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A bit unseasonal this, since ‘musical surprises’ was the theme of my 2009 Advent Calendar. But I just couldn’t wait til next year to share my excitement at this one. It seems that not only is the theme of the “‘Friends” dance in Coppélia Act I  not by Delibes (called “Thème Slave varié in the score) , but the Coppélia Czardas isn’t either.

The Coppélia czardas: as printed in an earlier score by Pugni
The Coppélia Czardas – in Pugni’s “Theolinda”

The Coppélia czardas – by Pugni?

I discovered this looking through the microfilm of Pugni’s Théolinda, ou le Lutin de la Vallée (1860) [click this link if that one doesn’t work], a ballet by the choreographer and violinist Arthur St Léon.  Look on page 29-30 of Act 1, and you’ll see great unmistakeable chunks of the Coppélia czardas, including so many stylistic particulars that it can only indicate that borrowing has taken place. My guess is both Delibes and Pugni were borrowing from a third source, introduced to them by St Léon, who was the person who had told Delibes that the ‘Thème Slave’ he’d heard on his travels was a folk song. The borrowing is so obvious, and so extraordinary, I can’t believe that I can be the first or only person to notice it.  My hope is that sooner or later I’ll come across the original composer of this czardas, as others have done for the Hungarian dance No. 5  supposedly by Brahms, but in fact by Kéler.

Pedantry note: Czardas/csárdás

I originally wrote this post using the correct Hungarian spelling csárdás, but I’ve changed it to czardas more or less throughout. This spelling is more common, even though it’s wrong and archaic, partly as a result of it being spelled like that in the score of Coppélia, and in the famous Czardas by Monti.  I’ve retained the wrong spelling to make it easier for search engines to pick up this post.

2 thought on “Musical surprises #26: The Csárdás from Coppélia is not by Delibes”
  1. I realize I’m 13 years late to this, but better late than never, I say. 🙂

    It was not until today that I learned from a friend about the Delibes/Pugni connection regarding the Coppélia czardas. I must admit that I was really suprised by this at first, but then I reminded myself that we are talking about ballets by Arthur Saint-Léon – he was infamous for his endless practice of pillaging tunes from everywhere and everyone, forcing his composers to adapt and weave these borrowings into their scores (this is where the misconception of Pugni as a hopeless plagiarist was born).

    It’s entirely possible that Saint-Léon first discovered the tune and later had Pugni use it in the score for Théolinda, but who knows?

    Also, have you ever noticed that the act I prelude is pretty much Wagner’s motif for Valhalla from Das Rhinegold?

    1. I think this is particular borrowing, or whatever it is, is the one that has surprised me most, though the more I think about it (13 years later) the more I suppose it doesn’t have a lot of features that you might associate with Delibes—the opening is rhythmically a bit awkward and clumsy, and lacks something of Delibes’ finesse.

      I’d always thought that the opening sounding familiar, but as I’m not a Wagner fan, I’d never managed to put my finger on the connection, but you’re spot on, it sounds like a lift from Rheingold. I don’t think that could be accidental, but I can’t think what the reason would be.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist