A ball without music is — to steal from Jane Austen herself — rather less like a ball. And we couldn’t have a ball without dance master Jack Maus and Syllabub, the trio that performs the music we dance to. We chatted with violinist Mara Shea about what goes into prepping for such an event.
When did you form your group? Syllabub is three of us: me (Mara Shea, violin), Julie Gorka (piano) and Walt Robinson (recorders). We formed our trio about three or four years ago, when we began playing frequently for Regency and English country dances together. We were looking for a name that would sound fun, and that had some 18th-, 19th-century association — and Syllabub is a delicious 18th-century dessert!
What is it about this period’s music that draws you to it? I’ve been playing English country dance music for about 15 years, all over the country (and Canada), and also have also played for contra dance and Scottish country dance for longer than that. I love playing for dancers. I like to shape the music to fit the dance figures, so the musicians and dancers are all part of the same dance, and play together.
Do you have all the tunes in your repertoire or are there pieces you seek out and add to your collection every year? How do you find such music? There are probably thousands of English country dances that have been devised and published since the mid-17th century, and more are being written each day! Many of the older ones have been reprinted in modern collections, and also can be found in digitized form online. John Playford’s The Dancing Master books, for example, were published from 1651 until about 1728 in many editions, and they were, and still are, a valuable resource. They contained the music and instructions for hundreds of English country dances. So we are always finding dances that we are not familiar with on programs that we are given, and we go digging and do research to find them. Sometimes the dance organizers will provide the sheet music from old collections, or point us to a video online that we can learn the music from. But we have a lot of books in our personal libraries full of tunes for dances, and the number keeps growing. …
What is your favorite part of performing? Favorite tune to play? I guess my favorite part of performing is just being part of the dance by making the music shape and fit the dance. I have danced quite a bit, but I think I prefer dancing through the music! I don’t know if I could come up with one single favorite tune to perform … but I love minor-key tunes. However, “Barbarini’s Tambourine,” a well-known dance and tune from the 1700s, is very upbeat and joyful, and is also one of my all-time favorites.