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An American Dance Craze Hits Europe

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A scene from Rameau’s opera “Les Indes galantes,” which has American-inspired music, in a production produced by Opera de Paris – Palais Garnier in 2004.

European music took root in the Americas as the colonies began to expand. But the more enthusiastic cultural exchange arguably occurred on the other side of the Atlantic. The music of the Americas took Europe by storm, and, in most cases, was associated with sultry dances like the chaconne and sarabande, which arrived from Central America during the 17th century.

The exact origins of the chaconne (or chacona, as it was called by the Spanish) aren’t known. We do know that it caught on almost immediately in Spain, where the dance was often accompanied by castanets, guitars, and tambourines. To European ears, the chaccone conjured images of what the New World was imagined to be: lawless, tempting, and a little hedonistic.

A dance in 3/4, the chaconne was such a sensation that the church attempted to ban it, decrying its “irredeemably infectious lasciviousness.” One humorous (though probably apocryphal) story describes a priest who unwittingly included a phrase associated with a cry often heard during the chaccone – “vida bona” – during a funeral.

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The congregation couldn’t help but break out into dance, and when they begged for forgiveness after the service, the priest asked to hear a refrain of the accompanying music, just to know what it sounded like. The chaconne was so catchy that he spent the next six hours dancing along with his congregation!

The chaconne’s scandalous roots may be somewhat surprising to modern listeners. Though suites and partitas were, in fact, based on the popular dances of the era. They may not sound “irredeemably lascivious” to our ears, but the driving harmonies and rhythms of these dances would have stirred up very different associations for 18th-century listeners.

In the end, the chacona was tamed somewhat when it crossed the Pyrenees to become the chaconne. Eventually, it was incorporated into compositions of the era, with the first recorded instance being in Girolamo Frescobaldi’s 1627 Partite supra ciaconna, a set of keyboard variations.

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As music from the Americas became a part of European culture, other musical characteristics became associated with the “otherness” of the New World. The sarabande rhythm was typically associated with the Americas, as were works that utilized a ground or drone bass. Like the chaconne, it was in a triple meter, though usually had a slight emphasis on the second beat. Jean-Baptiste Lully used the key G minor as an “Indian mode,” with later pieces by Henry Purcell and Jean-Philippe Rameau perpetuating this association.

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Rameau’s compositions reflect a particular fascination with the New World. One, interestingly, has a Chicago connection. In 1727, he wrote a rondeau for keyboard, Les sauvages, after being inspired by the sensational appearance of Native American dancers in Paris. One of dancers was Agapit Chicagou, chief of the Mitchigamea, who pledged allegiance to King Louis XV while in Paris. Chief Chicagou’s name is one of the possible namesakes of the city of Chicago, with other theories deriving from French transliterations of Native American words. He published the work in his Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin,

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Rameau wasn’t the only one entranced by the dances. When the chiefs performed for Parisians at the Theatre Italien in 1725, the audience noticed parallels between the Americans’ ritualistic dances and French pantomime-ballet. As one onlooker recalled when witnessing the same dances in the colonies, the dance was “done so well . . . that it could pass for a very fine entrée de ballet in France.”

Rameau later recycled Les sauvages in his 1735 opera Les Indes galantes. After a prologue, four entrées tell cross-cultural love stories, which are set in “exotic” locales all over the world. Of the four, two are set in the New World: The Incas of Peru is set against the backdrop of Spanish conquest. Les sauvages is set in none other than Illinois, with a Frenchman and a Spaniard competing for the affections of a chieftain’s daughter, Zima. At the end of Les sauvages, Zima rejects them both and takes the hand of a Native American suitor. In a rather sanitized, idealistic rewriting of history, the opera ends happily, with representatives of all three nations dancing and singing together in a peace pipe ceremony.

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The Native American characters in Les Indes galantes are very much based the European ideal of the “pastoral Indian,” which perceived Native Americans as simple, naïve people. This stereotype is just as one-dimensional as the converse, which believed them to be lawless savages.

For example, the opera’s peace-pipe scene is resolved when Zima’s Native suitor proclaims that “the conquerors restore our peace” and that the Illinois should “share their pleasures, fear their arms no more.” Though Les Indes galantes may not paint Natives as wild-eyed “savages,” it does make them seem uncomfortably obsequious to European control.

What are your favorite pieces of music inspired by early European contact with the Americas?

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