Up, up, and away

Le navire aérien by Huot (MRA.340.80.747) featuring Petin's extraordinary airship.

Le navire aérien by Huot (MRA.340.80.747) featuring Petin’s extraordinary airship.

Purely by chance this week I came across Le Navire Aérien by Gustave Huot. This suite of pieces for piano has the most extraordinary cover – a bizarre airship consisting of a set of 4 hydrogen balloons and, unlike the later Zeppelins, an exposed platform which must have made for a vertigo-inducing ride. It was so extraordinary that I thought it must be a joke cover, but then discovered that it was for real.

Ernest Petin, the intrepid inventor, toured France collecting subscriptions so that he could build his “balloon train”. Finally able to get the device built, he was prevented from taking off by the French police, as the government had suddenly become aware of the possibilities of international travel, and the strains this might put on the French customs service (you wonder what a nineteenth century French government would have made of duty-free airport shops). Disheartened, Petin took his extraordinary vehicle to Britain, and then moved to the United States; but after a series of unsuccessful flights and even damper landings, he returned to France where he resumed his previous occupation as a hatter.

One senses that Huot was less than impressed by Petin’s extraordinary flying machine. The last movement of the work is titled Monsieur Piquassiette (slang for a sponger or scrounger); perhaps Huot’s dedication to Petin is an attempt to conceal his disappointment in being persuaded to sponsor a (non)-flying machine.

Parbillon monte. A1871.6646

Parbillon monte by A. Penniall.
“A souvenir of the Franco-Prussian War”. A1871.6646

Many other nineteenth and twentieth century composers have been inspired by the possibilities of manned flight. Among the UL’s collections is “A souvenir of the Franco-Prussian war”; a waltz by A. Penniall entitled Parbillon monté  (A1871.6646). Flying balloons were widely used during the 1870-71 Siege of Paris. Principally used to get mail in and out of the besieged city (over 3 million letters were allegedly sent), they were also used by both sides for reconnaisance, and occasionally to ferry people. The front cover of Penniall’s waltz includes a pseudo-postmark, that was evidently intended to emulate similar postmarks used on mail from the blockaded city.

It may have been that their use in the Siege of Paris sparked a wave of popularity, but over the next few years a number of songs would be published about the delights of balloon-flight. Most had a comical side to them, and at least two in the UL’s collections seem to be aimed at a male audience. A bad boy’s diary by W.C. Levey and Walter Shepherd (A1883.374) is dedicated to Master Fred Tyrrell and the boys at Beau Lien House, Guines, France (presumably a prep school), while Let go! : Galop for the pianoforte (A1876.646) by C.H.R. Marriott shows a group of young men struggling to launch a balloon. Marriott evidently hoped that his galop would be successful, as arrangements were also available for orchestra and “septett”.

A bad boy's diary. A1883.374

A bad boy’s diary by W.C. Levey and Walter Shepherd

Let go! by C.H.R. Marriott.A1876.646

Let go! by C.H.R. Marriott.


Fast-forward to the twentieth century and hot air balloons were passé, aeroplanes were wildly popular. While hot air balloons had played a vital role in the Siege of Paris, the First World War hastened the development of planes, and by the 1920s a transcontinental air-postal service was established in the United States. Women were flying solo, with Bessie Coleman becoming the first African-American woman to receive her pilot’s license in 1921.

Attitudes towards women and aviation were reflected in the songs of the period. These ranged from Wait till you get them up in the air, boys (B1920.908), which suggested a novel approach to that important first date, while Since Katy the Waitress (became an aviatress) (B1920.598) showed that women could be just as intrepid as men. It’s also one of our most delightful covers.

Since Katy the Waitress (became an Aviatress).B1920.598

Since Katy the Waitress (became an Aviatress).


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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