for different adapters of the same Country Dance to make different decisions about the same tune, one adapting it as long measure and the other as short, and for both to achieve elegant dances. In most cases a tune naturally lends itself to a particular arrangement, but it's not wrong to tweak the musical score if it doesn't match the needs of the dancers - the printed score is not sacrosanct, printed music was often corrected 200 years ago!
Adapting Music for Country Dancing
Figure 4. Rowlandson, c1820, A Ball at Scarborough (presumably adapted from the 1813 print). A Country Dance is being danced, the musicians are elevated in their gallery.
One of the challenges that modern country dancers have is finding musicians who understand how music should be played for dancing to. As we've seen, Country Dance music as written can be quite misleading, if considered in isolation. For dancing purposes we may need to rearrange it:
Wilson claimed to have done his best with the music he published, and was keen to claim that any errors were not his responsibility:
When Musicians play a Dance, they should observe and play it in the Time it is marked, and not (as is frequently the case with careless Musicians,) play an Air that has been marked Andante in Prestissimo Time; they are likewise requested to notice whether the Strains or any part of them should be repeated, and to play them accordingly, otherwise the Figures, however correctly they may be set, will not answer the Music, and the blame will certainly fall on the composer of the Figures, though in reality it is caused by the neglect of the Musicians. In theCompanion to the Ball Room,and the rest of the author's publications; he has been particularly careful not only to put in the dots, to mark the repeats in the Music, but has also given directions over each Figure.
Cherry was prepared to spread the blame for a bad dancing experience more widely (page 38):
I have before remarked, that country dancing is of very scientific composition, and is founded upon strict mathematical principles; but I now think it proper to inform the reader, that those mathematical principles do not always appear, either in the works of those who arrange the figures, or those who compose or print the tunes; as, from both departments, very frequently issue compositions abounding with the most glaring errors: neither does the performance of country dancing often wear much of a mathematical appearence, owing to the irregular manner in which many persons go through the figures..
R. Hill, author of the 1822 A Guide to the Ball Room also shared the blame out (I'm quoting from the 1830 edition):
A further reason for changing a musical score can be found in the instruments it's arranged for. Wilson himself was not above criticism for the arrangements of his own music; an unfavourable 1817 review of one of his Country Dance collections in The New Monthly Magazine reported:
Musicians might also add variations or riffs on frequently repeated music. For example, a footnote at the end of Thomas Bolton's 1808 A Collection of Airs, &c (which primarily consists of Country Dancing tunes and figures) notes:
Tempo/Speed and Musical Accent
Figure 5. A Regency "Girl Band", date, title and artist unknown. Image courtesy of the British Museum. The women are playing a pianoforte, harp, tambourine and triangle. (And no, of course they're not a Country Dancing band!)
The speed or tempo at which the music should be played is one of the more contentious of subjects in the modern recreation of historical Country Dances. To some extent it really doesn't matter, a tune can be played quickly or slowly, and good dancers will adapt accordingly. John Cherry offered some suggestions (page 22):
... every strain contains or occupies the same portion of time, which is divided into eight parts or bars, each bar being equal to or containing, a certain portion of time, about the space of three quarters of a second; but as country dance music is composed in various sorts of time, the bars will occupy or contain more or less, in proportion to the music being quick or slow, and varying from half a second to a second, or perhaps rather less or more; however, if the music be properly played, its division by bars will be as perceptible as the music itself; and the dancer must move the feet slower or quicker in proportion as the bars are shorter or longer.
If we multiply Cherry's timing suggestions by the 32 bars in a typical country dance, he's suggesting that a single iteration takes between 16 seconds and 32 seconds,
A key point that Cherry emphasised is that the music must be composed and played in such a way that the dancers can hear the phrasing. Cherry went on to reemphasise this point (page 28):
Thus as bars are played quicker or slower, the feet must move quicker or slower; but the figure, which remains the same in distance and form, must always be completed when the strain of the tune is completed, and its divisions applied, in exactly the same proportion, whether the time be quick or slow. I once more repeat, that the strains or divisions of the tune, and the bars or divisions of the strains, may be as perceptibly heard, when the music is well played, as the music itself.
The dancers are expected to move quickly or slowly as required, but they need to be able to hear how far through each strain they are, and the transition from one strain to the next. Wilson made a similar observation, emphasising that
When short or half Figures are set to strains of long measure, great attention must be paid to the playing of the music, two being required to one strain, one of which must end, and the other begin in the middle of the strain; frequently where there is little or no accent in the music to guide the Dancer; the time must however be kept, and the Figures joined together on the proper note, without any hesitation or innovation on the time.
If the music is composed for Country Dancing, it should have clear emphasis at the four and eight bar boundaries. The musicians can help the dancers by adding a little additional emphasis, hesitation, or accent at these important moments in a dance tune. The dancers will appreciate such phrasing, even though it's not something the musical score emphasises; the musicians were expected to know about this from personal experience, rather than needing it to be marked in the score.
In his Art of Dancing (published in the late 1840s or early 1850s) Wilson once again wrote of Country Dancing music:
Cherry summarised the importance of the music to the dancers (page 67):
... music is an indispensable accompaniment to dancing; and, if it be attended to, will be as competent to give the signal for each figure, and each division of a figure, to a hundred couple as to one; whereby all persons, who are standing up to dance, may know exactly what to do, without consulting any other authority. It is incumbent on those persons, who are not immediately going down the dance, to pay equal attention to the music with those who are; otherwise the part which they have to perform in the figure, will be incorrectly done, if at all.
In an era before amplification, dancers wouldn't have the benefit of a Caller announcing dancing directions to them throughout the Dance; attention must instead be applied to the music and the dancers around them. For this reason both Cherry and Wilson demanded silence from the dancers. Wilson wrote:
Maelzel's Metronome and Tempo/Speed
Figure 6. Maelzel's Metronome. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A revolution in musical technology arrived in London in 1816. Johann Maelzel, a German inventor, advertised and sold his new Metronome device to the British public (it was derived from a similar device by Dietrich Winkel). His metronome was a mechanical apparatus that could beat out a constant yet configurable tempo, measured in beats-per-minute; composers could use it to indicate the precise speed at which they intended their music to be played, and musicians could reproduce the music at that same speed. A detailed 1821 review of the metronome can be found in The Quarterly Musical Review, and an 1817 review in The Scots Magazine. The 1815 patent can be read in The Repertory of Patent Inventions.
From around 1816 musical publishers started to attach beats-per-minute indicators to some of their music. In so doing, they have provided us with clear information about how fast they expected their music to be played. In 1817 The Repository of Arts complained that Thomas Wilson was not yet using the metronome in his dance publications; the following comment refers to the music of Wilson's La Batteuse:
We are surprised Mr. W. does not avail himself of Maelzel's Metronome, as hinted on a former occasion, to indicate the precise time in which this and other dances are to be played. In dances, the tempo is a matter of great importance, and the Metronome furnishes an instant and infallible guide in this respect.
Wilson did refer to the metronome in the 1820 edition of his Complete System of English Country Dancing. He commented:
If I've done my sums correctly, the slow speed is 1.5 seconds per bar, or 48 seconds for a 32 bar tune in Common time. The moderate speed is 1.15 seconds per bar in 6
I may not have interpreted those beats correctly (please correct me!), but it seems that Wilson promoted a slower Country Dance tune than Cherry. Wilson discussed this issue further:
Formerly, before the introduction of Steps, it was customary to play every Air, whatever might be its character, in one time: namely, with the utmost rapidity, because the Dancers were at a loss what to do, either with their feet or themselves, if they were not in perpetual motion. But, since Dancing has become a Science, various Steps have been introduced, with a view to display the skill of the Dancer; and as these require more Time to perform them with elegance, it follows of course, that the Time in which they ought to be played will be considerably slower than before their invention.
The inference is that slower music allows good dancers to display their skills, and faster music can disguise a lack of dancing skill. Perhaps Cherry expected his novices to be of the dance-as-fast-as-you-can variety. It's worth noting that not everyone danced Country Dances at the same speed; a Regency era Country Dance might be danced quickly at one venue, and slowly at another, based on the temperament and skill of the dancers.
Note: The steps used in English Country Dancing did change over time. The A.D. writer in 1764 documented that a simple step-hop sequence could be used for any English Country Dance, but evidence exists of a range of new steps being introduced from the late 1770s. The new steps were influenced by French Cotillion dancing, Balletic sources, and Scottish and Irish sources. We'll investigate this innovation further in a future article. If you play historical Country Dance music from multiple eras, you might like to consider the date of the dance in your decision of how to arrange the music.
I've struggled to find any other early publications with clear beats-per-minute references for Country Dancing tunes. If you know of some, please do get in touch as we'd love to know more!
If you're interested in the tempo of Quadrille dances, several early Quadrille Sets exist with explicit settings for Maelzel's Metronome. One such example is Michau's Second Set of Quadrilles, we've animated them here. They feel uncomfortably fast to me, but since they come from one of London's most successful band leaders of the 1820s, they're of unimpeachable provenance (assuming that his metronome was accurate, and the information comes from Michau himself and not from his publisher); Michau used between 112 and 120 crotchets per minuet in 2
Timing of Figures within the Dance
Figure 7. Plates for Ascertaining the Division of Time in Music and Figures, from John Cherry's A Treatise on the Art of Dancing in the Ball Room
Cherry wrote of the importance of synchronising the figures and music within a dance (page 34):
He also explained that the dancing activity should be distributed equally within the musical strain (page 63):Suppose the figure of the dance to consist of the three figures, which are called, set and change sides and back again, down the middle and up again, and swing corners, - of course the first figure must begin and end with the first strain of music, the second with the second strain of music, and the third figure must begin and end with the third strain of music, and then both tune and figure would recommence.
As an aside, an observant reader might note that Cherry used an entire long measure strain for hisNow when the figure of set and change sides is to be performed, the first quarter of the strain of music should be appropriated to the setting, the second quarter to change sides, the third quarter to setting again, and the fourth quarter to bring the parties back to where the figure began.....The top couple would then go down the middle, and would occupy half the second strain of music in going down and the other half in coming back...the figure of swing corners would then commence, and engage in performance all the three couples...
down the middle and up againfigure, something Wilson arranged in half of that music. If pupils of Cherry and Wilson were present in the same dance, accidents might be expected! Cherry shared an annecdote of just such an experience (page 66):
I will mention a circumstance I once witnessed at a public ball, held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, in the Strand: while one couple, who were coming down the dance, were finishing the figure of set and change sides, another couple, who had finished the same figure too soon, went down the middle, and as they returned were met by the couple before mentioned, who were then coming down the middle, with a violent concussion, exactly in the center of a set for the figure of the dance, who were performing the figure of swing corners. Thus were ten persons all in confusion on one spot, and neither seemed to have sufficient judgement to say which was wrong.
Cherry advised beginners to develop a sense of the timing by using the images in Figure 7. The eight red spots represent bars of music, they're used as follows (page 23):
The person making use of them is to be placed sufficiently near a good clock, which has a long pendulum, to hear distinctly the noise occasioned by its vibration, which is a sort of tick or beat; then with a pen, tooth-pick, or any other thing that will touch equally light on the paper, commence with the circle marked A, touching a red spot, or bar thereof, every time the pendulum of the clock vibrates; the circle will then have been touched on every spot in the course of eight seconds, as the pendulum vibrates once a second. Now if this be repeatedly done, never going round the circle in less than eight seconds, nor yet taking more, a correct division of time, as it applies to a figure, will be practised.
This concept is then applied to consider how a half and a quarter of the circle apply to a half and a quarter of the dance figure. Once the circle is mastered, the learner should use the line, then the curved line in the same way. They then progress to practising half a second for each red dot, then three quarters of a second. Then the smaller patterns should be used to practice figures that would typically take just four bars of long measure music to perform. In so doing, the learner will have developed a sense of the timing that is requisite for Country Dancing.
A further subject that Wilson and Cherry both discussed is the importance of selecting suitable steps for a dance, so that it can be danced to the tempo of the music... that's a subject we may come back to discuss in a further paper.
Consideration for Musicians
Figure 8. The Country Concert, 1794. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library.
Thomas Wilson in his 1816 Companion to the Ball Room wrote an essay on Ball Room Musicians. The following observations come from that essay:
[The Author] has had good and frequent opportunities of observing the manner in which musicians are in general treated by their Employers and by the Company, which is too generally in a contemptuous manner. Their being considered asobligedto play for hire for their Employer's Amusement, they are frequently treated worse than their servants, and never, or seldom spoken too, but in an imperious haughty manner, by the names of fiddlers, endeavouring thereby to shew a superior consequence in themselves, and the dependance of the Musicians: or otherwise, adopt the other extreme, and become very familiar, and ply them with Liquor, in order to make them drunk, being with those persons a common opinion and saying, that nothing is so amusing as a drunken fiddler, the whole of the Musicians coming under this title whatever instrument they play. This is a base and pitiful advantage, and refects no credit on those who practice it. That these persons should occasionally drink is no wonder, from the Dust arising from the Room, and great Exertions in playing long Dances; but more should not be forced on them than is needful.
Wilson went on to write of the unfair expectations people have of musicians, expecting them to know every obscure tune published in the myriad Country Dance collections. He ended his essay by suggesting that the Company of Musicians should oblige professional musicians to register and carry certificates of competency, thereby protecting themselves from the accusations of incompetent clients.
This is clearly one aspect of the past in which modern reenactors are not encouraged to maintain complete accuracy!
That's where this study ends. There's much more that could be said about adapting Country Dancing music: rey-keying for modern instruments, composing base lines and melodies, stylistic associations with dance types (hornpipe, strathspey, waltz, jig, etc.), inserting phrases in a minor key, sequencing tunes into a medley, slowing the music as the final repetition comes to an end, and so forth... but I'm not competent to comment on such subjects, other than to encourage experimentation. The dancing experience 200 years ago must have been rich and varied, so if you're recreating a historic social dance, please have fun with it! As always, there's significant room for additional discoveries to throw further light on how Country Dance tunes were played during the Regency era; if you have additional information to share, especially metronomic settings, do please get in touch with us.
This paper has been written to focus on Regency era Country Dancing, but the issues involved may be relevant to the Country Dance tunes of other eras, and to other social dancing forms. If you're struggling to adapt a Country Dance of a different era, you may want to use some of the techniques documented in this paper to assist you.
I'll just leave you with one final (perhaps controversial) thought:
I don't subscribe to the argument that historic social dances must be recreated today in the documented style of the likes of Wilson and Cherry. The dancing masters emphasised the need for perfect timing, steps, punctuation of the dance and so forth, but they also wrote that most dancers failed to achieve that perfection. Dancing Masters were biased writers - it was in their interests to tell everyone that they needed to improve. Ordinary social dancers 200 years ago clearly weren't achieving perfection. As a modern enthusiast, do please strive for perfection, but don't worry about failing to achieve it. The important things are to enjoy the dance, and not to spoil it for anyone else. Concentrate on being in the right place in the dance at the right time, and the rest will improve with experience. Social dancers 200 years ago were not stage trained professionals... they were ordinary people who enjoyed having a good time.
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