It is arguable that the traumas and divisions of later French history, often attributed to the Revolution of 1789, in fact take their roots from this period and the murderous bitternesses which it encouraged.

Diarmid MacCulloch. Reformation: Europe’s house divided.

Unlike his Valois predecessor, King Henri IV Bourbon was a capable leader who was able to garner support from among his Huguenot followers and from French Catholics who were horrified at the excesses of their extremist fellows and furious with the Pope for his attempted interference in the royal succession. Henri himself had narrowly escaped being murdered during the Henri IV
Henri IV
(Wikimedia Commons)
frenzy surrounding the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew in August 1572, when Protestants throughout France were taken from their homes and brutally butchered. He hastily recanted the Protestant conversion of his mother and himself, but was trapped at court and placed under house arrest for several years.

The strained relationship between Catholics and Protestants was aggravated when visitors from both sides attended Henri’s wedding to Marguerite Valois, daughter of Catherine de Médici. Following an assassination attempt against Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny, royal troops were sent to murder Huguenot leaders still in Paris, after which bloody chaos spread throughout the country and, in the weeks following, brought on the deaths of some 5,000 French Protestants. Henri was hidden in his new wife’s rooms, else he probably would not have survived the initial hysteria.

Hogenberg, “The Saint Barthomolomew’s Day Massacre”
Hogenberg, “The Saint Barthomolomew’s Day Massacre”
(Wikimedia Commons)

His coronation took place in 1589 and, despite continued trouble with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire — he had again adopted his mother’s Protestant faith after escaping from Paris — his reign was a relatively peaceful one and he was well liked by his people. Ever the pragmatist, he again adopted Catholicism in an effort to calm further tensions in 1593, and was absolved by Pope Clement VIII in 1595. He proclaimed the Edict of Nantes in 1598 to protect Huguenot freedoms, and a few months later signed the Treaty of Vervins with Phillip II to close off religious hostilities with Spain and bring a modicum of peace to the country which, unfortunately, was not to last.

Some of Henri’s legacy however, did endure. He built the Pont Neuf (“New Bridge”) over the Seine in Paris, and he sponsored expeditions to Canada and the New World by Dugua and Champlain. The annulment of his marriage to his now estranged wife Marguerite was completed in 1599, and he married Marie de Médici the next year, occasion of Peri’s Euridice.

Spectacle and splendour were no less a part of court life in France than in Florence, Mantua or Venice, and fulfilled the same functions. Catherine de Médici was well known for her extravagant productions in which dance played a very important part. Spectacles such as Le paradis d’amour (“The Paradise of Love”) for the wedding of her daughter Marguerite Valois with King Henri de Navarre, future king of France, and Le ballet des polonais (“Ballet of the Poles”) were her favourite pursuits.

The famous Ballet comique de la reine (“The Queen’s Comic Ballet”) of 1581 is celebrated as the first–ever ballet, lasting from ten in the evening until three in the morning. The dramatic representation of the victory over the sorceress Circé by Mercury, Athena, Pan and Jupiter affirms the allegorical superiority of the king. The music was written chiefly by Lambert Beaulieu and Jacques Salmon, but conceived and choreographed by Baltasar de Beaujoyeulx, born Baldassare da Belgioioso in Lombardy and, like his later counterpart Lully, imported to the French court. Such court ballets continued under the reign of Henri IV and his new Médici bride.

Regrettably very little of the music of Ennemond Gaultier survives, most of it published by his younger cousin Denis, both respected French lutenists. Known variously as Gaultier de Lyon, which was near his presumed birthplace of Dauphiné, or as Vieux Gaultier (“Old Gaultier”), he entered the service of Marie de Médici as valet in 1600.

Most of Gaultier’s surviving works are dances, mostly courantes, with descriptive names such as La belle homicide (“The Beautiful Murderess”) or Le rossignol (“The Nightingale”). Other famous works include the homage Le tombeau de Mésangeau (“Mésangeau’s Tomb”) for his teacher. Gaultier was one of a number of lutenists of the so–called French school who espoused the

style brisé (“broken style”) in which the limitations of the lute are used strategically to play what would otherwise be characterised as polyphonic music: one, perhaps two actual notes are played at a time, from which the gestalt of a complete piece emerges:

Ennemond Gaultier, Canaries (excerpt)

Gaultier and his colleagues affirmed the reputation of the lute as a noble instrument and a refined cultivation of social dance music that would prove influential for later French composers.

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