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Program Notes: Ballets and Brawls


Our program title for these concerts of French music, mostly from the early 17th century, emphasizes dance music. Dance was a tremendously important element in French music and court culture throughout the Renaissance and later. While we used the English form brawl for the round and line dances popular from the 15th to the 18th centuries, the proper French for these dances is branle. Our program includes plenty of these popular (in every sense) dances which never seem far from their folk origins, but we will also have examples of more sophisticated dances as practiced in the ballets at court. In addition to dance music, we will offer some abstract instrumental music, not intended for dancing or anything besides the entertainment of the players. Truth be told, however, our program is centered on the French song style current in our featured year, 1610—that of the air de cour.


We begin with a group of 16th century songs and dances to set the stage for the early 17th century pieces that form the bulk of our program. There will be many works that were actually published in 1610 or a little later—Michael Praetorius’ definitive collection of French court dances was published in 1612, although he probably first saw and heard these tunes in 1610. In all of this repertoire, the grace, elegance, and stylishness of French music is readily apparent.


The pavan and galliard are the most important court dances of the mid-16th century and usually form a pair. The pavan is measured and duple and often served as an entry dance. The galliard is lively and characteristically has a compound meter and often was a dance in which gentlemen could show off their well-turned calves and their athleticism. Our opening examples were printed in Antwerp in the 1570s by Pierre Phalèse, but these examples are very similar to those in many different prints throughout Europe during the 16th century.


Between 1571 and the middle of the 17th century, French composers referred to the secular songs popular at court (but also accesible to others) as airs de cour. The first printed collection of these, the Livre d’air de cours miz sur le luth par Adrian Le Roy, appeared in 1571. Le Roy wrote in his preface that he was introducing these light, strophic airs which were previously known as vaudeville or voix de ville.


In Paris, also in the year 1571, the poet Antoine Baïf and the lutenist Thibault de Courville founded the Académie de poésie et musique, a group devoted, like the Florentine Camerata, to the revival of classical Greek poetry and music. The court airs were influenced by the Académie’s attempts to superimpose classical poetic meter onto the French language, a style they called musique mesurée a l’ancien. In the last group of pieces, we perform a couple of examples of this style. The basic idea is that stressed syllables in the poetry receive longer note values, resulting in a pleasingly irregular series of grouping of two and three notes.


—Robert Eisenstein

Robert Eisenstein

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