Saturday, September 19, 2009

On the Impossibility of Imagining the Erotic Charge of the Classical Minuet

Social dancing has its functions.  One of the most powerful of these was made vivid for me one Saturday night, twenty years ago, in a village in the Southwest of Ireland.  The dancing floor was crowded the entire evening (my wife even persuaded me, awkward, 6'4" me, to join a dance or two or maybe even three or four, Murphy's Stout being an excellent lubricant of inhibitions). This being a routine event in the community, many of the dancers were very good, but one young pair clearly stood out for the excellence, duration, and intensity of their dancing.  When I pointed them out, one of my cousins explained that they had been engaged for several years, but had had the date set back three more years, as the fiancee's older sister, long considered not to be the marrying type, had suddenly become engaged herself, thus pushing their date back on the calendar, as her parents would now have to save up for an additional wedding.  It was clear that the dancing of the young couple —  a pious and chaste pair — was a prime vehicle for the sublimation of physical aspects of their relationship that had for them been delayed by the older sister's sudden retreat from an expected spinsterhood.

In preparation for a small commission for chamber orchestra, I've recently spent some time with classical symphonies, particularly earlier works of Haydn and Mozart.  The sense of the contrast between the more discursive sonata movements with the song-like slow movements and the cheerful finales is all familiar and sensible to me, but while, in principle, the triple metre dance movements, the minuets, should make sense, I have no real access to them.   In their subdued manner, I would like to imagine them playing out some of the same sublimated eroticism I watched on the dance floor in Ireland, but the damn things are SO gentle and subdued — even when Mozart pulls one of his asymmetric phrasings off — that such an image is impossible.   No wonder they switched to scherzos.


Anonymous said...


Do I remember correctly that when dancing a minuet, the couples draw near and separate repeatedly, turning to and from each other, joining hands as they go? This pattern, esecially in the context of the restrained and decorus style of the minuet, could be very attractive, and attracting.

I enjoy your ideas and your writing.

Elaine Fine said...

One of the most interesting and exciting minuet-related things I have ever done has been to listen to the minuets in Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets one after another. It is just so dashingly clever to see just how far he could go with the form.

Those minuets, obviously, were not intended for practical dancing, but they were probably intended to stir the imagination in dance-like ways. Perhaps the eroticism you write about is another component that makes them so fascinating.

Daniel Wolf said...


Extracting all of the minuets like that is a great way of getting to know the form as part of a repertoire, not just part of a multi-movement piece.

Mozart's minuets are special, but still, don't you find them so clever and so coy that any erotic undertone is sublimated beyond our retrieval?

Elaine Fine said...

But Mozart's sense of eroticism was probably completely mixed with what was happening in the music. But, then again, with the exception of his letters, all we know about Mozart is what we learn from listening to, studying, and playing his music.

I have a friend who suggested that the instrumental Minuet as part of a multi-movement piece was a kind of "nod" (and sometimes a sarcastic one) to the by-then-obsolete French Dance Suite. The Minuet is really the only dance that remained from the socially-necessary courtly dance in the late part of the 18th century.