A New Most Excellent Dancing Master. The Journal of Joseph Lowe’s visits to Balmoral and Windsor (1852-1860) to teach dance to the family of Queen Victoria
Allan Thomas (ed),
Pendragon Press, $54.95
It is Boxing Day 1855. Queen Victoria is dancing the Reel of Tulloch. Victoria’s dancing master, Mr Lowe, refined the Scottish steps with the turned‑out foot of the minuet. In fact the enthusiasm for reels, flings, and hornpipes at Victoria’s Court encouraged Scottish dance fever in ballrooms around the world. The Highland Fling of our A&P Shows reeks of the French court.
Victoria’s favourites were the highland reels, danced in castle ballrooms to the accompaniment of bagpipes. She had a tendency to forget the steps and confided to Mr Lowe that she feared her style of Scottish dancing was too masculine.
When Albert died Victoria stopped dancing, but during the 1850s music and dance were principal recreations of her Court. Victoria and Albert both played and sang; here Mendelssohn’s latest compositions received their premier performances; Grieg, Liszt, Arthur Sullivan and Jenny Lind (‘the Swedish Nightingale’) were amongst the virtuosi of the era who entertained there; French minuets, waltzes and polkas were danced along with Scottish reels. Lowe records: The Queen could hardly keep her seat for laughing at Lord Granville’s attempts to dance the Highland Fling… the ball was kept up till three o’clock.
Mr Lowe’s son, Joseph Eager Lowe, taught dancing in Melbourne and Dunedin; in their turn his children were dance-teachers in the colonies: Charlotte Lowe taught dancing in Christchurch until the 1940s, and like her grandfather she accompanied her pupils with the violin. There are still alive in New Zealand pupils of Miss Lowe who recall her correcting their legs with her violin bow. Jon Trimmer, New Zealand’s premier dancer, recalls the journal being read to him as a child; his older sister married Charlotte’s nephew and so it is in the hands of a New Zealand family that the manuscript of Victoria’s dancing master has resurfaced, to be edited by a New Zealand musicologist.
In the journal we accompany the ebullient, spirited Mr Lowe as he composes dance tunes for the Royal household (‘The Prince of Wales Jig’, ‘The Balmoral Castle Quadrille’), plays the fiddle at royal balls, teaches dancing and violin playing to Victoria’s children, and takes them on fishing expeditions. He is the leading dance master of Scotland, and while he keeps company with gillies and fiddlers, the adroit art of his editor enriches the tapestry of English social history. ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ was a favourite tune of the era.
The editor has illustrated Mr Lowe’s journal throughout. There are depictions of ballroom settings and dance formations, sheet music for the dance tunes, corresponding entries from Victoria’s own diaries, and a compendium identifying the aristocratic and common people with whom Lowe’s journal acquaints us. We become familiar with the kilted noblemen assembled in the tent erected for the annual Gillies Ball at Balmoral, with the costumes and instruments, the expressions and countenances, the handwriting and lithography of the 1850s, with the Christmas tree decorations Victoria and Albert popularised, and the new technology of photography.
So presented, Mr Lowe’s journal documents the progress of dance and music with Victoria as ring-leader. The Queen, the Princess Alice, Prince of Wales and my daughter danced the Reel of Tulloch with great spirit, swinging each other without ceremony sometimes rather too roughly and with too much force for such a slippery floor, but they all seemed to enjoy it very much. It’s a romp for readers young and old and not one with Victoria reflected in the colonial mirror.
A Workbook by Kellom Tomlinson. Commonplace Book of an Eighteenth-Century English Dancing Master, A Facsimile Edition,
Jennifer Shennan (ed),
Pendragon Press, $54.95
This slim, elegant work introduces us to the operas and ballets, dancers and choreographers, of the London stage around 1700-1720, when dances from the court of Louis XIV were the rage: sarabandes, minuets, rigadons and canaries were danced on stage (incorporated into operas or performed as entre-actes), at court, and in private ballrooms.
The French dances had become popular in England after 1660, following the restoration of Charles II. Exiled at the court of Louis XIII, Charles; would have seen the virtuosic dancing of Lully and Beauchamp and the comedic acting of Molière.
French dancing masters were employed as baroque dance spread to European courts; England was exceptional in having dance masters who published their own compositions. Amongst the great English exponents of baroque dance were Josias Priest (choreographer for Purcell’s operas), John Weaver, Thomas Caverley, Edmund Pemberton and Kellom Tomlinson himself. Dancers admired by Tomlinson included that great performer Mr Cherrier; the inimitable Mr L’Abbe; and Mr John Shaw, justly esteemed not only one of the finest theatrical dancers but one of the most beautiful performers in the gentleman-like way.
None of these names was known to me, yet there is no doubt that a Tomlinson rendition would have matched any Pavlova swan in subtlety of mood, and surpassed her in technical dexterity. Here is Shennan describing the ‘Saraband for a man’ with music and choreography by Tomlinson: both dazzling and demanding with beautifully phrased virtuosic steps followed by slow and superbly sustained balances… an array of sophisticated steps, now fast, now slow, now beaten, now sustained, now sprung, now gliding – a pirouette in an open position followed by a beaten turning jump with multiple circlings of the gesturing leg after the landing.
Kellom Tomlinson finished his apprenticeship with the great dance master Thomas Caverley in 1714, aged possibly 21. He was already renowned as a performer on stage and was much sought after by the nobility as a teacher. This fascimile edition of his workbook reveals the aesthetic beauty of the choreography, containing twelve dances recorded in Feuillet’s notation, which provides a stave of music with the matching dance steps and floor pattern visually represented in characters showing how the steps agree with the notes in each measure. The workbook is nearly 300 years old (having been commenced cl708) and will have been handed down through possibly seven generations of dance teachers, reaching Dunedin with Joseph Eager Lowe Snr about 1860. The manuscript was passed to this New Zealand author because she was recognised as having the scholarship to reconstruct and perform the dances, as she has done; and so we have in her introduction to the Workbook readings of the dances which Tomlinson represents abstractly in notation. Her account is a tour de force of technical description in clear prose.
With clarity and inspired images the author conveys to the common musician an aesthetic appreciation of baroque choreography: All the other sequences in the [minuet] proceed in the same ongoing direction; this pendulum pair of steps by contrast travels first one way then back the other, suggesting a glimpse of a centre which then folds closed again. I have seen the author dancing those pendulum steps. One feels a lilt of the heart and spirit. You will listen to early music with new ears; we have made do with only half the art.
With the Revolution, baroque dance was no longer maintained by the French court; the next great dance tradition was romantic ballet. When Tomlinson’s manuscript reached Dunedin in the 1860s New Zealanders were dancing the haka and the Scottish reels which had been popularised in Victoria’s ballrooms.
The original manuscript of Mr Lowe’s journal and the workbook by Tomlinson have been deposited in the National Library of New Zealand.
Wendy Pond was the 1992 J D Stout research fellow at Victoria University of Wellington.