The Country Dance Book VI: Introduction.

This book contains a further instalment of fifty-two dances selected from “The English Dancing Master”; eighteen from the first four editions (1650-70), three from the 7th edition (1686), one from the 8th (1690), seven from the 10th (1698), eleven from the 11th (1701), nine from the 12th (1703), and the remaining three from the 14th (1709). These dances, with those already published in Parts 2, 3, and 4 of this Series, make a total of 159, i.e., 21 Rounds, 6 Square-eights; 11 For-four; 21 Longways-for-six; 15 Longways-for-eight; and 85 Longways for as many as will.

Of the 24 Rounds, which are all that “The English Dancing Master” and subsequent editions contain, we have now accounted for all but three — “The Chirping of the Nightingale”, “Kemp’s Jig”, and “Kettle Drum”. The first two present no difficulties in the way of interpretation, and have been omitted only because they are not of sufficient interest to warrant printing. “Kettle Drum”, however has a splendid tune (set to “Peppers Black” in the present volume) and movements which would apparently be interesting enough could they be deciphered, but this, despite repeated attempts, I have so far been unable to do. In the hope, however, that some of my readers may be more ingenious, and partly, I admit, in self-justification, a facsimile of Playford’s notation of the dance is here reproduced.

The dances For-four and the Square-eights have proved more amenable, and every one of the dances of these two types that the Playford books contain have now been deciphered and printed. I would that there were more of them.

Of the Longways-for-six in “The Dancing Master” all but seven have now been published, and of the Longways-for-eight all but ten. A few of the seventeen dances thus omitted were rejected because their interpretation was uncertain, and the remainder because they were not sufficiently interesting to merit publication.

The seventy-four dances above enumerated represent, I regret to say, all the older forms of the Country Dance that it seems possible to extract from “The English Dancing Master”, and, moreover, all that we shall ever possess; for, as already explained, this type of dance gradually fell into disuse during the latter years of the 17th century, and disappeared altogether with the opening years of the following century. All that now remains, therefore, to complete our investigations is to examine more closely than we have yet done the editions subsequent to the 14th (1709), and select from those Progressive dances that may seem worthy of preservation.

In the Introduction to my first book of Playford dances, published in 1911, I gave as careful and detailed a description as I was at that time able to give, of those 17th century dances, of the way in which they were noted in “The English Dancing Master”, and, in general terms, of the problems to be solved in their interpretation. I have not since returned to the subject, having been content to publish, in Parts 3 and 4 of this series, the results of further researches without comment. The reader, however, is entitled, and will probably wish, to know how far further investigations and closer acquaintance with the Playford volumes have affected the opinions I then expressed. This claim I will now meet; the more readily because in preparing the second and third selections of dances I was assisted by George Butterworth, who brought a keen and unusually ingenious mind to bear upon the subject, and succeeded in elucidating many troublesome points that had hitherto baffled me; and in compiling the present volume, although unhappily deprived of his valuable and kindly help, I have been aided by Miss Maud Karpeles, whose name should, and but for her refusal to allow it, would have appeared upon the title-page. Any views that I have now to express are, therefore, those of my two collaborators as much as my own.

The chief difficulties to be resolved in deciphering these dances have been: (1) to interpret the language of the Playford notations; (2) to determine the steps that were used in the 17th Country Dance, a question upon which Playford and other contemporary authorities are silent; and (3) to capture the spirit and style of the dance.

Continued research has thrown little or no additional light on either of the last two questions. Concerning the steps, however, there is this to be said, that those which I originally propounded have been tested in the last ten years in a very practical way, and in the result have been found to be serviceable and to satisfy the needs of the dance. Even if, therefore, they are not historically accurate — as in the main I still believe them to be — they at any rate serve their purpose. And this, as later on I shall have occasion to point out, is the chief, if not the only function of the steps in a dance which, like the one in question, depends almost wholly for its expressiveness upon figure-movements.

Nor do I think that we can have gone very far astray in our restoration of the dance so far as its character and spirit are concerned. The words of “a lady of distinction”, already quoted, seem to tell us all that we need to know, viz:, that “The characteristic of an English Country Dance is that of gay simplicity. The steps should be few and easy, and the corresponding motions of the arms and body unaffected, modest, and graceful”. Confirmation of this estimate is, moreover, implicit in the many references to the dance in contemporary writings both before and after 1650, one and all of which testify to the unsophisticated, jolly character of the dance and to the pleasant contrast which in this respect it afforded to the ceremonial dances of the Court. But stronger still than any documentary support is the evidence of the dance itself — the spirit and character which pervade the every movement and are reflected in every phrase of the accompanying music.

In regard, then, to these two important points I think it may fairly be claimed that the dance has not been unfaithfully presented. Where we may and no doubt have failed, in greater or less degree, it is in our interpretation of the movements and figures. The loose, unscientific, happy-go-lucky way in which the descriptions of the dances are often worded; the frequent use of undefined technical terms and expressions that became obsolete during the period covered by the Playford volumes; the typographical errors which disfigure so many of the pages — the inaccurate punctuation, the omission of important words, sometimes whole sentences — these make a really accurate, scientifically exact, transcription humanly unattainable. Nevertheless, by exercising reasonable care, by confining the published dances to those least liable to misconstruction, by noting and allowing for the kind of error to which compositors were most prone; it has been feasible to reduce to comparatively small proportions, and in some cases entirely to eliminate, the element of speculation.

We have now, I think, arrived at the meaning of all the technical terms, used in the notations, with one exception — the Side. Further evidence which has come to light with respect to this very troublesome figure seems to throw doubt upon the accuracy of the half-turn in each portion of the figure, in the form in which I reconstructed it. Now if, instead of turning, the dancers were to “fall back to places” along their own tracks, the Side would be identical with the Morris figure of Half-hands, or Half-gip. And this, I suspect, may prove to be the more correct interpretation; but until it is supported by far more definite and conclusive evidence that we at present have, it would, I think, be unwise to make any alteration in the figure as now executed.

I wish it were possible to lay bare our method fully and to explain in detail the way in which we have dealt with the many difficulties above referred to, but this would be an impractically long task, and occupy more space than can be spared. One or two illustrations, may perhaps be allowed.

One constant source of trouble arises from the apparent inability of the recorders of some of the notations to describe accurately in technical language in the changes in the successive repetitions of a figure-sequence. “Mundesse”, a facsimile of which is reproduced here, may be taken, and not unfairly I think, to illustrate the perplexities which proceed from this cause.

Playford’s notation of this dance looks at first sight very puzzling; but when the plan upon which the dance is constructed is realised it is not difficult to divine what the writer intended, but was unable to express. It is merely a matter of the order in which the honours are paid, and this order will automatically change as the figure moves round the circle, one place in each successive repetition. Our interpretation, which is based on this supposition is, I believe, substantially correct.

The second figure (B music) of the first Part of “Newcastle” affords another illustration of a like confusion, as the reader will see if he will refer to the reproduction of the dance given in Part 2 (see here). The second half of the figure was intended no doubt to be complementary to and symmetrical with the first; but it is not so noted. This last sentence should of course read: “Armes again with your owne by the left, and We. right hands in, men goe about them towards the right to your places”. A figure very similar to this occurs in the second Part of “Chelsea Reach” (Part 3, p. 86), but here a general direction only is given for the second half of the figure, the dancers being left to work out for themselves — a much safer plan.

In a few special cases I have also felt justified in making minor technical changes when by so doing the execution of a difficult passage was made easier or less awkward. In the first figure of the third Part of “Step Stately” (Part 4, p. 50), for instance, the movement is very greatly improved by making the two files fall back before moving forward, instead of reversing these movements, as the dancers are directed to do in the original text.

In the Progressive dances of the later editions the chief trouble has been to adjust the movements to the several sections of the music. In the earlier editions the apportionment of music to figure is usually indicated in the notations, but for some unexplained reason this helpful plan was discontinued in the later volumes. This has added very considerably to our troubles, especially when, as is not infrequent, no directions are given concerning the number of repetitions, if any, of the several sections of the music. Here again, an illustration may be helpful. In “Apley House” (see p. 120), for instance, the music consists of three four-bar sections, but with no directions about repeats, as the following transcription of the notation will show:-
“The two men take hands and fall back, and turn single; the women do the same; Hands-across half-round, and turn single. The second couple being in the first place, cast off, and the other couple follow and lead up a-breast; the first couple cross over into the second couple’s place, the second couple lead up and cross over into their own places”. In this case I believe our solution is probably right, but I am aware that there is room for differences of opinion. Incidentally, our notation of this dance will serve to give a general idea of the way in which we have expanded the original text and translated it into present-day technical language.

We have now perhaps said enough to indicate the general lines we have followed in our attempts to reconstruct the dances. Those who wish for further information can obtain it by consulting the original texts and comparing them with our translations.

It is impossible to examine the dances of the later editions without being impressed by the beauty of a large number of the tunes they contain. These, with few exceptions, are frankly composed, sophisticated tunes, and it would be interesting to know by whom they were written or from what sources they were derived. The volumes themselves give us no information whatever about their origin. Some, I imagine, may have been definitely composed for the Country Dance, but I suspect the majority were contemporary airs pressed into the service of the dance by the Playford editors. “The Siege of Limerick” (“Country Dance Tunes”, Set 10) is the tune of one of Purcell’s songs, “O how happy’s he”, and I cannot resist a suspicion that the same master-hand was responsible for several of the other triple-time hornpipe airs, e.g., “Dick’s Maggot”, “Mr Isaac’s Maggot”, “The Hare’s Maggot”, etc. Two of the airs to the dances in this volume were later on used in “The Beggar’s Opera” — “Of Noble Race was Shinkin” (set to “Nowill Hills”) and “Greenwich Park”.

Whatever their origin, the beauty of these airs is incontestable, and if we may believe that the Country Dances attracted the attention of the best musicians of the day, and induced them to give of their best to its service, this would be further testimony, were it needed, of the important place which the National dance held in the social life of the period.

Page transcribed by Hugh Stewart