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12 February 2014

Devonshire minuets

In this post, Moira Goff, Curator of the British Library's Georgians Revealed exhibition, delves into the Library's music collections in search of dances performed by upper-class Georgians.

Many of the collections of country dances and minuets published in the late 18th century included tunes named for individual aristocratic female dancers.  The most famous of these was the Devonshire Minuet, composed in honour of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and first performed by Adelaide Simonet and Gaetan Vestris at a ridotto held at the King’s Theatre in London on 22 March 1781. The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser for 24 March reported at length on the event, noting in particular the brief attendance of the Duchess who sat in her box rather than joining the company. For ‘her Grace was only there to pay a kind of public visit to the Vestris, for the Devonshire minuet, which was received with a very warm applause, and was no sooner over than the Duchess disappeared’. The Devonshire Minuet was subsequently performed several times at the King’s Theatre as part of the ballet Ninette à la Cour, in which the two dancers were starring. The music was published the same year in Giovanni Battista Noferi’s The Celebrated Dances Performed by the Messrs Vestris &c. at the King’s Theatre. The copy now in the British Library appears to have been used in performance, as the harmony has been filled out in places in ink. The Devonshire Minuet also appeared separately in various arrangements suitable for music-making and dancing at home.

Devonshire Minuet
First plate of music for the Devonshire Minuet. Giovanni Battista Noferi: The Celebrated Dances Performed by the Messrs Vestris &c. at the King’s Theatre. London, [1781]. British Library shelfmark: b.57.b.(4)]

The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire were noted for their lavish entertainments at Devonshire House in London’s Piccadilly. The ‘Devonshire Gala’ given on 21 March 1782 was reported in detail in the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser for 22 March. The luxurious and elegant decorations of the hall and adjacent rooms were fully described.  ‘The Grand Hall was fitted up in the most superb stile, converted into la Salle au Bal’, with an antique statue of Apollo and fine paintings set off by festoons of roses and a myriad candles. The ‘sopha for the Royal Family, and the rest of the furniture was rose coloured damask; a raised flooring, and temporary orchestra were constructed; the orchestra was in divisions on each side the Apollo statue’. The Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser did not comment on the dancing at the ball until 30 March:

Of minuets, at least as danced by Amateur performers, none was ever more commended than the minuet, at the Devonshire Gala, of the Prince of Wales, and the Duchess of Devonshire.

The Minuet next in point of order, tho’ not of merit, was danced by the Duke of Devonshire and Lady Caroline Spencer. His Grace is an amiable and respectable character; but dancing is not his forte.

The newspaper commented only on Lady Caroline’s beauty. The report shows that formal balls of the late 18th century still opened with a series of minuets, danced one couple at a time in order of rank, just as they had been nearly 100 years earlier.

Moira Goff

Further reading: Amanda Foreman. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. London, 1998.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain is on until 11 March 2014.


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