Spurred on by the positive feedback I have received from local readers, and thanks to the reach of the internet, to music educators further afield, I have decided to continue the ‘Dance in Music’ series that I began some columns ago with the Minuet.

Rather than follow a historical, chronological order in looking at dance terms in music, I felt it better to address them according to the frequency with which we might encounter them, as music students and teachers, or in a concert programme. So let us look this week at the gavotte (also gavot or gavote).

The gavotte is an old French dance form. It originated in the southeast of France, in the Pays du Gap region; its inhabitants were called Gavots, and their folk dance, the gavotte.


It became popular in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, where Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) composed many examples, and its vogue in Paris lasted until the French Revolution. In its early days as a courtly dance, the gavotte involved couples kissing, but (reminiscent of Bollywood censorship and prudishness here!) this was replaced by the presentation of flowers.

Passing to other countries, it became one of the optional movements of the classical dance suite. The gavotte, the third in six movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita no. 3 in E major, BWV 1006, is a notable example.

It featured on the Voyager Records sent with the spacecraft launched into outer space in 1977.

An internet search reveals that many people looked up ‘gavotte’ in order to learn more about the lyrics of Carly Simon’s 1972 song ‘You’re so vain’; in the first verse she sings “You had one eye on the mirror/ And watched yourself gavotte.” In this context, she is referring to the protagonist’s self-absorbed, narcissistic dancing. Interesting use of ‘gavotte’ as a verb, and it also implies a solo dance. There is poetic license, of course, i song-writing, and a rhyme word was needed to follow ‘yacht’ and ‘apricot’. But the gavotte is danced by a couple or a group.

It is notated in 4/4 or 2/2 and in a moderate tempo. It is usually in simple binary form (which means it has two contrasting sections, A & B); the sections are often repeated.

The distinctive feature of the 18th-century French court gavotte is that the phrases begin in the middle of the bar; so the phrases begin on the third crotchet of the bar, creating a half-measure upbeat.

For this reason, the ‘gavotte’ by François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829), which is widely taught to music students, is not a gavotte in the purest sense, as the phrases begin on the downbeat, at the beginning of the bar.

But later composers like Gossec wrote gavottes with phrases beginning on the downbeat rather than on the half-bar upbeat. The gavotte in Jules Massenet’s opera Manon also begins on the downbeat.

Another ‘upbeat’ example worth visiting, because it also features in teaching material of many music students, is the Gavotte I/II in Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major, BWV 1068. It is the central third movement of this five-movement suite. Incidentally the second movement of this suite is an Air (better known to many of us as the Air on the G string, after it was arranged for solo violin).

Bach fused the Italian and French styles with his own German musical tradition. This very engaging fusion of three national styles can be observed in this suite.

It is thought that the original composition of the suite was for strings and continuo alone; his son C.P.E. Bach wrote out the trumpet oboe and timpani parts, and Bach senior’s student Johann Ludwig Krebs wrote out the second violin and viola parts.

Bach called this suite an ‘ouverture’; its very name indicates its French influence. The French ouverture was meant to be a festive composition written for an occasion. It was meant to precede a stage-work, such as an opera or a ballet. Its form had become standardised under the strong influence of Lully. A grandiose Adagio opening indicating the entrance of the courtiers, would be followed by a gay, brilliant allegro section, to suggest the entertainment to come.

Bach largely adhered to this French tradition, but also greatly enriched it, melodically (often with the bass line itself taking the melody), and with great dynamism in harmonic progression and variety. He thus raised the stature of the French dance suite to musical heights, which were to pave the way for great serenades and symphonies of the following generation.

The rhythm of the gavotte is two light steps and one heavy step twice as long. Musically, this rhythm is a light upbeat and a heavy downbeat. But Bach didn’t intend for this gavotte to be danced; the rhythm of the dance was for him only a springboard for musical invention.

Gavotte I has two subsections, of 10 and 16 bars length respectively. Each subsection is usually repeated.

In Gavotte I, the lower instruments mimic the rhythm of the upbeat when the melody is playing the longer heavy step or downbeat.

The first gavotte is linked to a second (Gavotte II). In this second gavotte, Bach extends the upbeat to three times its normal length. Melodically, this becomes a broken chord or arpeggio. Its many appearances throughout the movement are punctuated by the trumpets.

Gavotte II also has two subsections, also usually repeated, and each 16 bars in length.

Bach makes use of an ingenious device at the end of each part of this second gavotte: when the upper instruments finish off the phrase, Bach cleverly uses the arpeggio, which is the rhythmical and melodic motive of this movement, as a bass; thus it acts as a musical punctuation mark.

If one were to look at Gavotte I as A, and Gavotte II as B, it is performed as A-B-A, with gavotte I ending the movement, usually without repeating each subsection.

In popular culture, a song ‘Ascot Gavotte’ features in the 1956 My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. It is an ‘upbeat’ gavotte, with a suitably canter-trot tempo for the Ascot races.

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 June 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)