Can’t dance, won’t dance: how music lost its dancing-feet

There are several reasons why the music of Beethoven evokes a profound sense of boredom in me, but the principle reason is that, as Beethoven expanded the architecture of music, he caused it to lose it rhythmic impetus.

Ballet de la nuit (1653)

Ever since medieval folk lifted their feet to dance the estampie and the ductia, and those of the Baroque danced the chacone, gavotte, menuet, gigue and other types, music had often been driven by a powerful rhythmic impetus. Bass-lines in Bach are often as melodic as the topmost melody line, but they are also as light-footed. The Baroque period saw music dance its way through a variety of dance-forms in instrumental concerti, in concerti grossi, even in the epic B Minor Mass.

Beethoven, it’s true, employed dance-forms – Wagner himself famously called the symphony no.7  ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ – but he sacrificed the rhythmic drive in music for larger-scale structures, in order to support his ever-expanding compositional arguments. Bass-lines ceased to be as melodic as they had been for Bach, and were consigned to underpinning the harmonic and tonal motion: tonics and dominants abound, depriving the bass part of its chance to participate in contrapuntal texture and keep the momentum.

Romanticism continued to explore expanding compostion; Impressionism examined light and colour in music. It wasn’t until Michael Tippett’s sprung-rhythm technique (see, for instance, the wonderfully light-footed first movement of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra) emerged in the twentieth century that rhythm was again elevated to being a principle concern in music.

I won’t deny that Beethoven has his fleeter moments – Symphony no.8, for instance – but that’s not enough to combat the ever-lumpen nature of some of the other orchestral works.

Beethoven: giving music its leaden tread.

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