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A branle (also bransle, pronounced brawl) is a 16th century French dance style which moves mainly from side to side, and is performed in either a line or a circle. The Italian form of the word is Brando, and the Spanish in Bran.

The only source for the dance steps to branles is Orchesography by Thoinot Arbeau, although Antonius de Arena also makes brief mention of them. Arbeau strongly implies that the branle was a dance mainly performed by commoners.

The Branles as Musical Forms

Accoring to Arbeau, every ball began with the same four branles. The Double Branle, the Single Branle, the Gay Branle and the Burgundian Branle. Both the Double Branle and the Burgundian Branle have a simple form involving two phrases of two bars each. This form was not sufficiently different to 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.

Regional Branles

Arbeau gives choreographies for four Branles which are associated with specific regions, the Breton Branle, the Burgundian Branle, the Poitou Branle and the Scottish Branle. Each of these dances seem to have a genuine connection to the region, particularly the Breton Branle. Some 16th century books also contain music entitled Champagne Branle, which Arbeau tells us is another name for Burgundian.

Musical Structure

Although the Breton Branle is rarely mentioned outside Arbeau the other two dance styles seems to have provided a little more inspiration to composers.

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.

The Scottish Branle as described by Arbeau is in 4/4 time and is split into two repeated sections. The first with musical phrases of 2, 2, 1 and 1 bars, the second with phrases of 2, 1, 1 and 2. The music for the Scottish Branle by Estienne du Tertre, however, appears in 3/4 time. In addition, despite a similarity in structure for one branle, the precise choreography given by Arbeau could not be danced to this music even if the music were in 4/4.

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.

Branle Choreographies