We perform our dances to authentic music of the period. We are usually accompanied by live music as performed here by members of the NHD Ensemble which changes to suit the period, venue and the requirements of the event.
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This page describes the music and musical instruments of each period that we dance and has links to music samples for you to hear (Flash Player plug-in required, learn more).
A contemporary dancing master wrote: ‘Have four or five kinds of instruments play, such as shawms, organs, lute, harp, pipe and tabor’; in other words, it was desirable to have a mixture of timbres and colours. We are fortunate that while some of the sources are simply choreographies, some were also published with a melody. From such a distance of time they are not always easy to interpret however, and the modern musician has to make various decisions in conjunction with the dancers. The Rosewood Consort and Matthew Williams on hurdy-gurdy are skilled at arranging tunes or finding suitable music which fits the dances we wish to perform.
The names of Tudor dances are familiar to us today, through the music of the great Tudor composers such as Dowland and Byrd. Many pavanes, galliards and almains, for instance, have come down to us, published in volumes like the important Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Dance tunes were extremely popular as foundations for elaborate variations, but for the purposes of dancing the tunes had to be kept fairly straightforward and rhythmical. The instruments used for dancing would have been possibly lute, keyboard or viol consort for indoor, intimate dancing, and the noisier brass, woodwind and percussion instruments for outside. Often one man playing pipe and tabor was sufficient. The Rosewood Consort plays for us with lute or guitar, and recorders. Percussion and hurdy-gurdy can be added for louder effect out-of-doors.
Norwich born John Playford was a well known music publisher as well as composer, even through the difficult times of the Civil War, when ostensibly secular music was frowned upon. His most famous legacy, The English Dancing Master, first published in 1651, was a book of instructions for country dances given with their tunes, which makes their interpretation very much easier. The viol consort and lute were still the most popular indoor instruments, though Playford’s own compositions and publications helped increase the popularity of the violin family, and by the end of the century when Henry Purcell flourished as chief English composer, the violin was rapidly taking its place as the pre-eminent string instrument.
The eighteenth century saw the rise of the middle class, and more leisure time for studying the arts. At home young people were expected to play an instrument and sing, while they could demonstrate their dancing skills at the local Assemblies. These events would use a mixed band for the minuets and country dances, which would always include a keyboard instrument, plus probably a cello or bassoon to provide a bass line and a violin, flute or clarinet for the melody. The music playing here is a country dance from Augustin Noverre’s own book of dances, arranged and played by Anna Cockroft. Noverre has given the keyboard part, plus sometimes a second violin part. Vast numbers of dances were composed in this century, many extremely dull and uninspired. The ones still popular today have both interesting dance patterns and a good tune!
The piano had been invented by the Regency period, and harps and guitars were also popular instruments for amateur musicians wishing to look elegant. Where family and friends were gathered it was quite customary to have a dance of an evening, whether spontaneous or planned. Jane Austen was an enthusiastic musician and dancer and had a large collection of piano music and songs. Although England was at war with France, the French cotillon, or cotillion, was popular and danced alongside the country dances. Minuets were now only danced at the most formal balls. Here is one of Mr Noverre’s cotillons, again arranged and played by Anna Cockroft.