Posted in Research for Project 3 Examples

Percussion Quintet Research, Part 2: The Origin of Waltz, La Volta and German Turning Dances

The Romantic Movement brought a new social trend against the conventional rules, well-ordered symmetry and emotional restraint that characterized the classicism and its main dance form – minuet. In music, I wrote how scherzo began to play against these characteristics, starting as a modified joking of minuet. But, a new dance – waltz, as a separate form, showed more revolt to the old minuet, demonstrating directly that:

“As a rapidly growing middle class struggled to find its identity, art, music, literature, and dance became ways to express rebellion against authority and establish cultural independence.” (Knowles, 2009: 26)

Like many subjects I did my research on, there is some controversy over the origin of waltz. Some authors, among them many French writers, claim that la volta (Fig. 1), a renaissance dance, popular around the middle of 16th century to the middle of 17th, was its ancestor.

Robert_Dudley_Elizabeth_Dancing (1).jpg

Fig. 1. La volta danced by unknown couple from the French Valois school, despite its mocking title, Queen Elizabeth I Dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

La volta with its hops, turns, kicks and jumps, was a part of the group of energetic dances in the Renaissance court called galliards, which served as after-dances following the slow and stately pavanes. With its triple time, la volta was the most athletic of the gaillards, but also the most controversial because the couples are in a closed embrace. (Knowles, 2009: 17)

Thoinot Arbeau, French cleric and dance-manual author, in his book Orchesocraphie from 1589, gives the instruction for the dance:

la-volta-blah(Knowles, 2009: 19)

Moralists of the time considered it shamelessly obscene because of the embrace and the revealing of feminine leg, despite the attempts of the female performer to keep the flying skirt held down. There are even those that went so far as to associate the dance with witches and demons. Bodin, in his book Demonomania states that “Also that these night-walking, or rather night-dancing devils brought out of Italy into France that dance which is called La Volta.” (The mirror of literature, 1828: 394)

Johann Praetorius wrote in his book Practices of Witchcraft:


(Knowles, 2009: 19)

Thus, it’s really not surprising that we have those like Cullender, who goes even further to say that la volta, used in “orgies of the devils and witches,” is “…certainly the origin of the modern waltz,” and that waltz’s “… derivation from so diabolical a source is much to be lamented.” (Cullender, 1683: 26)

Moving away from these exaggerated, supernatural writings, many grounded sources also cite that la volta originated in Italy. Knowles (2009: 19) though points out that it is believed to have originated during the late eleventh to twelfth centuries when troubadours were developing the idea of courtly love, in the Provencal courts of southeastern France, with Arbeau among those to confirm this. Knowles explains that the disparity in origin exists probably because the French la volta migrated to the courts of Northern Italy when the Provencal troubadours fled southern France during the first two decades of the thirteenth century while trying to escape the slaughter of the Albigensian Crusades.

In any case, what is certain is that Volta was eventually brought, or brought back, to France by way of Italy, when Catherine de Medici married into the French royal family in the sixteenth century. The dance was enjoyed by the aristocracy, including the the English court, where it was the favorite of Elizabeth, and wasn’t danced by the common folk.

Around 1600s, Volta grown tamer and lost some of its athletic qualities, and became more subtle and dignified  with large steps and hops transformed into smooth, polished glides of the popular douce mannier. Even so, Louis XIII considered the dance indelicate and forbade its use at the court, which could have brought about la volta’s eventual demise. It died out by the middle of the seventeenth century and by the eighteenth century, the disappearance the dance and its exuberant, lusty nature, made place for the controlled codified formality of the minuet.

Many sources cite 3/4 time measure for la volta and 6/8 for gaillard. I was initially confused, since they were both cinq pas dances – with 5 steps in 6 beats. I was wondering how the transition of time signature came to be, but the original notation reminded me that in the renaissance, mensural notation was used, and it had a different concept of musical time. Hence, the time signatures are mostly transcriptions.

Many examples have 3 for their distinction. This creates a slight problem, since there can be few ways to understand it. Now, I’m not an expert on this complex notation, but after some research, I think I’ve got the basics. It also helps that these examples date around the time when the old notation and music theory began meeting with the new one, and the bars started to appear. In some cases, 3 can be understood as 3/1, which is identical to tempus, where the perfect circle shows tempus perfectum. If we take semibreve as tactus or beat, then we have one breve that equals to three semibreves. The absence of an inner dot shows prolatio minor, where each semibreve equals to two minimas:


We find both voltas and gaillards in this type of time measure. Here is a gaillard given by Arbeau:

For volta, also an example by Arbeau, with syncopation:

breve 10.PNG

As you can see in Arbeau’s examples, it can be easily counted the following way as well:

breve 2.PNG

3 in this understanding has the same meaning as 6/2, which equals to


, where the imperfect circle is tempus imperfectum – one breve equals two semibreves, and the dot shows prolatio major – there are three minims in a semibreve:


Apel ( :150) writes about the distinction C3 that can appear as well with voltas, also being equal to  the above sign, meaning 6/2. Indeed, if we see how C3 came to be, it is C – 2/1 measure, tempus imperfectum – two semibreves, and prolatio minor – two minims, and with added triple proportion, it affects the division of tactus (semibreve). C, without the triple proportion, looks like this:


With the tripla proportion, there will be three minims instead of two in tactus (semibreve) and we get 6/2, that is the same as the previous dotted C.

Michael Praetorius (composer, not the one about witchcraft) notated many voltas in C3 (Fig.2a), however, it seems more in the sense of 3/1. At first it seemed like 6/2 because of the various imperfection rules that appear in mensural notation, but because of anacrusis that reminds of the ones from his 3/2 voltas (Fig. 2b), it seems more suitable for O. There is also a bar in one of his C3 voltas that directly siggests 3/1. (Fig. 2c)

breve 1.PNG

Fig. 2a. Volta in C3

Fig. 2b Volta in 3/2

Fig. 2c. Another C3 volta with 3 semibreves in bar

If this didn’t demonstrate how foggy the triple measure was at that time, 3 can also be used for different proportion – 3/2. In a case of William Byrd’s volta (Fig. 3a), it’s used in the sense of C3/2 which equals to 12/4. The 3/2 here denotes that the minims of C are further divided into three semiminimas:

blahsss.pngla volta.PNG

Fig. 3a. Byrd’s la volta in 12/4

In another example by Byrd (Fig. 3b), 3 was used to denote 6/4.


Fig. 3b. Byrd’s la volta in 6/4

Many researchers see no relation between la volta and waltz. Sfetcu (2014:) is one of them and points out that the fundamental differences in technique make it hard to imagine how the one could be related to the other. He adds that the main reason to assume such a descent is merely because they are two of the earliest European turning dances, performed in closed positions. The most that might reasonably be assumed is probably that the development of the waltz might have been influenced in some way by the lavolta, probably the same way fandango influenced bolero (See my blog post about that).

Sachs (:)and other leading authorities think that waltz was rather derived from some of the Alpine turning folk dances, popular in Germany, Bavaria, Austria and Bohemia. All of these couple dances were performed in a close embrace while rotating or sliding. They are identified either by particular aspects of the dance, such as dreher – whirling, weller – spinner, or schleifer – sliding, or by geographical location where the dance was most popular, such as steirer from Styria, or landler, which was derived from Landl ob der Enns, the name for upper Austria. Rust (1969: 68) mentions that there is further controversy about precisely which of these dances waltz is derived from.

The one many authors point to is landler, which originated as the last section of a dance called schuhplattler (4). Himilton (2015: 1) writes that schuhplatter is considered one of the oldest European dances by historians with its Neolithic origin from around 3000BC, although I can’t find more to support this. In actual Latin writing, Schuhplatter was mentioned as early as 1000 A.D. It is characteristic for the Tyrolian region in Bavaria, and is said to have derived from the imitation of the courtship dance of the Alpine black grouse (Knoll and Hiery, 2010: 427), a native animal there. There are also other Alpine folk dances that mimic animals, but it was also interesting to read that a lot of folk dances represent and celebrate professions – muhlradl, meddler’s dance, glockenplattler – bell dance that represents the shepherd and the ambosstanz – dance of the anvil of the black smith.


Fig. 4. Schuhplattler, 1898

Schuhplattler translates to “shoe clapping”, since the body is hit percussively to create interesting and somewhat complex syncopated rhythms. Dancers slapped their thighs, knees, buttocks, feet and cheeks, and even hitting other dancers and using various things to create unique sounds. There are many version and here I will focus on two traditional versions. The first is performed by two men, which symbolizes the fighting of two birds, while the second is danced by both male and female is imitating the courtship of the bird, where the male dancer tries to woo the woman with his dancing.

The two partners would rarely touch until the last section, when they moved into the slow landler with waltz-like steps performed in triple time. The accompaniment of landler is usually of singing or yodeling, or perhaps sometimes of a fiddle and alpine wind instruments. The lilting melodies and use of wide leaping intervals in music, especially evident in yodeling, gave rise to deep swinging movements and lifts in the landler. The dance ends with the signature movement of la volta, where male dancer tosses the female dancer in the air, before bringing her gently back down.

Scott (2008: 118) points out that while the importance of the landler to the waltz is often emphasized, many are neglecting the influence of other turning dances, such as dreher, which Jacob (2007) believes directly lead to waltz.  Aldrich also mentions dreher and how it might have directly influenced that of the waltz, as it also consists of a sequence of six steps performed to six beats in the music, with rotation of the dancers as result.

Kattfuss, although simplifying things a bit, says that the only difference between steps of dreher, landler and waltz is that landler is slower. (cited in Scott, 2008: 118) The slower tempo is due to landler having some more complex figures, like when woman revolves beneath the man’s raised arm, while he stamps a foot, and each of them revolve in opposite directions and around each other back-to-back. You can see this in the video below:

Wright on the other hand only mentions weller as the dance from which waltz originated from. All of this demonstrates what Mirka (2014: 174) explains really well, that the turning dances remain an impregnable tangle. Detailed choreographies do not appear until the beginning of the nineteenth century and the dances themselves appear under dizzying array of names that were often applied inconsistently. This all makes it hard to trace which form influenced waltz directly, leaving it to the speculation.

Moving on, although the attempts were made to prohibit the turning dances, drehter in particular by ministers of religion, and they were met at first, like la volta, with outrage and indignation; The turning dances were however not banned in Viennese court, where aristocracy liked to believe they had not lost touch with ordinary people. Knowles mentions the tradition of using folk themes in German court dates to the seventeenth century when the Emperor and his family, dressed in peasant garb, appeared in theatrical productions and acted out scenes from peasant life.

In general, the turning folk dances were danced according to the outdoor, rough terrain, which is reflected by the movements of peasants in heavy shoes and boots, which lent to the emphasis on dance figures such as stamping. Once they were taken over to the court, the nobility has refined the dances, performing the movements in satin dancing slippers on the polished surface of the indoor, drawing room floor. The change was also evident in suburban dance halls, with dances like langaus, which had sliding movements instead of movements like landler’s hops.

As the dances were polished on court, composers started writing music for these dances, as it was one of their duties to provide pieces for the ballrooms. It was interesting to find out that composers actually had a professional relationship to ballroom dancing. McKee writes “…to be successful, they needed to know what was in vogue on the ballroom dance floor and how to write music that was both beautiful and useful for dancing.” (McKee, 2012: 6) While the turning dances themselves were quite vague, beside the aforementioned confusions with the name and choreography, McKee points out that their fashions and practices in the dance halls changed from season to season, with marked differences between geographic regions; In art music though, the form of landler was quite distinguished from the other.

Mozart put together a set of simple landler – 6 Ländlerische Tänze, K.606 and Schubert also made sets of landler such as 17 Ländler, D.366. The music of Mozart’s landler dances is characterized by a slow harmonic rhythm, a limited tonic-dominant progression, and apreggiating melodies often in constant eighth notes. McKee writes that Gstrein suggest Mozart’s melodic style of landlers being influenced by Linz Fiddlers. These were self-taught musicians that the barges, floating down the Danube River from Linz in Upper Austria to Vienna, carried on board to entertain the passengers. Usually comprising only one or two violins, a guitar and a bass, they specialized in folksongs and popular tunes. McKee gives the similarities of styles in comparison of two Mozart’s landler melodies with two taken from an anonymous manuscript tunebook titled “Linzer Tanze”. 

Mozart’s landler consist of 8 bars of music, followed by second eight bar section, usually repeating the first section, transposed up a fifth. This is quite common for landlers in general, which is why Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau wrote a poem entitled “Styrian dance” where he sarcastically questioned if life in heaven would be “just higher by a fifth,” than the life on earth.

Mozart’s and Schubert’s landler pieces already show musical elements of waltz, which is why when Brahms published a set of Schubert’s landler compositions, he wrote “I could give you a beautiful collection of ‘waltzes’” to the publisher Rieter-Diedermann. It should also be noted that in Spain, in 1786, Soler included a simple landler at the end of the second act of his opera, Una Cosa Rara. In the opera, four main characters performed the dance to the tune, and when the work premiered in Vienna, it created a sensation.

While landler was known as a separate musical form, composers grouped all the other turning dances under the general title deutscher tanze or German dances. Mozart had various sets ranging between six and thirteen dances. All of these were written in Vienna during winter dancing seasons between 1787 and 1791. They are organized as symmetrically balanced, in small binary forms, much like landler. But, as with his minuets, each deutscher is paired with a second deutscher titled trio, thus giving it a ternary da capo layout. As they were newly introduced to the court, the dances lacked a well-defined set of distinguishing musical features, thus, some of the early dances Mozart wrote before 1789, draw on stylistic traits of his minuets. With his K. 586, his deutscher become consistently distinguished from minuet. These show simpler approach to the musical material, which was necessary because of the tempo, where the beat shifts from the quarter note to the whole measure. McKee lists some of the stylistic elements Mozart used for these dances. (Fig. 5)
Fig. 5. Stylistic elements of Mozart’s deuscher tanzes
Another thing specific to these dances is that they follow a format that shows no pattern of thematic repetition, as McKee writes, with “no overarching tonal trajectories that provide unity or a sense of structural momentum”. Major keys prevail within a range of up to three sharps and three flats. The fifth and third key relations are common, but the sets begin and end in the same key. What is very important for these dances are the codas, which “provide a strong sense of rhetorical closure”. Codas begin with a noisy theatrical move to an extended half-cadence, which concludes with a fermata followed by grand pause, that then terminates the meter and the dance. After the silence, the tune of the primary dance is reintroduces, followed by an extended closing passage punctuated by a series of accented perfect authentic cadences. Also worth mentioning is the 3+1 patterns that occurs in phrasing. Many of these elements will become singature features in the future waltz, especially the simplification, codas and the 3+1 pattern.
In a very similar form, Hummel was the first to composed dautscher tanze for piano, like his Op. 28, taking them into the area of pure concert pieces. This early experiment of the deautscher as concert-style piano music will culminate into a piece by Weber, which I will write about, that will foreshadowed the waltz-form of Chopin, Brahms, Liszt and other.

Landler’s place as separate form in art music didn’t stop after waltz’s appearance and continued in Mahler and Bruckner composition when they was an entire scherzo movements. This was very interesting to me, since I researched about scherzo for one of my percussion duet examples.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, the word walzen was finally introduced as a descriptive verb for the turning dances, meaning to revolve, turn, roll or wander. The word began to be used describing the spinning movement, until finally, after 1800, the word Waltzer was used as the name for the specific type of turning dance in which embraced couples executed large circles around the perimeter of the dancing space, while simultaneously performing smaller loops. This early form of waltz, Deutsche waltzer, as Mirka (2014: 108) calls it, finally paved the way for nineteenth-century Viennese waltz. See my next blog post about it.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. La volta danced by unknown couple from the French Valois school, despite its mocking title, Queen Elizabeth I Dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Fig.2a. Volta in C3

Fig. 2b Volta in 3/2

Fig. 2c. Another C3 volta with 3 semibreves in bar

Fig. 3a. Byrd’s la volta in 12/4

Fig. 3b. Byrd’s la volta in 6/4

Fig. 4. Schuhplattler, 1898

Fig. 5. Stylistic elements of Mozart’s deuscher tanzes


Knowles, Mark (2009) The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

Byerley, Thomas and Timbs, John (1828) The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 11. J. Limbird

Cullender, Rose (1683) A Tryal of Witches (Rose Cullender and Amy Duny), at the Assizes held at Bury St. Edmonds … on the tenth day of March, 1664. before Sir Matthew Hale … Taken by a person then attending the court

Apel, Willi (1990) Italian Violin Music of the Seventeenth Century. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Sfetcu, Nicolae (2014) The Music Sound. Bucharest: Nicolae Sfetcu

Sachs, Kurt (1940) The History of Musical Instruments. New York: W.W. Norton

Rust, Frances (1969) Dance in Society: an analysis of the relationship between the social dance and society in England from the Middle Ages to the present day. London: Routledge & K. Paul

Hamilton, Kenneth(2008) After the Golden AgeRomantic Pianism and Modern Performance. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

Knoll, Arthur J., and Hermann J. Hiery, (eds.) (2010) The German Colonial Experience: Select Documents on German Rule in Africa, China, and the Pacific 1884–1914. Lanham, MD: University Press of America

Scott, Derek B. (2008) Sounds of the Metropolis: The 19th Century Popular Music Revolution in in London, New York, Paris and Vienna. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Jacobs, Arthur (1967) A new dictionary of music, Volume 12. London: Penguin Books

Aldrich, Elizabeth (1991) From the ballroom to hell: grace and folly in nineteenth-century dance. Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Mirka, Danuta (ed.) (2014) The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press

McKee, Eric (2012) Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz: A Study of Dance-music Relations in 3/4 Time. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

McKee, Eric John (1994) The interaction of tonal structure and phrase structure as an aspect of form in tonal music. University of Michigan





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