Music for Court and Rural Dancing

It seems that in the Renaissance era (for music, considered roughly 1400 to early 1600s) musicians were apt to show up almost anyplace to play for dancers: outdoor rustic festivals, weddings in country towns, social gatherings in aristocratic homes, and formal entertainments in royal ballrooms. Indeed that most famous painter Anonymous sometime in the late 16th century depicted a drummer, slide brass player, and several wind players up in a tree in the middle of a town square, playing for dancers below! (See notes for links to pictures.)

In her book Dance in the Renaissance, historian Margaret M. McGowan paired that picture with one of a ball at the court of Henri IV, in which musicians are playing quieter instruments: lute and a bass vielle. However, Anonymous in a painting of a ball at the court of Henri III showed that musettes (small bagpipes) accompanied more than rural peasant dancing. Their insistent sounds were also an impetus for courtiers in the most elegant settings. McGowan stressed the centrality of dance at all levels of French society:

What is at once surprising and testimony to the power which dancing exerted over everyone at this time is the fact that from 1560 to the end of the century the country was racked by sporadic outbreaks of civil war; and yet—during all that time of strife—dancing continued at court, in towns and in the countryside with little apparent interruption.

In regard to the dances themselves, there is a challenge in trying to figure out how people might have actually moved. And importantly, about the musical accompaniments, McGowan observed:

The study of music for dancing does not always bring enlightenment since its transmission was haphazard, changing and problematic. The dance tunes, frequently created by multiple and anonymous composers, were only occasionally recorded as the dance was being made; and often they were reduced to two-part readings or arranged as song or orchestral versions very different from the original conception….

In the discussion of the analysis and depictions of movement and of ways to dance with balance and grace, the role of music has, so far, been neglected. Measure, the rhythm and the beat of the music, and the timing of the steps were accepted by all masters and writers on the dance as fundamental to dancing well. They insisted that their pupils listen attentively to the sound of the music, accommodating their steps to the beat.

The historian cited the dance master Guglielmo Ebreo of Pesaro (who was also a composer, born before 1440):

For him, both arts were of equal weight; and in his discussions, he defined an exceptional dancer and an exceptional musician as performers who could dance and play against the grain of the dance or music. Dancing counter to the rhythm revealed a confident, skilled performer; attempts by the instrumentalist to draw the dancer out of his step pattern was both a sign of mutual competition and a recognition of dancing skills above average.

So there was likely some fun involved, in addition to the skills and concentration needed to make music for dance—perhaps especially when the dancers (sometimes amateurs, but increasingly also professional) were performing as “grotesque” characters who were more physically acrobatic.

With all the difficulties in ascertaining what actually took place, it is understandable that no film can show an “historically accurate” performance of either country or ballroom Renaissance dance. Yet because there are a good many clues (many drawn from detailed manuals written by Renaissance dance masters themselves) consequently there exist a few films with “reconstructions” that offer at least some sense of bygone styles.

Regarding the music played for Renaissance dances, there are materials available, on CDs, online, and in published sheet music. More informally, there are in both Europe and the U.S. some ongoing groups that present Renaissance festivals and offer an opportunity for people to experience some impression of what costumes, dance, and music might have been like centuries ago in Europe. Additionally, with the fairly recent interest in “early music,” there are groups that perform on reproductions of antique instruments, using published Renaissance music as their source. Finally, there are a few online sites where listeners can sample the sounds of Renaissance instruments. (See some suggested links.)

However, much of the dance music from the Renaissance will never be  known to us. As explained by the music historian Richard Taruskin:

We have seen written traces of instrumental dance music going back to the thirteenth century. But of course dance music, being an eminently functional genre, was one of the slowest to “go literate” in any major or transforming way; and when it did, it did so piecemeal. The earliest extensive manuscript collections of instrumental dances come from the fifteenth century and were devoted to the noblest and courtliest ballroom dance genre of the time….

“Alta” musicians [the ones who would play for court dances] formed something of a guild and treasured their techniques as guild secrets; no wonder there is no written source of instruction in their craft. It was passed along for generations “by word of mouth”—by example and emulation.

* * *

In his overview of Renaissance court dance that eventually led to ballet, the late historian Walter Sorrell pointed to the Italian origins:

It was at the courts of a few little tyrants—the Medici, Sforza, Este and Gonzaga—that social activities became spectacle and theater. The dance was first on the social calendar of this elite.

Emphasizing the fact that there was a world of difference between the popular, more spontaneous folk dances of Italy and both the music and physical patterns that began to be codified by professional dance masters at various courts, Sorrel went on to observe:

To enforce discipline and to limit spontaneity, the dancing master appeared and played the most important part in creating a theater dance.

The musical aspect was of equal importance. At that time, almost all great compositions were written with dance in mind….This demanded musical composition with a melodic line and a definite rhythmic accompaniment.

Growing out of the court dances and entertainments, as Sorrell describes, there came to be presented many elaborate entertainments given outdoors:

These open-air extravaganzas, featuring verses, music and dance, and, above all, visual marvels, paved the way for the indoor spectacles which gave birth to the art of ballet. At the same time banquets and festive gatherings going on indoors were equally important for the theater dance.

Dance patterns for such entertainments became more elaborate and structured, though for a time performed by amateur courtiers. But the music was provided by professional musicians. Where was all this leading? Again, Walter Sorrel’s view:

Whatever we may think of such dances today, they were revolutionary for the fifteenth century. A new style was created, the foundation laid for our ballet. The word ballet itself derives from balletti, a diminutive for balli, a technical term for all livelier dances in contrast to the low, the bassa dances. In the beginning, of course, the term balletti carried no theatrical meaning; it referred simply to dance figures. However, after the Medici had brought the Italian art of dancing to France where it was destined to reach undreamed-of-perfection, the term Balletti, or in French ballet,acquired significance….

After the birth of ballet in northern Italy, the theater dance came of age in France. And yet it was mainly Italian talent that helped give it shape and substance.

* * *

To gain at least some sense of what the courtly Renaissance dance music was like, there are CDs performed by “early music” groups. Some are listed in the endnotes, but with the cautionary suggestion that though in the late Renaissance a number of books of music were published, often there would be no specific stipulation as to instrumentation. So performing musicians of today have to make choices about how to evoke instrumental timbres of earlier times.

* * *

Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press around 1450, but it was some time before technology was developed to encompass printing of musical notation. The complications involving pitch and rhythm, plus multiple parts of both vocal and instrumental pieces proved to be challenges indeed, and it was not until the 16th century that some satisfactory methods were invented for printing music. (See endnotes for some fascinating websites that detail the history of music printing—with demonstrations and images of the tools involved.)

Of particular interest here is the essay listing for Keith Polk dealing with the impact of printed music upon musicians who performed for dancers. The author traces how before the 16th century, instrumental musicians for dance would draw from a core repertory of memorized tunes known internationally (many of them vocal melodies). To get through what might be many hours of playing, they could perform the melodies in a straight-forward way; they could embellish with ornamentation; and they could improvise together, commonly in just two or three parts. But when printed music became widely available, more harmonic and contrapuntal instrumental parts were added. Polk observes:

It is also precisely from this time that contemporary records begin to note the use of written music by professional instrumentalists.

Of even greater significance was the increasing involvement of instrumentalists in both the new trade of publishing and in composition. Before about 1500 few instrumentalists were known as composers, but the situation changed rapidly after that date. This was a phenomenon that was international.

After 1500 more emphasis was placed on working from composed texts and on embellishment. The increased importance of composed dances was quickly reflected by a concomitant shift in the career focus of instrumentalists as they themselves became composers to meet the new demand. Still, improvisation continued, especially in dance music.

In any case, by the early 17th century, music printing was flourishing, and there began to be published whole collections of instrumental music that was attractive for dance purposes. Among the collections that remained popular was one published in 1612 by the German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621). Titled Terpsichore  (after the mythological Muse of Dance), it gathered together some 300 instrumental pieces for social dance. Praetorius arranged many of the tunes, a large number of which were attributed to French composers; but some of the music was likely also by English composers. In any case, it is clear that for the court dances and entertainments, though instrumental musicians may have performed by memory and improvised upon published tunes, yet there were accomplished composers of music for dance during the Renaissance. They may not be considered “famous” nowadays, but we can still enjoy the sounds of their music as interpreted by contemporary musical groups, even without being able to see the dances for which the music was intended.

* * *

For readers now, among the most accessible sources for information about the patterns of court dance and its music is by a pioneer American composer for modern dance: Louis Horst’s Pre-Classic Dance Forms. It can serve as a handy introduction to Renaissance dances, with descriptions in words and notated musical examples for each. In his introduction, Horst observed:

It is not necessary for one to agree with the artistic taste displayed to realize that this was indeed an important period for the dance. It was a time when almost all the great music was dance music….

Of the dance we must admit that it truthfully reflected the life of that period…. But of the two, music has fared better than the dance, primarily because we do not demand of music that it always reflect our age, whereas its contemporaneousness with the tempo of our time is the gauge by which we measure the dance.

notes and explorations:

paintings: The painting described with musicians in a tree: Fête populaire. L’Orme du Mail, anonymous late16th century. Musée Carnavalet.  Painting by Louis de Cauléry, Ball at the court of Henri IV, from Musée des Beaux Artes, Rennes. Anonymous painting of ball at court of Henri III showing bagpipes being played indoors for dancers. Painting by Denis van Alsloot, Brussels 1615 The Ommeganck Procession. Look on the far right for the cart carrying musicians. A slice of life demonstrating courtly celebrations!


Margaret M. McGowan, Dance in the Renaissance: European Fashion and French Obsession (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008). This engaging book is one to treasure. Includes many drawings and some color plates. The initial quotation is from p. xviii; the comments about music, from p. xvii.  The quotation about Ebreo plus the talents and competition of musicians and dancers is from pp. 39-40.  Obituary of dance historian Margaret McGowan, whose books are so highly recommended. Alastair Macaulay began his tribute: “She took a unique interdisciplinary approach and created a new field of study by exploring the collision of politics, ballet, design and music.”

For further historical information about the celebrated Italian dance master, suggested  is the book edited by Barbara Sparti, Gugliemo Ebreo of Pesaro: On the Practice of Art of Dancing  (Oxford University Press, originally published 1993; reprinted 2003). Presents the original 1463 treatise in Italian, with English translations on facing pages. Gugliemo Ebreo (“William the Jew” as he was known for a time, then from 1463 or so changed his professional name to Giovanni Ambrosio).

In his treatise, Gugliemo made reference to some of the many festivities that he was part of  during his 30 years of working for various dukes (and he was knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor). He presented his thoughts about what he considered the principal elements of dance: Measure, Memory, Partitioning of the Ground, Air, Manner, and Body Movement, followed by verbal directions for specific dances, plus the tunes for a handful of them (transcribed here into modern notation).The editor contributed a most helpful introductory chapter about social dancing in 15th century Italy. Highly recommended.

A brief section on “Dances Old and New” mentions the musicians’ guilds of the Renaissance, in Richard Taruskin, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) pp. 621-22.

The quotations from Walter Sorrell, The Dance through the Ages (First published in London: Thames and Hudson, 1967; Chanticleer edition, also 1967) pp. 89, 90, 92, 98, 99. The chapters on “The Renaissance Man” and “Ballet Comes of Age” are particularly informative for newcomers to the history of ballet.

The concluding observation by Louis Horst is from Pre-Classic Dance Forms (Princeton NJ: Dance Horizons/Princeton Book Company, 1987 edition of the work first published in 1937. With a new introduction by Janet Soares) p. 5. The dances covered are: pavane, galliard, allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, minuet, gavotte, bourrée, rigaudon, passepied, and a most interesting chapter on the chaconne and passacaglia.  Horst offers descriptions of each dance’s movement patterns, and suggests representative music of each form, including new compositions by contemporary composers.

invention of music printing: This is a brief but very informative overview of the development of movable music typefaces in the Renaissance. Presentation by Gilbert Batangen includes demonstration by Donald Burrows showing actual pieces of movable type, and suggesting how slow the process must have been. More complete demonstration by Donald Burrows in Antwerp, showing process that must have taken great patience. Such considerations as the fact that notes and staff lines were done separately. And then there was the problem of lining up texts with the music. Recommended viewing. Explanation of how much later music engraving was done by hand, according to G. Henle Verlag process.  Watch this and you will never take your modern printed music for granted. Excellent history of music printing. Illustrated.

For a brief but good account of early music printing, see Burkholder-Grout-Palisca pp.162-63 with reproductions showing Ottaviano Petrucci’s 1501 results. (In Venice, he published a collection of polyphonic instrumental pieces from movable type. However, the pages had to go through the press three times: first, for staff lines; secondly, for texts; and third, all the notes and decorative initials.) The first publisher to issue music on a commercial large scale was Pierre Attaingnant. (Sample in the history book from his printing of 1539, and explanation that because staff lines were on the same piece of movable type for every single note, there was a difficulty in lining things up perfectly.)

 from improvisation to print:

For an account of the changes that took place when European musicians had easy access to printed ensemble music for dance, see Keith Polk, “Instrumentalists and Performance Practices in Dance Music, c. 1500” in Improvisation in the Arts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Timothy J. McGee (Kalamazoo MI: Western Michigan University, 2003). The quotations above are from pp. 109-112.

For an extensively researched look at Renaissance musicians, what they played, and the instruments that they played on,see Victor Coelho and Keith Polk Instrumentalists and Renaissance Culture, 1420-1600 (Cambridge University Press, paperback edition, 2018). While emphasizing the “evanescent” nature of musical performance before the widespread introduction of music printing, the authors were yet able to present a general impression of musical practices as well as some “case studies” highlighting particular people. Notable for our purposes here is this quotation  from p. 179:

Given the presence of dance at every level of society, providing music for dancing was for most Renaissance musicians their most reliable source of income.

about Instruments:

CD: Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Early Music Consort of London led by David Munro. 2008 CD on Virgin France label. Instruments are featured within dated pieces by composers. You will even hear one called a rackett! There is a book by the same title published by Oxford University Press in 1976, also by David Munro. The instruments are shown first by period—whether medieval or Renaissance—and within that, grouped by woodwinds, keyboard, brass, strings, and percussion, with black and white illustrations and extensive descriptions of both the instruments themselves and their use in the music of their times.  Demonstration of instruments including hurdy-gurdy by the Tapestry of Music group. This is a good site for a quick introduction to older instruments, since you can both hear the sounds and see still pictures of the players with their various instruments. (Unfortunately not filmed.) Case Western University has an unusual website to identify medieval, Renaissance and Baroque instruments by art images, along with brief audio samples and photographs. Assembled by Dr. Ross W. Duffin.

Musical Instruments of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (New York: Facts on File, 1976) pp. 482-83 shows profile drawings of Renaissance instruments.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments (Koneman, 2000) pp. 154-77 show instruments from the Renaissance into Baroque era, by type.

information on basic musical aspects:

On p. 270 Burkholder-Grout-Palisca history has a good succinct paragraph about the rhythm and form of Renaissance dance music:

Each dance follows a particular meter, tempo, rhythmic pattern, and form, all of which are reflected in pieces composed for it. This particularity of rhythm and form distinguishes each type of dance from the others and gives all dance music a character unlike other kinds of music. Dance pieces feature distinct sections, usually repeated, with two, three, or more sections depending on the dance. Usually the phrase structure is clear and predictable, often in four-measure groups, so that the dancers can follow it easily. The combination of regular structure with contrasting phrases and sections provided aural cues for the dancers, helping them to remember and recognize dance patterns and to know when to change steps.

CDs of Renaissance dance music:

There are a number of CDs of dance music from the collection of Michael Praetorius—his famous Terpsichore collection. One CD of Praetorius pieces is performed by Philip Pickett and the New London Consort, 2008, L’Oiseau Lyre. Liner notes reproduce woodcut drawings of the instruments. The composers identified only by initials.

Another Dances from Terpsichore, on Naxos, 1998. Also Dances from Terpsichore, New York Renaissance Band conducted by Sally Logeman, on 2010 Arabesque CD.

Tracks can be purchased individually online via amazon for recording by the Praetorius Consort led by Christopher Ball, 2010 Musical Concepts label.

Dances from Terpsichore, Parley of Instruments Renaissance Violin Band, Peter Holman. Hyperion, 2000. Identified composers: Francois Caroubel, Nicolas Vallet, Michael Praetorius, Jean-Baptiste Besard, and that most famous one, Anonymous.

Renaissance Dance, Early Music Consort conducted by David Munro, on 2008 Virgin France label. Can sample and purchase tracks via amazon.

internet listening:   Music from Praetorius collection,  suitable for a ball. From Naxos recording Grand bal à la cour d’Henri IV.  Audio only: dance music from Italian Renaissance. Play list identifies composers and pieces. This is all 16th century.

ballet de cour:

For a brief overview of the court ballets in France, see the entry in the New Grove vol. 2, by James R. Anthony. You will find names which he cites as “the most important composers of the genre,” including Pierre Guédron, Antoine Boesset and Etienne Moulinié. The first of these musicians wrote more than 70 airs for 25 different ballets de cour. (Where is their music now?) The historian also recounts:

About 1620 Michael Henry, a violinist of the Chambre du Roi, copied an important collection of ballet music. The music is not extant, but the list enumerates 117 ballets, 96 of which were performed between 1597 and 1618. Conductor/arranger/keyboardist Sébastien Daucé was interviewed in May 2021 by Anne McClean of the Library of Congress concerning the Ensemble Corresondances beautiful concert Les Plasirs du Louvre which included choral and instrumental music from early court ballets at the time of Louis XIII (that’s right: 13th). Daucé talks about such court entertainments, the salon settings, instruments, topics and tone of the singing, the “style galant,” ornamentation by singers, the importance of courtiers’ “two minutes” of presenting their dances, and  about how he was initially attracted to early music performances.

Les Plasirs du Louvre. Harmonia Mundi 2020 CD performed by Ensemble Correspondances under Sébastién Daucé. Beautiful selections evoking an evening at the French court of Louis XIII. Singers and instrumentalists, including consort of viols, recorder, lute and chitarrone. Elegant airs by Antoine Boësset, Pierre Guédron, Etienne Moulinié and others—including King Louis XIII himself (a dance titled “Les Gascons”).


Il Ballarino: The Art of Renaissance Dance. Dance Horizons/Princeton Book Company, 1990. Narrated and directed by Julia Sutton, an expert in the history and reconstruction of Renaissance dances. Demonstrated by Patricia Rader and Charles Perrier with group performances.  Accompanied by drum to show differences when steps done in duple or triple time. Mini-performances accompanied by recorder, lute, and plucked strings. Based on the dance manuals of Fabrito Caroso (1581) and Cesare Negri (1604). The dance manuals were quite detailed in describing steps (and providing musical tunes), yet Sutton observes that still there are aspects that are “ambiguous” and that dancers of today may differ on exactly how these directions should be executed. Still, she and her troupe offer a sample of what Italian Renaissance court dancing might have been like—with men keeping their swords on their sides, the couple steps quite distinct and contained, and the men’s galliard involving little solo leaps and showing off. 33 min.

internet viewing: A trailer for another DVD with demonstrations of Renaissance court dance, produced by Dancetime Publications. Part of their “Dance Through Time” series. In costumes. Library of Congress, with links to clips of demonstrations of historical dance types, accompanied by solo violin. Second session was made with wind band. Examples range from Renaissance through Baroque and all the way to Ragtime.  The Renaissance dances were reconstructed by Elizabeth Aldrich, performed by Cheryl Stafford and Thomas Baird in practice clothes, accompanied  by Susan Manus on violin. Descriptions and brief video demonstrations of some of the popular Renaissance court dances, including branle, pavan,and galliard. Some of the music by Jeremy Barlow and the Broadside Band. Clips of an outdoor Renaissance fair in Los Angeles. Sound not too clear, but perhaps will whet one’s appetite to attend such an event and enjoy it live.  The New York Renaissance Faire has been presented every fall for decades in Tuxedo. Not only can visitors enjoy costumes, music and dance, but also bouts of jousting and mud wrestling. 

dance manuals: The Library of Congress has an unusual collection of dance manuals from past centuries.  The one by Caroso can be downloaded digitally.

Arbeau’s treatise:

Thoinot Arbeau, translated by Mary Stewart Evans, Orchesography (New York: Dover Publications, 1967 republication of the work originally issued in 1948). First published in 1589, this treatise documented 16th-century dances in the form of a dialogue. Music printed sideways opposite dance directions. Important source for dance reconstructors.

This makes delightful reading, cast as a conversation between the master Arbeau and the former pupil Capriol, who confesses [p. 11] that in his absence of some years:

I much enjoyed fencing and tennis and this placed me upon friendly terms with young men. But, without a knowledge of dancing, I could not please the damsels, upon whom, it seems to me, the entire reputation of an eligible young man depends.

To which the master responds [p. 12]:

You are quite right, as naturally the male and female seek one another and nothing does more to stimulate a man to acts of courtesy, honour and generosity than love. And if you desire to marry you must realize that a mistress is won by the good temper and grace displayed while dancing, because ladies do not like to be present at fencing or tennis, lest a splintered sword or a blow from a tennis ball should cause them injury….

And there is more to it than this, for dancing is practiced to reveal whether lovers are in good health and sound of limb, after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savour one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odour as of bad meat. [!] Therefore, from this standpoint, quite apart from the many other advantages to be derived from dancing, it becomes an essential in a well ordered society.

The master then goes on to introduce some familiar dance rhythms in musical notation, and then to relate them to various court dances, suggesting along the way [p. 94] that: “when the melodies are familiar to a dancer and he sings them in his head as the musician plays them he cannot fail to dance well.”

G. Yvonne Kendall, The Music of Arbeau’s Orchésographie (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2013). An extensive study of the above dance manual, French dance at the time, with list of publishers of dance music, and best of all, a section of “Concordances” with music printed in modern notation, with credit to sources and the dates of the pieces, including “Patience” credited to the publisher Pierre Attaingnant, 1529.

background information:

Roy Strong, Splendor at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theater of Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973). Because the author (then director of the National Portrait Gallery in London) was immersed in visual art and history, this book provides many interesting illustrations. His emphasis is not on music, but the volume adds to one’s understanding of the central political purposes of extravagant court entertainments in Europe. He offers clear enlargements of pictures from Le Balet Comique de la Royne plus comments about the moral meanings of that event. pp. 157-64. Also traces the changes in the locations of spectacles—from banquet halls where tables were cleared away after meals, to mock ship battles mounted in courtyards, to proscenium stages.

Robert Ritchie, Historical Atlas of the Renaissance (New York: Checkmark Books/Facts on File, 2004). Dance and ballet and court festivities obviously did not happen in isolation—though it seems that sometimes the participants in palaces may have felt  somewhat removed from the everyday life of most citizens in France in particular. So this is another volume that can help provide an understanding of the cultural and political events of the Renaissance, beginning in Italy and then covering France, the Low Countries, England, Germany, and Spain. Chronological table and short essays plus photographs, reproductions of art, and very clear maps within the essays on specific places and times

Margaret Aston, The Panorama of the Renaissance (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996). A magnificently illustrated volume. Good overview of the visual arts, architecture, and general culture, though not a source of information on music and dance.

Le Ballet Comique de la Reine

Oh to have climbed one of the 40 staircases to the galleries in the Salle de Bourbon at the Louvre and to have watched the magnificent cart pass by with its spouting fountains…to have heard singing sirens, plus hautboys, cornetts, lutes, lyres, sackbuts, and violins playing for the dancing courtiers! Or to have seen the evil enchantress Circe taking prisoners exactly opposite the seated king, to whose right could be seen Pan’s woods, and on his left, musicians with their heads literally in the clouds. Five and a half hours of one marvel after another!

But alas, no chance: all that was on October 15, 1581. A very special day for the French court of King Henri III, which for two whole weeks was celebrating the wedding of the Duc de Joyeuse to Marguerite de Vaudemont, sister of the Queen Louise. The festivities planned were to include mounted and foot combats, fireworks, concerts, an equestrian ballet, masquerades, some 17 banquets—and perhaps most spectacular, the performance of Le Balet Comique de la Royne later known as Le Ballet Comique de la Reine (The Dramatic Ballet of the Queen).

We missed it all.  However, there is a consolation prize: a facsimile of the elegant book published the following year by the king’s printers, with text by Nicholas Filleul de La Chesnaye, music notated in the style of the day, plus engravings of some of the scenes from this celebration event planned by the violinist/choreographer Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, with music composed by Girard de Beaulieu assisted  by Jacques Salmon.

What a landmark for the history of theatrical ballet! As Ivor Guest suggested in the opening of his dance history:

To trace the origins of dancing, if that were possible, we should have to go back, certainly, far beyond the beginnings of history and into the mists of prehistoric times. Probably we should arrive at the moment when a living creature developed the first glimmering of what was to become the mind and soul of man, and even then our quest might not be ended. The art of the theatre which we call ballet, however, is of much later origin. It is in fact an art of recent times, and emerges some five hundred years ago during the period known as the Renaissance—the very starting point of modern history.

* * *

The Renaissance! Era of statues and paintings; of richly embroidered robes, golden palaces and geometrical gardens; era of explorations, printing presses, and (in between wars) royal entertainments with amazing mechanical theatrical effects—and with courtiers performing the dances.

Into this cultural milieu, enter the Italian-born Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx (b. early 16th century; died c. 1587 in Paris). Although remembered now as an  innovative dance master, when he moved to France in 1555 it was because he was known as a gifted violinist and was first employed by Queen Catherine de Médici as musical tutor to her sons. As time went on, he was commissioned to mount entertainments with dancing for various state occasions such as weddings, and in 1573 for the notable Ballet des Polonais in honor of Polish ambassadors. The significant place of Beaujoyeulx in dance history, however, was earned by his mounting of the spectacle Le Ballet Comique de la Reine.

This elaborate entertainment featured dancing by non-professional courtiers who had rehearsed complex geometrically laid out patterns akin to the dances at formal social balls in which they participated so often as a matter of keeping in the good graces of the king.

The musicians, however, were professional. In Margaret McGowan’s published account she reports that there were some 40 musicians playing, literally in the “heavenly vault” portion of the scenery. Ten violins, seven flutes, plus the winds already mentioned. One engraving shows tritons playing a long horn, harp, lute, and bass viol; another engraving depicts satyrs playing cornetti, and yet another picture shows one of the Virtues playing a lute while another holds what looks like a real snake—obviously symbolic, but still it brings to mind the ancient instrument called the serpent.

All the elements came together to tell a story. And all these elaborate aspects of the royal extravaganza had as a basis the public underscoring of the power and majesty of Henri III. In the introduction, and even in the plot, it is the king’s power that is represented as mightier than that of the evil sorceress Circe (who could command anything that moves).

* * *

To condense five and a half hours into a few sentences: As reported by Ulysses, the sorceress Circe has transformed quite a few people into animals, and even in the midst of the courtly scenes, she immobilizes the dancers by touching them with her wand. The god Mercury has an herb which enables him to get the performers moving again—but only once. Subsequently banding together, the efforts of the gods Pan, Mercury, Minerva, and Jupiter himself seek to free Circe’s prisoners. But it is only the added power of the French king that brings success. And so, great homage was paid to both Henri III and Queen Louise at the end of this theatrical blending of poetry, dance, music, and moving scenery. Evil conquered! Peace! Harmony!

A very large number of people attended the event. Those who did not attend—most of the populace—were shocked when the cost was rumored.   Meanwhile, although the most recent French fighting had ended in 1577, yet there were ongoing deep rifts between religious groups, and more serious widespread concerns, such as the possibility of starvation. Henri III in fact found the royal coffers considerably dwindled and did not subsequently host elaborate wedding celebrations for anybody else.

So Le Ballet Comique de la Reine was a unique event. Addressing its possible aftermath, Margaret McGowan wrote:

If the Balet Comique was a political failure, it was nevertheless an artistic event of considerable importance. In its attempt to bind the arts harmoniously together so that greater force of expressivity might be achieved, it attained, for the times, rare coherence. In the expansion it gave to music and in the particular promotion of the dance, it showed the way to new forms. The artistic ambitions behind the Balet Comique appear realized, though the political pretentions remain unfulfilled.

notes and explorations:

getting acquainted:

Approaching this historical work entirely as an artistic effort, it turns out that thanks to some dedicated scholar/performers, it is possible to listen to the vocal music while  following along with the printed music as it was originally notated. The McGowan edition is a facsimile of the book that was assembled and printed in 1582, and the 1997 CD of the musical portions was performed under the direction of Gabriel Garrido, with students and professors of the Centre de Musique Ancienne in Geneva and of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Lyon.

facsimile books:

Margaret M. McGowan, editor. Le Balet Comique by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx (Binghamton, NY, 1982). This is a clearly printed hard cover edition with McGowan’s lengthy introduction. The direct quotation is taken from p. 42. The reproduced text is in French; the engravings provide a sample of what some of the scenery and characters’ costumes looked like.

The music was presented in print using five-lined staves, diamond-shaped noteheads, white, black, and with stems. Signs for clefs, meters, and repeats are also recognizable forerunners of the Western system of notation still used today. However, when trying to follow the choral music along with the recording, there are some challenges because the 5 parts are not presented lined vertically in a score, but rather individually, necessitating interesting page turns. Readers will notice that no instrumental parts are included, and unfortunately for this investigation into dance and musical collaboration, there are no hints of specific pieces that the historical performers heard while dancing.

Inexpensive facsimile of Le Balet comique de la Royne.  Hachette Livre. (No introductory information.)

hearing the music: hour-long CD of Le Balet Comique de la Royne. Ensemble Elyma under direction of Gabriel Garrido, or buy it online as MP3 download, or live stream, or individual tracks. Copyright 2017 Phaia Music. Highly recommended. The performers are both students and professors at the Centre de Musique Ancienne in Geneva and of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Lyon.  As the director explains in the liner notes, there was some notated music “lacking” in the book, and for these sections he seems to have made good choices—substituting organ music by Claude Le Jeune for Pan’s section and the initial oboe entry; and for the final grand ballet, music by Pierre-Francisque Caroubel, from the noted 1612 Terpsichore collection of Praetorius. Sample excerpts from Le Balet Comique de la Royne,  from CD under direction of Gabriel Garrido, in the collection Memoire Musicale de la Lorraine. The vocal solos are quite beautifully performed, featuring the important characters of the plot. The choral sections are also a pleasure, for instance the vigorous section accompanying the descent of Jupiter!

historical information:

Translation by Mary-Jean Cowell of an excerpt from the Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx book, in Dance as a Theatre Art, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen, 2nd edition pp. 19-31
An extensive online biography  of Queen Catherine de Medici. Another article about her efforts as a patroness of the arts:

Ivor Guest quotation is from The Dancer’s Heritage: A Short History of Ballet (London: The Dancing Times, 1984 edition of the work first published in 1960 by Black) p. 1.

See the IED entries written by Margaret M. McGowan for Balet Comique de la Royne  and for Beaujoyeulx.

For another account, see Lincoln Kirstein, Fifty Ballet Masterworks, pp. 54-55. He mentions: “Direction was professional, but all performers save the instrumentalists were noble amateurs.” Wikipedia brief biographical information about the composer of music for Le Ballet Comique de la Reine. Images of Le Ballet Comique de la Reine. Some of the b&w drawings are from the original 1582 book.
Images and information about Le Grande Salle de Bourbon!

Concerning the physical dances themselves, the historian Ingrid Brainard offered a pointed generalization:

During the entire Renaissance and through the Baroque period, however, theatrical dancing was simply an intensified and enlarged rendering of that which every courtier and patrician practised daily and performed nightly to his own and the observers’ delight. [“Dance” in Grove Music Online,  Oxford Music Online, very end of section 3.]