Last night’s Cello Department Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music allowed me to renew my ongoing interest in the question of what the movements of Johann Sebastian Bach based on dance forms can tell us about how those dances were actually executed. I was struck by the lightness of touch that one student brought to his performance of the two Gavottes in BWV 1011, the fifth of the suites for solo cello in C minor. This seemed to suggest that, as a dance, the gavotte was less “gravity-bound” than its two-step “cousin” the bourrée.
Actually, the two are closely related. Both have French folk origins. This would imply that, whatever elegance may have been introduced as these dances migrated from countryside to court, they both originated with similar foot-stomping relations to gravity. The only real difference, as discussed in the Wikipedia entry for the bourrée, is the upbeat. Bach notates both with an alla breve time signature, four quarter beats to a bar with two primary pulses. The upbeat for the bourrée is a single quarter beat, while the gavotte is introduced with a full two-beat primary pulse.
Thus, while Bach was probably familiar with how all of the dances found in his suites and partitas were executed, the music itself may have been composed primarily with the pedagogical interest of exposing the student to the different ways in which rhythmic patterns could emerge from different metric foundations.