Dance Forms in Western Classical Music

January 05, 2021 Jack L

An exploration of the use of dance forms from the early Classical to late Romantic eras.

The common inclusion of a movement based on a dance form arose out of its use in suites of the baroque era, such as Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3. A movement based on a dance form was typical of many Symphonies of the Western Classical Tradition. The use of the Dance form evolved time, departing further from its traditional roots in stately court dances of the 17th century as time passed. The Minuet and Trio was a frequent component of symphonies particularly in the classical period, as Haydn’s 104th symphony would attest. In the romantic period, many of Minuet and Trio’s characteristics remained highly influential in works such as Mendelsohn’s 4th Symphony, although a movement away from the traditional phrasing, structures and stylistic qualities is obvious. Towards the end of the romantic period, the influence of dance forms is less obvious, but can still be seen in movements such as the Scherzo in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.


Orchestral Suite No. 3 by J. S. Bach features four movements which are composed using dance forms. As part of the suite, there are 2 Gavottes, a Bourrée and a Gigue. A gavotte was a traditional courtly dance originating in France. Bach follows the structural procedures in both Gavotte movements by using a clearly binary structure and regular four-bar phrasing. Each Gavotte maintains a stylistically apt uplifting feel through the use of the D major key. The proceeding movement is titled ‘Bourrée’. The Bourrée was also a traditional French dance. Bach uses a faster tempo than the Gavotte movements, again maintaining stylistic traditions. The final movement of the Suite is the ‘Gigue’. Bach creates a lively dance-like rhythmic character by using a 6/8 metre, flowing quavers and the use of a crotchet, quaver pattern in the continuo. Also typical of Gigues, Bach also uses some unpredictable phrase lengths and structures the piece as a whole in binary form. The common use of dance forms in orchestral works during the Baroque period such as Orchestral Suite No. 3 influenced later periods of music as composers were, particularly in the classical era, drawn to a dance form for at least one of the movements of a symphony.


Johann Stamitz’s Symphony no. 2 was composed in 1750. Its characteristics fall mostly into the classical era of music. The symphony has four movements, the third of which is the Minuet and Trio, making the influence of dance music obvious. It is structured in the standard format in that the minuet and trio sections are repeated, with a return to the minuet later on. The movement is stylistically apt in its use of a major key, feeding into an uplifting feel. In the minuet section, the first beat of the bar is emphasised in through the use of timpani, trumpets, horns at the start of many bars and through the main rhythmic pattern of which of the melody which is a minim followed by two quavers. This naturally produces an emphasis on the first beat of the bar. The emphasis therefore created gives a dance-like feel to the 3/4 metre.


Haydn’s 104th Symphony, composed in 1794, clearly takes strong influence from dance music in its Minuet and Trio movement and also to an extent in the Finale. Haydn’s use of the Minuet and Trio structure is clear in the third movement because both sections are repeated, and the minuet is repeated to end the movement. However, there are several instances in which Haydn would have subverted a listener’s expectations at that time. The first phrase of the minuet – Bars 1 to 8 – is not directly repeated. Instead, it is repeated at a piano dynamic. By contrast, the Minuet and Trio in Symphony no. 2 by Stamitz features a directly repeated first phrase. Haydn also subverts conventions by modulating to the relative minor early in the piece through a V7-I cadence in B minor at bar 20. Haydn also disrupts the steady 3/4 metre by creating the effect of a hemiola from bar 203 to 251. The movement also features a pause in bars 45 and 46, which contradicts the expectation of consistently steady rhythmic flow. Despite these subversions, Haydn keeps this movement in many ways aligned with the traditional minuet and trio form. Firstly, he maintains the normal repetitions of the minuet and trio by repeating each section and then returning to the minuet to finish. Rhythmic characteristics, such as an emphasis on the first beat as is reinforced by the timpani in bars 1 and 3 help to create a dance-like feel to the metre. 


The fourth movement of the symphony also contains dance-like characteristics. The way that the first subject enters in bar 2 over a drone is evocative of peasant dance. The emphasis on strong beats of the bar is demonstrated through the melody. Bars 3 and 4 feature a descending sequence of two slurred crotchets followed by a minim, making the articulated notes on the strong beats of the bar. In addition, bar 6 and bar 11 of the opening theme end each four-bar phrase with two minims that again emphasise the strong beats of the bar. 


In Mendelssohn’s 4th Symphony, composed in 1808, the influence of dance form is less pronounced than in Haydn’s 104th Symphony. Firstly, the third movement is titled ‘Con moto moderato’ as opposed to Minuet and Trio or another dance form. Many elements of the composition, such as the 3/4 metre, are reminiscent of features of the Minuet and Trio. For instance, the running quaver motif that first appears in bar 1, and is developed throughout the movement in bars 47-76 is reminiscent of the running quaver patterns in the Minuet and Trio of Mozart’s Eine Kleiner Nachtmusik. However, the melody that opens the piece features a legato crotchet in bars 2 and 3 which is accompanied by legato arpeggiated quavers is uncharacteristically lush for a traditional Minuet and Trio. There also not a clear rhythmic emphasis on the first beat of every bar, made obvious by the 3-quaver anacrusis which begins the melody in the violins at the start of the movement.


The Finale of Mendelssohn’s work is titled ‘Saltarello’, which was a musical dance originating in Italy. Mendelssohn takes on many of its key characteristics in the Finale. The main rhythmic motif of the movement featured in the main theme is first heard starting from a four-quaver anacrusis into bar 7 and ending on the first quaver of bar 8. The main theme features this motif in repetition extensively. This short rhythmic motif was also common in the Saltarello dance. Mendelssohn’s development of this throughout the movement is clearly indicative of the strong influence of dance forms in Mendelssohn’s symphony.


As the romantic period progressed the influence of dance forms in symphonies continued to become less pronounced. Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, composed in 1878, has movement clearly influenced by dance forms. The third movement is titled “Scherzo” but its time signature is 2/4 and its characteristics do not possess any characteristics that we may expect if it had been influenced by dance forms. The Symphony does however use traditional music in the use of a Russian folk tune in the Finale that is played by the woodwinds after the tutti opening. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, composed in 1893, has an intriguing second movement. Its light and elegant character, clear ternary structure and regular phrasing all point it in the direction of a waltz which was a traditional dance form and featured in many ballets of the Romantic period. However, its time signature is 5/4. This was fairly uncommon at the time Tchaikovsky composed this movement and subverted traditional expectations of the waltz dance form. That being said, the influence of the waltz in this movement is clear despite Tchaikovsky’s subversions of it. Clear influence of the Waltz can also be seen in the Scherzo of Mahler’s first symphony. The main theme, first played in violins and woodwind, has a light and elegant character due to its use of arpeggios, balanced phrasing and rising staccato rising scale. Mahler, however, subverts traditional waltz through the use of irregular phrase lengths and the use of a tempo increase when the trumpets enter playing the first theme. However, Mahler does retain a reasonably clear ternary form structure between the elegant first theme and more subdued second theme.


The influence of dance forms in symphonies composed from the Early Classical period to Late Romantic Period is extensive and wide ranging. In earlier baroque suits such as J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3, dance forms are followed rigidly. The Minuet and Trio then became a basic expectation of most classical symphonies such as Stamitz’s 2nd Symphony and Haydn’s 104th Symphony. In the Romantic Period, dance form continued to be influential, such as in the 3rd and 4th movements of Mendelssohn’s 4th Symphony. As the romantic period progressed, the commonality of a movement with a clear grounding in dance form decreased, but dance form still continued to be influential in many symphonies such as Tchaikovsky Symphony no.6 and Mahler Symphony no. 1.



Have you thought about online lessons?

Online tuition gives you access to brilliant tutors across the country
Connect one-to-one with a tutor or share your lesson with a group for 50% of the tutor's hourly rate! Find a Tutor for One-to-One Find an Online Study Group

Want to know more?

Visit Jack's profile to find out more and send a message.

Visit Jack's Profile

Resources others found helpful

Dyslexia support pack for language learners

Information for students, parents & tutors which can help students to understand that their …

learn more

Breakfast, lunch, dinner

This is a resource to learn and practice vocabulary on food.

learn more

Adding and subtracting fractions

This document creates a mini-booklet with simple, step-by-step instructions for adding and …

learn more

Mindfulness, Meditation

Meditation, audio, and practical life skills to manage stress and overwhelm more effectively

learn more

Free resources, revision notes and past papers for students

Find revision guides, exam papers and sample essays amongst hundreds of free resources available to students.

Find resources any subjects

Maths resources | Science resources | Music resources | Spanish resources | English resources | French resources