Parisian dance mania

From the early 19th Century onwards, dancing is the vogue in Paris. After the settlement of the July Monarchy in 1830, the French capital is hit by a full-fletched dance mania. The whole of Paris gleefully swirls in the mundane salons, as well as in the popular ‘guinguettes’. Everybody dances and has other people dance, for as one police prefect in was prone to say: ‘As long as people are having fun, they are not conspiring.’ In large halls or vast gardens, promoters with a nose for good business organise public balls completely in the service of dance and its side activities. On Carnival even the opera house opens its prestigious hall to the domino masks of elegant ladies and gentlemen and to the costume balls of an audience of a greater social  mixture than otherwise would be the custom. At times these ‘bals masqués’ even cause a scandal. The Théâtre des Variétés, Tivoli, Mabille, Ranelagh, Grande-Chaumière, Vauxhall, Jardin-Turc are but a few of the places for the quadrille and dance to draw considerable flocks of people who are on the lookout for dancing, beautiful orchestral music or who are simply into a little diversion and a walk. The concept of promenade concerts is born when the performance of dance music is combined with symphonic overtures, opera fragments and performances of virtuoso solo players. These truly spectacular concerts come with lively shows exhibiting all kinds of scenic effects in a mixture of classical and light music.

A typical July Monarchy ensemble (1830-1848)

In those days dance music is omnipresent: it manages to rouse the great passions and serves as a commercial magical formula for many opportunists. For music publishers this repertoire represents a considerable segment of the market. Dance music is published and arranged for various instruments or combinations of instruments: piano, violin, string quartet, flageolet, cornet à pistons, guitar, harp, ophicléide, etc. Enormous dance manifestations assemble impressive orchestras, like the Musard orchestra, whereas the bourgeois salons and smaller balls settle for smaller ensemble. Little by little a standard cast is established, and is often mentioned as such in the music prints of those days: piano, violin, reverse flute, flageolet and a cornet à pistons. The piano forms the basis of the ensemble, the use of the other instruments was rather ‘ad libitum’, based on the availability of the musicians, as well as on the performers’ preference of colours and shades.

The dances : the quadrille, the waltz, the polka

Up until the 1830s the quadrille - contradance in its organised form - is the main dance repertoire in Paris. The quadrille is a potpourri of contradances, performed in lines according to a choreography of eight privileged dancers, who are successively presented to the audience in groups of four, in pairs or solo. Indeed, the quadrille serves the merriment of the spectators as much as that of the actual dancers. The structure consists of five figures in close succession. Since the days of the Consulate, the first two figures are called respectively ‘Pantalon’ and ‘Été’, complemented with the ‘Poule’. Later additions are the ‘Pastourelle’ or ‘Tréniz’, in which every one of the dances take a delight in individual demonstrations. In the end the eight dancers reunite in a glorious finale. But there tends to be a gap between theory and practice. And also the differences between the dance venues are noticeable. So at times, dance masters indeed deplore the negligence and indifference of many dancers…


The waltz, imported in France at the beginning of the century, was already performed in pairs, but for quit a while was not all that much performed, as it was considered to be all too ‘intimate’. But in 1844 another pair dance breaks through in the French capital: the polka. Consisting of a simple step instead of connecting figures, its success is incredible – be it with the help of a crushing publicity campaign. Other dance fashions succeed this polka mania and continue to sustain the commercial activities of the dance masters, ball entrepreneurs, publishers and serial writers. The mazurka, the redowa, the cracovienne, the varsovienne, the scottish and other more fleeting dances succeeded each other at a terrible speed. But fashions are short-lived. For instance, the cancan, an improvised dance which was taken up in the quadrille, was considered to be scandalous in the beginning of the July monarchy. As soon as in 1840 it was readily adopted by the snobbish avant-garde and by the end of the reign of Louis-Philippe it was already seen as outdated. Season after season dance fads are passing by.


Philippe Musard

During the July Monarchy Philippe Musard (1792-1859) is standing in the spotlights of the Parisian music scene. Berlioz entitles him the ‘Mozart of the contradance’, the press calls him the ‘Napoleon of the quadrille’. After a brief career in London, his first gigantic success in Paris is on Shrove Tuesday 1833. He soon manages to entertain his audience with a new formula: the promenade concerts. He has an orchestra of more than a hundred musicians play very colourful arrangements in programmes that alternate between dances and more serious work. He loves special effects and will not flinch from introducing new instruments, like the cornet à piston. He conducts and composes many quadrilles, inspired on popular opera themes. He is given the charge of opera house balls, an initiative which by the way restores the financial balance of the institution. Even though his quadrilles are written first and foremost for his orchestra, publishers eventually commercialise them for various casts: piano (solo and fourhanded), string quartet, guitar, duets for violin, flute,

flageolet and cornet à pistons, and particularly the cast known as ‘Les Pantalons’: piano, violin, flageolet and cornet.

Louis-Antoine Jullien

During the first years of the July Monarchy Louis-Antoine Jullien (1812-1860) is Musard’s main rival. As a conductor and composer he manages to put himself on the map as a real showman. Among other things, this great animator of the Parisian music scene leads the orchestra of the Jardin-Turc. He organises highly acclaimed dance balls and his concerts are qualified as ‘monstrous’. Making use of all the scenographic means that his days had in offer, his concerts bring together a great many musicians who flawlessly alternate quadrilles and other dances with solos, symphonic orchestral works and fragments from operas. In part because of the intervention of the virtuoso Koenig, he attributes the cornet à pistons a special place, but he also does so for other instruments such as the small flute. From 1839 onwards Jullien lives in London, where his promenade concerts are a standing success. As the manager of the Drury Lane theatre, he has Berlioz come over to London for the very first time (in 1847-1848) to direct the orchestra. But Jullien’s financial debts has him taste prison life, so that he once again goes off to live in exile, this time in the United States, where madness eventually will be the end of him.


Louis-Antoine Jullien - Le Rataplan

Jean-Baptiste Tolbecque

Before the arrival of Musard, Jean-Baptiste Tolbecque (1797-1869), born in Hanzinne, Belgium, is the most famous dance composer in Paris. His appointment as the organiser of balls at the court is preceded by his fame as a highly acclaimed conductor in Tivoli and other public gardens. His productions of quadrilles and waltzes is impressive. His younger brother, the violin player Charles-Joseph Tolbecque (1806-1835), conducts the orchestra of the ‘Théâtre des Variétés’, another trendy venue of the Parisian entertainment scene. Before his untimely death he also composed dance music.