A tale of taxes, tailles, and tenors

A lexicographical mystery is resolved.

Kamil Zihnioglu/AP
Costumed guests dance during the Great Masked Bal in the Orangerie of the Versailles castle in 2015 on the occasion of the tercentenary of King Louis XIV’s death.

A musical friend has invited my attention to a recent Boston Globe piece on the untangling of a lexicographical mystery. It had a news peg of a sort: Sept. 1 marked 300 years since the demise of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France (1661-1715). 

The question that correspondent Matthew Guerrieri puzzled through was this: Why did taille, the word for the hated land tax that the Sun King imposed on the peasants of France, end up with so many uses in the world of music? What is the etymological kinship there?

Taille, a French word also found in many English dictionaries, derives from taillier,“to cut,” and also “to tax.” The metaphor is obvious, and pretty modern-sounding: The king gets his cut.

(Our English tailor is related, by the way. We think of tailors as sewing, and they do, but they get their occupational name from their cutting.)

As a musical term, taille came into use a hundred years before le Roi Soleil to mean the tenor part in any ensemble. Later it came to mean a particular male voice between a high, bright tenor and a baritone.

For organists of the Baroque period, a movement “en taille” was a section of a piece whose melody was in the middle register, rather than the top. 

Such movements, according to Mr. Guerrieri, had something in common with earlier vocal music: “[I]n medieval and Renaissance vocal writing, it was the tenor that normally provided the firm foundation of plainchant around which other voices spun counterpoint.” 

This provides us with an etymological “aha!” moment: Nowadays we think of the tenor as the guy who gets the girl at the end of the opera. But, as Guerrieri notes, in plainchant, the tenor was the one who held it all together. Tenor goes back to the Latin tenere, to hold, a root that shows up in tenet (a belief one holds to), tenant (one who “holds” a dwelling or shop), and tenacity (the power to hold on).

OK, but if tenors hold things together, do they cut something as well? Not quite; but something is cut for them.

As Guerrieri explains, well before Baroque organists performed their movements “en taille,” taille had slipped into the language of the law. There it referred to the portion of an estate or fortune legally limited to a particular person and his or her heirs. Readers of Jane Austen’s novels tend to know about this kind of thing. The idea was that one “tailors” an inheritance by “cutting” it (not stitching it together). It’s another use of that taillier we considered a few moments ago. 

As Guerrieri concludes, “The musical ‘taille’ would thus parallel the original sense of ‘tenor’: the voice designated to inherit the old chant melodies.”

So we have two sets of terms for the middle voice – one built on a metaphor of holding things together, the other on one of inheritance.

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