5. Interpreting the French Courante

The above is a very melodic and enjoyable-to-play courante for théorbe de pièces by Germain Pinel from the Goess Theorbo manuscript. The Goess MS comes from the second half of the 17th century, we are not sure exactly when.

So, how to interpret a French courante? The Italian courante is certainly much easier to interpret, with it’s generally running 16th notes or semiquavers, sometime 8th notes or quavers (see how multilingual I am?!). The Italian Corrente likes to flow with the wind, and is often one of the faster movements of the suite. The French courante tends to be more rhythmically complex, but is often played at a medium to fairly fast pace. However, consider the following quotations, taken from Peter Croton’s excellent “Performing Baroque Music on the Lute & Theorbo“:

“One of the most common myths today, even among some early music specialists, is that the courante is fast” – Peter Croton, 2016

“lovely and tender…sweet hope…something heartfelt, something longing, and also something joyful” Johann Mattheson, 1739

“This piece is ordinarily made up of a measure with three slow beats” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1768

“…the noble courante, slow and majestic” Rémond de Saint-Mard, 1741

“…it is beaten in a very slow three” Jean-Pierre Freillon-Poncein, 1700

“a very slow dance that inspires an air of nobility more than the other dances” Pierre Rameau, 1725

“the sarabande is actually a slow menuet, and the courante a very slow sarabande” Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert, 1752

All of these quotations are from the early to mid 18th century, a little later – maybe twenty years or so – than the assumed date of the Goess manuscript. The main tenor is that the courante is a slow to medium piece, sweet and tender, even slower than the sarabande. Yes, the sarabande is said to have started life as a fast dance before slowing down over time. But these comments are mostly from within Bach’s active lifetime, when we expect the sarabande to sound the slowest and most heartfelt moment of the suite.

So, curbing my natural instinct, I tried a slow run through when I was first learning the piece. Here is a phone recording, warts and all:

Well, I don’t know what you think of it, but to my ears it has some nice moments, but is too slow and lacks any rhythmic definition. I want to hear the rhythm of the dance more, but the danger there is in playing any dance piece too fast. Here is a medium-paced interpretation:

I tried to combine both a vocal and a dance quality, the former because the piece certainly has a strong melodic contour, is quite singable, and the latter because it is after all a dance. I did try a very strict rhythmical version, but it did nothing for me. I’m reminded of an instruction at the head of a reel by Nathaniel Gow, a late 18th-century Scots violinist: “Slow unless danced to”.

But let’s take a look at another courante from the same manuscript:

This is a very melodic courante, reaching high up the chanterelle in the A section and containing a hemiola in the B section. Let’s look at what makes this piece tick.

The first full bar has a long note on the second beat, as do the majority of bars throughout the piece. The first full bar in the B section obfuscates this accent by placing it on the end of a slur – assuming slurs always sound strong to weak. But for the most part the B section has accents on the second beat: one TWO three, etc, which is a feature of some sarabandes and mazurkas.

Note the hemiola starting at the end of the B section’s second line. It is more clear to see in the other version inscribed in the manuscript, actually an earlier version. Here it is as the second bar in the second-last line:

Note that it has three groups of two beats each. So, instead of two bars of three beats each, we have one bar of six beats, divided into three groups of two beats. This feature can be seen in many courantes, and harks back to the branle and the galliard. I’m not a dance expert, so suggest that those interested in this aspect of the courante should read this webpage: https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/409098/530682

It is important that we interpreters accent this rhythmical change, as it builds up tension before the final cadence.

It is also worth noting the notational differences between the two versions, both inscribed by the same hand:

The minim (half note) in the first full bar has an upper auxiliary ornament added in the second version (remember, I presented you the scores in reverse order from the manuscript, so the “second version” is the first on this page). This places a dissonance on this rhythmically important second beat. In my most recent reading of this courante, I saved this dissonance for the repeat.

The bar lines in the second version are preserved for the end of each line, whereas in the first version, three end-of-line bars are incomplete. This might be an attempt by the scribe to clarify the rhythm, though it does render the visual impact of the hemiola less clear.

The eighth full bar of the B section has two important changes – I’ll leave them to you to study. And the penultimate bar has three thumb strokes in all.

So, we have a lot of rhythmical information to digest, and also not entirely unrelated to rhythmical accents is the decision to be made about the tempo of our performance. And we should consider its place within a suite – though the dances are not presented as such in the manuscript. Usually a courante lies between an allemande and a sarabande, neither of which are usually played fast. In some French sources we see an allemande gay, in which case a slower courante might balance better, especially if the following sarabande is of the older, faster type. Context.

In conclusion, you could try seeing how slow you could play both courantes while still articulating the rhythmical accents. To be honest, I find myself playing them now at a medium pace, not slow nor fast, singing yet steadfast. I still find it hard to envisage the French courante as being a “a very slow sarabande,” to again quote Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert…but tomorrow is another day…

Rob Mackillop
South Queensferry
April, 2021