What is a... Gavotte?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Gavotte?
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To establish the feel of the gavotte, listen to the third movement, ‘Gavotta’, from Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Prokofiev spells it out with almost didactic clarity.

It’s a dance in four beats to a bar, but with a longish up-beat: two full beats to be exact. Prokofiev makes the rhythmic pattern unmissable by having only violins and violas on the up-beat – dada-dada – then bringing in the full woodwind and strings on the down-beat – DA-da da-da

Most gavottes from the baroque era (the period when the dance became a courtly favourite) aren’t nearly so obvious. Take the Gavotte from the Fifth of Bach’s French Suites. It’s written out clearly enough: two upbeats followed by a full bar of four.

But unless the player stresses the down-beat – dada-dada DA-da – either by accenting or, in the case of the harpsichord, lingering a little on the DA, we may well hear it as a series of even four-beat patterns: da-da-da-da.

The fun for the dancers was probably in resisting the temptation to feel it as a straight four-in-a-bar – to relish the slightly counter-intuitive push on that dada-dada DA. One can readily picture the kind of elegant foot stamp or arm flourish that might have accompanied it.

Whatever the purely musical causes, the rise of the gavotte in the late 17th/early 18th century also reflects a disconcerting social phenomenon. As in so many courtly fashions at that time, Versailles led the field.

A vogue for things ‘pastoral’ – ie a sentimentalised version of peasant life – arose just as the exquisite theatricality of Louis XIV and his équipage grew increasingly remote from the actual grim hardship of French peasant life.

Marie Antoinette’s farmhouse at La Trianon, where she could play at being a farmer’s wife, parallels the adoption of what was originally a Breton communal folk dance, and its transformation into a carefully mannered courting ritual for royal or aristocratic couples. 

Once the gavotte acquired a life of its own, however, in the form of the baroque suite, that too began to be forgotten. Yet perhaps there was something about that somewhat arch, and not very flexible, rhythmic pattern that finally ensured its downfall.

While the minuet was able to transform itself into the scherzo and survive to the present day, the gavotte virtually disappeared in the 19th century. When it does resurface, as in Schoenberg’s Op. 25 Piano Suite, it has a ghostly quality – a poignant reminder that ‘the past is a foreign country’.

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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