I am playing Bach's English Suite in a minor, and am currently working on the Sarabande. I know it is a slow dance of Spanish origin, but not much else. What are some characteristics of the Sarabande?

  • Can't resist: it's a group whose members are Bernhardt, Silverman, and Palin. – Carl Witthoft Jan 8 '15 at 19:21

Triple time is about the only stable thing about the sarabande. It started life as a Guatemalan/ Spanish/Arabian dance, with a rapid tempo, danced by women, and accompanied with castanets. It was regarded by some as risque and banned. Later the French took it on as a much more staid dance, still with the 3 feel, and it was accepted as a more genteel dance, at a slower tempo.

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  • Do you know if there are any standards related to meter? I know dances in 4 or 2 are pretty strict, but the sarabande seems to flow a lot more. Ok to take time/rubato? – Ely Eastman Jan 8 '15 at 17:50
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    3/2 seems to be the meter, but unusually with the emphasis on beat 2. – Tim Jan 8 '15 at 18:00
  • In general, somewhat rubato within the bar, fairly strict from bar to bar - it is a dance, after all, although usually the later it was written, the further from dance it got (which is true of Baroque suite dances in general). Some overdotting is called for when dotted rhythms are used. – user16935 Jan 8 '15 at 18:45

A dance in binary form, usually with repeats; slow triple time, usually with an emphasis on the second beat. That's about all that is really constant - the form evolved from what was originally a lively dance in triple metre.

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See Quantz Versuch einer Anweisung die floete traversiere zu spielen, Chapter XVII, subchapter VII, 58. §: The correct tempo of a sarabande is quarter = 80 per minute. Please, don't listen too much to wrong examples ...

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  • About all I see there is that he compares the Sarabande to three dances, the Entrée, Loure and Courante, which are to be played "prächtig" (we'd probably translate this as "grandly" in this particular context). The Sarabande, according to Quantz, has the same motion, "wird aber mit einem etwas annehmlichern Vortrage gespielet." I think we can take this as prescribing a somewhat more relaxed performance than the other dances to which he compares it. I highly doubt that, for any of these dances, he is prescribing a brisk andante. – user16935 May 11 '15 at 17:45

The origin of the Sarabande is dance associated with Palo Mayombe in Cuba. Sarabande comes from the Bantu word Nsala-Banda which, taken literally, means Begin the Spirit, perhaps a nod to spirit possession associated with the dance, or meaning to get wild. Nsala-Banda or alternatively Zarabanda is the name of the god (mpungu) of iron and war, for whom the music and dance is dedicated. The dance in this context is not a partner dance, but is very physical and "in your face". The rhythms and songs were part secular, part sacred, and associated with night time performances, ceremonies, and communal parties, as it is now.

Very little of what made the Zarabanda what it is survived interpretation through the Spanish musicians who were influenced by and who evolved the music for their sensibilities and experience. In Spain, the music maintained 12/8 meter, a quick pace and percussive accompaniment. It was cracked down on by royal decree in the 1500s, however, the music continued to be performed and continued its evolution as it journeyed and filtered through different cultures. The only thing that remains of the Zarabanda from its origins is a 3/4 time and an incidental syncopation with an accent on the second beat.

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  • I realize you haven't been here in nearly four years, but if you see this could you add some references to support the claim of a Bantu origin for the word Sarabande, or at least some discussion? It is a rather extraordinary claim that is difficult to see as credible without more detail. – phoog Mar 28 at 15:05

One characteristic of the sarabande is that normally the second beat is dotted. In 3/2 the pattern is half, dotted-half, quarter, repeat. Check out some of the early La Folia variations (Vivaldi?). Sometimes (rather common) there is a a two-measure pattern of: half, dotted-half, quarter; half-whole. The short-longish pattern in triple time seems to be most characteristic.

As others have pointed out, early sarabandes (not necessarily written down) were in a quick tempo while more modern versions are played slowly, Either should be fine if you are writing your own piece but some historical analysis should be done to see how Baroque and other composers wanted theirs played.

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  • Half, dotted half, quarter is a 3/2 pattern,.not 3/4. – phoog Mar 28 at 12:49
  • Thanks. I meant either 3/2 or (quarter notes). Actually the pattern is often a pair of measures: half, dotted-half, quarter, half, whole. – ttw Mar 28 at 13:37
  • Indeed. May I suggest that perhaps you should edit the answer? – phoog Mar 28 at 15:02

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