The Bourrée

Couple Dancing.jpg

Fig. 33 from Le Maître à Danser by Pierre Rameau (1725)

“Its essential characteristic is contentment, pleasantness, unconcern, relaxed, easy going, comfortable, and yet pleasing.”

Mattheson (1739) [1]


The bourrée derives from the French province of Auverge, where it was believed to have been a popular folk dance before being danced by noble aristocrats in the late 17th century. There are many references to bourrées from the start of the century, most notably in Praetorius’ 1612 publication of Terpsichore, which features a series of three dances entitled ‘La bourée.’

Frequently described as gay, light, and joyful, the bourrée is a very lively dance which is not at all serious in character, and should be performed ‘more flowing, smooth, gliding and connected than that of a gavotte.’[2] Bourrées tend to follow a medium to fast tempo, and are generally considered to be faster than a gavotte, and equal to a rigaudon and gigue. Pendulum markings from the time are typically quite brisk, usually marked at 112-120 for minims, and should be felt in light minim beats rather than crotchets. Musicians should, however, take care when choosing a tempo, as the pulse, articulations, and characteristic syncopations are lost when taken too fast.

Bourrées are written in binary form, where both sections are often repeated. Players should aim to ornament repetitions with their own divisions, which can also be included in repeats of small phrases or petit reprises besides repeats of whole sections. The early bourrées are written in common or cut time, but most bourrées from the 1670s onwards are marked 2 – that is, 2 minims per bar, as if it were in cut time. A time signature of 2 generally indicates that the piece should be lively and well-articulated.[3] By the early 18th century, some composers wrote bourrées in 2/4.

Bourrées are often thought of as being the least rhythmically complex of all the French dances, and should be ‘executed gaily, and with a short and light bow stroke.’[4] They begin with a single crotchet or 2 quaver upbeat, a method which all 34 of Lully’s bourrées follow, and include simple phrase structures which are usually 8 minim beats (or 4 bars) long, following a 2 bar question and 2 bar answer format. Notes Inégale should be applied to quavers in succession if the tempo allows for it. Cross rhythms are formed through syncopation within the music which is not present in the dance steps, such as in bar 2 of Ex. 1 where the crotchet-minim-crotchet rhythm is offset against the 2-minim pulse. Bars 7 and 8 also illustrate the characteristic cadential figure frequently used in bourrées, consisting of a short-short-long-short-long rhythmic sequence.


Ex. 1 - First section of Bourrée pour les Basques from Xerces by Lully

Bourree Example.jpg

The most common step performed when dancing bourrées is the pas de bourrée, which follows a short-short-long rhythm. In comparison to the music, the dancer has their weight over the left leg and bends on the upbeat, steps forward on the right leg on beat 1, forward with the left leg on beat 2, steps again with the right leg on beat 3, then holds and bends on beat 4 ahead of repeating this sequence on the other leg. It is common for this sequence to be repeated many times in succession, along with variations whereby the step also moves backwards or sideways. Other lively steps, including jumps and leaps, are typical in bourrée choreography, complimenting the rapid moving motion heard in the music.  


Bourrée pour les Basques from Xerces (1660)

Jean-Baptiste Lully

00:00 / 00:52

Recorders - Beth Toulson and Charlotte Constantine

Harpsichord - Martin Perkins

[1] Mattheson, J. (1981) Der vollkommene Capellmeister. [Translated E. C. Harriss]

[2] Mattheson, J. (1981) Der vollkommene Capellmeister. [Translated E. C. Harriss]

[3] Mather, B. B. (1973) Interpretation of French Music from 1675 to 1775

[4] Quantz, J. J. (2001) On Playing the Flute. [Translated E. R. Reilly]