The origins of the minuet – a stately dance in triple time – are blurred. Its name may derive from the French ‘menu’ (‘slender’), denoting the small, neat steps of the dance. By the 1660s the minuet was a must-have social skill at the court of Louis XIV. At balls couples were assessed by the assembled company as they moved through a series of choreographed steps. Lully further popularised the minuet in his ballets and operas.
Like all things French, the minuet soon crossed boundaries. Its graceful rhythms and symmetrical phrases underlie some of Purcell’s most haunting songs, as in ‘Fairest Isle’ from King Arthur. In the next century, one or more minuets, often of a wistful cast, were de rigueur in the operas of Rameau.
South of the Alps, in the hands of Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, the minuet tended to be faster and lustier. Meanwhile it had become an optional ingredient in French and German keyboard suites. Handel adopted the faster, Italian-type minuet in his G major harpsichord suite. Bach, who could rarely resist contrapuntal elaboration in his minuets, used both types. The Lutheran cantor is at his most decorously Gallic in the menuets of the First Brandenburg Concerto and the B minor Flute Suite.
Alone among Baroque dances, the minuet survived into the age of Haydn and Mozart. Many JC Bach symphonies and several early Mozart concertos end with a gracious minuet. In Haydn’s C sharp minor Sonata, No 36, and Mozart’s Violin Sonata K304 the melancholy minuet finales double as surrogate slow movements.
From the 1770s most composers favoured the faster Italian form of the dance, often roughing it up in the process. Anyone trying to dance the metrically skewed minuets in Haydn’s Quartet Op 20 No 4, or Mozart’s K387, would risk ending up in A&E. Canonic writing was a particular feature of minor-keyed minuets, as in Mozart’s Symphony No 40 or the abrasive ‘witches’ minuet’ of Haydn’s Quartet Op 76 No 2. Elsewhere in late Haydn, minuets become bucolic scherzos that leave their courtly French model gasping.
Beethoven’s menuetto marking in his First Symphony fools no one. It’s an unbridled scherzo, setting the blueprint for the 19th century. When Beethoven (in his Eighth Symphony and Third Razumovsky Quartet) or Schubert (in his Octet and Rosamunde Quartet) wrote a true minuet, the effect is nostalgic or gently ironic. Ditto Brahms in his A minor String Quartet. A nostalgia for the French ‘golden age’ of Couperin and Rameau underpinned the minuet’s revival by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel. After World War One, in a spirit of ironic reminiscence the arch‑serialist Schoenberg used minuets in his Op 24 Serenade and Op 25 Suite.