Scholars have long viewed the history of Polish dances through the lens of “Polish rhythms.” These rhythms are thought to characterize dances known as Polish from the sixteenth-century lute pieces of Hans Neusidler to the piano music of Frédéric Chopin. The notion of Polish rhythms continues to shape our modern reception of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music: certain patterns are often used as a litmus test for whether a piece is evoking a Polish dance, even in the absence of an identifying label. I demonstrate, however, that there is little historical evidence that specific rhythms rendered dances Polish in the eyes and ears of composers, performers, or listeners from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Instead, the Polish rhythms narrative appears to have stemmed from a misreading of early modern music-theoretical sources on the part of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, whose arguments were influenced by—and fed into—contemporary ideas of musical nationalism and essentialism. Focusing on eighteenth-century German sources, I also challenge any monolithic notions of Polishness in dance music by revealing how terms such as polonaise could denote multiple distinct dances (or could even refer to non-dance pieces). More broadly, these findings complicate the present-day practice of using abstract notational elements to identify unmarked dance topics, and I show how a greater attentiveness to factors beyond the score is vital for understanding how historical subjects experienced the popular dances of their time.

You do not currently have access to this content.