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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000951.txt from 2001/02

From: Daniel Leeson <>
Subj: [kl] Just how important is the minuet, anyway?
Date: Sat, 24 Feb 2001 12:16:35 -0500

An examination of about 5 years worth of KLARINET postings finds many,
many interesting ones dealing with performance issues of K. 581. The
discussions focus mostly on movements 1 and 2, with a lesser number
focusing on movement 4, and hardly any dealing with the matter of the
3rd movement, the minuet. Like most of us, I've always considered that
movement solely as the necessary roadway between movements 2 and 4.

I've just returned from a seminar on Mozart held in, of all places, Las
Vegas, NV. It was sponsored by the Mozart society of America and some of
the leading luminaries in Mozart scholarship were there giving
presentations, including clarinetdom's Pamela Poulin whose discoveries
about Stadler's basset clarinet, including the astonishing one showing
an actual picture of Stadler's instrument, have shed new and important
light on the kind of instrument used in the performance of Mozart's late
clarinet music.

Anyway, I really got my head shaped at this conference because there was
a four hour session on the matter of the minuet as a dance. I suspect
that, if you are anything like me, the minuet movement of K. 581 is
looked at as the least interesting movement of the four, really more as
way to get to the variations then as a statement in itself. Why, one of
the two trios of the third movement doesn't even use the clarinet, the
nerve of that guy!! The bottom line here is that the minuet movement of
most Mozart works in which clarinets participate does not get much
thought beyond how many repeats will be played (or not played).

But, following the Las Vegas seminar, I am looking at the minuet with
new and far more respectful eyes. True, it is a dance form, but the
symphonic form, which descends from its dance ancestor, is little less
than a refinement in which the elements of the minuet's purpose are
given to the instrumentalists instead of to the dancers. Unlike the
Hollywood view of the minuet, as a dance it was never done with more
than one couple from roughly the time of Rameau to the beginning of the
nineteenth century.

Instead, a single couple would be selected to perform based on some
social requirement (part of the elaborate introduction to court of the
newly arrived ambassador to France, for example), and a carefully
selected couple (perhaps even the ambassador himself as well as his
wife) would present themselves to "the presence" who would grant them
the right to perform the minuet not only for him, but for the court
which surrounded all four sides of the dance floor ready to observe the
new couple and how effectively they could dance. The dancing couple
were very carefully dressed, with the men's costume designed to focus
attention on both the arms and feet. The woman's floor-length gown
would not, of course, show feet, but the arms were central to her role.

After the music began, the couple would make reverences to each other,
to "the presence," and then begin the multiple 8- and 12-measure phrases
with specific and well-defined body gestures. For example, 8-measures
would be used for the purpose of allowing the couple to present the
right hand to each other. Then they might make a giant "Z" on the dance
floor, a "Z" covering a considerable area with the two partners at the
extreme ends of the "Z" and then doing dance steps that resulted in the
two participants changing places at those ends.

The Hollywood view of the minuet (and even the operatic view of that
same dance) is one in which many dance simultaneously. For those of you
who have played or seen Don Giovanni in which there is an extensive
dance scene which includes a minuet actually danced on stage, what one
generally sees is little more than controlled chaos. Some productions
even show three people (Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio) doing
the minuet together as partners, a sort of a menage a trois which has
absolutely no basis in tradition or fact. Imagine three people trying
to do the rhumba together and you'll get the idea.

In summary, the minuet was a very elegant dance whose considerations in
our playing of those Mozart works that contain them are often unrelated
to the needs and requirements of the dance form. Those requirements
have, in my opinion, several factors that need restudy. The first, of
course, is the tempo issue, but there are other important factors, too.

Today, when we get together to play a work that has a minuet, one almost
does not need to speak of how it will be performed. The traditional way
is "All repeats first time through, no repeats on the da capo(s)." In
the case of the minuet with two trios of K. 581, what happens is this:

Minuet (first section) played twice, Minuet (second section) played
Trio I (first section) played twice, Trio I (second section) played
Minuet (first section) played once, Minuet (second section) played
Trio II (first section) played twice, Trio II (second section) played
Minuet (first section) played once, Minuet (second section) played

In effect one hears the two sections of the minuet played four times
(twice at the first hearing and then once for each of the two da capos).
The trios are heard twice each.

I don't suggest that this method of playing the minuet in K. 581 is the
formal way, only that this is generally the way one plays it. I have
even heard it with no repeats at all, or even with no repeats in either
the first or the second trio. The fact is that there are no agreed-upon
ways to treat the performance of that or any other minuet. We have two
minuets in K. 375, and we have two minuets each with two trios in K.
361. There are also a pile of minuets elsewhere in Mozart's music that
employs clarinets, including the symphonies, the basset horn trios, etc.

The bottom line is that the way we address the playing of minuets,
particularly in K. 581, is very much a 20-th century performance
practice. Just think of your reactions if one of the players in a
performance of K. 581 were to suggest that the repeats of the two pieces
of the minuet should be done even during the da capo. I think you would
be very surprised. Certainly I never thought of that as an approach.

The issue associated with both tempo and numbers of repeats is derived
from the fact that the dance form -- of which the symphonic form is
simply an outgrowth -- was far more detailed and with much more
important formal and social context then we currently appreciate, or at
least that I did not understand.

And this gives rise to an entirely different aspect of the use of those
repeats. In the absence of any dancers, that many unornamented repeats
could result in the music getting stale. Thus, one asks "should the
repeats should be unornamented?" I was listening to Osborne's
performance of this movement of K. 581 on MP/3 and was delighted to hear
the many inventive ways he used to continually re-present the same basic
material in the minuet movement.

In effect, I suggest that the issue of multiple repeats is tied hand in
glove with the issue of improvisation. Or in the words of Frank
Sinatra's "Love and Marriage," "You can't do one without the other!"

To summarize, I suggest that three issues related to the minuet's dance
form arise in performance of symphonic minuets: (1) tempo (which I
suspect is probably slower than we have occasion to perform), (2)
architecture and structure (specifically in the quantity and placement
of repeated sections), and (3) improvisations requirements caused by the
presence of multiple repeats.

As I said earlier, I think that the whole question of the minuet in K.
581 (and elsewhere, of course) needs some rethinking.
** Dan Leeson **
** **

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