Daily Archives: February 6, 2012 7:51 am

Zorn’s ‘Grammar’ online, for all your polka mazurka needs

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I got my copy of this via Abe Books a few years ago, but it occurred to me that it must surely be out of copyright, and digitised by now? And sure enough, here it is, Grammar of the Art of Dancing from the Internet Archive in several formats including Kindle.  The online book version is worth trying too, for the very sophisticated searching opportunities it provides.

Friedrich Zorn’s Grammar of the Art of Dancing is one the most concise but exhaustive accounts of dozens of 19th century dances and their music. In 938 short, numbered paragraphs with musical examples and Zorn’s own dance notation, he can tell you all about different types of waltzes, what a Varsovienne, a Redowa and a Polka Mazurka are, and how musicians should  improvise changes in their playing to fit the two-step or three-step waltz.  The book is full of all kinds of fascinating details, like a comparison between the difference in tempo that people waltzed in different cities in Europe (Russians were the fastest, if  I remember correctly), or that the first polka was danced at around 88 b.p.m which was soon considered too dull for social dancing, so it sped up.

As a ballet pianist teacher, you’re left – even in the beginning of the 21st century –  with a legacy of these dances, whose rhythms still haunt music everywhere. To try to stratify them for yourself from the repertoire you know, which is what I did for years, is a slow and ineffective process.  Why is it that we seem to be so much better acquainted with dances from the distant Baroque than from those only just over our shoulder? From the moment you start reading Zorn, you have a pair of metrical spectacles with which to view the vast repertoire of dance music of the 19th century, and begin to recognise the shapes and patterns of those dances in music all around you.