The suite begins with a pavan, a slow court dance of the 16th and 17th century that originated in Italy and later spread to France and England. Gradually the pavan lost its original dance traits and instead became associated with sadness and mourning. This first movement is also a parody, taking as its model perhaps the most famous pavan, John Dowland's Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pauans, which in turn is a set of variations based on his popular lute song "Flow my teares."
The second movement is a Highland fling, a particularly fast and vigorous version of the Scottish reel.
The suite concludes with a masque, an adaptation of the French ballet de cour and the Italian mascherata that flourished in England in the early 17th century. Rather than a single dance movement, the masques were staged courtly entertainments comprised essentially of a sequence of dances with acting, poetry, and instrumental interludes; a sort of English proto-opera-ballet. Often the masques had quite evocative titles, some of the more famous being the Masque of Flowers, Masque of Blackness, and Masque of the Inner Temple.
Between each movement is a brief interlude in the form of an air. Frequently included in the Baroque dance suites, the air was of a lyrical, melodious quality while lacking specific dance characteristics.
In addition to the actual dance forms, each movement is accompanied by a poem that corresponds with the character of the dance. Though not intended to be sung or recited during a performance, the texts nevertheless provide the inner structure and emotional impetus within the music itself, making Plaindance not simply a dance suite but perhaps also a silent song-cycle.
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