Bernard Picart (1673-1733) – Etude d’hommes en habit

Zum Spielen und zum Tantzen

Despite of 40 years of advances in musicology and Historically Informed Performances, the dance titles of J.S. Bach’s cello suites, derived from French court dance, often puzzle both cellists and their audiences.

To the composer, they clearly meant more than just abstract reference. In Bach’s time, dance practice permeated social life, and it was indispensable for a musician to have an intimate knowledge of the fashionable dance forms. The movements and gestures of these dances inevitably had a profound influence on performance style.

From 2009 to 2013, as a doctorate fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music under the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme, I conducted a research project entitled ‘Zum Spielen und zum Tantzen’, a Kinaesthetic Exploration of the Bach Cello Suites through Studies in Baroque Choreography. The goal was to investigate how prolonged practice of baroque dance would influence my interpretation of the Bach Suites. Physically learning the essential movements of this dance style, studying original choreographies with the foremost experts in the field, I also explored the dance aspect of the cello suites by way of experiments with historical tempos as well as melodic and rhythmic reductions of the musical material.

The results of the project, a dance performance entitled ‘Inspired by Dance’, as well as a recording of the three first Bach Cello Suites, accompanied by a written thesis, offer a recontextualisation of Bach’s work that emphasizes the close links between the expressive gestures of music and dance.

A condensed version of my project report, along with audio and video material was published in Journal for Artistic Research, Issue 11 (November 2016).  Direct link here.