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Taxing legacy of Louis XIV lingers in musical realm

King Louis XIV of France, circa 1661.Hulton Archive

This Tuesday marks 300 years since the death of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. Only 4 years old when he assumed the throne, Louis grew up amid rebellions against the regency of his mother, Anne of Austria, and her chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin. It
fueled Louis’s resolve, upon taking the reins of government in 1661, to consolidate absolutist rule to an unprecedented degree.

Everything Louis did aimed to reinforce and reiterate kingly power — even creating the mind-bogglingly opulent Palace of Versailles, which kept the oft-recalcitrant French aristocracy away from Paris and close to the king. Ironically, the taxes that cemented that power would, a century later, undo it, seeding the French Revolution. Their names became infamous: the douane (local tariffs), the gabelle (the salt tax), and, especially, the tax on peasants’ land: the taille.


And therein lies a minor lexicographical mystery. Around the 16th century, “taille” also emerged as a musical term, persisting through the Baroque and Classical eras. Originally, it referred to the tenor part in any ensemble: viols, woodwinds, choruses. Later, it defined a particular male voice, one situated between the haut-contre — the high, bright tenor of French opera — and the basse-taille, the baritone. It also entered the organists’ lexicon: Baroque organ works frequently featured movements “en taille,” with a solo melody in the middle, accompaniment above, pedals below. (Most common was the “tierce en taille,” the left hand playing the melody on a combination including the piercing but pellucid tierce stop.)

The origins of the musical use of “taille” are officially hazy. The etymology, from the old French word for “cut” or “division,” fits a tax, but a musical voice? “Tenor” at least, makes sense, coming from the Latin “tenere,” to hold: a reminder that, in medieval and Renaissance vocal writing, it was the tenor that normally provided the firm foundation of plainchant around which other voices spun counterpoint.


But, as early as the 1300s, “taille” had infiltrated legal language, in a way preserved in a lesser-used definition of “tail”: the portion of an estate or fortune legally limited to a particular person and his or her heirs. (“Entail” retains an echo of this usage.) The musical “taille” would thus parallel the original sense of “tenor”: the voice designated to inherit the old chant melodies. Tenors everywhere, of course, expanded that role considerably. Like the Sun King, they took their birthright and ran with it.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.