What is dance music?

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

A gentleman in Plymouth applying to the Plymouth licensing justices for the removal of a restriction forbidding the playing of dance music in an hotel asked the bench. ‘What is dance music?’ Their answer was either too indistinct to be heard or they remained silent. They were probably more astonished or too ignorant to challenge the applicant when he asked the magistrate to ‘define the difference between dance music and classical music’, and continued to inform them that he had danced to the music of Tannhäuser and had found O star of eve a particularly attractive dance tune.

Before the adaptation of classical music as ballets, the magistrates would have felt safe in broadly stating that dance music was composed for dancing purposes in ball rooms and classical music was composed for the purpose of being listened to in concert rooms. The association of classical music with dancing began when the Russian Ballet came to Drury Lane and danced to various wellknown classical piano pieces including Schumann’s Carnaval, orchestrated by famous Russian composers1. Certain pictorial and rhythmical features in Schumann’s work suggested its possibilities as successful music for ballet. This having been realised, it was only likely that ballet producers would not have remained satisfied with the adaptation of small piano works. They have gradually extended their scope until now they include entire symphonies.

Amongst the most successful ballets produced recently are Berlioz’s Symphonic fantastique and Brahms’s fourth symphony. A magistrate might rub his eyes if told of such successful experiments — nevertheless it is true. Johann Strauss might have died of laughing had it ever been suggested to him that Brahms’s symphonies would eventually be associated with the ballet. But the surprise excited by the applicant’s query ‘What is dance music?’ need not have been so great had the magistrates been aware that throughout the Victorian era it was customary to adapt the music of serious and comic operas and musical comedies for dance purposes, particularly quadrilles, lancers and waltzes. Dances of this kind arranged from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas retained an enormous popularity so long as these dances remained in fashion. Obviously if Berlioz and Meyerbeer’s music could be converted into dance music, so also could the music of Richard Wagner2. Any music that could be squeezed into standard formulas for dance purposes might be used for dance music.

The zest given to public dancing a few decades ago was doubtless because the dances were arranged from popular operas or music comedies, and the dancers knew every note of the music to which they were dancing. The old dances have been superseded by jazz: and, just as many of the former popular dances became dance music by conversion rather than intent, so it is now possible to press all sorts of music into dance music by what is called ‘jazzing it’. I dare say many, in listening to jazz music, have recognised popular hymns jazzed in a most skilful and, what appeared to me, a most humorous way. One day when I went with a wellknown organist3 and his friend to call on a young musician, the youngster played several pieces of music in what I might call ‘straight’ clever fashion. Then he played something else and, turning round, said ‘Which way would you like it jazzed, uncle?’. This may appear to be a digression, but certainly does suggest close relationship with the only possible answer to the applicant of Plymouth, now the frontier between dance music and classical music has been removed.

  1. Carnaval, choreographed by Fokine, orchestrated by Glazunov and others, was first produced at St. Petersburg in 1910. ↩︎

  2. And had been, long 'ere this, in the humorous quadrilles of Chabrier, Fauré, and Messager. ↩︎

  3. Perhaps Lynwood Farnham, or Guy Weitz. both of whom Brian knew. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, March 1937, p. 490