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Text, Rhythm, Action!

New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance

Research Findings

Historical Swordsmanship

In the last thirty years, performance of baroque and renaissance music has been increasingly informed by awareness of historical styles of dance. When musicians play one of Bach’s Chaconnes or Dowland’s Galliards, they have the possibility of knowing what kind of steps or jumps would characterise the movement of dance. Audiences have the chance to see what these dances actually look like. Most conservatoires with an Early Music department include study of Early Dance, so that  students can acquire a basic level of skills, in order to know what these dances feel like: what are the physical sensations of dancing a Sarabande? And what are the emotional associations of each dance-type? What emotional kick is produced by  dancing feet?  How can we give our historical music that irresistible toe-tapping dance-energy?

As part of our investigation of the first operas from 17th-century Italy, I learnt that as well as spending much time making music and dancing, renaissance courtiers spent several hours every day in swordsmanship training, beginning their lessons in all three disciplines at an early age. As I became familiar with the specialist vocabulary of the sword, I found it in early music drama from the medieval Play of Daniel to the first oratorio, from Monteverdi’s Combattimento to Handel’s first opera. We know of many personal connections between musicians, dancers and sword-masters in earlier times, and philosophical connections between their disciplines. Skill in both dancing and swordfighting was essential for social survival. So in order to understand how early opera felt to performers and audiences of the time, we need to study not only early dance, but also historical swordsmanship.

This discovery leads to many further questions: How did renaissance swordsmen move? How does it feel – physically and emotionally – to wield a historical sword? What is the emotional energy of an early opera performed by expert sword-fighters? Now might the musical dissonances really cut like a knife, now the hand-gestures have real strength behind them, now the emotions really strike the audience’s hearts…

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