Tag Archives: Malpied

Le Menuet de la Cour

More than three years ago, I posted a piece on Le Menuet d’Espagne, a duet published in 1715 that I had recently performed. I meant to follow it with a series of posts on various aspects of the minuet, but I went on to other topics instead. A few months ago, I performed Le Menuet de la Cour, a choreography published in notation around 1780. This minuet is, arguably, one of the most famous ballroom dances ever created. It inspired many later versions (from duets to quadrilles and beyond) and, in essence, survived for over 150 years.

Le Menuet de la Cour began life as a piece of music in Grétry’s opera Céphale et Procris, first given at Versailles in 1773. The tune was then used by the choreographer Maximilien Gardel for a minuet danced in act 2 of his ballet-pantomime Ninette à la Cour, first performed before the French court in 1777. In that production, and when the ballet arrived on the London stage in 1781, it was danced by two of the Paris Opéra’s stars Gaëtan Vestris and Anne Heinel. Was the dance published in notation by Malpied the same as the stage duet? We don’t know.

This minuet is short, with 78 bars in all, including the opening 8-bar révérence. It has an ABAABA structure. The notated Menuet de la Cour is not an orthodox ballroom minuet, despite containing figures that are quickly recognisable as the taking of right hands, the taking of left hands and the taking of both hands to draw the dance to a close. The Z-figure is there too, but it is hinted at through choreographic elaborations in each of the two B sections. The A section has 8 bars of music, but the B section is unusual with its 19 bars, if you remember that all minuet steps take two bars of music in 3/4 time. There are minuet steps, but these occur only in the two B-sections. However, much use is made of the minuet ‘grace’ steps (included since at least the early 18th century).

I have danced Le Menuet de la Cour on three separate occasions, with three different partners, and it is only this third time that I have felt I was beginning to understand and properly perform the choreography. The music, at least in the version I danced to, is dynamic. To my mind, it lends itself to heightened style and technique which is grand and almost combative. The playfulness that lies within the choreography is less obvious, and perhaps should not be emphasized.

I won’t try to analyse the dance in detail, but here are two plates from the notation. The first shows the end of the first B-section, at the finish of the Z-figure. The sequence is a series of jettés battus (unusual in the context of a minuet) followed by the pas de Marcel.

Menuet de la Cour 4

Maximilien Gardel, Le Menuet de la Cour, notated Malpied [1780?], plate 4

The other follows the second Z-figure and has a series of jettés and assemblés, followed by chassés and then a full turn on both feet ending with an ouverture de jambe. None are steps to be expected in a minuet.

Menuet de la Cour 8

Maximilien Gardel, Le Menuet de la Cour, notated Malpied [1780?], plate 8

Both sequences are followed by the anomalous single bar, used for a rond-de-jambe by the left leg, transferring the weight to leave the right foot free to begin the next step.

Is the notated Menuet de la Cour a ballroom dance? Well, yes, it is. But it is an exhibition ballroom dance meant to display before a discerning audience the technical skills, refined style and sophistication of the couple performing it. The choreography is demanding, in keeping with its stage origin.

The Pas de Menuet and Its Timing

Between 1688 and 1787 more than twenty different sources provide information about how to dance the minuet. They give a variety of details and I am not going to work through all of them. My interest here is the pas de menuet, the step that defines the dance, and its musical timing. The pas de menuet has four steps to be performed over six musical beats, two bars of music in triple time. As the dance manuals make clear there were a number of different versions of the step and various solutions to the issue of timing.

For some reason, Feuillet did not include minuet steps in his first edition of Choregraphie in 1700. He added them to the second edition of 1701 in a ‘Supplément des Pas’, notating four different versions of the pas de menuet.

Pas de Menuet Feuillet (2)

Feuillet, Choregraphie, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1701), Supplément de Pas (detail)

Feuillet provides no information about the timing of the step. He did address musical timing in his ‘Traité de la Cadance’ at the beginning of his 1704 collection of ‘Entrées de Ballet’ by Guillaume-Louis Pecour. He didn’t include the pas de menuet among his examples.

In his Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister (1717), Gottfried Taubert describes the same four versions of the pas de menuet as Feuillet – the pas de menuet en un seul mouvement, the pas de menuet à la boëmienne, the pas de menuet en fleuret and the pas de menuet à trois mouvements. He discusses timing in some detail, preferring the pas de menuet à la boëmienne because it accords best with his notions of the relationship between the steps and the musical bars.

‘It begins with the bend on the upbeat or last quarter-note of the previous measure; the rise comes on the downbeat of the new measure, and, while the legs remain extended, the right foot steps forward; on the second beat the body holds steady in the raised position; on the third beat the first stiff step is taken with the left foot. On the first beat of the next measure, another stiff step is taken with the right foot, adding a very quick bend of the knees at the end; rise again on the second beat, and in doing so step forward with the left leg. On the upbeat there is another bend right away, with the right so placed as to connect this compound step with the next.’ [Translated by Tilden Russell, The Compleat Dancing Master. 2 vols. (New York, 2012), vol. 2, p. 526]

Taubert does not like the popular pas de menuet en fleuret, because it does not accord with his aesthetic-musical preferences. He grudgingly accepts a timing which gives the first demi-coupé to the first bar and the fleuret to the second.

In Le Maître a danser (1725), Pierre Rameau describes the pas de menuet à trois mouvements and the pas de menuet en fleuret (which he calls the pas de menuet à deux mouvements). He gives the timing for the latter.

‘… which is performed within the Compass of two Barrs of triple Time, one called the Cadence, and the other the Contre-Cadence. But for the better Apprehension, it may be divided into three equal Parts; the First for the first half Coupee, the Second for the Second, and the Third for the two Walks, which ought to take up no longer Time than a half Coupee: But in the last Walk it is to be observed, that the Heel be set down to be able to make a Sink to begin another Step. [Translated by John Essex, The Dancing-Master (London, 1728), p. 44]

Kellom Tomlinson wrote his treatise The Art of Dancing in the mid-1720s, although it was not published until 1735. He describes three pas de menuet: Feuillet’s pas de menuet à la boëmienne, with its demi-coupés at the beginning and the end, which he calls the ‘English Minuet Step’; the pas de menuet en fleuret, which he calls both the ‘French Minuet Step’ and the ‘New Minuet Step’; and the pas de menuet en trois mouvements. His timing for the pas de menuet en fleuret gives the first bar to the opening demi-coupé, with the rise on the first beat, lowering the heel but keeping the knees straight on the second beat and sinking on the third beat. The second bar is given to the fleuret, with the rise of the demi-coupé on the first beat, the second step on the second beat and the third step on the third beat. Tomlinson does not specify the timing of the sink preparatory to the first demi-coupé.

When he writes of the pas de menuet sideways to the right, Tomlinson prescribes the pas de menuet en fleuret, using the same timing as that travelling forwards. When he comes to the ‘Minuet Step of three Movements’ (which, confusingly, he also calls the ‘New Step’), Tomlinson sets out a different timing.

‘The Rising or Receiving the Weight upon the Toe or Instep marks the Time to the first Note of the three belonging to the first Measure; the second is in the Fall of the Heel and Sink which prepares for the second Step of the four belonging to the Minuet Step, which is made by stepping of the left Foot forwards, in the same Manner as the first; and the Rising or Receiving of the Body upon the Instep is to the third and last note of the first Measure. The third Step of the said four is made with the right Foot stepping a plain straight Step forwards upon the Toe to the first Note of the three in the second Measure; the second is in the coming down of the Heel of the said right Foot and Sink that prepares for the fourth and last Step which is with the left Foot, in stepping forwards from the Sink aforesaid; and the Rising or Receiving of the Weight upon the Toe is to the third Note of the second Measure of the Tune, concluding in the same Position from whence it begun …’ [Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), p. 110]

In his own notated version of the ballroom minuet (plate U in the treatise), Tomlinson uses the pas de menuet à trois mouvements whenever the dancers are travelling to the left.

I promised not to look at every treatise on the minuet, but I will include just one more, Malpied’s Traité sur l’art de la danse, which gives a late 18th-century version of this long-lived duet. Towards the end of his text he turns to the minuet and provides not only his own notation of the ballroom minuet but also examples of the timing of the pas de menuet en fleuret (the only step he uses).

Pas de Menuet Malpied (2)

Malpied, Traité sur l’art de la danse (Paris, 1770?), p. 100

His timings for the pas de menuet are closely related to those of Rameau, although Malpied was writing some fifty years later.

I ought to mention that modern practitioners of the art of baroque dance interpret these various instructions in different ways. One area of divergence is the timing of the plié at the beginning of the first demi-coupé – is it on beat 6 of the preceding bar, or on the ‘and’ which precedes the first beat of the bar in which the pas de menuet begins?