A branle (pronounced bran(ə)l)—also bransle, brangle, brawl, brawle, brall(e), braul(e), or (Scot.) brantle (OED)—or brainle—is a 16th-century French dance style which moves mainly from side to side, and is performed by couples in either a line or a circle.
The word is derived from the French verb branler (to shake), possibly related to brander (to brandish). In Italy the branle became the brando, and in Spain the bran (Dolmetsch 1959,[page needed]). Brando alta regina by Cesare Negri demonstrates how widely the French and Italian dances had diverged by the beginning of the 17th century. The Branle seems to have travelled to Scotland and survived for some time as the brail, but in England it was rarely danced, and of thousands of lute pieces from England only 18 were called branle, though one called "courant" is known from continental sources as a branle (Craig-McFeely 1994, chapter 2, note 22).
The only detailed sources for the dance steps to the French branles are Orchesography (1589) by Thoinot Arbeau and a few late examples in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation (invented in 1691), such as Danses nouvelles presentees au Roy (ca. 1715) by Louis-Guillaume Pécour. However, Antonius de Arena briefly described the steps for the double and single branles and mentions mixed branles (branlos decopatos) in his macaronic treatise Ad suos compagnones (Arena 1986 , 20–21), and the dialogue of act 4, scene 2 of John Marston's The Malcontent (1604) sketches a choreography for one branle. Before 1500 the word is encountered, but only as the name of one of the steps of the basse danse (Heartz 2001). Arbeau strongly implies that the branle was a dance mainly performed by commoners.
The branles as musical forms
According to Arbeau, every ball began with the same four branles: the double branle, the single branle, the gay branle, and the Burgundian branle. The double branle has a simple form involving two phrases of two bars each. This form was not sufficiently different from the pavan to be of interest to composers and so pieces with these names rarely occur in the instrumental books of the time unless they are specifically designed for dancers.
The single branle, however, consists of a phrase of two bars, followed by a phrase of one bar and appears in numerous places. Likewise the gay branle consists of two phrases of two bars each, but in 3/4 time, and so was also widely used.
The Burgundian branle as described by Arbeau is of the same structure as the double branle, but played with a lighter feel. Musical sources however often give an irregular structure for this dance.
Arbeau gives choreographies for eight branles which are associated with specific regions, the Trihory of Brittany, the Burgundian branle (see above), the Haut Barrois branle, the Montardon branle, the Poitou branle, the Maltese branle, and the Scottish branle; he also mentions four others without describing their steps: the branles of Camp, Hainaut, Avignon, and Lyon (Arbeau 1967, 135–36, 146–53, 163, 167–69). Most of these dances seem to have a genuine connection to the region. This is made explicit in the case of the Trihory of Brittany, which Arbeau says is seldom if ever performed in the region around Langres (where his book was published), but "I learned it long ago from a young Breton who was a fellow student of mine at Poitiers" (Arbeau 1967, 151). On the other hand, when his student Capriol asks whether the Maltese branle is native to Malta, rather than just "a fanciful invention for a ballet", Arbeau replies that he "cannot believe it to be other than a ballet" (Arbeau 1967, 153). Some 16th-century books also contain music entitled Champagne branle, which Arbeau tells us is just another name for the Burgundian branle (Arbeau 1967, 129).
Musical characteristics of the regional branles
Although the Breton branle is rarely mentioned outside Arbeau the other two dance styles seems to have provided a little more inspiration to composers.
According to Mabel Dolmetsch the branle was referred to as the "brail" in Scotland. As described by Arbeau it is in duple time. The first Scottish branle has musical phrases of 2 bars, the second phrases of 2 and 3 bars. Two examples of music called the Scottish branle by Estienne du Tertre, however, appear in 3/4 time. Furthermore, despite a similarity in structure for one of these branles, the precise choreography given by Arbeau could not be danced to this music even if the music were in 4/4.
The Poitou branle usually has a 9/4 metre, although some settings use 6/4 or even alternate between 6/4 and 9/4. There is a variation called the Poitou double branle (Branle double de Poitou), which appears exclusively in 6/4.
Branles not mentioned by Arbeau
Branle de Montirandé
The Branle de Montirandé appears to be related to the Haut Barrois branle, which Arbeau says was "arranged to the tune of a branle of Montierandal" (probably Montier-en-Der, near Chaumont in the Haute Marne) (Arbeau 1967, 136 and 203 n92). This is danced in duple time, and as described by Arbeau has a similar structure to the double branle. Settings for this appear in the lute anthology Le trésor d'Orphée by Anthoine Francisque (1600) and the ensemble collection Terpsichore by Michael Praetorius (1612).
Branles de village
There were a number of pieces of music from as early as 1550 called Branle de village, and they seem to have gained popularity in the early 17th century. Musically they usually incorporated "rustic" features in their melody, such as repeated notes. It is clear from the Robert Ballard lute music however that the Branle de village was not associated with one specific dance as the structure differs significantly between pieces.
In John Marston's The Malcontent (1604), act 4, scene 2, the character Guerrino describes the steps of a dance called Beanchaes brawl (Bianca's branle):
t'is but two singles on the left, two on the right, three doubles forward, a trauerse of six round: do this twice, three singles side, galliard tricke of twentie, curranto pace; a figure of eight, three singles broken downe, come vp, meete two doubles, fall backe, and then honour.
The opening is the same as the Maltese branle described by Arbeau, but starting with "three singles side", there is an interpolation of "something presumably more athletic". The male dancer moves away from his partner before performing a "galliard trick of twenty"—apparently a number of capers or leaps in the manner of the galliard—before returning to the conventional ending (Marston 1999, 107, editor's note).
- Emmanuel Adriaenssen includes a piece called Branle Englese in his book of lute music, Pratum Musicum (1584). It includes a reference to Jacques Branleur's Branle dans Maison, a little-known performance artist's variation.
- Thomas Tomkins' Worster Braules is included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.
- Francis Poulenc includes a Bransle de Champagne and a Bransle de Bourgogne in his Suite Française (1935).
- Igor Stravinsky includes a Bransle Simple, Bransle Gay, and Bransle de Poitou (Double) in his Agon (1957).
There were several well-established branle suites of up to ten dances. These were the Branles de Champagne, the Branles de Camp, the Branles de Hainaut and the Branles d'Avignon. He named the suites branles coupés, which literally means "(inter)cut" or "intersected branles", but is usually translated as "mixed branles" (Arbeau 1967, 137 and 203 n93). By 1623 the such suites had been standardized into a set of six dances: premier bransle, bransle gay, bransle de Poictou (also called branle à mener), bransle double de Poictou, cinquiesme bransle (by 1636 named branle de Montirandé), and a concluding gavotte (Semmens 1997, 36). A variant of this sequence is found in the Tablature de mandore (Paris, 1629) by François, Sieur de Chancy. A suite of seven dances collectively titled Branles de Boccan begins with a branle du Baucane known to have been composed by the prominent dancing master and brilliant violinist Jacques Cordier, known as "Bocan". It is followed by a second, untitled branle, then the branle gay, branle de Poictu, branle double de Poictu, branle de Montirandé, and la gavotte (Tyler 1981, 26).
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- Arena, Antonius (1986 ) "Rules of Dancing", translated by John Guthrie and Marino Zorzi. Dance Research 4, no. 2 (Autumn): 3–53.
- Dolmetsch, Mabel (1959). Dances of England and France, from 1450 to 1600, with Their Music and Authentic Manner of Performance (2nd ed.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Reprinted New York: Da Capo Press, 1975. ISBN 978-0-306-70725-4.
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