8. The tempo of French Baroque dances

‘Het tempo van de Franse barokdansen’ [The tempo of French Baroque dances], Tempo in de achttiende eeuw, red. K. Vellekoop, Utrecht 1984 (Stimu), 7-25, 37-59.

The original article in Dutch you can find here in pdf. (402kB)



In this article I attempt to prove that the tempi that L’Affilard 1705 and Pajot 1732 give for French baroque dances must be halved. The ‘proof’ is to found by studying the dances in triple or compound triple meters: Courante, Sarabande, Passacaille, Chaconne, Menuet, Passepied, Gigue, Canaries and Loure. From the non-exact, descriptive tempo indications for these dances given by Freillon-Poncein 1700, L’Affilard 1702, Brossard 1703, and De Montéclair 1736, we can deduce that they should be ordered according to their tempi as follows (the slowest beats at the top of the list):

Sarabande Passacaille  
  Menuet Loure?

If  we convert the exact data of L’Affilard 1705 and Pajot 1732 into metronome numbers for the beats, then we get the numbers in the following table:

  L’Affilard 1705 Pajot 1732
Sarabande 72/86/133 73
Courante 90 82
Passacaille 106 95
Chaconne 157 159
Menuet 212/225 212/212
Passepied 258 300
Gigue/Canaries 300/318/348 3375
Loure   3375


The numbers for the various dances are reasonably comparable, in particular for the Menuet. If we ignore the fast Sarabande of  L’Affilard 1705, then the tempo order of the dances is the same for the two authors, and for the series from Passacaille through Gigue/Canaries it matches what we have deduced from the non-exact sources. The Sarabande appears generally slower than the Passacaille. The Courante is however not, as Freillon-Poncein led us to expect, slower than the Sarabande. All in all a great degree of consistency, which increases our trust in our sources. Nevertheless:  the performance of the music of these dances shows the numbers of L’Affilard 1705 and Pajot 1732 to be false! The music of the fastest dances cannot be performed at the indicated tempi. Consider the Gigue of L’Affilard (printed in the article), which must be performed in the tempo of  ♪ = 348. I have yet to meet a singer with continuo who can do that convincingly! The solution to the problem is without doubt that, contrary to what Loulié and Sauveur intended to convey, L’Affilard and Pajot equated the duration of the whole pendulum movement (back and forth) with the duration of a certain note value. Then the tempi are:

  L’Affilard 1705 Pajot 1732
Sarabande 36/43/67 37
Courante 45 41
Passacaille 53 47
Chaconne 78 79
Menuet 106/1125 106/106
Passepied 129 150
Gigue/Canaries 150/159/174 169
Loure   169

All of the dances can be performed well at these tempi, and can give a musically convincing result. De Montéclair characterizes the tempo of a Courante, a Sarabande and a Passacaille as ‘grave’, a Chaconne and a Menuet as ‘gai’, and a Passepied and a Canarie as ‘vite’. From this it follows that for him the transition from ‘grave’ to ‘gai’, from slow to fast, lies near our metronome number 60. The same can be seen in L’Affilard 1702, who says that the ternary measures of the Sarabande and the Passacaille go ‘lentement’, the Chaconne ‘plus légèrement’, and that the Menuet can be beat with three beats ‘fort légers’. The information of Freillon-Poncein and Brossard indicates the same. Thus we arrive at the important concept ‘tempo ordinario’, the standard tempo from which ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ are derived in baroque music. Unfortunately the feeling for this concept has all but vanished in our time.