Contra Dances from New Hampshire 1783 by Kate van Winkle Keller and George A. Fogg (October 2012) is the latest from The Colonial Music Institute press. This book is an interpretation of the fifty-five dances written down by one Clement Weeks, a 33-year-old schoolteacher in Greenland, New Hampshire. In February 1783, just a few months before the Treaty of Paris would end the Revolutionary War, Weeks began writing out “Figures for Contra Dances,” thirty-five of them, the authors point out, “from a collection from a friend named Smith” and another twenty chosen by Weeks himself. Keller and Fogg, both expert dance historians, interpreted each set of dance figures and, using the titles in the Weeks manuscript, located the music intended for them. Thus, each dance, is written out in modern notation and coupled with its facsimile from Weeks’ manuscript. Facsimiles are provided for most of the tunes as well. That plus the front matter, comprising a history of Weeks and his manuscript and an explanation of “Contra Vs Country,” plus the back matter (“Formation,” glossary, and bibliography), makes for a book packed with information – and not just for dancers, either.
For those of us with an interest in Ancient history, the Contra Dances from New Hampshire demonstrates how easily dance music could become march music. At this time, both fifers and dancers required uncluttered music with two strong pulsations per measure in order to know which foot should be where at each musical measure. These indications of foot placement were just as important to soldiers marching in formation as they were to the ladies and gentlemen footing it on the dance floor, proven by the fact that about half of Weeks’ dance music is also found in the manuscript march collections kept by fifers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The liberal use of facsimiles in Contra Dances from New Hampshire deserves more than casual interest. These provide readers who have not had the opportunity to visit museums and research libraries a unique glimpse into the past, when frugal Yankees like Weeks preferred to write down dance figures in a homemade book rather than purchase the latest London publication which, if not available from a local merchant, might require a trip to Exeter or maybe even Portland [Maine]. Also, the facsimiles reveal the problems that Keller and Fogg faced when working with old handwriting on old paper. While the construction features of a clearly dated book like Weeks’ gives us clues useful when working with other, undated manuscripts, the closely spaced writing and sometimes heavy bleedthrough make interpretation difficult, especially when deciphering the phrase marks (is it a dot? Or bleedthrough from the page behind?).
Also, the authors note that “in many of the dances in this collection, [the phrase marks] are not correctly applied” (p.12). This simple statement is hardly dismissive; it is one made only after painstakingly working out a literal interpretation and spending hours in libraries and at the computer, comparing it to as many similar others that may be found, both in manuscript and printed form. That is the only way to separate an intentional deviation from a true mistake. And sometimes there is nothing comparable, at which time one must admit being stymied (“This dance was a puzzle,” p. 52).
I don’t see Contra Dances from New Hampshire in the Colonial Music Institute catalog yet (it’s that new!), http://www.colonialmusic.org/RetailCatalog.pdf, but I am sure an emailed request, email@example.com, would be honored. It certainly is worth the extra effort to get a copy now and use these winter months to learn the dances (or the music, depending on your personal interests) to have them ready for springtime performances.
Copyright January 2013, History of the Ancients Dot Org. All rights reserved.