In this lesson, we’ll learn about what a tarantella is, how it’s used musically, and how it was shaped by its origins as a treatment for spider bites.
What Is It?
At its most basic, a tarantella is a lively, and sometimes flirtatious, folk dance that usually features a 3/8 or 6/8 time signature. However, as with most musical terminology, there is a lot of variance in the exact meaning depending on the context and the time period in question. The tarantella, for example, originated as a solo dance, that was at one point believed to be a cure for tarantism (more on that later). However, in recent times, the tarantella is often performed as a courtship dance that involves one couple surrounded by onlookers, and it is commonly accompanied by castanets and tambourines.
Performances often fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but the lively, occasionally frantic, character of the dance tends to remain the same. Sometimes, the tarantella as a musical form will be discussed as separate from the dance itself, and when this is the case, it is simply describing music that could accompany the dance. This music also tends to alternate between major and minor modes while gradually increasing in speed for the duration of the performance.
Tarantism was an affliction that was prevalent in Italy in the 15th to 17th century and was believed to have been caused by the bite of a kind of spider that was called a tarantula, or more specifically, lycosa tarantula. It’s important to note here that we are not talking about what we more commonly think of as tarantulas today, but rather a type of wolf spider that got its name from the Italian town of Taranto. However, contemporary historians believe that tarantism was more likely a form of hysteria than a direct result of a spider bite.
It’s nearly impossible to find a specific reason why the tarantella began to regain a moderate popularity in the early 19th century; however, in the Grove Music Dictionary, Erich Schwandt speculated that it might have possibly been a response to the energy and frantic nature of some of the writers of the time such as Goethe and Rilke. The dance feature of this piece was no longer so strongly associated with the music, and it was quite common that these would be virtuosic show pieces that relied on complex passages and utilization of the chromatic scale. Occasionally, a movement resembling that of a tarantella would even be used as the final movement in a more large-scale sonata.
The tarantella is one of the most bizarre classical musical forms because it is the only form to my knowledge whose origins can be traced to a dance that was believed to be a cure for spider bite infections. Of course, this has been disproved many times since then, and it is now believed that what was once thought to be tarantism was actually bouts of hysteria. Either way, the dance aspect of this treatment stuck around as a lively dance in 3/8 or 6/8 that often alternates between the major and minor modes. It would develop into a courtship dance involving percussion such as tambourines and castanets, before eventually finding a moderate revival in the 18th century as a virtuosic piece, or as a last movement in a sonata. Despite a strange beginning, the tarantella has inspired some wonderful music and will likely continue to be discussed as an important musical form in years to come.