Dancing with J.S. Bach and a Cello - The Baroque on Gesture, Affect, and Dance

by Anna Wittstruck, Ph.D. candidate in musicology, Stanford University

The Baroque on Gesture, Affect, and Dance

We look first to René Descartes, whose seventeenth-century writings on the mind and body founded the Cartesian dualism with which we are still grappling. Descartes, along with his contemporaries, believed human “passions” – which he categorizes as wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness – to be central to human experience.1 As rationalized emotions, these “passions” or “affections” were inserted mimetically into art. It is through his discussion of passions that Descartes locates an interesting interface between the body and the soul. He writes, “[…] the action and the passion are thus always one and the same […] what in the soul is a passion is in the body usually an action.”2 Within the body’s domain, passions are physicalized and put into motion as “actions.” This body-soul connection is reinforced by Descartes’ assertion that passions as marked by changes in blood, but moreover by the way he frames his description of each passion in terms of movement. For example, he describes Love as movement to be joined towards something; hatred as desired separation away from something.3 Therefore what is most disembodied for Descartes – the passion – has a body. It moves through time and space, made manifest by the body and turned to action.

Descartes’ use of the term “action” resonates within writings by Johann Mattheson, a contemporary of Bach’s who took up Descartes’ theories and applied them to music. In Mattheson, action is more specifically tied to physical gesture; in his chapter, “Geberden-Kunst” (“On the Art of Gesticulation”) from 1739, Mattheson traces the study of gesture back to Roman antiquity as a critical part of oratory and rhetoric. Mattheson also locates dance as a source for gestural embodiment of passions. Mattheson writes, “The art of gesticulation […] belongs to music, it illustrates and teaches the steps and postures of dance […] together with the postures which one uses in a public oration.”4 Thus gesture is united with passions/affections, as Mattheson, in Affektenlehre (“The Doctrine of the Affections), correlates dance forms with specific emotions: minuets and gaiety, gavottes and joy, gigues with “hot and hurried eagerness”.5 For Mattheson, the embodiment of dance through form and gesture generates affection.

Dietrich Bartel underscores this connection in his book, Musica Poetica: Musical-Rhetorical Figures in German Baroque Music. Summarizing Mattheson, he writes, “Both tempo indications and rhythmic characteristics of dance forms could help express […] affection […] The various dance genres were to embody the affective characteristics in much the same way that the temperaments of individuals or stage actors typify a certain affection.”6

A useful amendment might be to say the poietic embodiment of dance, to elucidate Mattheson’s emphasis on dance knowledge for the creation of musical works. Mattheson stresses how important it is that composers be familiar with dance and dance gesture. He writes, “Hypocritica [the study of gesture] is as indispensible to the art of dancing as are the feet themselves. A composer who does not know how to judge whether for example a dance belongs to the koraic or hyporchematic style […] will be at a great disadvantage.”7 For Mattheson, study in gesture is paramount for the composer; he leaves little discussion about performers.8 Mattheson sees gesture as bound to the intrinsic properties of a musical work and likewise to the intrinsic properties of a dance template. Music for dance is thus metaphorically conceived by and connected to an embodied sense of time and space on the part of the composer.

  • 1. See Descartes, René, “The Doctrine of the Affections,” in Music in the Western World: A History of Documents, selected and annotated by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Belmont, CA: Schirmer, 2008, 214.
  • 2. See Descartes, 213.
  • 3. See Descartes, 214.
  • 4. See Mattheson, “Geberden-Kunst,” 139.
  • 5. See Mattheson, “Affektenlehre,” in Music in the Western World: A History of Documents, 219.
  • 6. See Bartel, Dietrich. Musica Poetica: Musical-Rhetorical Figures in German Baroque Music. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997, 47.
  • 7. See Mattheson, “Geberden-Kunst,” 137.
  • 8. For performance manuals from this time, see treatises by Leopold Mozart and Johann Joachim Quantz. See Mozart, Leopold, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, trans. by Editha Knocker, London: Oxford University Press, 1963. See also Quantz, Johann Joachim, On Playing the Flute, trans. by Edward R. Reilly, New York: The Free Press, 1966.