Dance forms with three beats to the bar were remarkably persistent in Western music, until rock and roll proclaimed the triumph of four-four to an apparently willing world. But it’s easy to see why some might have found that a relief. We’re bipedal animals.
Even if you have the proverbial two left feet you can probably dance something in four-time. But to make elegant patterns in three-time with two feet demanded elegance, poise. It was a sign that you weren’t a mere rustic clodhopper, which is probably one reason why the minuet became the archetypal courtly dance.
One derivation of the name ‘minuet’ relates it to the French ‘menu’, meaning ‘small’, ‘slim’ or ‘slight’, and a dainty step – particularly on the downbeat – seems to have been desirable from early on.
The minuet became popular at the French court in the 1660s, where clearly the Sun King found it a useful way of auditioning female consorts. The court composer Lully accordingly made use of it in ballets and operas (the King no doubt appraising discreetly from the royal box), after which it began to make its way into instrumental works, especially the dance-based suite.
Something of the formality of Versailles passed into what became its typical structure: an arch-like A-B-A, where B represents the central ‘trio’ section – so-called because in some early examples composers reduced the number of players to three – a distant memory of which survives in some of Haydn and Mozart’s symphonic minuets.
From the suite evolved the symphony and the sonata, where, interestingly, the minuet survived until the turn of the 18th-19th centuries – as a middle movement in the symphony, but often as a finale in the sonata.
But composers were doing their best to shake its courtly complacently: Mozart by adding complex, driven counterpoint (Symphony No. 40), Haydn by notching up the speed and substituting the term ‘scherzo’ (‘joke’) in his Op. 33 String Quartets, and Beethoven by seizing Haydn’s initiative and turning the official symphonic scherzo into a form capable of embracing elemental drama (Symphony No. 9).
Meanwhile, in Austria, the dainty minuet began a liaison with the rustic Ländler (emphatic downbeat) which produced the waltz: elegant, but with a push on the first of the three beats. All this from a form originally ‘slight’. Incidentally, the term ‘menuetto’, as used by Mozart in his Jupiter Symphony, has no equivalent in any language.
At least the Wombles had the wit to correct it.
This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine