A week ago, I had the privilege and pleasure of playing continuo harpsichord for a performance of Handel’s solo cantata “La Lucrezia,” which is perhaps the most weird and wonderful composition of his I have ever heard. During the rehearsal process, I realized that just hidden underneath the twisting voice passages and bizarre chord progressions was a dance; this movement a bourée, that a gavotte. Since then, I’ve been finding dances in almost all the music I’ve heard, and some of them in the most surprising places. An unintended consequence of this, of course, is that I’ve been doing a lot more surreptitious grooving at my desk than before, but I really don’t know if that’s a bad thing.
I can’t begin to discuss dance music without first waxing poetic about the group L’Arpeggiata. Led by lutenist Christina Pluhar, the group’s mission statement, as it were, is to take music — primarily from the Baroque, but source material can be found anywhere from there to the 1970s — and perform it in a way that emphasizes the improvisational qualities of the work. They have an entire album exploring the tarantella and composers who were inspired by the rhythms found in that dance. And, in perhaps my favorite thing ever done to a piece of classical music, they realized that the bass line in Monteverdi’s “Ohime, ch’io cado” sounded suspiciously like a walking bass line, the likes of which can be found in just about any jazz tune from the past 70 years. The result?
And lest one thinks that is just too far from the original (as far as one can really guess, four hundred years out), this is another performance, sung by Emmanuelle Haïm; admittedly, there is a little less swing, but that walking bass line is intact.
Of course, it’s one thing when a modern ensemble takes a piece and jazzes it up, but it’s another thing entirely when the composer him (or her!)self puts a dance break right in the middle of a piece. Enter Georg Philipp Telemann. He often gets overlooked in the Baroque canon, and none of his pieces have achieved any of the fame that Bach’s, Handel’s or Vivaldi’s have, but just a little digging reveals a keen sense of humor, immense musical knowledge, and a deep love of the music he heard and created — and he was never above a good surprise. The suite “Les étudiants gaillards” spends a good amount of time sounding for all the world like a somewhat run-of-the-mill Baroque suite, but then, halfway through the second movement, Telemann apparently couldn’t take it anymore and stuck in a hornpipe. A minute later, the piece continues as though nothing ever happened. In this recording, performed by Il Fondamento, the surprise hornpipe can be heard at 10:40:
In a busy work day, there isn’t usually time for dancing; but a little surreptitious desk-grooving never hurt anyone, and perhaps these pieces will give others opportunities to do so as well.