A Virtual Fête de la Musique

La Fête de la Musique should have taken place this weekend. For obvious reasons, many of the events won’t be happening, except online. Some public concerts are allowed by special permission, provided they respect social distancing regulations. I notice that Villefranche-de-Rouergue plans one, featuring the carillon in the Collégiale (cathedral). The Lotois village of Beauregard normally organises one of the biggest fêtes in the area, at which the SF’s male voice choir has sung. Sadly, this year, it is cancelled.

Music is so much a part of our everyday lives, that I started to think about what role it played in past times in French country areas. Come with me to a virtual fête de la musique.

Concerts in the sense we know them were probably few and far between in rural areas. Public musical events were centred on weddings and fêtes. Country weddings often included a procession led by a violinist or, more rarely, a vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy) player; eminently portable instruments. Dancing took place after the wedding breakfast.

Summer fêtes were the occasion for music and dancing, such as la fête de la Saint-Jean, which is celebrated on 24th June.


People no doubt sang or hummed well-known refrains while they went about their daily business. They may well have entertained each other with songs featuring local legends during the veillées: winter evening gatherings where the inhabitants of a hamlet got together to carry out a shared task, such as shelling walnuts.

There’s an extensive canon of traditional songs in Occitan (the regional language). You’ll find songs for every occasion: lullabies, romances, dancing, walking, comic songs and ballads about myths and legend.

Probably the most famous song to come from this region is “Se Canto”, known as the Occitan hymn, which is often sung at gatherings or fêtes. This is attributed to Gaston III, comte de Foix and vicomte de Béarn, in the 14th century. He was also a troubadour (and something of a ladies’ man), who left a collection of poems. Se canto relates a popular troubadour theme: lovers separated by distance and circumstances.


The most common form of accompanying instrument was the cornemuse (bagpipes), which apparently dates back around 7,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. The bellows part was traditionally made from an animal skin, often a goat.

The cornemuse has a thinner, reedier sound than the Scottish bagpipes.

In our region, the cabrette was a type of cornemuse, which became popular among the Auvergnats and Aveyronnais of Paris in the 19th century. Often known as Bougnats, these people left the land to make their fortune in the city. They opened cafés and restaurants, sometimes allied with a coal-supply business. In their self-imposed exile, they remained attached to their native region and its traditions.

Apologies for the blurry shot: taken in haste between dancers.

Cabrette (left) and accordion.

The cabrette quickly spread back to the Auvergne and northern Aveyron. There is even a Maison de la Cabrette in Cantoin (Aveyron), where you can see examples of ancient instruments. Website only in French, I’m afraid.

A number of local fêtes, such as the Espinas fête each August, include entertainment with the cornemuse and the accordion.

The accordion is also an ancient instrument. The modern accordion, as we know it, was developed during the mid-19th century and comes in different versions with a keyboard or buttons. Because of its versatility, it began to supplant the cornemuse in the bals-musette of Paris from the 1880s.

Here’s a rather better shot of a button accordion serenading us and friends at Espinas.

There’s a museum for everything in France, and you’ll find one devoted to the accordion (and other instruments) in Siran (Cantal). French only again.


In addition to the universally known waltz, polka and gavotte, the bourrée was a popular dance in this region. It originated in the Auvergne in the 16th century. La Reine Margot (wife of Henri IV), discovered it during an escapade in Cantal and took it back to the royal court.

As an aside, Margot had a reputation for loose morals. While staying at the Château de Carlat in Cantal in 1585, she was entertaining a new lover when the lords returned unexpectedly from hunting. In her haste, she put on her bodice the wrong way round, thus exposing her bosom. To cover herself, she stuffed a bouquet of flowers into her cleavage and started a new fashion. The tradition has endured in these dancers’ costumes.

Extravagant corsages

Back to the bourrée: there are several versions, but the one in our region is characterised by 2/4 time (other versions are in 3/4 waltz time). No physical contact takes place between partners – and they can be all men or all women. Instead, the arms are used to ornament the steps.

Two rivals in love insult each other

The dance includes various different figures, some quite elaborate, usually involving a lot of foot stamping. In the ellipse, the partners turn around each other in an elliptical movement. You can see the traditional Cantal bourrée in this YouTube clip, coincidentally filmed in a chambres d’hôtes we have stayed in near Pailherols.

I’m very fond of music and singing, but I can’t dance to save my life. I’d be interested, as always, to hear your experiences of traditional music and dancing in France.

Finally, huge thanks to everyone who has moved over from MailChimp to subscribe to Life on La Lune directly on this site. I’m delighted and flattered to see so many of you. Merci infiniment.

The SF conducting his male voice choir, Hommes sans Frontières, in Beauregard one year

You might also like:

The Bells, The Bells: the Magic of Church Bells in Rural France

La Fête de la Saint-Jean in France

A French Country Wedding

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2020. All rights reserved.


  1. I wrote on my blog about the June events that wouldn’t be happening this year and our village fete de la musique is one of them. A repas and accordion music are the essential features along with catching up on gossip with the neighbours! We go to lots of events where music is an essential part. I have been going to ‘rock’ classes for the last 14 years and am really missing my weekly bop. ‘Prancing’ my other half calls it!
    As for traditional music, not much occurs locally except in the autumn at the local foires but I would posit that the Madison and ‘YMCA’ are embedded in the french tradition. No musical event seems to pass with both being played with enthusiastic participation by everyone…me included! 🙂
    Have you discovered the music festival held every summer by our local big (!) town St Cere partnered with Figeac’s theatrical one? Wonderful concerts and always an interesting choice of free festival ‘off’ concerts albiet shorter held in surrounding villages. Sadly, not happening this summer. Roll on 2021!


    • I have to admit that I’m not a great rock fan, except for Pink Floyd and Led Zep (not all) and prefer classical. Usually, a lot of both goes on in our area over the summer – sadly, not this year.

      I’ve never been to the St Céré festival, although I’ve heard about it from others. Another thing on my bucket list, when it’s allowed to happen again. We’ll hope 2021 will see these things opening up, but it rather depends if people are sensible and don’t provoke a second or third wave.


  2. Good Afternoon Vanessa

    As confessed earlier I can never resist well-written stuff with a French background and here is our latest WVTA Newsletter with a couple of contributions from yourself.

    If this offends, I will desist immediately: if not, I would intend to give you further publicity in October including drawing attention to your novels.

    I enjoyed your recent piece La Fête de la Musique.

    Very best regards. Norman Wimborne-Valognes Twinning Association

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonjour, Norman. Actually, I couldn’t find a link in your comment, but I stalked your association on Google and found your newsletter that way. I don’t mind your reproducing some of my posts if you think your readers would be interested. A link back to the blog would be nice, if that’s technically feasible. And it’s kind of you to offer to mention my novels in October.

      Bonne soirée,


  3. Dear Nessa

    Thanks for including me in your much loved blog. I learn so many interesting bits and pieces from it. The new format seems to have a couple of teething problems in that I can’t get the links to work. Thankfully you included the url anyway in case of problems so I could at least read your latest article. Hopefully this will get sorted out soon, perhaps the problem is at my end, but I don’t seem to get a warning or anything nor am I offered the option to add this email address to my safe senders list. Luckily it arrived safely in my inbox anyway.

    Many thanks for all the interesting stuff you send out, it is one of the highlights of my week.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your kind words about the blog, Gilly. I’m very pleased and honoured that you enjoy reading it.

      I’m sorry, though, to hear about the problems with the links – and thank you so much for persevering. It may depend on the internet browser you use. My husband also had a problem, and his default browser is Opera. I also get the emails sent to me as a fail-safe, and the links work, but my browser is Chrome.

      I will alert WordPress to this, since the emails are sent out automatically, so I don’t have any control over them.

      In the meantime, until they can sort it out, there is a way of overriding the problem. Right at the very top of the email, you’ll see a small i in a blue circle. The first line next to it reads, “If there are problems with how this message is displayed, click here to view it in a web browser.” Click on that and then on “View in browser” in the drop-down menu. When it asks if you’re sure you want to continue, click “OK”. The links should then work. I’ve tried this on my husband’s computer and it works. But it is rather a long way round, so I will see what I can do about it. There may well be other people having similar problems.

      Thank you again for your feedback and for letting me know about the problem.


  4. What an interesting anecdote about Reine Margot! Glad you were able to enjoy some virtual fêtes. Around here it was just neighbours assuming the longest day of the year must be celebrated by throwing a party with very loud music!

    Liked by 1 person

    • She had quite an eventful life! Actually, we didn’t take part in any virtual events, but there were a few going on. Where we live, we are lucky not to hear our neighbours’ music.

      Liked by 1 person

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