Partant pour la Syrie or Le beau Dunois

Music by Queen Hortense de Beauharnais, words by Comte Alexandre de Laborde.

Partant pour la Syrie or Le beau Dunois

Partant pour la Syrie,
Le jeune et beau Dunois,
Venait prier Marie
De bénir ses exploits :
Faites, Reine immortelle,
Lui dit-il en partant,
Que j'aime la plus belle
Et sois le plus vaillant. 
On lui doit la Victoire.
Vraiment, dit le seigneur ;
Puisque tu fais ma gloire
Je ferai ton bonheur.
De ma fille Isabelle,
Sois l'Epoux à l'instant,
Car elle est la plus belle,
Et toi le plus vaillant.
Il trace sur la pierre
Le serment de l'honneur,
Et va suivre à la guerre
Le Comte son seigneur ;
Au noble voeu fidèle,
Il dit en combattant :
Amour à la plus belle,
Honneur au plus vaillant. 
A l'Autel de Marie,
Ils contractent tous deux
Cette union Chérie
Qui seule rend heureux.
Chacun dans la chapelle
Disait en les voyant :
Amour à la plus belle,
Honneur au plus vaillant. 


Partant pour la Syrie, traditionally dated to 1807, is a classic example of a song or 'romance' in the mediaevalising Romance/Troubadour style, a genre invented during the First Empire. Although initially attributed to Napoleon's step-daughter Hortense de Beauharnais, it was re-attributed by musicologist Arthur Pougin to a certain Louis-François-Philippe Drouet (1792-1855), flautist at Louis's court in Holland. The words were written by the archaeologist Comte Alexandre de Laborde (1774-1842). Recent research has however revealed Pougin's re-attribution to be driven by anti-Second Empire sentiment and restored Partant… to its rightful owner, Hortense. As she wrote in her memoirs 'Partant pour la Syrie was done at Malmaison while my mother was playing tric-trac' (Mémoires, vol. 3, p. 119).

The poem recounts the story of a courtly crusader, Dunois, who prays to the Virgin Mary (just before leaving for the crusades in Syria) that his love may be the most beautiful and that he may be the bravest. Dunois' prayers are answered; he is the boldest in battle and on his return he is granted the hand of his lord's very beautiful daughter, Isabelle. The apparent reference to the historical figure of the Comte de Dunois, famous for being the companion of Joan of Arc, is however misleading. The poem is entirely fanciful: the historical Dunois never fought in Syria, nor did he marry Isabelle, the daughter of his lord. That the 'romance' was closely associated with the First Empire regime is shown by the fact that the Bourbons of the restoration considered the song seditious - it was also a Bonapartist rallying cry in the 'dark days' before the Second Empire.
Partant pour la Syrie was enormously popular not only during the First Empire but also during the Restoration and the Second Empire. Louise Cochelet, Hortense's lectrice, wrote in her memoirs concerning Hortense (vol. 1, pp. 45-47) that Le beau Dunois 'was sung to such an extent that the hurdy-gurdies repeated it ceaselessly in the streets, promenades, everywhere. In the end, it was played to such an extent that, even though the romance is charming, one ended up being tired with it.' But it's popularity was not to diminish. Over the following decades it was to be transcribed and arranged for numerous different combinations of instruments by composers from Bochsa to Dussek. A set of variations was even published written for the penny whistle! Hortense's romance reached its zenith however when it became the Second Empire's 'national anthem', to be played at almost every official occasion. Apart from remaining as a song sung by the French army, it has today been almost completely forgotten.


Queen Hortense de Beauharnais/Comte Alexandre de Laborde


Download the score


Hortense de Beauharnais, Mémoires de la reine Hortense, (éd. Jean Hanoteau), Paris: Plon, 1927, 3 vols
Bernard Chevallier, La reine Hortense: une femme artiste. Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Château de Malmaison, 27 may to 27 September, 1993, éd. Bernard Chevallier, Paris: RMN, 1993, 110 p. Section entitled "Hortense et la musique", "La Reine Hortense et la musique", by Dorothea Baumann, "Inspiration et renommée; les romances de la reine Hortense dans leur époque", par Alain Pougetoux, p. 21-24
Louise Cochelet, Mémoires sur la reine Hortense et la famille impériale, Paris: Ladvocat, 1836-38, 4 vols
Arthur Pougin, Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique, Paris, 1878-80.
Hortense published several collections of Romances, notably:
Romances mises en musiques par S.[a] M.[ajesté] L.[a] R.[eine] H.[ortense], each with facing acquatint (also by Hortense)
Romances composées par Hortense, duchesse de Saint-Leu. Huit romances nouvelles, Paris: Pacini, s.d., which opens with "Le beau Dunois" or "Partant pour la Syrie"
Douze Romances dédiées au prince Eugène par sa soeur, published before 1825
Album artistique de la reine Hortense, 1853, Heugel et Co, a luxurious edition of twelve romances including lithographs and title pages in chromolithographs.

To hear: "Partant pour la Syrie", click here (external link).