Music and Dance

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William Weber

History books usually place music among the sister arts, incorporating its history into style periods such as the baroque, the romantic, or the realist. Yet an argument can be made that music has been related much more closely with politics and the social life of its publics than with painting, poetry, or the novel. While broad artistic communities existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for the most part a European musician had far more to do with his patron than with painters or writers. Much the same can be said of the dance, for it evolved in close relationship to music in the grand festivals put on at courts to honor births, marriages, or visiting dignitaries. In such contexts we can profitably study the history of music, dance, and indeed society itself.

Music is the most social of the arts. As a performing art governed by ritual, it is much less an individual experience than reading books or viewing artworks. Music is involved in a great variety of social contexts: the home and the school; the tavern and clubs; public institutions such as the church and municipalities; and events in parks and arenas. Most important of all, musical performance has been central to the social life of middle and upper classes, and in some places the working classes as well. Music therefore offers the historian an unusually good context within which to study some of the most important social groups and movements in modern European history. It also helps us understand European politics from what the British call "out of doors," outside formal institutions. Commentators have often discussed musical life in civic terms—Charles Burney, for example, spoke of the "Republic of Music" in his music history published in 1776.

Scholars from both history and musicology have viewed the musical life as an integral community with its own traditions and discourse, which also contributed significantly to the functioning of larger society and politics. To see how music related to larger social or cultural frameworks, we do best to start not with categories such as the Enlightenment or the middle class, but rather with musical practices and the social framework with which they were linked. Musicologists are very much attuned to this problem; in many cases their interests bear a much closer relationship to the methods of Roger Chartier, a leader in French thinking on mentalities, than to those of traditional intellectual historians. They start from social contexts in attempting to re-create musical practices in the musical life of a cathedral, court, or city. Jeffrey Kallberg has contributed the most important ideas about how musician and public worked within a contract that laid down both musical and social expectations for a musical genre, and within which they negotiated change in both composition and performance. Neal Zaslaw has shown that we cannot understand fully how W. A. Mozart approached writing a work unless we know precisely for whom and in what context he intended it. Jane Fulcher has demonstrated how deeply politics, as it is broadly conceived today, interpenetrated musical life in discourse and in musicians' careers. The social history of music, in other words, involves more than audience studies: it goes to the heart of music itself as an interactive art.

It is important to see that music had a distant and ambiguous relationship with the mainstream of European intellectual and cultural life from the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century. The learned tradition of scientific and philosophical theory on music—notions of the "harmony of the spheres," specifically—became much less important in the universities and in European thought generally, and written discourse on composition or performance of music remained limited, usually appearing only in pedagogical form. Polyphonic music, based chiefly in the church, served as the main area of higher learning among musicians but had weaks links with literary life; indeed, humanistic thinkers tended to be hostile to it as a scholastic exercise. It was only during the middle of the eighteenth century that commentary on music shifted from aural into printed form and became part of a larger cultural discourse—philosophy, history, criticism, and journalism. The arrival of music within these spheres marked a major milestone in the art's history, giving it a lofty role in secular cultural life such as it had not possessed before.

Music historians studying the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance have contributed a particular amount to social historians, most importantly on the nature of patronage and court life. Iain Fenlon has argued for discontinuity in patronage, showing how the dukes of Mantua reshaped the music of their court, both sacred and secular, in idiosyncratic ways. By contrast, Kristine Forney has stressed long-standing traditions in the ways music was performed and works commissioned within confraternities of sixteenth-century Antwerp. Study of musical performances at court can tell us a great deal about the larger nature of sociability, gender roles, and political meanings, and about how people listened. Christopher Page has done such a study on the late medieval trouvères, and Tess Knighton, on the court of Castile in the fifteenth century; they show how textual, musical, and social needs interacted in the ways music was presented. Musicologists and historians have raised questions about the validity of speaking about the Renaissance as an epoch in the sweeping terms that are so common. Nino Pirrotta has argued that Claudio Monteverdi was not directly influenced by the intellectual life of Florence; rather, he took advantage of its interest in drama in order to explore new ways to set music and dramatic text. Honey Meconi has likewise asked musicologists to reconsider the extent to which humanism affected the sixteenth-century practice of imitatio.

The very roles musicians played within the courts of the fifteenth through the eighteenth century can help us see that the old society was not as bound to a rigid corporate structure as is often claimed. Highlevel musicians were extremely mobile and independent in their careers, moving frequently from one place to another as opportunities presented themselves. New genres and styles in fact spread around Europe in large part through the journeys of monarchs and their agents. The career moves made by Josquin des Prez, Monteverdi, or G. F. Handel, who reshaped musical practices significantly as they went, illustrate the individualism that Jonathan Dewald has shown among aristocrats of the time. Many musicians of this sort served as secretaries and political advisers to monarchs or noblemen. Handel, for example, took his first trip to London in 1708 chiefly to send back reports on the unsteady condition of English politics as the King of Hanover awaited the succession. Thus, let us not say that musicians were always banished to eat with the kitchen staff.

The rise of opera in the seventeenth century offers a useful perspective on the varieties of absolutism and society. Lorenzo Bianconi and Thomas Walker demonstrate that operas grew up variously in courts and cities, and as court institutions within cities. In some cases one could find larger audiences in courts than in urban theaters. Bianconi and Walker see opera emerging within a small elite that served the political and social purposes of monarchs or of the patriciate. Robert Isherwood likewise shows that the operas Jean-Baptiste Lully produced for Louis XIV brought a new scale to the traditional festivals for visiting dignitaries and interacted textually with court gossip and politics. Opera then shifted from court to municipal contexts, at a time when the cosmopolitan public began to take on political authority, forming what is usually called the "public sphere." The Académie Royale de Musique, for example, became established in Paris well before the death of Louis XIV and demonstrated how the public had succeeded the king as the principal source of authority over taste. By the middle of the eighteenth century such a shift away from royal courts and into city centers had taken place in the great majority of countries.


Musical culture provides an excellent context within which to study the emergence of the new forms of public life that related closely to development of the public sphere during the eighteenth century. Between about 1700 and 1870, London, Paris, and to varying extents the capital cities of Europe generally played host to a particular elite social life, bringing together wealthy and influential people, generally in greater numbers than had been the case at the courts. The cities indeed robbed the courts of their former central role in politics and culture. The social world of the new urban elites was not as intimate as that of the courtiers; nonetheless, individuals did not experience nearly the degree of anonymity that was to characterize urban life by the end of the nineteenth century, as a result of population growth and the rise of mass politics. The urban elites most commonly referred to themselves as part of the beau monde, or simply as "the World." Musical, theatrical, and political issues—querelles, as the French termed them—were debated within a tightly knit network of institutions and personal relationships. Letters of the period move back and forth between personal gossip, party politics, and opera news with a naturalness that seems quaint in our day. One can argue that members of the beau monde learned how to participate in a political community by participating in opera disputes. The best-known of these disputes arose over the Italian style in London and Paris shortly after the turn of the century, and again in Paris in the late 1730s, early 1750s, and late 1770s. Jean-Jacques Rousseau put himself on the public stage through musical discourse, first publishing an extravagant treatise on musical notation and then denouncing the French language as an operatic vehicle—in effect, an attack on the court, coming as it did in the midst of the intense constitutional crisis of the 1750s.

London led Europe in establishing public musical activities during the eighteenth century. Public spaces became central to the capital city and its cultural life. Concerts held in York Buildings—the first public room in London designed specially for music—have a history leading up to the construction of the Royal Festival Hall in the South Bank arts complex in 1951. The growing concentration of the elites, together with the professionals and artisans who worked for them, reshaped both the institutions and the discourse of musical life in profound ways. Indeed, the modern concert originated in early-eighteenth-century London. Professional musicians became unusually independent in their relationships with wealthy families, establishing fee-for-service relationships much more consistently than was done elsewhere. Public concerts became far more numerous and specialized there than anywhere else in Europe partly because the loose, postrevolutionary state of political authority in Britain meant that licenses were not required for such events, as they were almost everywhere else. The petty capitalism that evolved among musicians was nonetheless still based upon patronal relationships within a tiny elite. As Simon McVeigh has shown in London Concert Life from Mozart to Haydn, few concerts were held outside the West End, and musicians did not widely develop publics among the middle classes until the 1830s.

London's Italian opera company, established in 1708, was the only example in a monarchical system of an opera founded on a commercial basis, legally independent of the court. The high fees given to singers there came to set the standard throughout Europe. The King's Theatre became the most important meeting place for the peerage and indeed the British elite as a whole; it in effect became its main resort outside Parliament. Though opera librettos made only muted political implications, the theater made a powerful statement about the unity and consolidation of the Hanoverian succession.

Throughout Europe public theaters, especially opera, stood at the center of the elite public world. Going in order "to be seen" should not be construed necessarily as an opportunistic act of attempted upward mobility; since being in public was so basic to elite life, attendance was assumed to be a normal social act for anyone presumed part of the beau monde. Opera became considerably more of an obligation than the spoken theater, since it was linked to international elites. Many of the manners and mores of the beau monde seem quite foreign and sometimes downright offensive to us today. The etiquette of the beau monde in theaters was rather more multifaceted and tolerant than ours today. Attendance at a theater was a social act; to go was by definition to mingle with the assembled company as much as to see a production, and as a result a diarist usually saw no need to mention what he or she saw on a given night.

In fact, an individual would often attend several theaters in an evening, arranging to see favorite scenes, players, or singers, or meeting with people in different halls and boxes. The idea that musical pieces might comprise integral, permanent works of art was weak as yet; most operas were patchworks—pasticcii—of arias from different works by various composers. But that should not impugn the seriousness of the public. Since many people saw an opera production often within a season, it was not thought obligatory to sit through it all. Social behaviors—talking, moving about, some sources say playing cards—were tolerated to an extent not normally seen today, but that does not mean that no one cared about what went on stage. People liked to say that nobody listened to the opera, or that nobody knew much about it, but such a statement was a trope, a gentlemanly irony. The English man of letters Horace Walpole, one of the leading connoisseurs of singers in his time, several times said in his letters that he was not going to listen that night at the King's Theatre, since nothing interested him about the production. Least of all should we think that composers such as Mozart, J.-B. Rameau, or C. W. Gluck were not respected in their time; the controversies that broke out over their music were testimony to their great significance in public life.

Public display of sexual license was another trait basic to the beau monde and, by that token, to the musical world of the cosmopolitan elite. While freedom from moral codes had long been something of a privilege of the uppermost social orders, sexual intrigue became far more open and more competitive within this milieu than it had been before. The opera was the focal point for sexual gossip; Lady Mary Coke, a divorcée from the Argylle family, always kept her Paris-based sister well informed on such matters in her letters. The French playwright P.-A. Beaumarchais became famous all over Europe for the critique of the new elite mores in his legendary dramatic triad, which librettists then toned down for the less adventurous audiences in other capitals. Lorenzo da Ponte, for instance, made the Count in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro much less licentious than in the play. People read Beaumarchais avidly in Vienna but were not ready to see discourse on sexual morality approached so bluntly on stage. Indeed, in Vienna the public took on cultural authority more slowly than in London or Paris. Emperor Joseph II severely limited the role of ballet at the opera—an act that would have risked an aristocratic uprising in the two other cities.

Musical culture is invaluable as a context within which to think about the evolving relations between areas of what we call high and popular culture. In the eighteenth century there was much less stratification than we may presume among listeners by levels of learning and taste. Songs based on well-known popular tunes were thought mundane and were distinguished from works done with greater craftsmanship and called artful, but it would not be unusual to perform them together. Opera seria was not thought "serious" in anything like the sense in which we use the term and by the 1780s opera buffa rivaled the other genre for leadership in musical style. Indeed, the best-known melodies from Lully's tragédies lyriques were soon set as hymns and drinking songs. Opera was assumed to be accessible, indeed attractive, to all members of the elites and to the people from other social levels who formed part of the elites' world; both aficionados and less serious listeners went to the same productions in the same halls. From the founding of public opera halls in Venice in the 1630s such productions were for what one might call "general taste."

Concerts also followed practices that seem foreign to the musical world of today, in which popular and classical tastes are carefully segregated. Programs were often called "miscellaneous" in the sense that had originated in poetry—meaning that a variety of idioms and tastes would be provided. One would almost always hear both vocal and instrumental music: after opening with an overture, a program might offer an operatic number, a solo virtuosic piece, an Irish melody set to a sentimental text, and it might close the first half with an opera finale. In the provinces one might in fact see a juggling act or a trained dog. The norm at most concerts was an experience comparable to what we might hear at a pops concert today: a program that included works thought to demand quite different levels of learning. Connoisseurs accepted such practices; they themselves wrote the texts of the popular songs and were the main judges of vocal talent.

Yet musical life began to develop a much more learned avenue of taste during the eighteenth century: the performance of revered "ancient" music. By tradition it had been unusual, though not unknown, for works more than a generation old to remain in performance. Britain led in the performance of old music, and by 1780 one could hear concerts all over Britain that offered music by such composers as William Byrd, Henry Purcell, Arcangelo Corelli, and Handel. Charles Burney and John Hawkins published the first music histories in 1776, and the Concert of Antient Music was established in London that same year under aristocratic auspices. France saw an even more remarkable innovation: the continuing performance of works by Lully and some of his successors, yielding an operatic repertory far older than that found anywhere else in Europe. While these works were all dropped from the repertory by the early 1780s, the idea of a French canon—Lully, Rameau, and the frenchified Gluck—was firmly established.

Germany and Austria also began to take leadership within musical life at this time. While only a few old works remained in performance there (chiefly ones on religious texts by Carl Heinrich Graun and Handel), a field of highly learned musicians and amateurs emerged to lead Europe in the redefinition of musical taste in the nineteenth century. The first major such figure was Johann Forkel, the music director at the University of Göttingen. A music historian as well as performer and journalist, Forkel was the first to focus university musical training upon historical study. Honoring Johann Sebastian Bach with the greatest reverence, he and his successors mounted a moral critique of contemporary musical taste, arguing that it suited parlor conversation more than serious listening, bringing what we now might call the "commodification" of music. Their idealism can be seen to have had roots in the new discourse on freedom and equality in late-eighteenth-century Germany. Ironically, while their thinking grew up within bourgeois emancipation, it early on developed an ideology antagonistic to the music business.


Musical life of the nineteenth century offers an important context within which to study the leadership of different social classes and the interaction among them. One central change in class structure in the period was the agglomeration of aristocracy and high bourgeoisie into a new upper class; another came in the growing social and cultural leadership of the middle classes. The first change was reflected early within musical life, as members of the two elites began to mingle more closely than had been the custom before. If in the eighteenth century articles on high-ranking concerts spoke of the beau monde being in attendance, now they told repeatedly how the aristocracies of birth, wealth, and talent were represented, elites that were beginning to have a common, if quite loose, identity. Leadership came from each of these groups in different ways: in France, for example, noblemen formed societies to present music before Haydn, while bankers such as the Rothschilds served as patrons of the most famous virtuosos, and intellectuals turned out in force at the concerts of the orchestra that played the classical repertory at the Conservatoire. Ultimately, however, leadership came mostly from the upper middle class through its links with an expanding middle-class public. The foundation for the new musical world of the nineteenth century lay in emergence of musical training for both children and adults, represented by a piano in every parlor and the performance of music there at family gatherings. The economic power of the domestic market transformed the musical world fundamentally, stimulating the sale of sheet music with new marketing techniques and the rise of what the British called "popular music" by the end of the century. This does not mean, however, that the middle classes had a more or a less serious musical taste than other classes. As Nicholas Temperley argued in the introduction to The Romantic Age (1981), it is impossible to discern significant differences on the whole between them and the nobility.

With the disappearance of the beau monde around 1850, musical life began to separate out into a diverse set of publics and activities. In demographic terms there simply had become too many people within the upper classes for a unitary elite world to exist, and the opening of politics to new groups made the upper classes feel threatened and wary of public life. In London, for example, by about 1860 significantly fewer members of the peerage took boxes at the opera, and its performances clearly had become less central to their social life. The public life of the World, formerly focused on the opera, now became much more private than it had been before. Politico-musical querelles of the sort that had been the highlight of public life all but disappeared. The last major such affair in England was the attempt to found a competing theater at Covent Garden in 1847; in France it was the visit of Richard Wagner for a production of Tannhäuser in 1859.

After the middle of the nineteenth century concerts began separating out into separate locales for different kinds of tastes. The diversified ("miscellaneous") programs that had been standard since the early eighteenth century gave way to a separation between what were thought to be lighter or more serious repertories. Canonically defined "classical" works moved into the forefront of concert life, as symphony orchestras and string quartets came to rival the opera, and levels of artistic worth established a new aesthetic and ideological frame of reference. Listening habits became much more strict at such concerts than had been the case before, with talking or moving about condemned as disrespectful to the great works. Still, new kinds of informal "promenade" concerts became just as prominent in public life as those of symphony orchestras. The players at such events—either as bands or orchestras—were often just as good as those at the serious concerts, and sometimes in fact were the same people.

The rise of classical-music concerts came in large part as a reaction to what came to be called popular music. We can find its origins in virtuosic and vocal music dominant in the 1830s that was termed "salon music." While music had been published for amateurs for performance since the sixteenth century, the sale of music increased dramatically with the invention of lithography and the expansion of marketing techniques. The main products, medleys of tunes from the best-known operas, were usually composed by famous virtuosos and then rewritten to be played by amateur singers, pianists, and instrumentalists. A wide-ranging commercial world evolved linking domestic music, the opera, the concert hall, and outdoor performances, with publics ranging from bands in poor mining towns to the most aristocratic salons. Thus, the term "popular" is appropriate by at least 1850: everyone was presumed to know this music, and its dissemination lay in a mass-market industry. The market for this music expanded many times over what it had been in the eighteenth century. It came about as a joint effort of piano companies, publishers, virtuosos, periodicals, and most of all entrepreneurial musicians such as the Paris-based Henri Herz, who started companies to do these things.

During the second half of the century another major component of popular music emerged in performances of songs in music halls and cabarets. While a good deal of singing had gone on in taverns, it had not developed far at all commercially and in many cases might still be called folk music. By 1900 this kind of music, having developed a broadly inclusive public, rivaled formal concerts in prominence and in the size of the public, even though such taste was condemned ideologically by the traditional musical community that had emerged out of the court. Indeed, the rise first of salon music and then of music halls helped pressure that older world into an increasing focus upon a classical repertory and self-consciously serious, learned taste. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become difficult for composers to write for both worlds. A new aesthetic hierarchy had emerged that posed an overarching dichotomy between "light" and "serious" music, of a sort that had not existed in the eighteenth century.

Women took on important new roles within musical life during this period, most strikingly as composers. During the early nineteenth century female singers increasingly composed songs or did virtuosic improvisations upon well-known arias. Clara Schumann emerged as the most prominent woman composer, as well as serving as a powerful performer and teacher; Augusta Holmès had operas produced in Paris, and Ethel Smyth in London. The musical conservatories founded all over Europe were attended chiefly by women and offered what amounted to education on the secondary to graduate levels, leading to employment in a wide variety of contexts. Women were particularly successful in publishing songs for both domestic and concert performance, writing in a variety of light and serious idioms. Still, by World War I the division in taste between popular and serious music made it difficult to compose for both markets, and that hurt women much more than men. And there is evidence that during most of the twentieth century women were excluded from the composing profession as it underwent fundamental changes in both the popular and classical areas.

Equally remarkable was the growth in concert life among the lower middle and working classes. During the eighteenth century a few members of these groups had participated in local music societies, but they had to play a highly deferential role to the gentlemen in charge. Beginning in the 1830s entrepreneurial musicians began to set up choral societies for a broad spectrum of social groups, constituted variously in public and private contexts. Mass concerts by organizations such as the Orphéon in France and the Tonic Sol Fa organization in Britain brought the larger population into public musical life in unprecedented ways. With the development of cheap brass instruments, bands proliferated in Britain, Germany, and France among poor miners and industrial workers, and such ensembles competed for prizes and concert performances on a national basis. Though in some cases an owner might use such activities to blunt the influence of unions, the musical societies contributed significantly to the unity and pride of workers' communities.


A period of particular greatness in concert life arose between the revolutions of 1848 and World War II. During this time there was a relative continuity in repertory, taste, and social locales within which some remarkable music-making occurred in a context of public vitality. Geography helped: cities tended to be close-knit and easily accessible, integral communities within which musical life served as one of the citizens' main pleasures. The vital links between domestic and public music undergirded all this; many people played at home what they had heard in halls. And new music, though beginning to be controversial, was found on most programs and entered into creative relationships with the classics. Much of this changed after 1945. Air travel, television, motorways, and the opening up of new cultural distractions dispersed urban social and cultural life in ways harmful to music. Many of the small communities that had sustained bands, choruses, and orchestras disappeared or lost their unity and the focus of their lives upon music. Indeed, fewer people learned to play or to sing; the piano ceased to be a universal domestic object in middle- or upper-class households. If working-class amateur participation weakened to a particular extent, so did classical-music institutions, hurt by the decline of the amateur public and by competition from popular music.

Yet musical life benefited from some of these same changes. New technology made it possible for far more people to hear music performed on a professional level, which, also thanks to better pay earned by unionized musicians, led to higher levels of performing standards overall. Governments and foundations replaced the individual patron in the support of ensembles, a development which particularly benefited repertories with a limited commercial base such as avant-garde music and early music. In fact, in some areas music became one of the more learned of the arts, a vast change compared to its nature in the seventeenth century. Music history became a standard discipline in most universities. While early conservatories served chiefly to educate local players and teachers, after 1945 they became the places where the most important performers were trained.

One of the most significant changes dating from the start of the twentieth century was the separation of new and classical music into increasingly separate performing contexts. Before that time most programs offered a relatively balanced fare of new and old works, with pianists and violinists playing their own works alongside the classics. But by World War I orchestras and chamber-music ensembles had become musical museums, and the public found itself suspicious of anything new, whether conservative or avantgarde. Repertories of classical music that began with Handel and Bach ended with Wagner and Johannes Brahms; the musical clock stopped, and Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy were honored on a wholly new basis. At the same time composers, publishers, and patrons began staging concerts and establishing organizations devoted specifically to the performance of new music. This can be seen as early as the 1860s in the concerts put on by supporters of Wagner; it culminated in the founding of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1922. After 1945 funding by governments, radio stations, and universities established the world of new music on a firm basis. The major concert centers that emerged were the Darmstadt Festival in the Rhineland, the Donaueschingen Festival in Baden Baden, the Domaine Musicale in Paris, and the League of Composers in New York.

Popular music in its increasingly diverse forms inspired the chief public interest in new musical trends after 1945. Young people increasingly left classical-music concerts to their elders. In France the chanson took a distinctive path independent of American pop. In Britain the Beatles and other groups established a new area of sophisticated music with large publics. In Germany rock groups contributed significantly to the evolution of new sonorities and the use of electrified instruments. Jazz became a powerful movement throughout Europe, in many ways independent of its American origins. In all these countries popular music moved from the cabaret into the concert hall. While both jazz and rock began in dance halls, neither seemed at first appropriate to the concert hall due to the seemingly functional role of the music and the casual manner of popular musicians' musical and social practices. But by the 1960s jazz had developed a sophisticated public that grew large enough for concerts. Rock went much further in that direction soon after its rise in the early 1950s, since early stars such as the Beatles became so popular that they began putting on concerts not only in large halls but also in sports stadiums. In the 1970s new sound systems made possible new theatrical dimensions to the rock concert. And in the 1980s "crossover" composers and performing groups began to present combinations of jazz, classical, and avant-garde works in interesting new ways. Some concert series also began attempting to lighten their social atmosphere in order to attract a younger public. Avant-garde musicians influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage formulated new ideas of the concert independent of tradition, devising music performed in a space rather than a formal hall, usually with performers given improvisatory roles.


The history of dance poses the intricate task of analyzing how related segments of social structure have interacted—that is, how dance functioned within opera but became a separate artistic world during the twentieth century. In the early modern period the same performers served, depending on the context, as singers, dancers, and actors, but these several roles eventually grew increasingly separate. Dance history is now its own field, whose publications historians of music must get to know. Music historians likewise need to recognize how important dance was for the opera-going public during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and not simply treat it as a distraction from the music. As we saw above, variety served as the central principle behind performance of almost all kinds prior to the late nineteenth century. To deride dance unless it plays an organic or dramatic role within an opera is to impose anachronistic assumptions upon an earlier and very different culture. A dance number could variously emphasize an operatic mood, advance the plot or drama, or offer a quite different artistic experience. What made a good theatrical director was his ability to splice segments together to form a sequence that would prove pleasing and perhaps provocative to his audience.

The competitive nature of Renaissance states brought a new scale and intellectual focus to the tradition of holding grand festivals involving a variety of arts. In 1489, for example, the duke of Milan gave a dinner in which the entrées were accompanied by performers acting out the mythological meanings of the food—characters danced as either the fruits of Pomona or the lamb of Jason was brought in. By the early sixteenth century these dances were called balletti, meaning a figured dance understood as a composition of sequential movements. These works were semistaged versions of the social dances of the time, originating in the protocol of court etiquette or in practices of a more popular nature. Treatises appeared to instruct dancers how best to perform these numbers; those of Fabritio Caroso and Cesare Negri at the turn of the seventeenth century specified movements of the feet in detail. Dance was still principally done by members of a court, an amateur activity performed under the instruction of a choreographer. Emphasis was less upon difficult movements than upon the spelling out of elaborate patterns throughout a space, with the audience usually looking down from galleries. The shows were imbued with allusions to individuals and events; sources exist to tell us who danced which parts, and that can have major implications for a political climate. It was conventional for the head of state—Louis XIV himself at the start of his personal reign, for example—to perform before his or her court. The events took different forms in France, where figured dancing was most prominent; in Italy, where the masquerade served as the context for dance; and in Britain, where the masque merged the two traditions with the audience dancing in the "revels."

The focus in dance upon professionals had already begun when Louis XIV last danced in 1670. The Académie Royale de Musique developed the most important company of both male and female dancers to perform in public in Paris. The individual dancer, increasingly women more than men, now came to the fore. The hall was larger and the audience at a somewhat greater distance than at court, though boxes looked down directly upon the stage and at some performances women of the high nobility sat on stage in a semicircle. Basic aspects of ballet technique evolved at this time, most important of all the "turnout" to form a right angle. Marie Carmargo, who made her Paris debut in 1726, then shortened her skirt, to gain freedom for the jump with quick beating of the feet called the entrechat quatre, and danced in heelless slippers to gain greater elevation from the plié done upon the floor. Commentary on dance evolved separately from that on music; Louis Cahusac, for example, became a leading interpreter of how dancers expressed a great variety of emotions. Jean Georges Noverre, the best-known choreographer of the eighteenth century, made a critique of ballet done simply for show and called for dancers to speak to the heart, representing character and feeling. Noverre changed dance composition at the Opéra from formal symmetry to evolving dramatic movements, and he had a powerful influence in London as well as Paris, partly through his work with David Garrick. At the same time, dance became a major accomplishment among the upper classes. Musicians often taught it as well, and dance schools became attached to many universities, especially in Germany.

Ballet as we know it came into place around the 1830s, chiefly in the systemization of dance instruction and the increasing focus on dancing en pointe. The ballet class, best seen in the Code of Terpsichore by Carlo Blasis (1830), became codified into a set of exercises helping a dancer progress from the simpler to the more difficult movements. A whole new way of moving evolved at this time, based upon extension of the back leg and the use of short running steps featuring speed and lightness. Marie Taglioni presented it most prominently in 1831–1832 in the opera Robert le Diable and the dance work La Sylphide. Plot and set design of romantic opera played an important role in the new manner of dancing. Neoclassical mythology gave way to historical plots, focused on richly exotic moods and sets. Popular theaters on the boulevards of Paris led in this change, offering productions on the Incas in Peru and Captain Cook in Tahiti that were made into successful ballets. The ability to lower lighting thanks to the use of gas brought a new sense of mystery and an unearthly quality to the drama. A star system evolved, even larger in scale than had been the case in the eighteenth century.

The social historian needs to pay close attention to the process by which dance began to move away from opera in this period. During the seventeenth century a single act of dance occurred between the acts of an opera, and in the eighteenth it became less common and less important under the influence of the librettists Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio. But in France it took on increasing importance within the tragédies lyriques, especially those of Jean-Philippe Rameau, and within the growing number of two-act opéras-ballets, which themselves might have vocal music. An evening at the Paris Opéra would usually have two or three parts, one or two of them focused on ballet. Noverre's leadership brought ballet's role to the fore, making some commentators complain that dance was replacing opera in the public's attention. But in the middle decades of the century the best-known dance works took on a life of their own—Sylphide, then Giselle (1842) and Copéllia (1870)—even though they were still produced under the auspices of the opera company.

It was in Russia that ballet first became functionally independent of opera. Not only did the tsars give far more funding to dance than any other court or municipal theater, but also from early in the nineteenth century the state theater in St. Petersburg put on full-length works of dance alone. Everywhere else in Europe prior to around 1900 a ballet was rarely given without an opera on the same program. The French dancer Marius Petipa, who arrived in St. Petersburg as premier danseur in 1847, was the chief leader in building the quality of the dance company to rival that of Paris. The works of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, from Swan Lake in 1877 to the Nutcracker in 1892, were the culmination of Petipa's work in making ballet equal if not greater in prominence compared to opera.

The powerful impact of modernism brought dance to the fore as a separate art just after the turn of the twentieth century. No other movement has cut across the arts as rapidly and deeply as this one. Sergey Diaghilev, born in a highly cultured gentry family, first had interests chiefly in music and art, but went on to direct Europe's leading dance company between 1909 and 1929 and in so doing reshaped the field fundamentally. Under his influence and that of Michel Fokine, character dancing in folk idioms took on a new intellectual stature, and a new manner of dancing arose, most prominently in Diaghilev's productions of Firebird, Petroushka, and Rite of Spring with the music of Igor Stravinksy. Diaghilev and Fokine turned ballet away from female leadership, not only with a focus on male dancers but also with the primacy of the male choreographer as auteur. Though overshadowed within the writing of cultural history, women dancers—chiefly Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Loie Fuller, and Maud Allen—were pioneers in the field of modern dance. Duncan rejected balletic tradition directly at the start of her career, abandoning tights, shoes, and classical technique, and built a new kind of solo dance aimed at expression and the pursuit of a new philosophical direction. This became a highly international movement, gaining leaders from the United States, strong public support from Britain, and the support of a variety of movements concerned with rethinking the body in Germany. One could argue that modern dance seriously rivaled modern music within the public, for it was more successful in overcoming the weight of tradition and attracting audiences to new kinds of performing contexts. While musicians, dancers, and painters worked together in establishing the principle of the self-defining artist, in the course of the twentieth century the latter two groups put their works on public display much more successfully than the former.

See also other articles in this section.


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