Aristocratic Dance Types in Context during Beethoven’s Lifetime

Erica Buurman


Viennese social dance culture plays an important role in the understanding of dance types used in instrumental music of the Classical period. The expressive content of dance types, according to topic theory, derives from their dance characteristics and their social contexts: the minuet is a therefore celebration of the aristocratic values of grace and noble deportment, whereas the waltz is an egalitarian dance that emerged from lower-class peasant culture. The perceived social hierarchy of these dance types derives, however, from pre-Revolutionary European society, and their social contexts shifted greatly during Beethoven’s lifetime. By the end of the eighteenth century the minuet belonged to the dance repertoire of all classes in Vienna, and it lived on into the nineteenth century as a dance associated with large-scale public balls in the imperial ballrooms and the suburban Apollosaal. During the Congress of Vienna the polonaise (already familiar to the Viennese in wider music and dance culture) emerged as a new emblem of the aristocracy, where it featured in the processions of the monarchs and emperors at public occasions. This paper examines the changing contexts for aristocratic dance types in Viennese dance culture at the turn of the nineteenth century, and considers the implications for their expressive content as musical topics.


Erica Buurman is Director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University. She previously taught at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK (2013–2019). Her research interests center on Beethoven and include sketch study, Viennese musical culture, and social dance. She has contributed a chapter to the Cambridge Companion to the Eroica Symphony (forthcoming in 2020) and is currently working on a monograph on social dance music in Beethoven’s Vienna.


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