Classical Music: Dances and Suites - dummies

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

The earliest classical music was composed primarily for singing (for example, in church) or dancing. Very little “easy listening” took place in ancient times. If you go to a concert and hear a minuet, you’re hearing a form that was originally meant strictly for dancing. In the old days, the only people who simply listened to minuets were people without dates.

But as concert music began to develop, composers drew upon what they knew. And so it was that certain rhythms, changes in harmonies, and musical structures — originally created strictly for dances — found their way into music that people just listen to. Ironically, these days, virtually nobody in the concert hall gets up and starts dancing when a minuet begins.

Much of the classical music you hear today falls into this category — it’s composed in a form that was originally designed for dancing.

If you’re listening to a dance form, several things are likely to be true:

  • The rhythm is steady. After all, who can dance to an unsteady rhythm? Even in 500 B.D. (Before Disco), people needed a good beat.

  • The music is likely to be repetitive. That is, it’s not developed too much. The musical ideas that you hear come back again and again. Here, too, nothing has changed; think “That’s the Way (I Like It)” or “Let’s Get Physical” or “Hey Jude.”

  • The title sounds like the name of a dance. It might be “Waltz,” for example, or “Mambo.”

A suite is a bunch of musical movements grouped together. Suite comes from a word meaning “follow,” and it refers to a sequence of things that follow, one from the next (as in a suite of rooms).

In early times (the Baroque period, for example — late 1600s to mid-1700s), a musical suite consisted almost entirely of dances, and the movements were named according to the type of dance they represented — for example, allemande, gavotte, bourrée, minuet, rigaudon, sarabande, gigue, and courante. Much as they may sound like a roster of the French Parliament, these were, in fact, courtly dances of the European royalty.

Handel’s ever-popular Water Music (Track 01) is from a Baroque suite like this. If you listen to this track, you’ll understand what is meant by steady rhythms and a dancelike feel.

In the last century, the word suite came to signify any grouping of movements that belonged together: “Suite from Carmen,” for example, consists of various melodies and interludes from the opera Carmen, by the French composer Georges Bizet (1838–1875). You can also find suites from The Nutcracker, West Side Story, Star Wars, and Shaft. Probably.