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  • Writer's pictureianmooreplaysfiddle

St. Martin's & La Volta

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Here are two tunes from the Elizabethan period, the first is a dance called ’St. Martin’s’ from the earliest of the Playford Dancing Master books, printed up in 1651 & the second is a ‘Volta’ from Michael Praetorius’ book of dances: ‘Terpsichore’ from 1612.

I know its Veteran’s Day on 11:11, but did you know that the armistice signed today, in 1918, agreed that peace would begin on the 11th minute of the 11th hour? — that little magical sounding formula sure enough was when the festivities of St Martin’s Day were traditionally begun — the framers of the Armistice definitely were tapping into old folk knowledge with that one.

Martinsmas marks the start of what once was a ‘Winter Lent’ period, a time of fasting in preparation for Christmas, in later centuries that was shortened down to what we know now as Advent. And like any good period of fasting there’s supposed to be a raucous and indulgent feast right before, so I hope you took time out to squander some of your hard-gotten harvest bounty last night. St Martin was the patron saint of geese you know, so you should be fat and glossy with the goodness of roast goose, ideally.

This week also marks the death of the last Catholic ruler of England, Mary I died on 11/17, 1558, and so this also marks the point when Queen Elizabeth, her half-sister, began her reign. Catholicism had just begun to get comfortable as Mary’s efforts to roll back the Protestant Reformation, begun by her father Henry the VIII, took hold. The crowning of Elizabeth must have made this a pretty tense run up to Christmas for all the English, Catholics especially.

The second of these dances is a Volta, a sprightly couple dance that took the more stately galliard and added a somewhat risque feature, the gentleman would turn and lift his partner, resting her momentarily on his knee, sort of like putting her halfway on his lap — apparently it was considered Elizabeth’s favorite dance and soon after she became queen she famously danced it with a courtier sweetheart; the whole of England was much concerned with her romantic life but in the end she maintained her entire Queenship without ever taking on the bother of a King.

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