article 57: QUID SIT DANSA

In 1529 one Antoine des Arènes from the town of Solliès in Provence published a classic of macaronic literature under the name Antonius de Arena. Its long title, a satirical mixture of quasi- Latin, Provençal, Spanish and Italian (as is the rest of the book), is usually shortened to “Rules for Dancing”, in spite of the fact that much of the work is an autobiographical tale of Arena’s disappointments with military life. The “Rules” part deals with soon-to-be-antiquated choreographies for the basse danse, the tordion and the branle, but the hodgepodge went on to 31 more editions until 1770, which is amazing testimony to Arena’s spirited nonsense.

At the recent online auction of books from the library of the Dolmetsch family, wanting to have at least one fragment of that collection while fearing that I would be outbid on my main object (Titon du Tillet; see Article 49), I obtained a 1758 Paris edition of Arena. (“Londini” on the title page is false.) Under the heading QUID SIT DANSA Arena has one of the longest of the many lists of instruments found in medieval and Renaissance literature. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the reader’s fun in deciphering it.

Vol. 64 of “The Scots Magazine” (1802) somewhat surprisingly quotes the passage, and ends with the following remark: “To the learned reader an explanation of this passage would be unnecessary, and to others, perhaps, it would be little entertaining.” A person who fits neither category, I attempted a translation, but was stumped by a few items; “lobaiso”, as John Koster pointed out to me, is probably the Portuguese baixão, or the Spanish bajón, a bass reed instrument with a name cognate to “bassoon”. Other reeds follow in the list. Chiplachaplo is another head-scratcher. In India the chipla is a clapper with bells attached. Could there have been a connection via Portuguese Goa?

But the most interesting items for a keyboardist are the six listed instruments of that class. In addition, escachorio is probably the latest known reference to the “chekker”, the equally-strung clavichord of the 14th and 15th centuries. E. M. Ripin’s comprehensive list (Galpin Society Journal, 1975) adds a still later one, from Rabelais’ fourth book of the Garagantua/Pantagruel series (1552). A typically mad list is found there of the physical characteristics of the Lenten monster Quaresmeprenant. Some of the items offered as analogies are musical instruments, but not all. Quaresmeprenant’s armpit is said to resemble an eschiquier – but this probably means a chess- board. Games were disapproved of in Lent, and Rabelais is mocking such restrictions. The word is the root of “chekker”, inspired by its crossed lines of strings and key levers – probably by way of the money-calculating tables (cf. “Chancellor of the Exchequer”) of similar surface design. The original stringed keyboard instrument had surely disappeared by 1552.

June 25, 2022

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