Seems like everywhere I look these days, I’m seeing Henri IV. The French king, that is. The sightings first began with a volume of dance tunes, printed in 1785 and after, including 16 vols. of the series Recueil de pot poury françois et contredanses … qui se dansent chez la Reine. Among the admittedly many selections of popular tunes of the day, I ran across not one, not two, but three on the subject of this King of Navarre and France, who lived from 1553-1610. (Opera enthusiasts will remember this Henri as the eventual husband of Marguerite, in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.)
Odd I thought, then was distracted by something else shiny. Some time later, I happened upon a reference in selections from the incidental music for the play Thermopyles by the Comte d’Estaing of 1791:
and the Overture to Mehul’s Jeune Henri, after 1797:
and Henry IV, by Martini!
with its manscript parts:
As catalogers we’re expected to cite instances of historical or mythological characters in dramatic works, and those Henris were just stacking up left and right. My curiosity finally got the better of me, and I contacted my friend Jeff Nigro, art historian and educator at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Newberry Library. Why was I running across so many references to a 16th century king in 18th-19th century music? His reply:
Everybody liked him: to royalists, he was revered as the founder of the French Bourbon dynasty; Enlightenment thinkers liked him because he was tolerant and broad-minded; libertines like the fact that he played around; populists loved his … well, populism (he’s often credited with the phrase “A Chicken in Every Pot”). And everybody liked the fact he was a smart, strong, charming, virile guy, i.e., nothing like poor Louis XVI, the king they were stuck with.
It seems there was a full-blown cult of personality going on in literature, art, and music. Voltaire published the poem La Ligue, ou Henri le Grand in 1723, followed up with his Henriade in 1728, after which Charles Collé wrote La partie de chasse de Henri IV in 1760 and the rest is history. The French even found Henri’s doomed love of Gabrielle d’Éstrées to be cool, and she figured prominently in many of these works.
Remember those dance tunes from Marie Antoinette’s balls, which started this whole thing? Jeff also told me about a letter written by Walpole in 1773, describing a ball:
The quadrilles were very pretty … the Henri Quatres and Quatresses who were Lady Craven, Miss Minching, the two Misses Vernons, Mr. Storer, Mr. Hanger, the Duc de Lauzun, and George Damer, all in white, the men with black hats and white feathers flapping behind danced another quadrille…
You can see actual Henri IV costumes made for some of the balls given by the queen in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Wow. The things you learn here!
[Thanks to Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]