If you are a student of a musical instrument, a music teacher, a concert-goer, or a music listener, you will have come across the word Minuet (Menuet in French; Minuetto in Italian. It might be useful to learn more about it, so we can give more context to the term the next time we find it in a concert programme, or attempt to play it. Hopefully this will be the first of many more columns that will look at other terms in music that have their origins in dance.
The minuet began as a social dance in 17th century France; the name probably originates from the small steps (or ‘pas menus’; yes, the menu we come across in a restaurant essentially also means ‘small’, a ‘small’ list) which are part of the dance. It may also have derived from popular group dances of the time, called branle à mener (to move) or amener (to lead).
It is typically in triple (or 3/4; sometimes 6/8) time, to be danced by two people, at a moderate tempo or speed, with a light quality to it. It is this lightness and elegance that gives it its character.
In its dance avatar, it was usually in binary form. All this means is that it had two repeated sections, A and B. Each of these sections are usually eight bars each in length.
The minuet gradually began to be used out of the context of dancing, which allowed composers to use the idiom but quicken the tempo if they so wished. The Italian-born French composer (incidentally also a fine dancer) Jean-Baptiste Lully (born Giovanni Battista Lulli 1632-1687) used it extensively (at least 92 times, by one estimate) in his theatrical works, such as opera and ballet.
It later got incorporated into the musical form called the suite, or the dance suite, about which more in another column. Orchestral suites of the late 17th century often contained one or even two minuets. And this could be true of suites for solo instruments as well. For instance, the Partita no. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 (basically a suite) for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) has two minuets as the fourth and fifth of its seven movements.
And the minuet began to evolve as well. The B section got expanded, often resulting in a ternary A-B-A form. And could get more complex than that as well.
Around the time of Lully, it became customary to give the now ‘middle’ B section over to a trio of usually wind instruments (Lully seemed partial to two oboes and a bassoon), although other combinations were also scored. Over time, this contrasting section began to be called a trio, even when scored for groups larger than three, or even the whole ensemble.
It is thought that Austrian composer Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777) was the first to incorporate the minuet and trio into the symphony, and it remained an integral part, usually the third movement of the four-movement Classical symphony, until Beethoven tossed convention to the winds and replaced it with the scherzo. Again, more about this some other time.
A good example of a ‘true’ minuet, in binary form, with equal eight-bar sections, is the famous minuet from the finale of act 1 of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni.
A minuet often used for didactic purposes for students of the piano and violin is the Minuet in G major, (BWV Anh. 114), essentially a keyboard work thought to be by Johann Sebastian Bach included in the 1725 Notebook (Notebüchlein) for Anna Magdalena Bach, his second wife, whom he loved very much. I must confess I thought it to be the work of Bach too, and was surprised to learn that several musicologists now credit it to Bach’s contemporary, the German composer Christian Petzold 91677-1733). But music books for students, including the Suzuki book 1 for violin, still ascribe it to Bach.
Nevertheless, it still is a good example to look at. Its tempo marking is, as discussed before, Moderato, at medium speed, neither too slow nor too fast, and as its title suggests, it is in the key of G major.
The ‘A’ section is sixteen bars long, divided into two equal eight-bar subsections. The first six bars in each subsection are exactly the same. Without getting into technicalities about cadences (chord sequence at the close of a musical phrase), but suffice it to say that the remaining two bars act like a semi-colon after the first subsection, and a decisive full stop after the second, to use a literary simile.
The ‘B’ section begins in E minor, which is like a cousin to G major, being its relative minor. It too is sixteen bars long, and also has two eight-bar subsections. But there the structural similarity ends. The composer takes the contour of the first bar of the work and tweaks and plays with this idea; he also travels (this is called modulation) to new keys thus far unexplored. The first subsection ends with a lovely chord (D7) familiar to jazz and popular musicians as a dominant seventh.
The last subsection has a new idea for a melodic shape, but its last four bars recall the shape of the last four bars of the first B subsection in returning ‘home’ to G major.
I would encourage those interested to go to YouTube and have a listen. If you feel a sense of déjà vu (or perhaps that should be déjà entendu), it may be because, like me, you also grew up listening to the Stars on 45 compilations, and this melody, albeit modified, makes a brief appearance in one of them.
The 1965 pop song is ‘A Lover’s Concerto’, turned into a smash hit by the girl group the Toys. It takes ‘inspiration’ (plagiarism is too strong a word, and in any case copyright laws don’t apply for composers sop long dead) from just the A section of the minuet. It is modified by adding an extra beat in each bar, effectively making it in 4/4 time instead of 3/4. This is achieved by doubling the length of the first beat in every bar. The same A section is repeated over and over, but rising a notch with a key change each time.
And if you’ve seen the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus, the title character (played wonderfully by Richard Dreyfuss), in trying to enthuse his school students about music in general and classical music in particular, cites this very song and makes the connection to Bach, although we now know the credit should go to Mr. Petzold. And what about Mr. Petzold’s opus? Was he a one-hit wonder, or did he write music just as memorable as this minuet? Definitely worth exploring.
(An edited version of this article was published on 28 May 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)