Program Notes: Music for Forbidden Dances


Both the stately sarabande and the chaconne of the late baroque had rather checkered pasts. In late 16th and early 17th century Spain, they were low-life dance-songs: fast, provocatively syncopated, often with racy texts. Their burgeoning popularity in Spain and elsewhere worried both Church and State, and these dances were banned at various times and places, which only made them more popular. They spread like wildfire throughout Europe and beyond, much like recent dance crazes today (e.g. the macarena, tango, or the twist). Early Baroque composers like Arañes, Merula, Bertali, Marini and Monteverdi left us artistic versions that attest to the vigorous, fleeter forms of these dances.

Perhaps most astonishingly: both these dances apparently had roots in the Hispanic New World, like so many popular dances today. Their exact provenance eludes us, and in their early Spanish incarnations they were mixtures of Central American, African and European forms. Descriptions by the Spanish Conquistadors, as well as by 16th century missionaries who followed them to the New World, attest to the importance of dance and song among the Aztecs. Though there seems little doubt that the saraband and chacona came from the New World, they may have been influenced by the many African slaves brought there by the Conquistadors to mine gold and silver. Along with these precious metals, plundered and brought back to Spain, were chili peppers, chocolate, tomatoes, corn, paintings, jewelry, sculpture, poetry, music and dance.

In the early 17th century, the chacona and “zarabanda” were both sung dances, and they are often linked together — sometimes even confused with each other — in part because they often shared both a basic meter and a particularly characteristic rhythm. Descriptions by missionaries of Aztec dance-song emphasize its licentious nature, its movements often emulating the conjugal act. They were danced by Aztec youths, who delighted in showing off their skills in simultaneous dancing and singing. In the decades that followed the conquista, these dance-songs surfaced in Spain. Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (1562-1635) refers to the chacona as having come “by post from the Indies to Seville.” Elsewhere he writes of lewd movements of the chaconas, “which bring such offense to the chastity and decorous silence of women.”

Don Quixote’s creator Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) writes ambivalently about these dances, praising their spirited effect in one of his novels, but suggesting in another that they were invented in hell. In his novella “The Illustrious Scullery Maid” (1613) he composes lyrics sung by one of his characters – a high-born youth slumming in Toledo at a raucous, drunken party. The song extols the infectious virtues of the chacona: “Feet rush and spurt like quicksilver; people dissolve, consumed with love…” The chacona, he writes, is “a noble lady,” who with the “joyful saraband” penetrates even “the chinks in the walls of convents and monasteries, disturbing the moral decorum that resides in those holy cells.” A recurring refrain claims: “The dance we call the chacona embodies the good life.” This sentiment is repeated by many other composers in their texted chaconas.

How, then, were these wild, “foreign” dances domesticated, becoming the honorable and elegant staples of the late baroque in suites and operas, associated with upper-class dancing? A gradual process of gentrification seems to have taken place over the course of the 17th century. The dances were introduced at court, and dance manuals further served to legitimize them. The purely musical forms (short, sectional works in the case of the saraband; longer, additive variations forms in the case of the chacona) became attractive vessels for composers, whose progressively complicated ornaments and variations also tended to slow the dances down. Then, too, these dances became more and more exclusively instrumental. Ciacconas abound in 17th-century Italian guitar methods and collections. The challenge of creating endless variations over a repeated bass line that remained essentially the same proved universally appealing. In France, sarabandes were incorporated into opera-ballets, as were chaconnes, which often served as large-scale production numbers at the end of an opera. The original fast-paced and seductive qualities seem to have transformed into suave, hypnotic, valedictory and even benedictory apotheoses. Solo keyboard, string and woodwind suites included both dances among others of clearly European origin. Henry Purcell excelled in inventive variations on the form of the chaconne, which he sometimes labeled “chacony.” His “Three Parts upon a Ground” is one if its most striking examples, boasting Purcell’s characteristic contrapuntal mastery as well as constant harmonic invention over the unchanging bass line.

Bach wrote a number of ciacconas, only two are so labeled: one a final cantata movement (BWV 150) with full chorus and orchestra, the other for solo violin. The latter is such an original work that it has become identified with the title more than any other of the many hundreds of surviving ciacconas composed in the 17th and 18th century. That the French title chaconne has become the most commonly used version of the title speaks to the dramatic power and geographic spread of those opera finales of French baroque opera. Similarly, even though Bach labels his violin solo Ciaccona, it is structured in the manner of a French opera finale, with its three sections in contrasting modes. Some have suggested that it was a memorial to Bach’s first wife, who died suddenly the same year he wrote out the manuscript for his monumental Sonatas and Partitas. Certainly his Ciaccona evokes a journey with its set of progressively intensifying variations, and suggests a summing up in a tragic vein. But it is entirely possible that he had composed these solo violin works in previous years and simply gathered them together as a set following his wife’s death. Bach’s inclusion of the Ciaccona in a dance suite confirms that he thought of it as a dance, however stately and serious, and not as a dirge.

Like the saraband and chacona, tango has a confused and racy history. Its origins also involve a hybrid of European instruments, Latin and African rhythms and Spanish harmonies. The bandoneon – that essential instrument in any authentic tango ensemble -– was invented and developed in Germany. (In a similarly counterintuitive development, the saxophone was originally a military instrument in Belgium!) But the particular tradition of tango music which caught on in the late 19th century and spread like wildfire throughout the world seems to have come from the slums of Buenos Aires.

In 20th-century Argentina, tango became a symbol of national pride under certain regimes, but was suppressed by others. Popular singer/actor Carlos Gardel became a universal icon, identified with tango song. Many musicians, including several generations of the Del Curto family, have developed its styles, traditions and its reach. Astor Piazzolla and his disciples, including Hector Del Curto, have raised tango music to a high art form whose appeal derives partly from the fact that despite its sophisticated evolution, tango hasn’t lost something of its original sassiness, darkness, and strangely bewitching mix of violence and tenderness.

Robert Rodriquez’s Tango playfully derives its text and energy from journalistic and ecclesiastical condemnation of early tango, which spread like a virus through the Americas, Europe, northern Africa, — even as far as India. It’s hard to say which aided the tango’s contagion more: the considerable attractions of the dance itself or the many hopeless prohibitions instituted against it. Setting various quotes from newspapers and church edict to the music of tango, Rodriguez lays bare the hilarious futility of authorities trying to get the human race to stop sashaying, bumping and grinding, and otherwise celebrating their bodies.

~ Copyright 2017, Daniel Stepner