Madame Hillisberg's Reel

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MADAME HILLISBERG'S REEL. English, Reel. A Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AABB. Madame Louise Hillisberg was a famous stage dancer of around the beginning of the 19th century, born in England to French parents. A skilled dancer who studied for the opera in Paris under the elder Mdm. Vestris, she became the rage in England, and she was much sought after by the gentry of the day, including the Prince of Wales, for whom she became one of his paramours. In the first chapter of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, he writes:

For she could not only sing like a lark, or a Mrs. Billington, and dance like Hillisberg or Parisot, and embroider beautifully, and spell as well as a Dixonary itself, but she had such a kindly, smiling, tender, gentle, generous heart of her own, as won the love of everybody who came near her...

The Prince, tiring of her, attempted to pass on Hillisberg to his younger brother, Lord Barrymore, who had long been smitten by the dancer, offering her inducements. Hillisberg, who valued discretion, was insulted and rejected any such plan, and her relations with the Prince turned icy. Robert Huish, writing in his Memoirs of George the Fourth: descriptive of the most interesting scenes of his public and private live (1830), says:

Her subsequent conduct to the Prince was, however, strongly marked by a contemptuous disregard, which, whilst it humbled the royal delinquent, invested Hillisberg with a dignity of character seldom to be met with in the individuals of her vocation, and particularly amongst the female part of it. One evening, shortly after her repudiation (if that strong term, as applied to Hillisberg, may be allowed us) the Prince of Wales was behind the scenes at the Opera-house, when, in the most familiar manner, as if totally unconscious of any previous improper conduct on his part, he accosted Hillisberg as she was leaving the stage. She cast upon him a look of ineffable scorn, saying, 'You are the Prince of Wales, Sir,--then know, that I am Louise Hillisberg;' and without deigning to make any other acknowledgment, passed on. [p. 509]

It is perhaps the same tune as "Mdm. Hillingbury," 'recorded' on the mechanical barrel organ from the polar expedition of Admiral Parry of 1819. In place of a ship's fiddler (common in those days), Parry introduced a barrel organ on board ship to provide entertainment and a vehicle to which the men could exercise (i.e. by dancing). "Mdm. Hillibury" was one of eight tunes on barrel no. 1. Dance directions for "Madame Hillisberg's Reel" were printed in the Phinney's A Select Collection of the Newest and Most Favorite Country Dances in 1808 in Ostego, New York. See also "Madame Hillisberg's Scotch Dance."

Source for notated version: the music manuscript copybook of keyboard player Ann Winnington, which appears to have been written in New York, although she later moved to England.

Printed sources:

Recorded sources: Saydisc SDL234, Parry's Barrel Organ (vol. 11 in the Golden Age of Mechanical Music).




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