Wednesday, December 12th, 2012...8:55 am

Country dancing, Peninsular Wars-style

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Today, Houghton Library observes the anniversary of John Milton Ward’s passing. Ward, a Harvard musicologist who turned to extensive collecting in his retirement, donated a “Magnificent Collection” of performing arts material to us over the course of many years before his death in 2011. One of his favorite areas of study was the world of social dance, from Queen Elizabeth I and her volta, to a screenplay draft for Dirty Dancing. Ward found great satisfaction in the documentary value of everyday items, for the context they provide to the researcher. Social dance music collections, ubiquitous in their time but not always easy to find later, offer a particularly vivid snapshot of popular culture, and I believe this little collection must have delighted Ward.

*2007TW-2071(3.5) title page

Ward cherished an additional interest in Napoleon; consequently we hold a great many printed and manuscript collections of French and English country dances from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, which are particularly fascinating for the titles given each dance. While their spelling varies widely (which can make research challenging) titles frequently make reference to popular people and events of the day, both large (famous battles, new buildings, etc.) and small (someone’s favorite fan). As was common at this time, the music is followed by the “figures” (blocking, really) of the dance. Sometimes these collections can be difficult to date with any dependability, and catalogers rely on publishers’ addresses, watermarks in the paper, bibliographies, and the British Library catalogue (which holds the equivalent of our Library of Congress’s copies of record); but sometimes a cataloger must take cues from the material itself, as in this case.

*2007TW-2071(3.5) Page 16

Given the titles in this collection there’s little doubt that it was printed in or shortly after 1813. The Battle of Vitoria, one of the most important battles in the Peninsular Wars was fought in June of 1813. General Wellington was already famous by this time, so naturally he was honored in the title of this dance. But how about George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, also a hero of Vitoria? (Here’s an example of that idiosyncratic spelling I mentioned.)

*2007TW-2071 (3.5) Page 13

And Thomas Graham, the first Baron Lynedoch?

*2007TW-2071 (3.5) Page 9

And then there is the Battle of Leipzig, fought in October of 1813.

*2007TW-2071 (3.5) Page 18

Russian allies are given their due, as is Prince Mikhail Kutusov.

*2007TW-2071 (3.5) Page 10

*2007TW-2071 (3.5) Page 24

Other luminaries honored with titles in this volume include Captain Philip Broke, who fought valiantly in the War of 1812.

*2007TW-2071 (3.5) Page 8

Others are noted by name or function, and I won’t even get into the styles of the dances which are interesting in and of themselves by virtue of the composers’ choices for each hero or battle. This little collection whispers to us through its titles who was hot, and who was not, 200 years ago. Whose deeds were considered to be of great consequence at the moment (or shortly after) they happened. And whose lack of representation shows us that however great their posthumous fame, they just didn’t capture the contemporary public eye. This collection of dances is but one of many in the Harvard Theatre Collection; next time you’re curious about who was the It Girl during the Peninsular Wars, just check Hollis.

[Thanks to Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]


  • As a country dancer myself, I love it when directions are included in the music. Not that I can quite interpret them. Tantalizing…

  • I’m afraid I can’t help much with the figures, and stand in awe of those who can reconstruct complete dances from this shorthand. The Library of Congress has an excellent online exhibit about American dance instruction manuals, and there is an informative brief section on late 18th century dance here:
    which is followed by a brief section on the 19th century (among other fine resources). I now regret never participating in my high school’s “contra dance” club!

  • Thank you for sharing the images of these dances! I’ve had a go at animating a couple of them over at

    The Don Cossack Waltz:
    General Graham:

    Love the music. Any chance of sharing the notation for Prince Kutosoff?

  • Thank you so much for this link, and what a useful way to connect a visual concept of the figures with the music! Lovely that you have included videos of some dances as well, these are most useful for those of us who are unclear about the reality of these dance steps.

    I wish I could share the notation for Prince Kutosoff but unfortunately the publishers did not provide figures for that particular dance. But please keep consulting HOLLIS, as we are adding new dance figures all the time:
    and it’s entirely possible that another version of that music will appear, complete with figures.