Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Un Concert de Trompes de Chasse... présentation d'équipage dans le Parc du Château.

In May we came across the local Trompettes de Chasse ensemble and noticed that there was a concert being advertised for July, so we resolved to go. Our friends Adrian and Caroline and their little boy Cory were staying and it seemed an ideal, very French, evening out.

The venue was the Château de Boussay and the grounds at the front of the château were laid out with rows of wooden benches for the audience and a slightly raised platform for the performers. When we arrived just before 8.30 pm it was still perfectly light, and quite a few people were already there. Cory practiced his 'bonjour' and 'merci' on the ladies selling tickets and they thought he was utterly adorable. Over by the stable block some men in hunt uniform were milling about and a couple of beautifully turned out horses were visible. The hounds were still locked up, and not many trompettes were on view.

Eventually everyone settled down and the musicians trouped out onto the stage. They stand with their backs to the audience to perform, presumably so the horn, and therefore the sound, is directed towards the listeners and doesn't just bounce off the château walls in an alarming way. There was a lady compere, who described each piece of music, giving its history and the name of the composer. She spoke slowly and clearly, so I found her fairly easy to understand. I expect all the French people in the audience found her style dull and plodding, but I didn't mind.

At the end of each piece the musicians turned to face the audience and removed their hats. They played some old pieces, some newly composed and indeed, at least one that was being performed for the very first time at this event. The compere was occasionally drowned out by screaming, wheeling swifts, baying hounds or the church clock bell. When not required to play, the musicians twist their instruments around and around to drain them. After a while, there was considerable spit flying, and you could observe the musicians discreetly soothing their lips by pressing them against the cool brass of the side of the instrument.

We learnt from the compere how the sound was made, how the musicians learn and remember the tunes. During the interval we came across a group of them standing in a circle and singing their parts, which is how the tunes are practiced, arranged and memorised. Occasionally, the musicians sang as part of the performance. We were told that there are trompettes de chasse ensembles in Australia and England. She stressed the importance of the traditions of the hunt and its long history in France.

The huntsmen's quarry is deer and boar, and in the old days, wolves. Unlike in England (prior to the ban) foxes are not hunted by mounted équipages (hunts) like this, but on foot and with a different breed of hound. Rabbits and hares are also hunted on foot, and with different dogs again. Hunting with horses and hounds is la chasse à courre, hunting in the wider sense is la vénerie. No guns are used in la chasse à courre and the prey is dispatched with a dagger. Hunts average about one kill for every two outings. All aspects of hunting are strictly regulated, and the season is October to February i.e. hunting is only allowed in the winter months. A pack of hounds will number from 20-80 hounds, depending upon the target prey. I think the hounds in this pack are a type known as Anglo-French tricolores. French hunts take place in woodland, and riders are not expected to be nearly as fearless as in England, as apparently one rarely has to jump obstacles. The horses are employed more as a convenient means of covering the ground for the 3-4 hours duration of the hunt.

After a while we noticed that the hounds had been let out and were being shepherded out onto the road by two horsemen. Finally, they arrived, the maître d'équipage (Hunt Master) in the lead at a fast trot down the driveway and the melée of dogs followed by the second mounted huntsman. The audience was seated either side of the driveway, so this was a very dramatic entrance right through the centre. There was an old man in a wheelchair with rather stylish lime green tires, who had parked on the hard surface of the driveway rather than try to struggle on the grass. He was right in their path, but neither he nor the horsemen blinked and they swept past him without mishap. The dogs were kept under control by the maître and half a dozen whippers in on foot. A few of them slipped off to the side and through the audiences' legs, but they all came together at the front again. The hounds were a swirling mass of tail-wagging, tongue-lolling, snuffling lollopers, out having a great time with their buddies. The group was a mixture of dogs and bitches, with many of the bitches appearing to have pupped recently.

Once at the front and expected to stay more or less in the same spot, the hounds were totally focused on the maître (except for one who escaped to sit in the crowd until dragged back by a whipper in). Both the riders and the whippers in used a long whip that could be cracked over the dogs' heads like an Australian stockwhip. One of the dogs got accidentally injured in all the excitement, and slunk into the crowd with a cut oozing blood above one eye. A whipper in pounced on it and carried it off to the stable block. These are big dogs (I would guess in the region of 40kg), and it did look funny, but the dog submitted meekly to the indignity. The compere talked about the tack, including something about a special hunting saddle that I didn't quite get. The mounted huntsmen and the whippers in carried trompettes too, and played a couple of numbers.
Then the maître wheeled the hounds around the audience a couple of times, going at a faster and faster trot, then breaking into a canter. Finally, back through the middle and off up the driveway -- the old bloke in the wheelchair still imperturbably sitting there. By this time it was quite dark, and the compere was reading her lines by torchlight, struggling with a fading microphone as the battery started to run low.
Young Cory had as much fun as the hounds did milling around. His pack was made up of the dozen or so local children who spent much of the evening rushing up and down an area of mown grass to one side of the seating. As is so often observed with children, language was no barrier to having a good game.

Nous espérons que vous avez passé une agréable soirée. Merci à tous et à bientôt.


PS The National Trompes de Chasse Championships are this weekend (30-31 August), at the Hippodrome (Racecourse) de la Roche Posay, just down the road from us. One of the highlights will be a retrospective on wolf hunting, with a demonstration Saturday evening. The last wild wolf in France was killed in the late 1930s in the Limousin, the more mountainous region to the south of the Touraine.

PPS We had hoped to upload a couple of movies with sound tracks made on the night but for some reason they would not upload. Once we've figured out what the problem is we will add them in a new post.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating (I hope I haven't over-used that word on your blog, but the last few weeks have been especially great)!

Do you tell me the huntsmen can keep up with the hounds in those chic coats and boots?

Just wondering, how musical was the music at this event?

Susan said...

Louise - thank you (more blushing).

The coat and boot brigade would be mounted for an actual hunt, so no problem keeping up with the hounds.

The hunting horns are not unmusical, but it's true they are fairly limited, and they are such hard work to play that each number is only a few bars long, then the musicians have to have a little rest.

wcs said...

It's an impressive sound, though, when you hear it. And those dogs are amazing, too. Have you ever seen them fed at Cheverny?

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