In 1589, the French cleric Jehan Tabourot published a manual in the form of a dialogue between himself (in the guise of Thoinot Arbeau, an anagram of his real name) and a lawyer named Capriol. Capriol wanted to learn to dance and Arbeau would instruct him.
The manual, entitled Orchésographie, is an instruction manual as much as it is a study of social dancing in the late 16th-century. It includes music, instructions for different drum beats to accompany the music, and pictures of dancers in position. The wood-cut engravings, such as of Capriole, above, bring the dances to life.
The basse danse required that the dancer keep his feet close to the floor, the music was in triple time, and at a moderate tempo.
The music was transcribed by the composer Peter Warlock and opened his Capriol Suite, which had its premiere in 1926.
Warlock: Capriol Suite, I. Basse-Danse: Allegro moderato (Ulster Orchestra; Vernon Handley, cond.)
A set of images shows the reader and prospective dancer various steps and leg positions. Once the reader has learned these, Arbeau then sets these instructions against the music so that, note by note, the dancer knows what step goes where.
The Pavane is a dance with a grave and solemn character. In his setting, Warlock silences the strings and adds a side drum.
Capriol Suite, II. Pavane: Allegretto, ma un poco lento
The Tordion is actually part of the Basse Danse, as a dance. Now the brass are stilled. The tempo is faster than the Pavane.
Capriol Suite, III. Tordion: Allegretto con moto
The Branles was a dance particularly popular in the sixteenth century and still danced today. The name comes from the French verb ‘branler,’ meaning to sway or wobble, and refers to the side-to-side motion of the dancers in a line or a circle. The dancers hold hands or are linked by their arms.
Capriol Suite, IV. Branles: Presto
The Pied-en-l’air (foot in the air) is not a dance proper but is a movement in the Galliard dance.
Capriol Suite, V. Pied-en-l’air: Andantino tranquilo
The final movement of the Capriol Suite, Mattachins, was a dance where men in gilded cardboard armour danced with swords and small shields. The ending of the dance involved crashing the sword onto the shields- listen for that in the music.
Capriol Suite, VI. Mattachins: Allegro con brio
Arbeau was feeding the tastes of the up-and-coming middle class of the sixteenth-century in his dance manual. A lawyer now needed to learn how to handle himself at a dance and this manual helped him and many of his contemporaries find their way in the new world of social interaction. For us, so many centuries later, Orchésographie is our guide to that long-lost world.
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