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That’s not the whole surprise, because it’s a fairly well-known fact that the big tune in the apotheosis of The Sleeping Beauty is an old French song, the pre-revolutionary national anthem, no less,  from the 16th century called Vive Henri IV .

Gerard McBurney on “Vive Henri IV” in Discovering Music 

The reasons for this are discussed by Russian music specialist and composer Gerard McBurney in a terrific programme  for the BBC’s Discovering Music series on the music and context of Sleeping Beauty (last broadcast on 15th September 2002 on Radio 3, it was once available from the BBC’s Discovering Music archive, but sadly no longer. Shame – it’s one of the best things you’ll ever hear about the piece, and one of the best things the BBC have on Tchaikovsky ).  The inclusion of Vive Henri IV and all the other neo-Versailles stuff was, he suggests, aimed at flattering the right-wing Alexander III, who was eventually paying for this production, as head of the Imperial theatres. Listen to the whole section if you’re interested (from around 39:00 minutes onward) but here’s the gist:

By the late 18th century that tune was virtually the Bourbon national anthem, and by the  19th century,  it had become the hymn of the legitimist, monarchist absolutist cause everywhere. In other words, it’s the torch song of the far right.[Source: BBC R3]

Vive Henri IV as air parlant in French theatre music

This is echoed by the ballet music historian Marian Smith  in  Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle (p. 108). She points out that it was already a tradition in Paris to use this tune as an ‘air parlant’ in French ballets when scenarists wanted to convey the grandiose.  One example is the ballet Acis et Galathée from 1805.  (The air parlant was a device from 19th century French ballet where the tune of a well-known song would be used in a scene, so that the unsung words – which the audience would know – would convey the meaning of the action. The idea that there was a golden age when everyone understood mime is a fiction – it was aided along by devices like this).

So there it is – a curiously French, and curiously anachronistic apotheosis to a late 19th century Russian ballet.  I suppose it would be like going to the opera house in 2010 to see a defilé choreographed  to Land of Hope and Glory — which in fact, does not seem so unlikely at all.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist