Fencing lesson with M. Merignac at the Conservatoire national de musique, 1929-1930 © Gallica
Fencing lesson with M. Merignac at the Conservatoire national de musique, 1929-1930 © Gallica  /  L. Roosen

Music and fencing

Music and fencing are two disciplines without any obvious connections. One brings joy and aural pleasure whereas the other is an activity linked to war. What could these two activities possibly have in common?

Fencing and music seem to have forever interacted with one another. Whereas drums and trumpets are used to inspire and motive troops on the field of battle countless composers have drawn inspiration from the tumult of war in the music, such as Clément Janequin (v. 1485-1558) in his famous song La Guerre.

Musical battles

Another famous battle can be found in Claudio Monteverdi's madrigal Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (8th book of madrigals, 1638). The work depicts the tragic duel between the crusading knight Tancrède and Clorinde, a Muslim woman with whom he is in love. Sadly, the lovers in their suits of armour only recognise one another after the fatal duel. In this miniature opera, the clash of the swords is depicted by the intense agitation of the orchestra (short and repeated notes, fast scales, and dotted rhythms).

Though the clashing of swords is but a small fragment of the musical painting offered by Monteverdi, it is the principal subject of Die Fechtschule (The School of Fencing, 1665-1670) by Johann Heinrich Schmeltzer (1623-1680). The movements of the fencers are depicted, in the main section, by the first violin, sustained by the energy and momentum of the other instrumental sections. The son of a soldier in the army of the Austrian emperor, it is of little surprise that Schmeltzer drew inspiration from such a military theme.

Music, fencing, dance: one for all, all for one!

Beyond the fascination of certain composers for the art of fencing, the military sport has long been linked to music and dance. Indeed, both dance and fencing required great physical control, and have long been part of a gentleman's education, alongside music: various treatises from the 15th century even combined the three disciplines.

Such is the case, for example, for the Orchésographie by Thoinot Arbeau (1520-1595), published in 1588. Containing extremely detailed descriptions of different dances and their musical accompaniment, the collection is today one of the principal sources for amateurs of Renaissance dance traditions. However, one of these dances has been seemingly overlooked, though not for lack of interest. Entitled "The Buffoons", the dancers are dressed as soldiers and act out a sword fight in an ancient Greek war dance known as the Pyrrhichios.

Thoinot Arbeau, Orchésographie, 1589.
Thoinot Arbeau, Orchésographie, 1589.  /  Gallica

Military parades

How better to describe a military parade than a choreographed event? Accompanied by fifes and drums, they are orchestrated in the same fashion as a ballet.

The same can be said of jousting, a particularly spectacular demonstration of knights on horseback confronting one another over a barrier. To approach the barrier, the soldiers must do so with seriousness and rhythm, facing their adversary with a careful and studied attitude of nonchalance. The aim of such a display is to show the grace of the participants all the while entertaining the noble public. This is therefore not a real combat but rather a well-rehearsed choreography whose outcome is known in advance.

Jacques Callot, Le combat à la barrière, gravure, 1627.
Jacques Callot, Le combat à la barrière, gravure, 1627.  /  Gallica

Portraits of musical swordsmen (and women)

I Doe not studie Eloquence, or profess Musicke, although I doe love Sence, and affect Harmony: my Profession being, as my Education hath beene, Armes, the onely effeminate part of me, hath beene Musicke [...]

Words written by Tobias Hume (1569-1645) in the preface to the First Part of Ayres (1605). A relatively unknown musician, Hume was first and foremost a solider. During his hours of rest, he would dedicate himself to his passion, the viola da gamba, instrument for which he composed numerous works and published in two volumes, representing the entirety of his musical output. Amongst the works, "A Souldiers Resolution", a nod to the composer's simultaneous military and musical activities, displays a multitude of effects imitating a march, the drums, and the traditional military trumpets.

Men were not the only ones to carry swords: fine swords and blades were also carried by the fairer sex, for example Julie de Maupin (1670/73-1707). An operatic singer and formidable swordfighter, de Maupin led a life capable of rivalling the greatest tales of daring and adventure: a loose-mannered woman, she was condemned to burned alive before receiving a pardon by Louis XIV, dressed as a man, challenged all those who displeased her, and even founded a hospice! Her incredible life inspired several writers including Théophile Gautier, whose novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, published in 1835, sparked the fascination for cape-and-sword heroes.

Mademoiselle Maupain dansant à l'Opéra, Paris, Mariette, XVIIe siècle.
Mademoiselle Maupain dansant à l'Opéra, Paris, Mariette, XVIIe siècle.  /  Gallica

The life and career of Chevalier de Saint George (1745-1799) is also worthy of mention. Son of a colonist and a black slave, Joseph Bologne de Saint-George acquired his military training under the maître d’armes (swordsman) Nicolas Texier de la Boëssière. He was knighted at the age of 19, and faced the greatest fencers of his time. Little is known, however, regarding his musical training, though he is known to have handled the bow with as much ease as he did the sword, and the solo passages for his violin concertos require great virtuosity. An undoubtedly talented orchestral conductor, Joseph Bologne de Saint-George was named concertmaster for the Concert des Amateurs in 1773, one the most prestigious musical ensembles of his time.

Le chevalier de Saint-George, Mather Brown, n. d.
Le chevalier de Saint-George, Mather Brown, n. d.  /  Gallica

Musical jousting

A dangerous confrontation which seeks to right a wrong, the duel was also considered a spectacle with the aim of entertaining the noble spectators of a Court.

Certain musicians, however, adhered to the strict and literal notion of the duel, often risking their lives over minor squabbles. Legend has it that George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was almost killed by his friend Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) after refusing to give up his seat at the harpsichord during the performance of an opera.

Others, on the contrary, enjoyed the entertaining aspect of the duel and challenged rivals to musical jousts, in order to determine who was the better virtuoso or improviser. Thus, in 1728, the violinists Jean-Marie Leclair, skilled in the art of improvisation, and Pietro Locatelli, a highly talented violinist, faced one another in a heated musical duel.