Choreomania Program Notes
On a warm summer day in July, 1518, in the ancient city of Strasbourg (on the border of Germany and France), and elderly woman named Frau Troffea stepped out of her front door, and began to dance in the street. She was not celebrating, and no music played for her, but she danced furiously throughout the day, to the great distress of her family, who attempted to stop her, without success. Only when she was completely exhausted did she finally collapse and sleep for a few hours, before rousing and commencing her crazed dancing again. Within days, many others had joined her, and the spectacle grew as town residents and authorities became increasingly alarmed.
Thus began an episode of choreomania, the “dancing plague” that had occurred at various instances in European history over the previous four centuries. Any number from a handful to hundreds of people might be afflicted; indeed the plague seemed to be contagious, starting with small numbers, and driving otherwise normal people to dance uncontrollably, some to their deaths, or at least to suffer serious injuries. There are accounts of this strange phenomenon dating back to the eleventh century, and each seems to have occurred under different circumstances. Some may be nothing more than legends, but the events of others (such as Strasbourg) were well documented and undoubtedly real.
Medical historians have looked for explanations, ranging from ergot (a fungal poisoning in grain that can cause hallucinations), to civil disobedience (the dancing was frequently lewd), to mass hysteria (as new dancers joined the mob daily). Some form of group hysteria seems the most likely cause, brought about by difficult times (the area around Strasbourg, for example, had suffered crop failures and economic ruin), superstitions, and pent-up repressions. Indeed, dancing plagues were often blamed not on demonic possession, but rather on saints’ curses, especially that of St. Vitus, and were known as “St. Vitus’ Dance.” Many believed that in order to appease the angry saint, the afflicted needed to dance out their sins and to make a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to him (Vitus and John the Baptist were the saints who were thought to grant healing and cure for the afflicted dancers). In certain instances, music was provided to the dancers in an effort to help them achieve this. In some cases, the afflicted individuals themselves made the music, often simple tunes with repeating phrases.
Our program surveys this bizarre phenomenon, and we offer music from the 11th to the 16th centuries that might have been heard or sometimes performed by the sufferers, either for dancing or for contemplation. Most plagues lasted anywhere from a few days to a few months, though some carried on longer. They disappeared as mysteriously as they began, often ending after mass pilgrimages to holy shrines.
We open and close the first half with songs sung by the Flagellants, a movement of extreme penitents that gained strength during the first outbreak of the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Their eerie processions through towns evoked fear in the populace, as they whipped themselves bloody and sang penitential songs to appease the anger of God. We then view several instances of dance mania, presenting music from the time of each. Curiously, most of the recorded medieval outbreaks occurred in Germany.
In the second half of the 14th century, the French poet Eustache Deschamps (a student and probable nephew of Guillaume de Machaut) wrote an amusing poem on the evils of the bagpipe, and how it compels listeners to dance, showing the concern at church and court about the effects of the “wrong” kinds of music on certain listeners.
In addition to the dance manias, there were other instances of frenzied dancing that evoked strong emotions, fear, and disapproval. In the 14th century, Italy developed the roots for a tradition of dancing known as the tarantella, a manic dance that was presumably done to purge one from the bite of the tarantula (believed to be poisonous). This folk dance has become a central part of the folklore of southern Italy, and is characterized by lively dancing and virtuosic percussion playing.
During the second half of our program, we also present instrumental dance and vocal processional music from various German sources from around 1500. Some of these pieces are instrumental polyphonic compositions, often based on popular tenor melodies (such as La Spagna or Hopptanz). Some are arrangements extracted from organ tablatures of the time, like the Amerbach Codex, which was compiled in Basel, a mere 90 miles away from the city of Strasbourg. These sources captured some of the repertoire popular with professional wind bands and city musicians of the time, i.e., the very people who might have been hired by city officials to alleviate the dancers’ sufferings during the dancing mania outbreaks. In addition to these pieces, we perform two polyphonic settings based on Ut queant laxis, the chant for St. John the Baptist heard in the first half.
The phenomenon of the dancing plagues seems to have died out by the mid-17th century, though folk traditions such as the tarantella survived into modern times. The Flagellants, dancing plague victims, and dancers of the tarantella are a fascinating testimony to the power of suggestion and belief, and the mass hysteria that accompanied them remains one of the most curious aspects of early modern Europe.