The Courante

Couple Dancing.jpg

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

"A very solemn dance with a nobler style and grander manner than the others, and has dignified and distinguished movements, Louis XIV, of happy memory, was pleased to prefer it."

Rameau (1725) [1]

 

Translated as ‘running’ or ‘flowing,’ the courante enjoyed great popularity during the first 70 years of the 17th century where it was performed in both ballrooms and theatres, although it continued long into the 18th century where the courante was used to teach beginners the basics of dance. It was already well-established at the court of Louis XIII and was commonly known to be the favourite dance of both Louis XIV and his cousin, the British monarch, Charles II. The dance was also popular in instrumental suites, where it ordinarily followed the allemande.

The courante is typically characterised as stately, noble, serious, and majestic, and instils an element of ‘sweet hopefulness’ within performers and spectators.[2] Whilst the French courante was written to echo the Italian courante, it is considered to be much more restrained and elegant in comparison to the Italian, which is typically taken at a quicker tempo. Courantes written and performed in the early 17th century did adopt a fast tempo similar to the Italian, however during the reign of Louis XIV the courante was taken at a much more moderate and slower tempo and was understood to be the slowest triple metre dance, with pendulum markings suggesting a tempo of 82-100 per beat. Within the overall tempo, quick movement is produced through sequences of shorter note values, most noticeable quavers, giving a pulse that drives forward and flows through the larger phrases.[3]

Written in binary form, the two sections of the courante are unequal in length, with the second section commonly containing more bars than the first. This unequalness is also replicated on a smaller scale, as the uneven length of sections which form longer phrases are a defining feature of the courante. Musicians should sustain the overall phrase in a ‘noble, compelling manner, with dignity and composure.’[4] Almost all courantes written in the late 17th century and early 18th century have a time signature of 3/2, a French variation of the Italian corrente in 3 or 3/4, although some may be marked 6/4. A crotchet or quaver upbeat is frequently found at the beginning of the dance, and commonly shares the same pitch as the downbeat that it precedes.

 

Cross rhythmical figures are characteristic of courantes, with the frequent use of hemiolas resulting in regular shifts between 2 and 3 beats per bar generating rhythmic liveliness and variety. To contrast, rhythmical stresses within each bar produced by the choreography may appear on beats 1 and 3, 1 and 2, 2 and 3, and beat 1 alone. Even though multiple beats in a bar may appear important, musicians should not accent more than 1 beat per bar at any given tempo in order to achieve a ‘tantalising ambiguity of cross rhythms matching the steps which are often divided unequally in the bar and cross bar lines.’[5] Crotchets should remain short and unaccented and be executed in a light and detached manner to reiterate the noble and stately characterisation of the dance.[6] Notes inégales should be applied to a succession of quavers, but single quavers, such as an upbeat or final quaver before a cadence, should be performed shorter and lighter to place further emphasis on the beat that follows.

 

The choreography of the courante looks to the untrained eye to be rather understated and simple through the use of small springs, bends, and rises, but in reality, requires ‘unwavering concentration and considerable physical control.’[7] The temps de courante and pas coupé are both characteristic steps which express a flowing and sustained quality, whilst élevés, a rise initiated from a bend, coincide with the strongest beats of the bar.[8] By the early 18th century, the courante was used as the basis of dance training for beginners, and was considered by dancing masters to be the most appropriate dance for courtiers to ‘know how to dance well.’[9] It’s popularity gave rise to the development of its standard steps, which could be significantly embellished for variety and to increase complexity.

Listen

Courante from Sonate pour le Flute à bec (1712)

Anne Danican-Phildor

00:00 / 01:44

Recorder - Beth Toulson

Harpsichord - Martin Perkins

[1] Rameau, P. (2003) The Dancing Master. [Translated C. W. Beaumont]

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

[3] Whitley-Bauguess, P. (2005) Introduction to Baroque Dance

[4] Little, M; Jenne, N. (1991) Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach

[5] Tarling, J. (2000) Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners

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

[7] Hilton, W. (1977) Early Music, Vol. 5, No. 2: A Dance for Kings

[8] Hilton, W. (2003) The International Encyclopedia of Dance: Courante

[9] Rameau, P. (2003) The Dancing Master. [Translated C. W. Beaumont]