Misbehaving Minuets: A Preliminary Theory of Humor and Dance Form in Haydn's Late String Quartets

Jennifer Salamone, University of Kentucky

The minuet is a musical form steeped in tradition and convention. Originally meant as music to accompany the aristocratic ballroom dance, minuets became a symbol of the refined upper class. A dancer's ability to master the intricate floor patterns and elegant bodily movements required of a minuet was a sign of their sophistication; as such, minuets functioned not only as entertainment but also as emblems of social status. Those minuets composed for the ballroom were governed by the dance's choreography -- the ideal minuet aligned perfectly with the dance steps, which dictated the work's length, hypermeter, and harmonic rhythm.

Franz Joseph Haydn, universally known as a great musical jester, used several of his late minuets as vehicles for humor. By exploiting the minuet's position as a ubiquitous social dance with precise choreographic and musical needs, the composer plays upon the ingrained expectations of his listeners. Any adjustments in the phrase length would wreak havoc on the listener's internalized performance of the expected dance steps; likewise, more subtle manipulations such as cadential moments and surface contour could also create curious incongruities with the imagined bodily movements. Haydn's late string quartets, with minuets composed not for dancing but solely for listening, exhibit various musical elements that would conflict with the listener's expectation of how a minuet should behave. As the music clashes with the listener's imagined kinesthetic movements, the result is a humorous bungling of a traditionally stately and dignified dance.