The Sarabande

Couple Dancing.jpg

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

“A musical composition always in triple time, and is in reality no more than a minuet; the motions of which are slow and serious.”

Brossard (1701) [1]


With its origins lying in the Spanish and New World folk arts scene, the sarabande spread across the continent, where in Italy during the early 17th century it was considered to be a fast, closing dance in 6/4 time. However, by the late 17th century, the dance had been modified and tamed by the French, especially in terms of character and tempo, to become the sarabande that is widely recognised today.

The sarabande is often characterised as majestic, serious, melancholy, and languid, and aims to “move the passions and to disturb the tranquillity of the mind.”[2] As the dance should appear effortless when performed, so should the accompaniment when played by musicians.

The concept of a sarabande being performed at a slow or very slow tempo adds elements of ambition for the dancer, with Meredith Little suggesting that the reason for this is “aesthetic not technical, since it is actually easier to dance them at a faster tempo.”[3] Composers of the time mark them slow, solemn, grave, moderate, or tender, with pendulum markings varying from 63 to 95, although a good tempo for dancing is considered to be 69, steering towards the slower tempo suggestions. [4]

As a triple metre dance, sarabandes generally have a time signature of 3/4 or 3, as seen in early sarabandes with 3 crotchet beats per bar. Markings of 6/4 and 3/2 may also be used. Balance is a particularly important feature of the musical composition and execution of the dance. Musically, they often have two sections, typical of binary form, and may include a petit reprise at the end of the 2nd section. Phrases are normally 4 or 8 bars in length and follow a ‘question-and-answer’ format, therefore musicians should aim for the resolution towards the end of the ‘answer’ phrase.

An emphasised 2nd beat is the most prominent rhythmical feature of the sarabande, whereby the beats in a bar typically follow a ‘short-long’ pattern (Ex. 1). Whilst this rhythm should be clearly emphasised, care must be taken to avoid a heavy accent. This is best achieved by the precise placement of the 2nd beat, which drives forward towards the following bar. An up-bow is most effective on the 2nd beat for string players to maintain the sense of line pushing forwards, whilst woodwind players should detach the 2nd beat from the 1st and choose a stronger articulation upon placement of the 2nd beat. If a note shorter in length than that of beat 2 is present in beat 3 (Ex. 2), then this can be shortened further, for example, from a quaver to a semi quaver, and the longer note emphasised on beat 2 can be over-dotted to achieve a more serious character, especially whilst lingering on particularly dissonant harmonies. Upbeats are less frequently used, as these offsets the sense of equal balance central to the sarabande.[5]

Ex. 1

Sarabande 1.jpg

Ex. 2

Sarabande 2.jpg

Notes inégales should be applied to a succession of quavers when in 3/4 and crotchets when in 3/2, however when present in a bass line, they should remain equal. Due to the simplicity in structure and phrase length, variation is particularly important. Expressive ornaments, including flattement, long dissonant appoggiaturas and trills that accelerate in speed, should be adopted in repeats of sections. A second sarabande, known as a double, is sometimes provided by the composer and should be played in succession from the first.

The musical execution of a sarabande should replicate the dance, which is described as calm, serious, tender, balanced and sustained, and is similar to a passacaille, chaconne and folie. Dancers incorporate sustained yet elegant leg gestures, balances, and turns, which when performed in sequence, reflect the similar suspension and release of movement as heard through the dissonant harmonies and resolutions of the music. No specific step unit is associated to the sarabande, but instead, steps from other dances are adopted. The result is of a graceful and delicate dance which is impressive and moving to audience members and spectators.


Sarabande la Guimon from Troisiéme Suitte, Op. 2 (1715)

Jacques-Martin Hotteterre

00:00 / 02:32

Recorder - Beth Toulson

Baroque Guitar and Viola da Gamba - Carlos Gadelha

[1] Brossard, S. (1769) Dictionnaire de Musique. [Translated J. Grassineau with appendix by J. J. Rousseau]

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

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

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

[5] Mather, B. B. (1987) Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque