“Bonaparte’s Retreat” is a classic old-time quasi-programmatic American fiddle piece that is generally played in a slow march tempo at the beginning and becomes increasingly more quick by the end of the tune, meant to denote a retreating army. Versions very widely from region to region, some binary and some with multiple parts. One folklore anecdote regarding this melody has it that the original “Bonaparte’s Retreat” was improvised on the bagpipe by a member of a Scots regiment that fought at Waterloo, in remembrance of the occasion.
The American collector Ira Ford (1940) (who seemed to manufacture his notions of tune origins from fancy and supposition, or else elaborately embellished snatches of tune-lore) declared the melody to be an “old American traditional novelty, which had its origin after the Napoleonic Wars.”
He notes that some fiddlers (whom he presumably witnessed) produced effects in performance by drumming the strings with the back of the bow and “other manipulations simulating musket fire and the general din of combat. Pizzicato represents the boom of the cannon, while the movement beginning with Allegro is played with a continuous bow, to imitate bagpipes or fife.”
Arkansas fiddler Absie Morrison (1876-1964) maintained the melody had French and bagpipe connotations. “Now that’s bagpipe music on the fiddle…That was when (Bonaparte) had to give back, had to give up the battle…This in what’s called minor key, now…It’s French music.”
In fact, the tune has Irish origins, though Burman-Hall could only find printed variants in sources from that island from 1872 onward. “It has been collected in a variety of functions, including an Irish lullaby and a ‘Frog Dance’ from the Isle of Man” (Linda Burman-Hall. “Southern American Folk Fiddle Styles,” Ethnomusicology, vol. 19, #1, Jan. 1975).
Samuel Bayard (1944) concurs with assigning Irish origins for “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and notes that it is an ancient Irish march tune with quite a varied traditional history. The ‘ancient march’ is called “Eagle’s Whistle (1) (The)” or “Eagle’s Tune (The),” which P.W. Joyce (1909) said was formerly the marching tune of the once powerful O’Donovan family.
Bayard’s primary scope of collecting was in western Pennsylvania in the mid-20th century, where he found the tune still current in fiddle repertoire, though he remarked on its popularity in various parts of the South. His Pennsylvania version has a somewhat simpler melodic outline than most of the other recorded American sets, and, although he notes that these sets vary considerably–even in the number of parts which a version may contain–he finds they are clearly cognate, and all show resemblance’s and common traits indicating derivation from the “The Eagle’s Whistle.” (more…)