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Motion as Music: Hypermetrical Schemas in Eighteenth-Century Contredanses

An important part of the recent growth in scholarship on meter focuses on reconstructing 18th-century listening practices. Danuta Mirka (2009) studies contemporary accounts of meter in theory treatises to build a model of 18th-century metric listening, while Stefan Love (2016) takes a corpus studies approach, arguing that surveying repertoire provides a more accurate view of meter than 18th-century theorists. But despite the known debt that much 18th-century art music owes to dance and dance music, Mirka and Love only briefly mention dance. In touching so lightly on dance, these and other authors overlook the more fundamental connection between meter and movement. In this paper I examine late 18th-century French contredanses and their music to propose a model of contemporary metric hearing that unites literal and musical motion. There are three features of the contredanse and dancing in general that support their relevance to 18th-century metric experience. First is the contredanse’s role in society—recent writers on 18th-century music often present the minuet as the premier dance of the century, but though it remained the most aristocratic dance, by the middle of the century it had been surpassed in popularity by the contredanse. Second, contredanses involved multiple dancers moving simultaneously, and music helped them coordinate their movements. As a result, hypermetrical schemas matching hypermeasures with dance moves could develop. Finally, the experience of moving in time with musical meter likely had a positive effect on dancers’ ability to find meter in music in general.