“Do not seek the because – in love there is no because, no reason, no explanation, no solutions” – Anais Nin
Henry III, Duke of Anjou and King of France from 1574 A.D. until his assassination in 1589 was the last monarch of the Valois dynasty. Of all the sons of Catherine d’Medici and Henry II, Henry III eschewed the typical royal pastimes of hunting and sport (although he was notably fond of fencing), instead devoting himself to the arts and humanities. The “grand passion” of Henry III’s life was said to have been the beautiful Princess Marie of Cleves, who unfortunately was married to Henri I de Bourbon, prince de Condé. Fortunately, Henri I de Bourbon threw in with the Protestant cause, but wife Marie intended to remain Catholic. When Henry III ascended the throne in 1574, he planned to procure a divorce for Marie and marry her, but sadly Marie died before he could.
Now, it’s probably better to be a heartbroken King than a heartbroken peasant, but Henry III mourned for several months before he had to take up dynastic considerations, marrying Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont, who many remarked bore an uncanny resemblance to his true love Marie. As it turns out, roughly three centuries later in 1865, with the assistance of the ghost of an obscure 16th Century Italian musician named Balthazzarini, the descendants of famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and an antique harpsichord called a “spinet”, Henry III was able to regale Marie with a love song from the grave.
The phantom plot first began to unfold at the Parisian home of N.G. Bach, great-grandson of the eminent German composer and Baroque superstar Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). J.S. Bach’s relatives and descendants were quite the musical family, producing more than fifty talented musicians in the span of 200 years. N.G. Bach, 76 years old in 1865, was a noted pianist, personally esteemed by his friends and colleagues as a man of honesty and integrity, and known to share a love of the antiquarian tchotchkes one might find in the abundant curio shops of 19th Century Paris with his son Leon Bach.
On May 4, 1865, Leon Bach was perusing the wares of a local antique store when he stumbled upon a remarkable old oak spinet (a small tabletop variation on the harpsichord), well-preserved, ornamented in gilded arabesque, and encrusted with turquoise and gilt fleur-de-lis. The shopkeeper knew nothing of its provenance, except that he had purchased it from a gentleman recently arrived from Italy. Leon was delighted, purchased the instrument, and knowing his father’s shared affection for such curiosities, he presented it to him as a gift.
As father and son examined their new acquisition, they made a remarkable discovery. Hidden beneath one of the sounding board supports was etched the inscription, “In Roma Antonius Nobilis. Brena Medislani Patriae. Die xiy Aprillis 1564”. They were understandably overjoyed that they now had in their possession a 300 year old spinet, built by a Milanese craftsman named Antonius Nobilis in 1564. The elder Bach, in good health, but frail, retired for the evening with a smile on his face, dreaming of the hours of enjoyment he could expect from his newfound treasure. Then things got weird.
N.G. Bach had himself a peculiar dream. “There appeared to him a handsome young stranger, wearing a carefully-trimmed beard, and elegantly dressed in the ancient costume of the French court—rich doublet with ample lace collar and close fitting sleeves that were slashed in the upper part; large, slashed trunk hose, long stockings and low shoes with rosettes. Doffing a high pointed, broad-brimmed, and white-plumed hat, this young man advanced, bowing and smiling, toward M. Bach’s bed, and thus addressed the wondering sleeper: ‘The spinet you have belonged to me. I often played on it to amuse my master, King Henry. In his youth he composed an air with words which he was fond of singing while I accompanied him. Both words and air were written in memory of a lady whom he greatly loved. He was separated from her, which caused him much grief. She died, and in his sad moments he used to hum this air’. After a time this strange visitor added: ‘I will play it to you, and I shall take means to recall it to your recollection, for I know you have a poor memory’. Thereupon he sat down to the spinet, accompanying himself as he sang the words. The old man awoke in tears, touched by the pathos of the song” (Owen, p328). N.G. Bach mused on this strange dream in the wee hours of the morning, but fell back into deep sleep until dawn.
Upon awakening, he discovered a sheaf of sheet music on his bed, titled with the phrase “Air et paroles du Roy Henry III” (“Air and Lyrics of King Henry III”), that were orthographically consistent with the style of music notation from three centuries before. Hastening to his spinet, he played the music and recognized the maudlin tones of the song from his dreams. His dream visitor had mentioned his master King Henry, and although Henry the III would have been but fourteen in 1564, there was no particular reason that such a fine specimen of craftsmanship could not have found its way to Paris, and been procured by Henry III, known to be a skilled musician himself.
Spiritualism was on the rise in late 19th Century France, and numerous acquaintances of N.G. Bach suggested that if a ghost was attempting to contact him, perhaps he should endeavor to facilitate the communication. It is after all rather rude to make the dead guy do all the work. Bach decided to dabble in automatic writing. He immediately lost consciousness, and when he regained his senses had written, “King Henry, my master, who gave me the spinet you now possess, had written a four-line stanza on a piece of parchment, which he caused to be nailed on the case (etui), when, one morning, he sent me the instrument. Some years afterward, having to travel and take the spinet with me, fearing that the parchment might be torn off and lost, I took it off, and for safe-keeping put it in a small niche, on the left of the keyboard, where it still is” (Owen, 1871, p331). The signature appended to the note was that of Baldazzarini.
Calling upon his son Leon for assistance, they searched the spinet and indeed found a piece of parchment in a hidden nook. On the little piece of parchment was inscribed, “I, the King Henry III, present this spinet to Baltasarini, my gay musician: But if he finds it poor-toned, or else very simple, still, for my sake, in its case let him preserve it”. The Bachs took the parchment to France’s Biblioteque Imperiale where the handwriting was favorably compared to historical documents signed by Henry III, and the librarians pronounced the note a genuine sample of Henry’s writing. Such was N.G. Bach’s reputation for integrity that this discovery was hailed as a great sensation among Parisians. Little could be determined about Baldazzarini, but a reference was found in the chronicles of Abbe Lenglet-Dufresnoy, stating: “In 1579, Balthazzarini, a celebrated Italian musician, came into France, to the court of Henry III.” As the music provided no treble accompaniment, Bach resolved to complete the song, preserving the original lyrics and tune. The song that resulted:
J’ay perdu celle pour quy j’avois tant d’amour.
Elle, si belle, avoit pour moy, chaque jour,
Faveur nouvelle et nouveau d’sir:
Oh ouy ! sans elle, il me faut mourir.
Un jour, pendant une chasse lointaine,
Je l’apercus pour la premiere fois;
Je croyais voir un ange dans la plaine,
Lors, je devins le plus heureux des Roys !…mais!
Je donnerois certes tout mon royaume
Pour la revoir encor un seul instant,
Pres d’elle assis dessous un humble chaume,
Pour sentir mon coeur battre en l’admirant…mais!
Triste et cloistree, oh! ma pauvre belle
Fut loin de moi pendant ses derniers jours.
Elle ne sens plus sa peine cruelle,
Ici bas, helas !…je souffre toujours !…ah !…
The rough English translation and I apologize for my inadequate French (and I plead for a native speaker who is up on their 16th Century French to provide a superior version) is:
I lost that for which I had so much love.
She, so beautiful, had for me, every day,
New favor and new desire:
Ouy Oh! Without it, I must die.
One day, during a distant hunting,
I glimpsed for the first time;
I thought I saw an angel in the plain
When I became the happiest of kings!…But!
Certainly I would give all my kingdom
For a moment to relive,
Near her to sit beneath a humble thatch,
To feel my heart beat…but admiring!
Sad and, oh! My poor beauty
Was far from me during her last days.
She cannot feel the cruelty,
Down here, alas…I still suffer!…Ah!
The song contains two allusions that seem to indicate that it is in reference to the ill-fated romance of Henry III and Marie, including having met distantly at a royal hunt, and on the object of Henry’s affection having sadly passed away. Now, you may think you have met your soulmate at the gym, local watering hole, or dating website, but what we have here is an instance of serious romantic mojo. King Henry III, 300 years dead and marshalling the skills of a dead Italian pianist and the Bach family, managed to get one last lovelorn missive out to the woman who had eternally captured his heart. That’s a next level kind of suave and some serious commitment. We should all be so lucky, or as Francois de La Rochefoucauld said, “True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen”.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. The Debatable Land Between This World And the Next: With Illustrative Narrations. London: Trübner, 1871.