Traditionally the furlana was an Italian folk dance from Friuli, a region between Trieste and Venice. Dating back to the 17th century it became popular on the European continent in the first half of the 18th century, thanks to Couperin and Rameau. Pietro Longhi the painter of Venetian 18th century everyday life immortalized the furlana in one of his typical genre scenes.
By the end of the 18th century the furlana was passé. Apart from an opera or two in which the furlana was staged, nobody cared about the dance anymore, let alone knew how to dance it. It was a rather cheerful tune though if the version from Amilcare Ponchielli‘s opera La Gioconda is anything to go by.
And then all of a sudden at the eve of the Great War, in the spring of 1914, the furlana became the dance craze! It was extremely short-lived and lasted but a few months. But in that fleeting period it had the ambition to replace the tango which had invaded Europe around 1912. As the story goes we have to thank Pope Pius X for this fad. Pius X was strongly opposed to modernist interpretations of Catholic doctrine. He advocated traditional devotional practices, and of course abhorred the sensual and shocking tango.
Allegedly Pope Pius X, in a reaction to the dangerous vogue of the tango, had invited two young members of the Pontifical aristocracy to perform the notorious tango in a strictly private audience. Having witnessed these ‘ridiculous barbarian contortions’, Pope Pius X advised young people to adopt the delightful Venetian dance instead of the devilish tango. It was a (chaste) dance that he had often seen in his youth, where physical contact went no further than clasped hands. This papal advise was repeated in Rome’s Il Tempo newspaper. And before long the furlana became the vogue in Rome, soon to be followed in Paris.
It is in that very short period of time, between the spring of 1914 and the outbreak of WWI, that every self-respecting dance teacher, every composer and every publishing house had to quickly concoct ‘the real’ furlana. A Venetian dance teacher claimed he had succeeded in recreating the original furlana after an interview with an octogenarian. It looked like this:
At the same time a Roman dance teacher was quick to tell of his good fortune to discover an ancient dance manual explaining all the original movements of the furlana.
In Paris as well, all in the music business were frantically claiming their importance in the furlanamania. One publisher tried to lure his potential clientèle reassuring them that the furlana could be danced everywhere: ‘La Furlana, nouvelle danse Vénitienne approuvée par sa sainteté le Pape Pie X, et pour cette raison adoptée dans les salons aristocratiques et mondains’. Another one boldly retraced the origins of the furlana to an ancient gondolier dance.
Parisian stylish dance teachers hurried to scrape together some movements in order to create a new choreography. Some of these teachers succeeded in attaching their name and theory to the published music. The best known of them was the elegant Duque (Antonio Lopes de Amorim Diniz) a Brazilian who abandoned a career in dentistry to become a dancer and dance teacher in Paris. Duque was responsable for another dance craze: the maxixe. But this is for a later post. For now we’re off to Venice, going to dance with a gondolier!
Some years ago in Paris we found a small bundle of handmade sheet music. Although the illustrations and music seemed rather naive and overly romantic we couldn’t resist buying it. Sometimes people craftily copied expensive printed sheet music, but in this case they were handwritten by the composer herself. She signed as ‘Ellebasi‘, clearly the reverse of Isabelle.
A bit of sleuthing on our part turned up her real name: Isabelle-Marie-Henriette Mellerio who became Isabelle Charpentier after her marriage to Lucien Charpentier, a not so gifted composer. Composers often dedicate their work to family or friends and so did Ellebassi. This enabled us to reconstruct her family story, which is rather interesting. We’ll even add a bit of scandal at the end.
Ellebasi belonged to the famous jeweller family Mellerio dits Meller with roots in Italy. Being jewellers to kings and queens the family earned a large fortune. Isabelle Mellerio, born in 1866, was the youngest of seven children. Her family lived above their boutique in Paris. She was only 16 years old when her father Jean-Antoine, also a jeweller, passed away.
Ellebasi composed the pieces as a young adult, between 1892 and 1896, some of them while living in Cannes. We can only guess if she lived there permanently or if it was her winter place of residence. Apart from the music for Les Courtisans de Flore we haven’t found any of Ellebasi’s compositions in print. In fact, Les Courtisans de Flore probably got printed because lyricist Alfred Gounin-Ghidone himself was a publisher.
And now for the scandal. The son of Isabelle’s great-uncle, Antonio Mellerio, was a misfit. Already at the age of seventeen he plunged into the mid-19th century Parisian society, neglecting his work for gambling and orgies. He was a big spender, misbehaved scandalously and had countless mistresses until at the age of 25 he ‘fell prey’ to Anna de Beaupré. Her name, suggesting an aristocratic background, was an embellishment invented by Anna Trayer. She was the separated wife of a tailor Achille Debacker. Antonio, no doubt madly in love, paid Anna’s old debts and treated her lavishly. His parents disapproved whenthey moved in together. After the dead of his father in 1860 Antonio left the running of the jewellery store to his cousins, restored his father’s Tailleville castle near Caen in Normandy and the couple changed house.
When his mother died in 1868, Antonio was eaten alive by guilt for all the pains he had caused her. At the funeral he literally plunged into her grave. Later he acted more and more strangely, often seeming incoherent to his family. Nonetheless the family convinced him to sell his inherited share of the jewellery business to Isabelle’s uncle Joseph Mellerio. Antonio was also persuaded to make a will in favour of his cousins. Isabelle’s father was named executor. Furthermore Antonio promised to finish his relation with Mme Debacker and he burned her letters in the fireplace. And in an effort to redeem himself he mutilated both his hands by keeping them in the fire chanting ‘Burn! Burn! Burn! Purify my past!’ He lost all his fingers and parts of his hands. Later he would learn to write and also draw with his stumps and even, with great perseverance, with his mouth.
But Antonio reconciled with Mme Debacker and became, according to his family, religiously obsessed, seeing angels and devils. Alas, he didn’t profit long from his immense inherited fortune. One day in 1870, he was then 43 years old, he climbed the stairs of his castle and fell (or threw himself) from the top of its belvedere dying instantly. Isabelle’s father who had never visited his cousin before, rushed to Tailleville with the intention of executing Antonio’s will, only to be told that a new will had been found!
In that new will Antonio had left his complete fortune to Mme Debacker. Moreover he had indicated that after her dead, Tailleville castle and some money should go to a local convent. The family was horrified. Ten of his cousins, including Isabelle’s father, contested this last will on two grounds: Antonio was too unsound of mind to make a valid testament and the beneficiaries had exerted undue influence over Antonio, coercing him into making a testament in their favour. In addition they wanted an annulment of all his previous substantial gifts to Mme Debacker. The trial was a cause célèbre. It scandalized Paris, gossip swirled around and it provided ample material for legal journals. In the end –meanwhile the 1870 franco prussian war had ended– the cousins lost the trial and all the subsequent appeals. Mme Debacker was finally allowed to take possession of her inheritance.
In 1873 this sordid story was made into a poem Red Cotton Night-Cap Country by Robert Browning, the famous English Victorian poet. He had researched the facts reading newspaper reports and transcripts of the legal documents and interviewing residents of Tailleville.
The family Mellerio dits Meller still have their boutique in Paris, 9 rue de la Paix, right next to Cartier. Mellerio dits Meller is the world’s oldest jeweller existing just over 400 years. Today they are the last important jeweller company to be independent and family owned.
Next time we visit the Place Vendôme in Paris we’ll try to exchange these unique sheet music covers for a tiara. Wouldn’t that be nice!
Yours truly, Enivid
Rough in Brutal Print: The Legal Sources of Browning’s Red Cotton Night-Cap Country by Mark Siegrist.
Mellerio dit Meller, joaillier des reines by Vincent Meylan
Publishers often use the back cover of sheet music to make their own publicity. But on this last page they also promote their music catalogue or the next hits. We have tried to bring together the different approaches to these catalogue advertisements. Our selection has become a long list, take your time and browse at your ease. But don’t hesitate to click here and there: some advertisements are precious gems in all their details… Feast your eyes!