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The English Dancing Master



For those of you not familiar with Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651), it was the first collection of popular dance tunes published in the British Isles. It was published in London and sold to the English country dancing market. Some of the tunes are of Scottish and Irish origin, however (e.g., Broom of the Cowdenknowes).

It was a big hit, and it remained in print through various editions until 1728.

It's not exactly traditional music. It was popular music intended for an urban audience. The various editions were updated with the hits of the day—songs from popular plays and special music used by professional dancers. However, quite a lot of the material can be found in traditional circulation. Whether this was true before the publication would be a matter for scholars to debate.

English country dancing is first mentioned in the Elizabethan period. Some of the tunes were probably at least 100 years old when they were published. Many of the older tunes existed as songs rather than strictly dance tunes.

You can find background information and instructions on doing the dances in The Playford Ball by Kate Van Winkle Keller and Genevieve Shimer (A Cappella Books, 1990).

Nowadays there are two styles of what is called "English country dancing" One is based on Playford tunes. Apparently the tunes are usually played in a style based on late 19th century classical music. The logic of this eludes me, except that people who play in this style often imagine that it is appropriate for any type of music. The other kind of English country dancing is the kind of dancing they do out in the country in England. This is true folk dancing, done to folk tunes played in folk style. It doesn't really have anything to do with Playford, which has been upper-class stuff since the 17th century.

John Playford (1623-1686) was a successful London music publisher. A royalist, he kept a low profile during the Commonwealth and came into political favour with the return of Charles II. He catered to the taste of the emerging bourgeois class which preferred country dancing to the more formal galliards and other formal dances popular with the nobility before the Civil War. His business was carried on by his son Henry.

The actual title of the work was:

The English Dancing Master, or, Plaine and easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with the Tune to each Dance

See the original title page.

The book also contained instructions for all the dances. However, the instructions assume familiarity with the style. Since there is not an unbroken tradition of country dancing, modern English country dancing is an educated reconstruction of the old dances.

The first edition of The English Dancing Master contained many modal tunes, including one in the Phrygian mode. In later editions, the old modal tunes were dropped or revised to fit into "modern" major/minor tonality.

The abc file is from the first edition (1651). A printed edition is now available from:

Dance Horizons, 1801 East 26th St., Brooklyn, New York 11229.
Dance Books Ltd,9 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4EZ, England

The original dance instructions have been entered by a person I've never met and have nothing to do with. If you don't already know how to do English country dancing you'll find it rather cryptic. Some people have mistaken it for abc notation!

Lute icon Download the abc file.


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