Belle qui tiens ma vie – Beauty who holds my life – is today one of the most well-known songs of the French renaissance. It survived for posterity only due to it being a sung dance and thereby included in the personal project of Jehan Tabourot, 16th century priest, to write a book of the social dances he remembered from his youth, complete with their choreography and music. The book was Orchésographie, published in 1589 under an anagrammatic pseudonym, Thoinot Arbeau.
This article has a brief biography of Jehan Tabourot and an explanation of the importance of Orchésographie for renaissance music and dance, followed by the beautiful words and meaning of the danced song, Belle qui tiens ma vie.
We begin with a video of the song, sung in English with renaissance lute.
Thoinot Arbeau: all the right letters, not necessarily in the right order
Jehan Tabourot (1520–1595) was born in Dijon, eastern France, into a distinguished family. The son of lawyer Stephen Tabourot, Jehan studied at ecclesiastical schools in Paris and Poitiers and was awarded a Licentiate (a degree below a PhD) of Laws. After being ordained a Roman Catholic priest, from 1542 Jehan served the Cathedral of Saint Mammes in Langres for the rest of his life, becoming a canon in 1545. He also served as an ecclesiastical judge, ruling on matters of church law, and as vicar general, the bishop’s deputy with executive power in the Diocese of Langres.
Late in life, Jehan wrote a dance manual, Orchésographie. The title is Tabourot’s own portmanteau: orchésis, the art of dance, and graphie, writing. His certificate of copyright is dated 22nd November 1588, his book published in the next year. We know that at the time the certificate of copyright was granted that the book was incomplete as the author was born in 1520 and in the text he refers to himself being 69 years old. The name of the author on the cover was his, but presented anagrammatically: Jehan Tabourot became Thoinot Arbeau. (For any anagram enthusiasts, this works because at the time i also stood for j, thus Jehan or Iehan.) His plan was to write a follow-up volume, as the final paragraph states: “I look forward to giving you the melodies and movements of a number of ballets [i.e. dances] and masquerades produced in this town [Langres], which shall be dealt with in a second treatise at our earliest leisure.” It was not to be: Jehan lived only 6 years beyond the publication of Orchésographie, with the next volume not written.
If the introductory dedication is to be believed, Orchésographie was thought unfit for publication by its author. The dedication, written under the name “Jehan des Preyz”, states that the manuscript was found as “discarded and unsorted papers which I gathered up long since by Thoinot Arbeau of Langres, my first tutor … I have printed them in their entirety to offer you despite the fact that the said Sieur Arbeau forbade me to do so, saying that such things as he had scribbled merely to kill time did not merit printing”. This is not a credible story. The orderliness of the book is anything but “discarded and unsorted”; Jehan des Preyz had not “gathered up [the papers] long since” because the book was published when Tabourot was 69 and he makes reference to being just that age; his passion shows that he had certainly not written it “merely to kill time”; and no author who truly thinks his work is worthless plans to write a second volume. The introduction is a fantasy, an example of the renaissance literary trope of feigned humility. In all likelihood, Jehan des Preyz is another pseudonym for Jehan Tabourot.
The book is written in the form of a dialogue between an imaginary dance novice, Capriol, named after capriole, the French word for capering or leaping in the air, and Tabourot’s literary alter-ego, Arbeau. Jehan’s love of dancing is obvious not just from the fact that he wrote a dance manual, but from the autobiographical details he includes. Jehan, for example, writes of himself in the voice of Capriol, “I beg you to teach me about these things, Monsieur Arbeau, because I know you are a musician, and in your youth won a reputation for good dancing and dexterity in a thousand sprightly steps.”
This is no dry instruction book. As well as being written in a flowing dialogue, there are flashes of humour. For example, in one passage Capriol complains that the Official branle is repetitive and “toilsome”, depending “partly upon the dexterity and agility of the damsel whom one must assist to jump, and some damsels would attempt to dance it who lacked the necessary proficiency”. Arbeau replies, “You will not find the gavotte branles, where there is no need to lift but only to kiss the damsels, so toilsome.”
In what I consider to be one of the most entertaining passages of renaissance literature, Jehan gives his reasons for the social importance of dance: “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 realise that a mistress is won by the good temper and grace displayed while dancing … And there is more to it than this, for dancing is practised 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 importance of “a well-ordered society” for Tabourot runs through the whole book. Jehan complains on several occasions that modern dancing has lost the orderliness it once had. For example, in describing la volta, he writes that “after having spun round for as many cadences as you wish, return the damsel to her place when, however brave a face she shows, she will feel her brain reeling and her head full of dizzy whirlings; and you yourself will perhaps be no better off. I leave it to you to judge whether it is a becoming thing for a young girl to take long strides and separations of the legs, and whether in this volta both honour and health are not involved and at stake.”
Similarly, Arbeau advises Capriol on his orderly conduct: “never look down at your feet to see whether you are performing the steps correctly. Keep your head and body erect and appear self-possessed. Spit and blow your nose sparingly, or if needs must, turn your head away and use a fair white handkerchief. Converse affably in a low, modest voice, your hands at your sides, neither hanging limp nor moving nervously. Be suitably and neatly dressed, your hose well secured and your shoes clean”.
In defence of dancing
Just as England saw the rise of the Puritans from the late 16th century, who were against social dancing, so 16th century France had dance and the arts generally as part of the ideological battleground in their wars of religion. Against the Calvinists’ condemnation of dance, Jehan makes several defences, citing classical Greece and Rome, contemporary church practice and Jesus himself.
“It has chagrined me to find that many have condemned dancing, have even judged it shameless and an effeminate pastime, unworthy of the dignity of a man.”
“Museus and Orpheus wished the hymns they had composed in honour of the gods to be sung to the accompaniment of dances. Bacchus conquered the Indies by three kinds of dance. In the primitive church there was a custom, which has survived into our own time, of dancing and swaying while chanting the hymns of our faith, and it may still be seen in several places.” While it is true that the medieval church banned dancing in church, in churchyards and in religious processions, these acts of prohibition show that medieval ecclesiastical dancing did take place, and Tabourot’s testimony here illustrates that it still took place in renaissance France and that he, as ecclesiastical judge and vicar general for the Diocese of Langres, allowed and approved of it.
“We take part in such rejoicing to celebrate wedding days and in the rites of our religious festivals, in spite of the abhorrence of reformers, which latter deserve to be fed upon goat’s meat cooked in a pie without bacon.”
“You can moreover quote Our Lord (St. Matthew Chap. XI and St. Luke Chap. VIII) when he reproached the Pharisees for their obstinacy and ill will. ‘We have piped for you and you have not danced.’”
Perhaps today we may be surprised that a Catholic priest loved dancing so wholeheartedly. He was certainly not alone in the church. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, there was a French dance movement spearheaded by the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic order of religious men. They considered dance to be so socially important, in just the terms set out by Tabourot, that in the 17th century dance was an integral part of the curriculum in their Parisian boys’ school, Louis le Grand. Since being able to dance was considered crucial for the social standing of any European gentleman, such schooling was good training for dancing in the royal court in the reign of dance-lover Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715).
The vintage of Orchésographie dances
Back in Tabourot’s own time, Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian Queen of France from 1547 to 1559, wife of King Henry II, promoted dance in the nation and developed ballet de cour, court ballet. This is not to be confused with the modern use of the word, ballet. There were no pirouettes, tutus or ballet shoes here: ballet in French is related to the Italian balletto, from the Latin ballo or ballare, meaning dance, without any of its later associations with pointe, arabesque and so on. When Catherine de’ Medici was widowed and her son, Henry III, was on the throne, she organised the staging of the famous Balet comique de la Royne (modern spelling, Ballet Comique de la Reine), a lavish extravaganza of dance, music and theatre based on the figure of Circe, goddess of magic in Homer’s Odyssey, staged for the wedding of the Duke de Joyeuse and Marguerite de Lorraine-Vaudémont.
The Balet comique de la Royne was performed in 1581, 7 years before Jehan received his licence to publish Orchésographie and 8 years before its publication. There could be a motivating connection between his writing and the Balet comique, or the craze for masquerading and dancing that followed it, or the apparently unusual continuation of ecclesiastical dancing in the French church under Tabourot’s jurisdiction, or his advancing years, or a combination of several of these factors. What he makes clear in the pages of Orchésographie is that he regrets the passing of better times and fears that the dances of his youth will be forgotten forever.
Arbeau: As regards ancient dances, all I can tell you is that the passage of time, the indolence of man or the difficulty in describing them has robbed us of any knowledge thereof … Why, even the dances seen in our fathers’ time were unlike those of today and it will always be so because men are such lovers of novelty.
Capriol: I foresee, then, that posterity will remain ignorant of all these new dances you have named for the same reason that we have been deprived of the knowledge of those of our ancestors.
Arbeau: One must assume so.
Capriol: Do not allow this to happen, Monsieur Arbeau, as it is within your power to prevent it. Set these things down in writing to enable me to learn this art.
It is clear from the rest of Orchésographie that Capriol’s reference to “new dances” does not mean, on the whole, current and up to the minute, but the dances of Tabourot’s youth, “the dances seen in our fathers’ time”.
Tabourot, writing as Arbeau, regularly refers to the vintage of the particular dance he is describing. Occasionally this is fanciful. Keen to be a good renaissance man and make classical references wherever possible, Arbeau claims that the sword dance known as buffens or mattachins was derived from two dances: the first was “initiated by King Numa” Pompilius, the second King of Rome, who succeeded Romulus and reigned 715–673 BC, “to celebrate the sacred festival of Mars”; the second was the Pyrrhic dance or imitative war dance created, as legend has it, by the Curetes or Korybantes, the armed dancers who, in Greek mythology, drummed and danced to worship mother goddess Cybele.
The origin Arbeau claims for the alman is also impossible to accept due to the author’s poor logic. The dance called the alman – variously spelt in other sources, almand, almond, almain, almayne, almaigne, allemande – is French for Germany. Arbeau describes it as “a simple, rather sedate dance, familiar to the Germans and, I believe, one of our oldest since we are descended from them.” While it is true that the word French is derived from the Franks, Germanic people who settled in northern Gaul during the decline of the Roman Empire, this is by no means the sum total of French biological heritage and, even if it were, it has no bearing on whether a dance named after Germany is actually German, nor does the completely unrelated history of French people give any evidence for the age of any particular dance. Indeed, in 1589 the alman appears to be a new dance: Arbeau’s reference to it is the first in surviving records.
Orchésographie also includes the first reference to the gavotte, with Arbeau apologetic that his instructions are not more complete: “If it had been fashionable when I had a young pair of legs I should not have failed to make notes upon it.” Another dance contemporaneous with the writing in 1589 is the Official branle, which Arbeau says “has only recently discovered recognition”. While no longer able to dance, then, the author is still keen to observe current fashions in dance: “I recently attended a wedding where I saw a young man execute the five steps [cinq passe – the foundational choreography of the galliard] that seemed to me very graceful”.
However, the vast majority of Orchésographie dances are remembered from Tabourot’s own youth. He doesn’t mention his specific age or a particular year in connection with any of the dances but, being born in 1520, they are logically dated to the 1530s, very likely the 1540s, and possibly up to the 1550s. Some of his reminiscences include:
“When I started learning to dance at Poitiers, our master played one [galliard] he called Because of the Traitor I Die, which was held to be one of the loveliest melodies of them all.”
“In bygone days we used to dance a mimed branle called the Montarde.”
While describing basse dance choreography, Tabourot says “the basse dance has been out of fashion some forty or fifty years”.
“In my youth there was a kind of game or mime arranged to the coranto” involving feigned foolishness and acted amorous despair between a participating trio of couples.
“In fashionable society when I was young, a small boy, his face daubed with black and his forehead swathed in a white or yellow kerchief, would make an appearance after supper. He wore leggings covered with little bells and performed a morris”.
It is corroborated in other sources that most of the dance types in Orchésographie were used in the previous generation or earlier. For example, the basse danse originated in 14th century Italy; types of branle were known from the early 16th century; and the coranto is first evidenced in 1515. These dances and others described in the book – buffens, canary, galliard, la volta, morris dance, pavan, tourdion – are not singular dances but dance forms, with new variations in music and choreography regularly created. In his old age, Tabourot compares the present unfavourably with the past, seeing a decline in the standard of dancing compared to his youth. We have already seen his disdain for the new “dizzy whirlings” of la volta.
“Nowadays, dancers lack these courteous considerations [about not being too boisterous and jolting their female dancing partners] in their voltas, and other similarly wanton and wayward dances have been brought into usage.”
“In the towns nowadays the galliard is danced regardless of rules, and the dancers are satisfied to perform the five steps and a few passages without any orderly arrangement so long as they keep the rhythm … In earlier days it was danced with much more discernment.”
“When I first came to this town of Langres people talked only of dancing and masquerades and gaiety. We had Master Claudin, who played exquisitely upon several instruments and made us eager to practice. But for some time now I have met with nothing but sorrow and it has made me old and dull.”
The dance type most often described by Arbeau is the branle – also bransle, brawl or braul – a French dance that found favour in the court and became known internationally, with extant musical examples demonstrating its spread to Italy, Spain, Scotland, Flanders and England. It was also the subject of a typically Shakespearean joke in Love’s Labours Lost (1593). In Act 3, Scene 1, Moth mentions the dance, Armado thinks he means a fight, and Moth responds with word-play:
Moth: Master, will you win your love with a French brawl?
Adriano de Armado: How meanest thou? Brawling in French?
Moth: No, my complete master: but to jig off a tune at the tongue’s end, canary to it with your feet, humour it with turning up your eyelids, sigh a note and sing a note …
The inclusion of so many branles is one of the aspects that makes Orchésographie so special. It is the largest and only detailed source of branle choreography (though there are other branles much later, in dance notation created in the 1680s by Pierre Beauchamp, commissioned by royal dance-lover Louis XIV, who in 1661 had founded the Académie Royale de Danse). It is also a significant source of branle melodies. But what potentially makes Orchésographie really special is implied in this passage: “All musicians are in the habit of opening the dancing at a festival by a double branle which they call the common branle, and afterwards they play the single branle and the gay branle and at the end the branles of Burgundy, which some people call the branles of Champagne. The order of these four varieties of branle is determined by the three different groups taking part in a dance: the elderly who dance the double branle and single branle sedately, the young married folk who dance the gay branle and the youngest of all, like yourself, who numbly trip the branles of Burgundy. And every dancer acquits himself to the best of his ability, each according to his years and his degree of skill.” In other words, Tabourot is describing social dances among the general populace, not the exclusive dances of the court as in all previous dance manuals. While it is true that branles did become part of the aristocratic repertoire, Tabourot’s regular references to his memories of dancing “in the towns” tells us that it is not the court in the author’s memory and in his book.
Another special aspect of the treatise is the dance tabulation. The precise meaning of choreographical descriptions could be somewhat ambiguous in previous dance literature. Here Tabourot’s emphasis on orderliness triumphs. He created his own system, combining music and choreography in a crystal-clear way, with each movement of the dancer connected to a note of the music.
Above is the dance tabulation for branle de l’Official, with music printed sideways down the page so that the description of choreography is linked to the notes of music.
This particular tune leads to another special aspect of the book: Orchésographie is the original written source of two branle melodies that are now well-known by large numbers of people who know nothing of 16th century French social dance. Branle de l’Official, the title probably referring to household servants, was used by English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward as the melody for his Christmas carol, Ding Dong Merrily on High, first published in 1924 in his collection, The Cambridge Carol Book. Branle des chevaulx, better known by its English title, Horses’ brawl, is now a staple of folk music sessions, and the music has entered the British morris tradition to a dance unconnected with Arbeau, seen here performed by Cardiff Morris.
Before writing of recreational dances, Arbeau first describes “martial dances”, with detailed descriptions of the types of drum used and meticulous explanations of all the drum patterns and every possible variation thereof. There are medieval and renaissance visual portrayals of percussion, about which we know only what can be gleaned from the iconography: Tabourot gives us the first detailed description of percussion technique and the particular way it accompanied dance in renaissance France. There is nothing else like it.
He even gives us the instruments that would typically be used.
“The instruments used for military marching are buisines [long trumpets] & trumpets, crumhorns [litues, probably crumhorns] & clarions [folded trumpets], horns & cornetts, flutes, transverse fifes, pipes [flageolets], drums and others resembling the said drums.”
Many recreational dances are played with pipe and tabor “because a single musician could play them both together in symphony without necessitating the additional expense of other players, such as violins and the like. Nowadays there is no workman so humble that he does not wish to have hautbois and sackbuts at his wedding.” The hautbois (in English, hautboy, hoboy, howboye and other variants of the French name) is, in organological terms, the reed instrument that evolved from the shawm and became the oboe (the word oboe also being derived from hautbois). The sackbut is the successor to the slide trumpet, the early trombone.
The lute was the pre-eminent instrument of the renaissance, and we know from paintings, written accounts and lute repertoire that it was played to accompany dancing, almost always in ensemble, and yet the lute receives only one passing comment in Orchésographie. Tabourot has Capriol say that “at Orleans we always played a galliard called Romanesque on our lutes and guiternes [4 course renaissance guitars] but I found it hackneyed and trite. I learned one on the lute which I enjoyed seeing danced by my companions as I knew how to play and sing it.” He then gives the “melody of the galliard called Antoinette” and the steps of the galliard. The author gives no words for the melody. The sentence about Antoinette being sung is ambiguous: it could mean simply that he remembers it as a song and separately as a dance, or he could mean that Antoinette was played and sung to be danced to.
Which leads us to the sung dance in the book for which Tabourot does give the words: Belle qui tiens ma vie.
Belle qui tiens ma vie – a sung pavan
Not only is Belle qui the only dance in the book with words, it is the only piece with a full arrangement of four voices and drum rhythm – every other piece in the book is a single monophonic line. When giving the steps to the pavan, presumably remembered from his youth like the majority of dances, Tabourot says the pavan “has not become obsolete or gone out of fashion”.
Of this dance form, Arbeau states that on “solemn feast days the pavan is employed by kings, princes and great noblemen to display themselves in their fine mantles and ceremonial robes … And it is the said pavans, played by hautbois and sackbuts, that announce the grand ball and are arranged to last until the dancers have circled the hall two or three times”. It may be just this practice we witness in Süddeutscher Meister’s painting shown below, Augsburger Geschlechtertanz im Tanzhaus am Weinmarkt (Augsburg citizens in the dance house on the wine market), Germany, 1500. Arbeau says the pavan is danced by circling the hall two or three times “unless they prefer to dance it by advancing and retreating”, the choreography he gives in the book.
Arbeau gives two further contexts: “Pavans are also used in masquerades to herald the entrance of the gods and goddesses in their triumphal chariots or emperors and kings in full majesty … Our musicians play [the pavan] when a maiden of good family is taken to Holy Church to be married”. I have played it for weddings myself, and can report from experience that Belle qui works beautifully to accompany a bride processing down the aisle.
Having heard Arbeau go to great lengths to explain drum beats and explain why the pipe and tabor is used at social dances, Capriol asks Arbeau about pavan instrumentation.
Capriol: Must the pipe and tabor necessarily be used for pavans and basse dances?
Arbeau: Not unless one wishes it. One can play them on violins, spinets, transverse flutes, and flutes [pipes] with nine holes, hautbois and all sorts of instruments. They can even be sung.”
All quotations from Orchésographie in this article are taken from Mary Stewart Evans’ translation (details at the end of the article), with some occasional alterations for clarity. Evans’ words for Belle qui are not a straightforward translation, which necessarily would not rhyme, but a versification in English. Since no two languages express ideas in quite the same way, versification into another language is always a delicate balance between being true to the original and finding words in the second language that not only adequately express and reflect the original but also retain the metre. Since words in the two languages are different, the original rhyming words are left behind and the rhyme scheme has to be recreated.
In this difficult process, it is my judgement that Mary Stewart Evans’ words of 1948 stray too far from Tabourot’s original. I therefore took David Samuel Barr’s literal, unmetered translation and used it as my starting point to create my own set of words, as sung in the video above. David’s verses are as follows, with his explanation first.
“In July 1997 I did my own translation of [Belle qui] when I found that the Evans version was unsatisfactory. I tried to be true to the original text, without any attempt to fit the English lyrics to the notes, although in some instances I had to adjust my text to the idiomatic intent rather than slavish literalism. Extreme examples of this appear [in brackets] where a literal translation of the French words simply made no sense in English and I had to paraphrase. (I’m sure others more fluent in French than I can resolve these issues, as well as improve on my efforts in general).”
Why do you flee, dainty one,
If I am near you?
When I behold your eyes
I am lost inside myself
Because your perfection
[so affects my behaviour].
My soul wanted to be
Free of passion,
But love became master
Of my affections
And put under its law
My heart and my faith.
I die, my Little Angel,
I die when kissing
Your mouth so sweet.
My very lovely one,
With that touch my spirits
Are completely lifted in love.
There are seven verses, I used five. The two verses in italics above are those I did not use for the song, as seen in the video. My versified words, using David’s words as my starting point stay, I hope, fairly true to the original. There was one exception to this I could not avoid, and one shock.
The exception is the last verse. I could not find enough syllables to make the final verse scan in English. The sentiment of one’s love ending only when impossible things happen (waves flowing backwards) or the universe comes to an end (the moon ceasing to shine) is the same in a great many traditional English love songs which incorporate floating verses, lines which migrate freely from song to song. With a gap to fill, I added in two such floating lines from English songs that are not present in the French but are nevertheless thematically appropriate: “The world will cease to turn / Noon-day shall turn to night”.
The shock was in the penultimate verse. I gave the original French words and my English versification to a Belgian friend for her to check for consistency of meaning, so I would know for sure if I had strayed too far from the intended sense of the words. I saw her visibly shocked when she read, “Je meurs, mon Angelette, / Je meurs en te baisant”. In modern French, this means, “I die, my Little Angel, / I die by fucking you”. I can’t sing that!
This is an example of a word that has changed the intensity and sense of its meaning over time. In the 19th century Book of Common Prayer, for example, Psalm 86, verse 14 reads, “O God, the proud are risen against me; and the congregations of naughty men have sought after my soul”. This sounds laughable now that naughty no longer means evil or immoral but simply rude or badly behaved. The French verb baiser or baisant has moved in the opposite direction: in Tabourot’s 16th century it meant kiss or kissing, but from the mid 19th century its meaning has been intensified and vulgarised in many contexts. As a general rule in modern French, baiser still means kiss when followed by a noun, as in baiser le main, kiss the hand, or the lovely French saying, chaque baiser est un monde à explorer, every kiss is a world to explore. Baise-moi, however, would not now be understood as kiss me, but only as slang for an invitation to sexual intercourse.
Putting this anachronistic surprise behind us, the words and the sentiment are rather beautiful, I think. There are plentiful renaissance songs about hopeless love. Whether this story ends happily is ambiguous, but she has melted the emotional ice that was freezing his bones and they have kissed passionately. The changes wrought in him are expressed beautifully.
Tabourot was an author who put pen to paper because he feared that otherwise cultural treasures would be lost, in the same way that Cecil Sharp, Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood, et al, the English folk song publishers of the late 19th and early 20th century, considered themselves the collectors of a dying tradition. That so much of the material in Orchésographie can be found only there shows that Tabourot’s fears were well-founded. We will never know what other treasures he would have left to posterity had he lived more than 6 years beyond Orchésographie and completed that unwritten second volume.
The legacy of Orchésographie in social dance and music history is considerable, with multiple firsts: the first account of non-aristocratic social dances; the first use of his own unambiguous dance tabulation; the first references to and descriptions of the alman and gavotte; the first account of drum patterns; the first and only historical appearance of the tunes for Ding Dong Merrily on High and Horses’ branle. It is also special for the quantity of dances it includes, and the considerable number of melodies for which this is the only extant source.
This would be enough in itself, but there is more: the quality of the writing is outstanding for its character and flashes of humour, and the music for its vitality and beauty.
The complete book in its original 16th century French is available for download as a single pdf here; and the Mary Stewart Evans translation into English is published by Dover, with new notes by Julia Sutton and Mireille Backer under the anglicised title, Orchesography.