Quadrille Music Definition Essay

Quadrilles and Cotillions

    Just a few days ago someone referred to "cotillion-type tunes, with parts in different keys". I am curious about this nomenclature. When I learned the Richmond Cotillion I was told that it been one of the mainstays of the Richmond Cotillion (i.e., debutantes' ball) whence the name. Then many years later I started hearing people refer to Flying Cloud Cotillion. My copy of Posey Rorer and the NC Ramblers playing this tune is simply labeled Flying Clouds, no cotillion to it. I don't know of any earlier version of this tune and I suspect that cotillion has been folk-processed onto the name, and that this comes from the fact that Richmond Cotillion is in two keys, etc.

    Does anyone have real knowledge about this burning issue? I'd be grateful for enlightenment.


    The name Richmond Cotillion comes from a DaCosta Woltz & His Southern Broadcasters record, right? Clark Kessinger called it Richmond Polka and I've got a record by Virginia fiddler Burk Barbour where it's called Green Mountain Polka. I've heard several fiddlers in Michigan play versions of it, either with no name or one, that I can recall, Hell Amongst the Yearlings, which he may have learned from a Wade Ray record of the same name.

    There was a Richmond Polka published in the 1850s, but I haven't seen it. Seems to me that would be the likely origin of the tune. More than likely, there was a part in G that got dropped.

    In Michigan, anyway, cotillions starting appearing in the 1840s, with calls and five changes. These seem to have turned into quadrilles in the 1850s and 1860s. The more recent definition of "cotillion" (as you describe) as an elaborate debutante dance (and was still done in the black community in Detroit in the '70s and maybe still is, in "Cotillion Clubs") is a different thing (do these still exist at all?)

    Paul Gifford

    Joel Shimburg asked about Cotillions and Paul Gifford replied [in part]:

      For what it may be worth, tunes/dances identified as "Cotillions" [sometimes spelled "Cotillon"] start turning up in print in the late 1770s-early 1780s. There are one or two in James Aird's collections, and quite a few in a similar collection published by N. Stewart in Edinburgh c. 1788. Some show up in American manuscripts from about the same time. By the second decade of the 19th century they're much more numerous in American print; Riley's Flute Melodies, a NYC publication c.1814-1820 contains quite a few. As Paul G. notes, by the 1840s they seemed to have gotten quite popular and some Elias Howe publications are full of them. In my own index, they virtually disappear after the 1850s but that may be due as much to the peculiarities of the books I have indexed as anything.

      Quite honestly I've never been clear on the difference between a "cotillion" and a "quadrille." Both are [as far as I know] dances for four couples in square formation, and at least originally consisted of numerous sections or "changes," each of which had different music and different dance figures. The distinction may have been one of complexity or formality or something; I'd be grateful if someone could enlighten me on this.

      Paul's notion that cotillions may have simply "turned into" quadrilles is, I think, on the mark. The term "quadrille" starts getting used in books a lot by the 1830s. So there's some overlap in the two terms, but "cotillion" seems to have preceded "quadrille." In my database "quadrilles" also cut off in the 1850s, but then the term surfaces again in more recent field collections—Christeson, Roche, etc. And I know that there were lots of quadrille folios and whatnot published in the late 19th century; I just don't happen to have them at hand. Paul knows much more about this than I.

      At any rate, the term "quadrille" seems to have stuck a lot more in tradition than "cotillion," at least in referring to anything of interest to most folks on this list. Except, of course, in those few tunes noted by Joel. I don't have a real answer for his original question, other than to suggest that perhaps the name has no real meaning in terms of describing the music, but is invoked as a means of investing the tune with a bit more formality or "seriousness." It always seemed to me that "hornpipe" was often used in much the same way in southern US fiddling; that is, the tunes called hornpipes are not necessarily played any differently than other breakdowns [certainly not with the dotted rhythms they "originally" had], but they tend to have more complex melodies, and ones that are harmonically unambiguous. Thus, the term has seemed to me to impart an air of importance to a tune.

      Paul G. also said:

        I think they still do exist here in the South as debutante balls [I'm not a native]; certainly if they do, fiddling would not be welcome at them!

        Paul F. Wells
        Center for Popular Music/Middle Tennessee State University
        Murfreesboro, TN 37132 U.S.A.

        The dance, the cotillion, is historically best known from France, but is thought to have its origins in Germany. A contemporary painting of a cotillion being danced was done by the French artist Collet in 1771 depicting four males and four females moving in a counter-clockwise circle. It was probably circulated by military regiments throughout Europe and North America.

        In Ireland, its penetration was such that when five years ago interviewing Peadar Campbell, a fiddler, then well into his nineties from the Irish Gaelic speaking Croaghs Mountains district, (father of the famous Vincent, Jimmy & Columba - all fiddlers) in the Irish language he told me about the local dances done up into his thirties at house dances. In the course of the discussion he named one dance always done to a double jig (6/8 time) which he termed "an Cotilan" (pronounced Ko-tee-laan). It had been so deeply absorbed into the local tradition that the original French named which had moved into English had been totally Gaelicised in its pronunciation. The renowned Donegal fiddlers John Doherty and James Byrne, both Irish speakers, also refer to the same dance and both played double jigs for it. The book Songs of Uladh, published in Belfast in 1904, contains songs and fiddle tunes collected in Irish speaking areas of Donegal in the summer of 1903 published. In it appears a Donegal version of the Scottish tune The Wee Pickle Tow (which is still regularly played here today) and is noted as being a "cotillan".

        Adh mor,

        Caoimhin Mac Aoidh

        Paul F. Wells wrote:

          Here's another intriguing puzzle that's going to require some close musicological analysis, where do "cotillion" and "quadrille" pieces fit into the grand scheme of things? Some knowledge of the dances might be helpful here. Cotillions were country dances in square formation ("contre danses a la Francais") that became fashionable in the late 18th century. The were swept aside in the fashionable world (i.e., London, Paris, Edinborough, etc.) in the 2nd decade of the 19th century. And shortly after that, the quadrille craze hit the shores of North America. But those contrary Americans kept using the term 'cotillion' to refer to dances that were actually quadrilles. The two dance types share a lot of moves, but were structured quite differently. The quadrille remained popular for most of the rest of the 19th century and seems to have crystallized into a stable form that was still around when Henry Ford "revived" it in the 1920s. Cotillions as dances faded away, but there is some reason to believe their basic structure and spirit slowly evolved into the rural "hoedown" square dances that bubbled up into general cultural awareness in the 1920s and 30s (A hypothesis still to be tested). Quadrilles tended to be more urban, except in the northern tier of states extending from Connecticut through New York and West to Michigan. And just to make it more interesting, dance history in the Southwest—including both Anglos and Latinos—suggests the Cotillion might have hung on out there longer than in the urban East (another untested hypothesis).

          The term 'Cotillion' was also applied to a type of late 19th century party dance or game also known as "The German." Also, the term had some currency as a synonym for "ball." In several accounts of post-Civil War Indianapolis, quadrilles, waltzes, and other dances were danced at cotillions. Here in Chicago today, the term refers to debutante (and perhaps) other balls in the Latino community.

          BTW, several Indiana fiddlers play a version of the Richmond Cotillion and give it the name Stonewall Jackson. Lotus Dickey had two versions, one with no name and one he called Little Bess.

          More later, when I can actually sit down and look at the data.

          Paul Tyler

          Paul and I had an interesting exchange on this topic a year or two ago on rec.dancing.folk-dancing. I listed some cotillion calls from about 1848 written by Henry P. Smith, a fiddler and dancing master in Schoolcraft, MI (these are at Western Michigan University). These were similar to the earlier cotillion in that they had five figures, each with names like Pantalon, Le Chat, etc., but were like later square dances in their calls (Basket Dance, etc.).

          More research needs to be done, but it seems that black musicians developed this style of cotillion. In a book called A Subaltern's Furlough in North America, from 1832 (if I recall), the English visitor describes the "sable" trio of two violins and bass playing at a resort hotel at Lebanon Springs, NY, where he thought the calling was very curious. In 1842, James Swan, a fiddler and dancing master, moved to Michigan from New York and that winter called off what they thought to be the first cotillions danced west of Detroit ("country dances" only being known), and the two hotels in town had two balls going, one for cotillions, the other with the usual country dances. This would have implied that in this frontier area, Detroit, with a high society consisting of merchants, lawyers, and military officers, had been dancing cotillions for some time.

            That's interesting. I wonder if the Latinos brought the cotillion concept from Mexico or Texas. I just did an Alta Vista search and found a cotillion in Portsmouth, VA (black debutantes). I also put a query about cotillions on soc.culture.african-american—it will be interesting to see if any threads develop (my guess is that people there will SHOUT it down). It was also interesting to learn about Irish cotilans from Caomhain.

            Paul Gifford

            Paul M. Gifford wrote:

              These names are for standard figures of the quadrille. Don't mix them up with cotillions. In spite of the early 19th American usage of 'cotillion' to apply also to newer quadrilles, the dance forms themselves are quite distinct.

                Just to clarify. Latino culture in the Southwest—which used to be part of Mexico—had both music and dances referred to as 'cotillons' (I think that's the spelling) and 'cuadrillas.' I don't know if these were separate forms, or how closely they related to dancing east of the Mississippi.

                The term 'cotillion,' referring to a dance or other social event, far outlived the cotillion as a dance form.

                Paul Tyler

                Graham McDonald:

                  In fact, Graham, I wrote asking when and why people started calling any tune with parts in different keys "cotillions". The resulting thread has been interesting and informative (and I hope that it will continue to be), but the original question got lost in the shuffle.

                  I suspect that the naming issue is really quite parochial - that what I was talking about is limited to just one segment of the US fiddling community (the south-eastern, or Appalachian-style family), but suspecting and not knowing was one reason to ask the question.

                  Paul Tyler asserted:

                    So the 18th-century cotillion is a completely different dance? It appears to me, from what evidence I've seen, that semi-improvised calling went along with the cotillions of the 1840 period. Quadrilles weren't called, as I understand. So are we talking about a quadrille format with cotillion figures added?

                      This particular article (originally from a 1909 newspaper article, published in: Mrs. Franc L. Adams, Pioneer History of Ingham County, vol. 1 [Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford, 1923], pp. 405- 412) says, in relating his story, that "'Country dances', which were never 'called off', were all that had been known here, and the news went over the country that a man over in Ingham could fiddle cotillions and call them off". No mention of "reels", but it says he played Money Musk, Speed the Plow, Durang's Hornpipe, and called off the figures of the Scotch Reel, Lady Washington, and Sicilian Circles. James Swan was born in 1824 in Orleans County, NY, played with his family orchestra of organ, dulcimer, cello, and other instruments, for dances around the Lansing area, until "with the introduction of modern two-steps and waltzes he quit in disgust. He calls them 'baby dances,' and remains constant in his preference for the graceful figures and merry tunes of his younger days." In my Michigan research, I found other mentions of the Scotch reel, but, referring to this period, Money Musk was the most frequent dance mentioned; also Opera Reel, French Four, Virginia reel.

                      It would be interesting to know what differences might appear in Indiana sources regarding types of dances in that period, as well as cotillions and quadrilles, and how they relate to the traditional dancing done today. And not just Indiana—we might as well include the whole world as well <g>.

                      Well, it seems to me, from this tune analysis I did, that a probably the majority of tunes in 6/8 known by old-time fiddlers in Michigan 20 years ago (I'm talking about ear players here) had their origins with the cotillion/quadrille. A portion were probably published, but the majority probably not, and names for them weren't associated with them. The relatively high number of tunes in F & B flat would seem to be associated with the use of clarinet and cornet in quadrille bands (with instrumentation like violin, clarinet, cornet, trombone), which in my research first appeared in Detroit in 1843, led by Obadiah Wood, a black fiddler.

                      Somehow the lack of 6/8 tunes in the South (let's say south of US 50) would appear to be related to the way cotillions/quadrilles developed there. The original core of 18th-century jigs (a limited number) survived into this century but died out, more or less, south of US 50. But in the North the rhythm was preferred for part of the quadrilles/cotillions, and some of the old jig repertoire was adapted for them. Perhaps another reason was that New England (and westward) did more "country dances," using 6/8 tunes, and those tunes survived in the North and were used for square dances (The Tempest comes to mind here). The upland South may have preferred reels (using 2/4 tunes), and as country dances declined there, 6/8 tunes also declined. Is this a reasonable hypothesis?

                      Paul Gifford

                      Paul M. Gifford wrote:

                        I'd like to hear more about your understanding of what was called and what wasn't. Can you provide some sources. The presence of calling could have been a matter of local custom, or it might have been a difference between a certain urban social stratum and the rest of the world. In good society, where people took lessons in dancing, one was expected to know the dances so no calling was needed. Of course, itinerant dancing masters did occasionally make it to the hinterlands. One possible explanation of why the quadrille wasn't called is that only a small number of fairly standardized figures had to be learned.

                        The fate of the cotillion muddies up the waters of history considerably. In the cities and places where being fashionable and up-to-date was important, the quadrille effectively replaced the cotillion, even though some Americans transferred the name 'cotillion' to the quadrille. But any lover of fiddling knows that what is fashionable at any given time is not the sum total of what people do. Perhaps, there were pockets where the cotillion survived and the newer quadrille was rejected, or where the two dances carried on side by side or perhaps even merged. Something interesting happened that I've not been able to document. The early 20th square dance, particularly where "visiting couple" figures predominated, which was just about everywhere, was not at all like either the 19th century quadrille or the 19th century cotillion. (Sure they are all square dances, and they all share a lot of moves.) The first set of quadrilles from 1815 survived at least partially into the twentieth century in some northern states. But again, the term 'quadrille' survived longer and better than the dance itself, particularly as attached to a type of tune.

                        I hope to look more closely at cotillion and quadrille tunes in some 19th century manuscripts I'm working with. Musical structure might provide some clues as to how the terms were used, or perhaps even shed some light on the history of the dances themselves. But at this point I hate to hazard a guess about the musical characteristics of c's & q's. However, Paul, I think you've started us on the right path by trying to define an American 6/8 that is neither jig nor multi-keyed quadrille. I will suggest that the latter type of tunes so common among older Michigan and Indiana fiddlers dates more to the late 19th century. I think quadrille music evolved more than the dance did.

                          There's little real information to go on for Indiana in that time period, except for some manuscript country dance descriptions associated with the New Harmony community—a special case, if ever there were one—and a small book of Cotillions, Country Dances, and Scotch Reels [approximate title] published in Logansport, Indiana in 1836. The author, M. Brouillet, may have been from the French community at Vincennes, where dancing masters had practices their trade in the previous century. M. Brouillet's Cotillions, by the way, are actually quadrilles.

                          Hope this helps more than it confuses.

                          Paul Tyler

                          If you will permit me to quote from my dissertation:

                          . . . early in the nineteenth century, a new manifestation of the four-couple square set blazed its way across the channel to become the latest dance rage in England. Properly called the quadrille de contredanse, the term was used in France as early as 1760 to designate a number of country dances performed in succession (Richardson 1960, 57-58). By the turn of the nineteenth century, the quadrille had become a standard series of five of the most popular contredanses performed alternately and exclusively by opposing couples in a square formation. Thus, most dance historians herald the quadrille as a merging of the country dance, from which it derived figures that could be executed by two couples together, with the cotillion, from which it certainly adopted the four-couple formation (Rust 1969, 67). The quadrille, according to most reports, was brought to England in 1815 by Lady Jersey who introduced it at London's leading assembly, Almack's, where "she was perhaps the most formidable of the Lady Patrons" (Richardson 1961, 58). At Almack's, and consequently elsewhere in Great Britain, sixteen different "sets" of the quadrille were performed, though I cannot tell whether all sixteen were customarily or ever on the same evening's program. These different settings were published as Paine's 1st Set and so on, identifying the dance figures and their musical settings with James Paine, an orchestra leader at Almack's. These sixteen sets formed the bulk of the quadrille repertoire for the first half of the nineteenth century. Compared to the huge number of English country dances that had been composed, published or introduced by the end of the eighteenth century, the quadrille idiom comprised a small body of material. One set equalled a series of five, sometimes six, separate dances (known as figures or changes), each set to its own music. The assembly put on the floor as many four-couple sets as they could to dance the entire sequence of figures. Both dancers and musicians paused between each of the figures, but the dancers did not disperse. Even today the practice of stringing together a series of independent changes survives when square dancers form sets that will stay together on the floor for two or three different dances. As first introduced to the British, the quadrille began with the popular Pantalon, continued with the equally favored L'Eti, La Poule and La Trenis (the latter was eventually supplanted by La Pastourelle), and finished with one of several variations on La Finale. The actual figures danced for the first three of these changes were much the same through all sixteen of Paine's settings only the music differed while the latter changes afforded more variety. In fact, the choreography (but not the names) of Le Pantalon, L'Eti and La Poule made consistent appearances in dance manuals through the entire nineteenth century, both in Europe and North America. In America, the original quadrille suite became known as the Plain Quadrille, and was, according to Damon, still danced occasionally in the mid-twentieth century, "though much changed by time, and I think improved" (Damon 1957, 27). But, in fact, when the twentieth century arrived, only the first change of the original quadrille survived intact in the American repertoire.

                            I don't recall seeing the term Lancers Quadrille quite this early, but for various reasons, the Lancers was not important in my earlier research. I'll have to look again.

                              The American quadrille has always mixed up 6/8 and 2/4 pieces. But for some reason, the term quadrille has survived mostly to refer to a type of 6/8 tune.

                              Hope this helps.

                              Paul Tyler

                              I don't know too much about the cotillion/quadrille topic, but Paul Gifford was saying

                                I worked on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation in southern Arizona for 6 years. The tribe lives in the border region of Arizona & Sonora, Mexico. Last year I obtained a tape by a band with traditional O'odham fiddlers. Their repertoire sounds rather Mexican, but has German and other European influences. The dances they do include many their own versions of polkas, schottisches and mazurkas, but there is also a dance called the "square dance" or quadrille (pronounced "qua-ree-a", more like a Spanish pronunciation). The only 6/8 tune on the tape was one that I was told was used for the quadrille. I haven't been able to get much info about that particular dance, though I saw some of it demonstrated once. They were progressing as partners, like a promenade in square or contra dancing, around a circle - that's all I remember.

                                Just thought it might be of interest....

                                Sharon Goldwasser

                                From this side of the world I have been quite interested in this discussion on quadrilles, because the quadrille sets have been very much the mainstay of Australian social dancing for the past century and a half.

                                According to Shirley Andrews' Take Your Partners (the definitive book on social dance in Australia), The First Set of Quadrilles was introduced in Paris in the early years of the nineteenth century, and then to England after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It was made up of four of the more popular Contredances, which were tidied up folk dances. (She also defines cotillons as square dances for two or four couples which became popular in the eighteenth century, BTW) A fifth figure was added later.

                                The Second Set of Quadrilles, or the Lancers Quadrille, was invented shortly after, but did not become really popular until around 1850. The first published versions were in Dublin in 1817 and London in 1820.

                                From that point on there were any number of Quadrilles devised, and music written and published for them, both in this country, and obviously from the discussion here in the US as well. These published tunes that I have seen tend to be in a number of keys, usually not the peoples' keys of G and D.

                                It is interesting to note from this discussion that American musicians tend to use only 6/8 tunes, where here it was usual for a mix of 6/8 and 2/4 tunes to be used, along with waltzes for the waltz figures. The use of 6/8 and 2/4 tunes was interchangeable, and at the musician's discretion. A tune like Redwing can and has been used for all five figures (I have a 6/8 version somewhere)



                                Graham McDonald Canberra, Australia
                                PO Box 365 Jamison, ACT, 2614

                                from Paul M Gifford

                                  They played a bit of everything. The standard Irish, English and Scots tunes, tunes presumably adapted from the published tunes by the ear players, and some that they made up themselves, either in their entirety or by adding an A or B part to a half remembered fragment. The feel is subtly, but distinctively different from Irish or Scots dance music, closer perhaps to an English style in the "lift" to the playing, with German influences. For the quadrilles, most musicians would know a few tunes, which they would simply call "set tunes", very rarely with a name.

                                  Calling was not unknown, but not done in the stylized manner of square dancing. Dancing seems to have been THE social activity in 19th (and early 20th) century Australia that everyone was involved in, and it was an expectation that just about everyone attending a dance would know the steps of several quadrille sets, the waltz, polkas, the mazurka, schottisches and the varsoviana. There was also a strong solo stepdancing tradition which has been almost entirely lost.

                                  If you have a little time, I have a small collection of Australian dance music on my web page, with a few examples of each type, with more in the process of being typed in. I would be very interested if anyone found tunes with American connections amongst these. There is also a rather interesting essay by a collector friend, Peter Ellis, with some more background on Australian dance music. URL at the bottom.



                                  Graham McDonald Canberra, Australia
                                  PO Box 365 Jamison, ACT, 2614

                                  More on set dancing

                                  Ceolas Celtic dance page

                                  Go to to the traditional dance index page.

                                  Go to music encyclopedia directory

                                  Go to The Standing Stones home page

                                  Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)


                                  The Mock Turtle continues to sigh and sob and finally asks Alice if she has ever been introduced to a lobster. Alice almost volunteers that she once tasted one, but checks herself and simply says no. The Mock Turtle and the Gryphon describe the Lobster-Quadrille, a dance where all of the sea animals (except the jellyfish) partner up with the lobsters, advance from the seashore and throw the lobsters out to sea. The Mock Turtle and Gryphon decide to demonstrate the first figure of the Lobster-Quadrille for Alice, even though they don’t have any lobsters. As they dance, the Mock Turtle sings a tune about a whiting and a snail. After they finish the dance, Alice asks about the whiting, holding back her impulse to mention that she has also tasted whiting. The Gryphon explains to Alice that despite her misconception, whiting does not have crumbs and is named a whiting because it shines the sea animals’ shoes. Noting that in the song, the porpoise steps on the whiting’s tail, Alice says that had she been in the whiting’s place she would have left the porpoise out of the dance. The Mock Turtle explains to Alice that it is unwise for a fish to go anywhere without a “porpoise” (punning on purpose).

                                  The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle ask Alice to recount her adventures, and Alice relates her travels in Wonderland, getting as far as her encounter with the Caterpillar before they interrupt her. They find it “curious” that Alice botched the words to “Father William,” and they order her to recite the poem “‘Tis the voice of the sluggard.” Alice messes up the words of this poem, too, which greatly befuddles the Mock Turtle, who wants explanations of the nonsensical verse that results. The Gryphon recommends that she stop reciting. He offers to show her the Lobster-Quadrille again or hear a song by the Mock Turtle. Alice requests the song and the Mock Turtle sings “Turtle Soup.” As the Mock Turtle finishes the song, the Gryphon hears the cry “The trial’s beginning!” and whisks Alice away.


                                  Though the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon initially seem to sympathize with Alice, she soon learns that they do not understand her plight at all. When she first begins talking to them, they seem to be the only creatures in Wonderland that show interest in her bizarre adventures. By using words such as “curious,” “nonsense,” “confusing,” and even “dreadful,” they align themselves with Alice’s attitudes about the strange situations and creatures she has encountered. They seem to see things the way that Alice does and sympathize with her frustration at Wonderland’s backward logic. Alice soon discovers that their feelings are inauthentic. The Gryphon is too detached to identify with Alice, while the Mock Turtle is so sentimental that Alice cannot believe that his feelings are genuine.

                                  Though the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle are unable to relate to Alice, they break the pattern of antagonism that she has experienced thus far in her interactions with the residents of Wonderland. Up to this point, Alice has met creatures that behave contemptuously toward her. Regardless of whether or not their behavior is genuine or insincere, the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon deviate from the rude belligerence that Alice has come to expect from her encounters. They do not argue with each other or with Alice and make the effort to sympathize and connect with Alice. Their behavior breaks a pattern that Alice has become accustomed to, revealing that Wonderland will frustrate every expectation.

                                  Take the Chapter 10: The Lobster Quadrille Quick Quiz

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