La Fête de la Musique should have taken place this weekend. For obvious reasons, many of the events won’t be happening, except online. Some public concerts are allowed by special permission, provided they respect social distancing regulations. I notice that Villefranche-de-Rouergue plans one, featuring the carillon in the Collégiale (cathedral). The Lotois village of Beauregard normally organises one of the biggest fêtes in the area, at which the SF’s male voice choir has sung. Sadly, this year, it is cancelled.
Music is so much a part of our everyday lives, that I started to think about what role it played in past times in French country areas. Come with me to a virtual fête de la musique.
Concerts in the sense we know them were probably few and far between in rural areas. Public musical events were centred on weddings and fêtes. Country weddings often included a procession led by a violinist or, more rarely, a vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy) player; eminently portable instruments. Dancing took place after the wedding breakfast.
Summer fêtes were the occasion for music and dancing, such as la fête de la Saint-Jean, which is celebrated on 24th June.
People no doubt sang or hummed well-known refrains while they went about their daily business. They may well have entertained each other with songs featuring local legends during the veillées: winter evening gatherings where the inhabitants of a hamlet got together to carry out a shared task, such as shelling walnuts.
There’s an extensive canon of traditional songs in Occitan (the regional language). You’ll find songs for every occasion: lullabies, romances, dancing, walking, comic songs and ballads about myths and legend.
Probably the most famous song to come from this region is “Se Canto”, known as the Occitan hymn, which is often sung at gatherings or fêtes. This is attributed to Gaston III, comte de Foix and vicomte de Béarn, in the 14th century. He was also a troubadour (and something of a ladies’ man), who left a collection of poems. Se canto relates a popular troubadour theme: lovers separated by distance and circumstances.
The most common form of accompanying instrument was the cornemuse (bagpipes), which apparently dates back around 7,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. The bellows part was traditionally made from an animal skin, often a goat.
The cornemuse has a thinner, reedier sound than the Scottish bagpipes.
In our region, the cabrette was a type of cornemuse, which became popular among the Auvergnats and Aveyronnais of Paris in the 19th century. Often known as Bougnats, these people left the land to make their fortune in the city. They opened cafés and restaurants, sometimes allied with a coal-supply business. In their self-imposed exile, they remained attached to their native region and its traditions.
Apologies for the blurry shot: taken in haste between dancers.
The cabrette quickly spread back to the Auvergne and northern Aveyron. There is even a Maison de la Cabrette in Cantoin (Aveyron), where you can see examples of ancient instruments. Website only in French, I’m afraid.
A number of local fêtes, such as the Espinas fête each August, include entertainment with the cornemuse and the accordion.
The accordion is also an ancient instrument. The modern accordion, as we know it, was developed during the mid-19th century and comes in different versions with a keyboard or buttons. Because of its versatility, it began to supplant the cornemuse in the bals-musette of Paris from the 1880s.
Here’s a rather better shot of a button accordion serenading us and friends at Espinas.
There’s a museum for everything in France, and you’ll find one devoted to the accordion (and other instruments) in Siran (Cantal). French only again.
In addition to the universally known waltz, polka and gavotte, the bourrée was a popular dance in this region. It originated in the Auvergne in the 16th century. La Reine Margot (wife of Henri IV), discovered it during an escapade in Cantal and took it back to the royal court.
As an aside, Margot had a reputation for loose morals. While staying at the Château de Carlat in Cantal in 1585, she was entertaining a new lover when the lords returned unexpectedly from hunting. In her haste, she put on her bodice the wrong way round, thus exposing her bosom. To cover herself, she stuffed a bouquet of flowers into her cleavage and started a new fashion. The tradition has endured in these dancers’ costumes.
Back to the bourrée: there are several versions, but the one in our region is characterised by 2/4 time (other versions are in 3/4 waltz time). No physical contact takes place between partners – and they can be all men or all women. Instead, the arms are used to ornament the steps.
The dance includes various different figures, some quite elaborate, usually involving a lot of foot stamping. In the ellipse, the partners turn around each other in an elliptical movement. You can see the traditional Cantal bourrée in this YouTube clip, coincidentally filmed in a chambres d’hôtes we have stayed in near Pailherols.
I’m very fond of music and singing, but I can’t dance to save my life. I’d be interested, as always, to hear your experiences of traditional music and dancing in France.
Finally, huge thanks to everyone who has moved over from MailChimp to subscribe to Life on La Lune directly on this site. I’m delighted and flattered to see so many of you. Merci infiniment.
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