Nine years after I wrote this post on Bon voyage Monsieur Dumollet, the song used in the party scene of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, I am much less surprised than I was at the time about the way that tune has found its way around the world. If I had known anything at all about Basque dancing, I would have known that the version of Bon voyage, Monsieur Dumollet I heard in the link was a well-known staple of Basque pastorales. I’m reposting the video for quick reference:
As I’ve discovered so often with searching the web, when you’ve got a few narrowly relevant keywords (such as “Clé du caveau,” “Dumollet,” “basque,” etc.) you often turn up treasure. Conversely, without them, you could search the world wide web for centuries and still not discover the most salient fact of all in a particular field. In my case, even though I was excited about my discoveries, it turned out to be pretty old treasure. Writing about pastorales in 1952, Violet Alford was already weary of the tune:
For the ears there is music. Some gay, such as the eighteenth-century tune for the dance-battle between Christians and Turks from the old album La Clé du Caveau, some tiresome such as Bon Voyage, Monsieur Dumollet to which the Satans dance so wonderfully, an Action de Grâce, and two admirable airs, one for the Prologue and Epilogue, the other sung by Angels and by good people about to die. Once I have heard a folk song. It was sung by one of the Shepherds in Robert le Diable, a real shepherd, knitting as he sang and breaking off to direct his sheep by shrill, Pyrenean whistles.
Even earlier (1911)—but less than 20 years after the premiere of Nutcracker, Henri Gavel wrote about the tune in terms which make it clear it was so well-known that you would have recognized it even under alteration:
Dans la musique des pastorales basques il y a des éléments très divers et d’âges très différents. Par exemple la plupart des danses s’exécutent sur l’air de Bon voyage Monsieur Dumollet, légèrement altéré, mais parfaite- ment reconnaissable cependant.
The Clé du Caveau that Alford refers to is a wonderful collection of 891 tunes (“timbres”) that I only recently discovered when I was trying to locate the earliest possible source for the tune of Bon voyage, monsieur Dumollet (it’s No. 866). In there, you’ll find the “Fricasee” theme used by Glazunov in Les Ruses d’amour (No. 683), Cadet Roussel (No. 658) also used in The Nutcracker, Vive Henri IV! (No. 816) used at the end of Sleeping Beauty, the beginning of the coda of Asafiev’s Flames of Paris pas de deux (No. 713), and, No. 845 is the source of the “pantalon” section of Paine’s First Set of Quadrilles, a tune from Emmanuel Paty’s vaudeville, Les Deux Pères ou la leçon de botanique (1804) and a few others that I recognized.
This curiosity about a tune produced a conference paper, which turned into an article (forthcoming, for an Oxford Handbook), which turned into the most expensive impulse-buy ever, the BNF’s Mélodies en vogue au XVIIIe siècle: le répertoire des timbres de Patrice Coirault .
“Tunes” will do as a translation for timbres, but the Clé du Caveau makes you think about what a tune is in the first place. The book is a cross between a hymn book and fiddler’s tune book, and those EFDSS dance manuals that give the name of the dance, followed by the tunes that you can use to dance them to. A hymn book, because it also has a rudimentary “metrical index” of the tunes so that you can match your verse to the right melody; a fiddler’s tune book, because like those, there are often several names for the same tune, and a dance manual, because you can use several tunes for the same dance.
Playing for ballet classes, I’ve discovered that the same tune has quite different connotations/words depending on the audience—like when you think you’re playing Danny Boy, and the class thinks you’re playing Westlife’s You Raise Me Up, or my favourite: you’re in Prague, and all the Czech dancers are singing along to Škoda lásky, voted most popular Czech song of the 20th century, while one or two English dancers in the same class are smiling because they recognize the same tune as Roll out the barrel. If I play the “Troika” from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije, I get a raised eyebrow and “that’s a bit early, isn’t it?” from people who can’t disassociate it from the Argos 2015 Christmas advert. I’m too old to have watched Captain Pugwash as a child, so I thought I was just playing The Trumpet Horpipe until the teacher made the connection for me.
Nicolas Martello’s explanation of timbres (another page that found only through my esoteric keyword combinations) cites several appearances of Bon Voyage Monsieur Dumollet around the world, including the Basque one. I think it might make dancing in the party scene of The Nutcracker that much more fun when you know, thanks to Nicolas, that there is a Breton dance to the same tune but with earthier lyrics:
Trou du cul, de quoi te plains-tu,
N’es-tu pas donc au milieu de mes fesses
My interest in all this is something to do with the temporality of music: how tunes are threaded through several generations across different countries, and the way that the boundaries between “classical” and popular are never hard or permanent. Who would have thought in Paris in 1811, that children around the world would still be dancing a version of Bon Voyage, monsieur Dumollet in 2021, over two centuries later?