Musical surprises #6: The ‘Theme slave’ in Coppélia is not by Delibes

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Friends from Coppélia: a borrowing from Moniuszko

Friends from Coppélia, the set of dances in Act 1, usually danced to the Thème Slave varié, is not by Delibes at all. Or at least the main tune isn’t: it’s a song called Poleć, pieśni, z miasta by the Polish composer Moniuszko (1819-1872).  This is not just a snatch of tune embroidered by Delibes, this is the whole of the theme and its harmonies, complete with all the things that you think are typically Delibes, or French, or characteristic of the theme itself.  Incidentally, once you scratch this particular surface, you find that Delibes was in fact an enthusiastic folklorist of Polish music, as witnessed by Kassya for example, and that Moniuszko is in many ways a more central composer in the history of Polish music than Chopin, something that Delibes would have been well aware of.

The borrowing  shouldn’t be a surprise, because Delibes owns up to it himself in a footnote to the piano reduction of the score (according to one source, it was St Léon who mistakenly told Delibes that it was a Polish ‘folk song’, and the mistake only came out once the piece was on the page and performed).  But you can’t see a footnote when you’re listening to music, and I count it as one of the most amazing discoveries of my musical sleuthing when I eventually found a copy of the third Śpiewnik domowý (‘Home Songbook’) by Moniuszko. There it was, No. 3 of Trzy Krakowiaki (three krakowiaks), complete with words by Edmund Wasilewski.

If there are any Polish singers out there who would be willing to record this song with me so I can put a clip of it on the site, they’d help me fulfil a dream (dream partially fulfilled in Feb 2017, see below). 

Update February 2017: 

You can hear a 30-second clip of the vocal duet version on this site (or click link below): click the “play” button to the left of Track 1. 

Update, February 2014 

There’s now a vocal duet version of the song, with French words, on the IMSLP site. It starts on page 119, and is title ‘Cracoviak – Duettino’. What’s interesting, now that I look at again, is that the introductory passage that turns around D/C#/D/E in semiquavers has more than a passing resemblance to the turnaround before the tune comes back in the final galop of Coppélia.  OK, so it’s reasonably generic, but it makes me wonder whether Delibes was more familiar with this music than the usual story allows for.

See also 

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2 thoughts on “Musical surprises #6: The ‘Theme slave’ in Coppélia is not by Delibes

  1. Adam Lopez

    Oh yes! Contrary to popular belief, Saint-Léon is the real reason for much of Pugni’s constant musical plagiarism. I bet you that he remembered this number from “Théolinda” & decided it would work just as well in “Coppélia”. What is interesting is that Saint-Léon, the consummate musician, was always stuffing his ballets with borrowed pieces, dances transferred from other works, etc., where as Petipa did not like doing this as much as people think. Pugni’s scores for the ballets of Saint-Léon are always filled with borrowings of folk songs, popular airs and so on. My dear Pugni would have gladly stitched them in … he could really be a hustler when he needed to be. It’s because he had to pay for that gigantic brood of children and his wives!

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    1. jonathan Post author

      Oh of course – I guess St Léon could have played the piece on the violin to Delibes having already used it in Théolinda – it’s got a very violin-y sound (like the polonaise variation No 8 from Paquita). That would explain why the right hand in Pugni’s version is so close to Coppélia, but the left hand isn’t. We’re referring to this of course: http://jonathanstill.com/2010/07/12/musical-surprises-26-the-czardasz-from-coppelia-is-not-by-delibes/

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