It’s amazing how the most innocent seeming item can suddenly open up a whole new area of research. This happened to me last week when I was setting up the latest music exhibition for the Anderson Room (Music for a Royal Wedding). Among the UL’s collections I found a waltz Hermilie, or, the bridal waltz by Louis Antoine Jullien.
Jullien was an enormously popular composer, in his day, publishing vast amounts of dance music. Born in France in 1812, the son of a bandmaster, Louis Antoine had 36 godfathers, all members of the Sisteron Philharmonic. Fleeing his creditors he arrived in England in 1838, and set up an early form of Promenade concerts which were very popular. His flamboyant image made him a staple character in Punch magazine, where he was referred to as The Mons. Constantly in debt, he died in an asylum in France in 1860. A fund was swiftly established in England to support his widow and children, subscribers included Charles Dickens. The fund raised around £300; £15 of the total coming from “shilling subscribers”, ordinary members of the public who gave what they could for a composer whose music and persona they’d loved.
The Hermilie waltz was allegedly composed as a celebration of the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert – a sort of musical commemorative mug. Both Victoria and Albert were keen dancers (although Victoria reputedly disapproved of the polka), and the couple on the cover of Hermilie appear to be an idealised version of the happy couple.
On closer examination the music appears to be fairly unsurprising. The work, for piano, consists of a set of five waltzes with an introduction and a finale. The first waltz, Hermilie, looks like a variation on the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, but there is an anomaly here….Wagner didn’t start working on Lohengrin until 1846, and Queen Victoria was married in 1840. So, what’s going on? An advertisement for the edition of the waltz featuring the art-work of John Brandard appears in The Musical World in August 1845, so both firmly dating it and pre-dating Lohengrin.
Although it is in a different key and time to the Wagner march, there are strong similarities between the opening section of the Wagner, and the little waltz no. 1. Both have similar rhythms – a whole beat followed by a dotted pattern, identical melodic openings to the start of each phrase (upward perfect 4th leap, upward perfect 5th etc), and identical lengths of phrases, moving in 2,2,4,2 bar lengths before repeating.
It is possible that this is a complete coincidence, but the similarity between the openings of the two works makes this seem rather unlikely. So when did Wagner hear Hermilie? We don’t know. Jullien seems to have spent the whole of 1845 in England, and didn’t leave England until 1847 when he holidayed briefly in Switzerland. Queen Victoria, however, did visit Germany in 1845 shortly after the publication of Hermilie, and attended a concert in Gotha for which the ballroom, according to The Times was decked out in “the Jullien style” – perhaps his newest work was played at this concert, and then elsewhere in Germany?
Whether Hermilie was “borrowed” or the similarities between the two works are purely coincidental, it does illustrate the difficulties in untangling musical plagiarism. Sometimes it is deliberate, but the use of a pre-existing tune can be unintentional or unconscious or even be arrived at completely independently. In fact the creation of music can be just as nebulous a concept as the fancy of Bassanio’s song in The Merchant of Venice: