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Domesticating Dangerous Dances


Dan Stepner (file photo)

Sarabands, chaconas, and tangos will resound Thursday, June 15th at Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis University, as Aston Magna’s 45th Season gets underway. Featured artist Hector del Curto, bandoneon, will join Aston Magna musicians with music by Arañes, Bach, Bertali, Merula, Purcell, Corelli and Rodriquez. Artistic director Daniel Steppner’s interesting  essay follows.

What do Bach’s Chaconne and Astor Piazzola’s Oblivion have in common? Both are masterly takes on dance forms, originally fast and provocative, that had distinctly disreputable pasts.  Moreover, both had roots in the Hispanic New World, doubtless with African influence as well, given the slave trade in North, Central and South America.  While one might well readily perceive that in the case of tango, it is not so obvious in the case of the chaconne (“Ciaccona” in Bach’s spelling).  

Bach himself may not have appreciated the Mesoamerican connection. Dictionaries of his time define the chaconne’s characteristics, not its provenance.  Moreover, by the era of Bach and Rameau, the chaconne had become gentrified, slowed down, musically Bowdlerized.  It was taught in dance manuals and danced at court ballets and operas in France and elsewhere – often as a final production number.  Its character in these lavish settings is noble, valedictory, even benedictory (its accompanying choral texts often praise the illustrious monarch who financed the theatrical production).

Some have argued that Bach’s Ciaccona was a memorial piece for his first wife.  This may be, but it is part of a dance suite and was probably not conceived as a dirge, but rather as a dance – perhaps to an imagined tragic opera.  Its form (variations on a short bass pattern, cast in three large sections in minor/major/minor modes) resembles the chaconnes in Lully’s and Rameaus operas, while exploiting, in uniquely Bachian fashion, the considerable potential of a single violin.

But what of this “disreputable” past?  Literary, journalistic and ecclesiastical sources reveal that the chacona emerged in late 16th-century Spain as a sort of lower-class dance craze.   It was a sung dance with bawdy texts and lewd movements.  References made in contemporary sources about the chacona and its cousin the sarabanda, by writers such as Lope da Vega, Miquel Cervantes, Ben Jonson and Giambattista Marino, suggest that the dances came from Nueva España, much like chili peppers, chocolate, corn and potatoes.  Such were these dances’ provocative qualities, that both dances were banned in Spain.  An edict in 1585 threatens that the dancing of the sarabanda “in whatsoever place” would be punishable by 200 lashes; furthermore, men would be sentenced to 6 years in the galley and women would be banished from the kingdom.  Similarly, the chacona had quickly become a popular theater dance and was banned from the stage in 1615.   These prohibitions only served (as one might expect!) to make these dances more popular.  When sung, their texts often poked fun at the clergy, and suggest that dancing both the chacona and the sarabanda brought on “La vida bona” (“the good life”) – evoking the bacchanalian, Arcadian ideal.  Both chaconas and sarabandas popped up as instrumental music in European guitar methods, keyboard works and in chamber music collections.  Their rhythms and harmonic progression became the basis for improvisation and extended variation forms.  Their exotic origins may have added to their allure, but they became so familiar by the early 18th century that their non-European roots were largely forgotten.  The synergy of their particular rhythms (African? Aztec?) with plucked and bowed stringed instruments (Asian and European) combined with early baroque harmonic practice to produce a tradition of instrumental music that Bach crowned with his Ciaccona.

Similarly in the 20th century, Astor Piazzolla fused his tango and jazz roots with French harmonic practice and Stravinskian rhythmic pungency to compose hundreds of compositions, creating a musical tradition now called Nuevo Tango – building on the roots of Argentinian tango music, and developing along side new ideas in the physical dance itself.  His haunting Oblivion is one of the great examples of this fusion. 

Both Bach’s Ciaccona and Piazzolla’s Oblivion are featured in Aston Magna’s first of six summer programs (Thursday, June 15, 7pm, Slosberg Music Center).   The program is entitled “Music for Forbidden Dances” and will feature chaconas and sarabandas from the early and late baroque (Monteverdi, Corelli, Purcell, Morel, Bach), as well as early and late tangos.   Master bandoneon player Hector Del Curto is featured in the tangos, which include a work by his grandfather, an early Argentinian tanguero.  Also featured is a one-man operetta, “Tango,” by Robert Rodriguez, who has found early 20th-century news clippings and churchly warnings from all over the world about the dangers of tango. Rodriguez set them delightfully to tango music, of course.  Tenor Frank Kelly will be the speaker/singer.

Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis University is the site of six concerts below, all of which begin at 7:00 pm. Many repeat in points west. Check the Aston Magna website or BMInt’s Upcoming Events. Ample free parking at 415 South St.

Hector del Curto, bandoneon

Hector del Curto, bandoneon,
with Aston Magna musicians
Music by Arañes, Bach, Bertali, Merula, Purcell, Corelli and Rodrique

Including the clarinet quintet, featuring Eric Hoeprich

Dominique Labelle, soprano, with an Aston Magna string ensemble
Musical explorations of the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, the Ten Commandments, the Judgement of Solomon, and the promise of Jesus.
Music of Caldara, Handel, Purcell, Bach, Clerambault, Kuhnau

Paganini’s astonishing, comprehensive study of everything the violin can do, performed on a period instrument by an extraordinary violinist, the young Brazilian Edson Scheid.

The explosive growth of the chamber sonata in the 50 years that separate the  7-year-old Mozart’s first publications and Beethoven’s tumultuous “Kreutzer” Sonata.
Daniel Stepner, violin; and David Hyun-Su Kim, fortepiano

Deborah Rentz-Moore and Aaron Sheehan, voice, with a consort of viols.
Music of Josquin, Agricola, Obrecht, Busnois, Isaac, Tromboncino

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