Music for the Quadrille in Ireland, 1800s

The extraordinary vogue for Irish set-dancing that has been in full swing since the 1970s, and shows little sign of abating, has been going international in recent years. Irish dancers have been travelling on organised set-dancing holidays to Spain and elsewhere, and dancers abroad have been eagerly taking up the Irish set-dances.

These dances, performed mostly in square formations by four or more couples, are in fact localised Irish versions of 19th-century ballroom dances that were originally European.

Among these ballroom dances, the most popular was possibly the quadrille. This was also a square-formation dance – usually performed in five distinct figures by ‘sets’ of from four to eight couples – which had its roots in 18th-century pageant and ballet dances. Developed in France in the early 1800s, it spread quickly throughout Europe. Local tradition in Limerick attributes its introduction there to soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars after 1815, but the quadrille and its music was most likely brought to Ireland at about the same time by the existing city networks of professional dance teachers and music publishers.

A selection of Irish-related quadrille music from the collections of the Irish Traditional Music Archive is presented here. The pieces are undated but were published in Dublin or in London in the 19th century.

The early music published for the quadrille in Ireland normally reflects its European structures. The melodies themselves can be tunes composed abroad by such well known professionals as Louis Jullien, or Irish national tunes arranged for the new dance. As quadrille-dancing gained in popularity in Ireland, the process of localisation continued. Quadrilles were adapted to Irish traditional reels, jigs and hornpipes, and other dance-music forms, throughout the country, and some of the imported tunes entered oral tradition. The ballroom dance movements themselves were adapted in a wide variety of ways to smaller indoor venues, and were generally known as ‘set-dances’. Such local dances fell out of popularity in the course of the earlier 20th century, but were generally remembered and were available for enthusiastic revival from the 1970s.

ITMA would welcome the donation of other materials of this kind which are not yet in its collections (check our catalogues here), or of their loan for copying.

NC & MG, 1 October 2010