January 4, 2010
Many years ago, I had occasion to play a Bach Partita for the pianist and scholar, Arthur Loesser. When I finished, Loesser asked me whether I knew how to dance the partita’s five movements. I vaguely knew that the movements were based on old dance forms, but I had assumed that the dance steps themselves were lost in antiquity. To my astonishment, the elderly Loesser then got up from his chair and danced a portion of each movement for me—the robust Allemande, the dashing Corrente, the swaying Sarabande, the high-jinx Giga, and finally the lusty Ciaconna. Then quite out of breath, Loesser said, “This is the noble style of French Court dancing and you must make us want to dance while playing your D Minor Partita”.
I could never again look at Bach as the austere and bewigged figure I had previously imagined him to be. After all, Bach knew French Court dancing, he probably danced it himself, and he infused his music with a sense of irresistible pulse and motion. And why limit this concept to Bach, I thought? Doesn’t every piece of music, slow or fast or in-between, have an unspoken dance wish, and shouldn’t every musician strive to play in a manner that makes the listener want to inwardly sway to the beat if not actually get up and dance? You might say that separating song from dance is as artificial as speech from gesture. Try speaking sometime without some kind of accompanying movement of your hands and body.
My brother Victor recently told me about an event that reminded me of Loesser and music’s intrinsic dance impulse. Victor wrote a lovely tango for us several years ago that we have played often. Eventually, my brother performed it with another violinist at the University of Oregon where he has taught for many years. An oboist on the faculty heard the tango and liked it so much that he got Victor to transcribe it for oboe. Oboists, it seems, are always on the lookout for new repertoire. Not long after, my brother received a call from the oboist. He invited Victor to the graduation recital of one of his students who planned to end her program with the tango. Victor told me that she and her pianist gave a wonderful performance of it followed by enthusiastic applause. Then something unexpected happened. Over the applause and bravos, music suddenly erupted from the hall’s loudspeaker system. It was Victor’s tango transcription that the oboist and her pianist had pre-recorded before the concert. The two musicians re-emerged on stage simultaneously with the music, but instead of bowing to the audience, they turned to one another, embraced, and then ever so stylishly danced Victor’s Tango to its very end as an encore.
I wish Arthur Loesser had been there. He would have loved it.
Photo courtesy of Tango Fire.
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