On the French penchant for inventing things already in existence elsewhere

François Dominique Séraphin, Bourbon favourite and reputedly the father of ombres chinoises (shadow puppetry), began operating 15 years later than is generally thought, and may have copied his techniques from an itinerant Italian or a London Alsatian. Featuring the memoirs of the valet to the later Louis XVII, early descriptions of the delights of the renovated Palais Royal (including a pygmy show), jolly old Baron Grimm on the lamentable state of French opera, shadow plays, and marionettes, and William Beckford’s favourite designer of theatrical perversions.

François Dominique Séraphin (1747-1800) was an entertainer who came to prominence before the Revolution, and whose successors are said to have continued his show until the establishment of the Third Republic. Three errors regarding his early career have led to his being regarded as a key figure in (audio)visual tech innovation:

  1. the date when his show started at Versailles,
  2. the date when it was patronised by the royal family there, and
  3. the date of its transfer to the Palais Royal and public acclaim in Paris.

The conventional Séraphin chronology is a nonsensical, late-19th-century creation

A new book from University of Chicago Press by Deirdre Loughridge, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism, claims that:

The acknowledged inventor of the ombres chinoises, François Dominique Séraphin, opened his show in Versailles in 1772.[11] By the time he moved his show to Paris in 1784, it had already been copied by enterprising showmen and spread to other parts of Europe.

She has two sources for #11:

  1. Feu Séraphin: histoire de ce spectacle depuis son origine jusqu’à sa disparition, 1776-1870 (1875), which gives:
    1. 1772 for the show’s opening in Versailles – no evidence;
    2. April 1781 for granting of the title Spectacle des Enfants de France – no evidence, the subsequent playbill being apparently undated;
    3. 1784 for transfer to the Duke of Orléans’ speculative development in the gardens of the Palais-Royal – no evidence.
  2. Bordat & Boucrot, Les théâtres d’ombres (1956), which I haven’t seen, but which, since it doesn’t alert Loughridge to the error, probably uses Feu or similar.

This and similar chronologies, with similar late 19th century sources 1 or worse, are to be found on Wikipedia 2 and in several dozen other popular and academic publications in the field. Yet a moment’s reflection casts doubt:

  1. If Séraphin was so good, would it really have taken the royal family nine years to discover him in Versailles, population < 40,000? I’d have thought that the typical trajectory involved playing provincial venues for a couple of years, and then blowing one’s savings on one season’s hall rental at Versailles in the hope of striking Bourbon.
  2. Why would the king have honoured the show in the name of the French Royal Children (plural) in April 1781 when Marie Antoinette’s second, Louis Joseph, wasn’t born till October, presumably with no great and immediate interest in the theatre?
  3. How could Séraphin have transferred to the Palais Royal in 1784 when the buildings in question were still under construction? The 1784 edition of Luc-Vincent Thiéry‘s celebrated guidebook doesn’t mention Séraphin, and Thiéry’s brochureware description of the Duke of Orléans’ residential and retail development makes clear that this is a project in progress.

Contemporary sources show that Séraphin became known in Versailles in 1786/7, was contracted by the royals in 1787, and moved to Paris in 1787

Jean-Baptiste Cléry (“Cléry”) was valet de chambre to the infant Louis-Charles (later Louis XVII) and served voluntarily as Louis XVI’s valet in captivity until the latter’s execution in 1793. His diaries, published posthumously in 1825 as Journal de Cléry, are sensational, but of less interest to us than the memoirs of his younger brother, Pierre Louis Hanet-Cléry (“Hanet”), who also served the Bourbons in a personal capacity and wrote memoirs (Mémoires de P.-L. Hanet-Cléry, ancien valet de chambre de Mme Royale (1825)). Valet de chambre to Marie Antoinette’s first child, Marie Thérèse, from her birth in 1778, Hanet says that the royal family’s first acquaintance with Séraphin’s work was during carnival when Louis-Charles was two. LC was born on March 27 and Easter was April 8 in 1787, so Hanet (“n’ayant encore que deux ans”) seems to be indicating 1788, although he might instead mean the run-up to LC’s second birthday in 1787, but is quite unlikely to have meant 1786:

The queen, one day attending her daughter’s dinner with Madame de Polignac [Marie Antoinette’s favourite and her children’s governess], asked me if I had seen the Chinese shadows of which she had heard much talk. Yes, Madame, I replied, and this spectacle seemed to me so well calculated to amuse the royal children that I proposed talking to the governess about it. That lady, thus informed, instructed me to go and negotiate with the director for three performances a week during carnival.

Mr. Seraphin, endowed with very small pecuniary means, but with a very large bump on his back, 3 thought it his duty to raise his pretensions; first he asked me for 1,200 francs per performance, then 1,000, and finally 600; but Mme. Seraphin, more modest, or perhaps more ambitious, at once contemplated where this could lead her, and reduced the price to 300 francs, which I granted her.

This spectacle afforded the greatest of pleasure to the royal children, especially to the Duke of Normandy [Louis-Charles], who, being only two years of age, enjoyed himself in a most remarkable manner. Their Majesties, who wished to be witnesses of the happiness experienced by their children, attended these performances, and soon all the princes of blood royal came with their young families. The king was personally so satisfied by this that he wished to testify as such to the inventor: “Your little tableaus,” said he, “are well drawn, and your pyrite fires are charming.” 4

Seraphin and his wife, filled with joy and hope, shared with me their intention to ask the king for permission to open their show in Paris without making the customary payment to the great theatres. I encouraged them; they presented their proposal, and obtained the authorisation they desired.

Installed at the Palais Royal, they accumulated a very large fortune; it was due, they often repeated to me, to the pure and simple tastes of Their Majesties, whose presence had created the fashion for Chinese shadows.

Thiéry’s 1787 guidebook describes Seráphin’s show, thus ruling out 1788, and says that the buildings are new, probably making 1786 more improbable:

The Chinese Shadows, nº 127

This Spectacle, established by Mr. Seraphin, awarded a patent by the King, 5 is situated on the first floor of new buildings of the Palais Royal, and is entered via arcade No. 127.

There you can see arabesque fires of a new kind, and transparent tableaux, in which new and amusing scenes take place. The Chinese shadows, produced by various combinations of light and shade, show plainly all the attitudes of man, and execute rope and character dances with astonishing precision. Animals of all kinds go through their paces, and also perform all the motions proper to them, without any thread or cord being seen to support or direct them. 6

Reasonable conclusions: Séraphin launched his show in winter 1786/7, but even if it took two seasons for his show to be noticed, the earliest conceivable Versailles launch date is 1785; and he triumphed with the royals during Carnival 1787 and moved to Paris soon after.

Feu deceives deliberately, quoting several paras from Hanet without mentioning the dates which contradict its invented chronology. Why? Every publisher goes to market with the most remarkable ragbag he thinks he can sell, and natural commercialism may have been exacerbated by revanchism and a search for national heroes following France’s defeat by, and loss of Alsace and Lorraine to, Prussia in 1870-1 (Séraphin was from Lorraine, although his birthplace remained French) – make France great earlier, if you like, a sentiment that led to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Séraphin’s ombres chinoises were simple and unoriginal, and may have been imitated from the itinerant Italian Sanquirico or the Alsatian Londoner Loutherbourg

Thiéry’s description of the puppetry is improved on by Kotzebue, a German emigré writer, in Meine Flucht nach Paris im Winter 1790:

Since today [Christmas] all the shows are closed, except the Ombres Chinoises in the Palais Royal, we went there, but couldn’t bear it for more than a quarter of an hour. I expected to find this little spectacle at the peak of its perfection, but I was mistaken. The paintings were very gaudy and bad, the little figures stiff and graceless, and even the threads used to pull their arms and legs were visible.

Among the scenes depicted was one in which a Russian woman complained to her girlfriend that her husband no longer loved her, since he hadn’t beaten her for three days, at which the husband appeared, begged for forgiveness, and excused himself on the grounds that he had left his stick somewhere, but had just found it, and, at last, as proof of his contrition, let loose on the woman.

“Typically German!” said someone behind us. Dear God, I thought for my part, typical French ignorance, which still believes in the old fairy tale that Russian woman prefer to be beaten than kissed by their husbands.

The orchestra consisted of a boy, who drummed on a dulcimer 7. The hall was very small and lowly, crammed full with people, the air suffocating. We drew a deep breath when we got to the door.

In technical terms, this appears to be simple shadow puppetry. Some key timeline moments:

  1. Huygens’ use, perhaps in the 1650s, of a projector described by Kircher with a local light source and for entertainment.
  2. Such a device was shown and commercialised for the elite in Western Europe by Walgensten in the 1660s.
  3. Leibniz’s thoughts on marionette shadow puppetry in the 1670s.
  4. Common(ly understood) and applied by the mid-18th century – for example, Guyot’s Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques was immediately translated into English and German on publication in 1769.
  5. A realisation mid-century – which I haven’t seen discussed, then or now – that the exploitation of projectors to enable the use of marionettes instead of humans in shadow plays (rather as actors were replaced by marionettes in the Italian commedia repertoire in the same period) enabled a substantial reduction in operating costs.

Who might Séraphin have imitated? Loughridge has a candidate:

In London, the ombres chinoises made their debut in 1776 under the auspices of Ambroise, an Italian (born Ambrogio) who had likely encountered Séraphin’s show in France the previous year.[Altick, The Shows of London] The same showman, now going by the name Ambrosio Sanquirico, brought the ombres chinoises to Germany in 1779, where he advertised his “never before seen here LES OMBRES CHINOISES.”[13] 8 By the 1780s, other traveling showmen too performed “ombres chinoises” throughout Germany.

The Czech Theatre Encyclopaedia has more on Sanquirico, none of which I have fisked:

  1. He was originally a painter, but no relationship to the contemporary Milanese painter and set designer Alessandro Sanquirico has been demonstrated, let alone to Giorgio de Chirico.
  2. In autumn 1776 he showed Chinese shadows in Petersburg to acclaim.
  3. In autumn 1777 he appeared in Prague with a Chinese shadow show, which he had allegedly shown to the royals of France, Britain and Russia.
  4. Some of this appears to have been automated, but my Czech fails me. 9
  5. His 1779 shadow theatre shows in Nuremberg (this is the playbill cited by Loughridge; he also visited Braunschweig in 1779) featured banditry, Spanish daggers, a compassionate enchantress, animals from the four continents of the world, and “beautiful dances” that even a “living person would not naturally perform.”
  6. He posed for official purposes as a scientific investigator but actually focused on foreign freakery and comedy – which Feu Séraphin‘s descriptions of repertoire suggest was also Séraphin’s line.

Séraphin may also have seen a nominally Germanic Alsatian called Loutherbourg (bios) who revolutionised the mechanics of London theatre for David Garrick in the 1770s and in 1781 launched his masterpiece, the Eidophusikon:

Described by the Public Advertiser as “various imitations of Natural Phenomena, represented by moving pictures,” it was the fruit, Philippe claimed, of twenty years of experiment (Altick, Shows 119, 121). [17] Inside his Leicester Square house he’d built an opulent miniature theatre-cum-art salon. Here, for a fee of five shillings, around 130 fashionable spectators sat in comfort to watch a series of moving scenes projected within a giant peephole aperture, eight feet by six feet. The darkened auditorium combined with skilful use of concealed and concentrated light sources, coloured silk filters, clockwork automata, winding backscreens and illuminated transparencies created a uniquely illusionist environment. [18] Audiences watched five landscapes in action. Dawn crept over the Thames at Greenwich; the noonday sun scorched the port of Tangier; a crimson sunset flushed over the Bay of Naples; a tropical moon rose over the wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean; and a torrential storm wrecked a ship somewhere off the Atlantic coast. Between scenes, painted transparencies served as curtain drops, and Mr and Mrs Michael Arne entertained the audience with violin music and song. (Iain McCalman, The Virtual Infernal: Philippe de Loutherbourg, William Beckford and the Spectacle of the Sublime (2007))

More, Adam Walker’s derivative Eidouranion, and an image of the Eidophusikon:

Was Séraphin celebrated under Louis XVI because the rest of French popular theatre at that stage was pretty backward?

I’m asking the question, not providing an answer, but I do wonder whether a royal retreat to Versailles, suffocating theatrical regulation, and economic crisis meant that there was a lack of excitement in the decades leading to the revolution. In 1770 the satirist Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, describes French excitement re human shadow plays:

I remember being singularly amazed in my childhood by the noble play called schattenspiel in German, which was performed by ambulant comedians with great success. Well-stretched oiled papers or a white canvas are hung in place of the theatre backdrop. A candle is placed seven or eight feet behind this curtain; by putting the actors between the candle and the stretched canvas, the light behind them projects their shadows onto this stretched canvas or onto the paper transparency, and shows them to the spectators with all their movements and gestures. I know of no spectacle more interesting for children apart from French Opera; 10 it lends itself equally well to enchantments, marvels, and to the most terrible catastrophes. If, for example, you want the devil to carry off somebody, the actor who plays the devil has but to jump with his prey over the candle behind, and, on the canvas it will seem as if he has flown up into the air with him. This fine genre has just been invented in France, where it has been made an social amusement as spiritual as it is noble; but I fear that it will be smothered in its infancy by the enthusiasm for playing guess-the-proverb. 11 L’Heureuse Péche, a shadow comedy, with changes of scene, has just been printed: the title tells us that this piece was performed in society towards the end of 1767, epoch of the invention of the genre in France. It is to be hoped that we shall soon have a complete repertoire of such pieces. (Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique de Grimm et de Diderot, 1753-90) 12

So perhaps we should turn to the French more for creative PR than for theatrical innovation, although the French are certainly not the only addicts to this vice: at a Lebanese Maronite kebab shop on the Dutch border, where I sheltered for several days some time ago, it was impressed on me that it was the (Ottoman) Turks, not the Italians, who invented the pizza.

Stuff

  1. Le Roi’s Histoire de Versailles (1868), also popular and evidence-free, downgrades Séraphin from inventor to the “true founder of perfected Chinese shadows,” and says that he began at Versailles in 1780, that the Spectacle des Enfants de France was granted in 1781, and that he moved to the Palais-Royal at the end of 1781. Les pupazzi noirs, ombres animées (1896), used by some, gives a ben trovato but baseless description of a 1784 opening, apparently featuring Mozin Senior (born 1769) on harpsichord.
  2. English: “developed and popularised shadow plays in France. The art form would go on to be copied across Europe… Séraphin is seen as the most important figure in the development of the art form.” Etc.
  3. I think this refers to the (theatrical) tradition of elderly hunchbacked misers chasing gorgeous young things – e.g. Pantalone in the commedia dell’arte – rather than to any physical infirmity. Unfortunately no portrait of Mrs. Séraphin survives.

    Mid-18th century Doccia porcelain Pantalone from the V&A.
  4. Feux pyrites, a malapropism for (the tautologous) feux pyriques, Pyrrhic fires, aka feux arabesques: images projected using a magic lantern, and animated, perhaps by moving one painted glass slide in front of another fixed one, or perhaps by using a hand-cranked version of this convection-driven apparatus from around 1800. Mathurin Régnier‘s 1613-ish Satire XI suggests that image carousels had been revolving around light sources for some time:

                         a bright lantern
    With which some confectioner amuses children,
    Where trussed-up geese, small monkeys, and elephants,
    Dogs, cats, hares, foxes and many strange beasts
    Run, one after another

                         une lanterne vive
    Dont quelque pâtissier amuse les enfants,
    Où des oisons bridés, guenuches, éléphants,
    Chiens, chats, lièvres, renards et mainte étrange bête
    Courent l’une après l’autre

    19th century incarnations, sometimes combining kaleidoscopy (keyword: chromatropy) with shadow puppetry, persisted until the beginning of cinema:

    Some German rambling on the this and other optical illusions:

  5. Sacre bleu! He didn’t even invent it, and watch him trying to use the state to kill off the competition!
  6. The preceding pygmy spectacle also sounds good. More Gallic dwarves some other time.
  7. Zackebrette: “What modern Jews call [a psalterion] we call a Zacke-Bret” (Curieuses und Reales Natur-Kunst-Berg-Gewerck- und Handlungs-Lexicon (1731)), so I think it’s a Hackbrett, a kind of hammer dulcimer.
  8. The playbill cited in Loughridge’s #13 may have meant that such shadow puppetry had never been seen before in Germany, but is more likely to have referred to Nuremberg.
  9. Altick, The Shows of London (1978) says that Séraphin’s USP was the use of clockwork. Unfortunately I can’t see his source, and Kotzebue and other 18th century sources don’t support the notion.
  10. Jouer des proverbes: a society game where the party has to guess the proverb played out by one of their number.
  11. Grimm’s satire on French operatic decadence, Le petit prophète de Boehmischbroda (1753), is also justly famous, and contains a chapter on marionettes.

The debasement of the European mind

A populist US senator meets an Italian organ-grinder in Rome in 1859.

Two young American men are acting as cicerones for two older compatriots in an association they have called The Dodge Club:

Because our principle is to dodge all humbugs and swindles, which make travelling so expensive generally. We have gained much experience already, and hope to gain more. One of my friends is a doctor from Philadelphia, Doctor Snakeroot, and the other is Senator Jones from Massachusetts. Neither the Doctor nor the Senator understand a word of any language but the American.

The Canadian writer, James De Mille, published his The Dodge Club; or Italy in 1859 in Harper’s after the Civil War, when Europe and America’s poor were migrating westwards but the wealthy still took their holidays to the east:

HARMONY ON THE PINCIAN HILL.-MUSIC HATH CHARMS. –AMERICAN MELODIES.–THE GLORY, THE POWER, AND THE BEAUTY OF YANKEE DOODLE, AND THE MERCENARY SOUL OF AN ITALLAN ORGAN-GRINDER.
The Senator loved the Pincian Hill, for there he saw what he loved best; more than ruins, more than churches, more than pictures and statues, more than music. He saw man and human nature.
He had a smile for all; of superiority for the bloated aristocrat; of friendliness for the humble, yet perchance worthy mendicant. He longed every day more and more to be able to talk the language of the people.
On one occasion the Club was walking on the Pincian Hill, when suddenly they were arrested by familiar sounds which came from some place not very far away. It was a barrel-organ; a soft and musical organ; but it was playing “Sweet Home.”
“A Yankee tune,” said the Senator. “Let us go and patronize domestic manufacture. That is my idee of political economy.”
Reaching the spot they saw a pale, intellectual-looking Italian working away at his instrument.
“It’s not bad, though that there may not be the highest kind of musical instrument.”
“No,” said Buttons; “but I wonder that you, an elder of a church, can stand here and listen to it.”
“Why, what has the church to do with a barrel-organ?”
“Don’t you believe the Bible?”
“Of course,” said the Senator, looking mystified.
“Don’t you know what it says on the subject?”
“What the Bible says? Why no, of course not. It says nothing.”
“I beg your pardon. It says, ‘The sound of the grinding is low.’ See Ecclesiastes, twelfth, fourth.”
The Senator looked mystified, but said nothing. But suddenly the organ-grinder struck up another tune.
“Well, I do declare,” cried the Senator, delighted, “if it isn’t another domestic melody!”
It was “Independence Day.”
“Why, it warms my heart,” he said, as a flush spread over his fine countenance.
The organ-grinder received any quantity of baiocchi, which so encouraged him that he tried another—“Old Virginny.”
“That’s better yet,” said the Senator. “But how on airth did this man manage to get hold of these tunes?”
Then came others. They were all American: “Old Folks at Home,” “Nelly Bly,” “Suwannee Ribber,” “Jordan,” “Dan Tucker,” “Jim Crow.”
The Senator was certainly most demonstrative, but all the others were equally affected.
Those native airs; the dashing, the reckless, the roaringly-humorous, the obstreperously jolly—they show one part of the many-sided American character.
Not yet has justice been done to the nigger song. It is not a nigger song. It is an American melody. Leaving out those which have been stolen from Italian Operas, how many there are which are truly American in their extravagance, their broad humor, their glorious and uproarious jollity! The words are trash. The melodies are every thing.
These melodies touched the hearts of the listeners. American life rose before them as they listened. American life—free, boundless, exuberant, broadly-developing, self-asserting, gaining its characteristics from the boundless extent of its home – a continental life of limitless variety. As mournful as the Scotch; as reckless as the Irish; as solemnly patriotic as the English.
“Listen!” cried the Senator, in wild excitement.
It was “Hail Columbia.”
“The Pincian Hill,” said the Senator, with deep solemnity, “is glorified from this time forth and for evermore. It has gained a new charm. The Voice of Freedom hath made itself heard!”
The others, though less demonstrative, were no less delighted. Then came another, better yet. “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“There!” cried the Senator, “is our true national anthem—the commemoration of national triumph; the grand upsoaring of the victorious American Eagle as it wings its everlasting flight through the blue empyrean away up to the eternal stars!”
He burst into tears; the others respected his emotion.
Then he wiped his eyes and looked ashamed of himself—quite uselessly—for it is a mistake to suppose that tears are unmanly. Unmanly! The manliest of men may sometimes shed tears out of his very manhood.
At last there arose a magic strain that produced an effect to which the former was nothing. It was “Yankee Doodle!”
The Senator did not speak. He could not find words. He turned his eyes first upon one, and then another of his companions; eyes beaming with joy and triumph—eyes that showed emotion arising straight from a patriot’s heart —eyes which seemed to say: Is there any sound on earth or above the earth that call equal this?
Yankee Doodle has never received justice. It is a tune without words. What are the recognized words? Nonsense unutterable—the sneer of a British officer. But the tune!—ah, that is quite another thing!
The tune was from the very first taken to the national heart, and has never ceased to be cherished there. The Republic has grown to be a very different thing from that weak beginning, but its national air is as popular as ever. The people do not merely love it. They glory in it. And yet apologies are sometimes made for it. By whom? By the soulless dilettante. The people know better:—the farmers, the mechanics, the fishermen, the dry-goods clerks, the news-boys, the railway stokers, the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick-makers, the tinkers, the tailors, the soldiers, the sailors. Why? Because this music has a voice of its own, more expressive than words; the language of the soul, which speaks forth in certain melodies which form an utterance of unutterable passion.
The name was perhaps given in ridicule. It was accepted with pride. The air is rash, reckless, gay, triumphant, noisy, boisterous, careless, heedless, rampant, raging, roaring, rattle-brainish, devil-may-care-ish, plague-take-the-hindmost-ish; but! solemn, stern, hopeful, resolute, fierce, menacing, strong, cantankerous (cantankerous is entirely an American idea), bold, daring—
Words fail.
Yankee Doodle has not yet received its Doo!
The Senator had smiled, laughed, sighed, wept, gone through many variations of feeling. He had thrown baiocchi till his pockets were exhausted, and then handed forth silver. He had shaken hands with all his companions ten times over. They themselves went not quite as far in feeling as he, but yet to a certain extent they went in.
And yet Americans are thought to be practical, and not ideal. Yet here was a true American who was intoxicated—drunk? By what? By sound, notes, harmony. By music.
“Buttons,” said he, as the music ceased and the Italian prepares to make his bow and quit the scene, “I must make that gentleman’s acquaintance.”
Buttons walked up to the organ-grinder.
“Be my interpreter,” said the Senator. “Introduce me.”
“What’s your name?” asked Buttons.
“Maffeo Cloto.”
“From where?”
“Urbino.”
“Were you ever in America?”
“No, Signore.”
“What does he say?” asked the Senator, impatiently.
“He says his name is Mr. Cloto, and he was never in America.”
“How did you get these tunes?”
“Out of my organ,” said the Italian, grinning.
“Of course; but how did you happen to get an organ with such tunes?”
“I bought it.”
“Oh yes; but how did you happen to buy one with these tunes?”
“For you illustrious American Signore. You all like to hear them.”
“Do you know any thing about the tunes?” “Signore?”
“Do you know what the words are?”
“Oh no. I am an Italian.”
“I suppose you make money out of them.”
“I make more in a day with these than I could in a week with other tunes.”
“You lay up money, I suppose.”
“Oh yes. In two years I will retire and let my younger brother play here.”
“These tunes?”
“Yes, Signore.”
“To Americans?”
“Yes, Signore.”
“What is it all?” asked the Senator.
“He says that he finds he makes money by playing American tunes to Americans.”
“Hm,” said the Senator, with some displeasure; “and he has no soul then to see-the beauty, the sentiment, the grandeur of his vocation!”
“Not a bit-he only goes in for money.”
The Senator turned away in disgust. “Yankee Doodle,” he murmured, “ought of itself to have a refining and converting influence on the European mind; but it is too debased-yes-yes-too debased.”

Maybe we are doomed, maybe we aren’t, and the oligarchy’s bots will get us anyway. I fear that my monkey is not of flesh and blood.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, founded on piracy, is in it’s way almost as enjoyable on the American West as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rio Bravo, which we of course watched over Christmas. Check out Over the Plains to Colorado from the same year, 1867, as de Mille’s piece.

Transvestite barrel organ dancers in 1930s Whitechapel and the 1860s London West End

With acrobats, clowns, and Doris and Thisbe, goddesses of wind.

Dora Lee (1921-), who perhaps wasn’t a Holocaust survivor, 1 talking about life as a young girl in London’s East End:

And then we used to have these buskers. They used to come with a barrel organ. They must have been what we call today transvestites and they would play this barrel organ and dance and do acrobats and things like that, dressed up in the oldest and the shabbiest type of dresses and things like that. The man that played the organ was never dressed … he was dressed in trousers, but the others were all … well, we knew they were men by the look of them and if they saw the police coming they would scoot away, but you gave them a ha’penny and they made quite a collection.

Anyone got a photo of such a troupe? Perhaps more entertaining than Barcelona’s Moorish tumblers:

The police may still have cared about public morality when Dora Lee was young, but this was also the age of Douglas Byng, the great pantomime dame, who appeared on a trapeze singing “I’m Doris the goddess of wind,” and who here sings a little song of spring:

It was also an age before competition from television caused the infantilisation of circus audiences and of white clowns, whose white makeup and black melancholy had given them something of the air of the female impersonators. Here’s Fellini’s white clown saying goodbye to his augusto, accompanied by some rather splendid music and horsing around:

And such shows involving barrel organs were not new. Here’s a back-to-front example from the 1861 diary of Arthur Munby, establishment fetishist of working women:

Home to the Temple at 6 and to [Mudie’s Lending Library]. Coming thence along Oxford Street, I saw before me, striding along in company with an Italian organ-grinder, a tall young man in full Highland costume; wearing a Glengarry bonnet, a scarlet jacket, a sporran and a tartan kilt and stockings, his legs bare from the knee to the calf. It was not a man – it was Madeleine Sinclair the street dancer, whom I used to see in a similar dress a year ago. She and her companion turned into a quiet street, and she danced a Highland fling to his music, in the midst of a curious crowd.

For no one could make out whether she was a man or a woman. Her hair and the set of her hips indeed were feminine; but her hard weather-stained face, her large bony hands, and her tall strong figure, became her male dress so well that opinions about equally divided as to her sex. “It’s a man!” said one, confidently: “I believe that it’s a woman”, another doubtfully replied. One man boldly exclaimed “Of course it’s a man; anybody can see that!” I gave her a sixpence when she came round with her tambourine; and she told me she had been in Paris for five months for pleasure, and was now living on Saffron Hill [i.e. amidst Italian immigrants], and dancing in the streets every day, always wearing her male clothes.

The excerpt is from the most enjoyable A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters.

And then there’s Old Bess, who has probably been banned from Morris dancing along with blackface, and Thisbe aka Flute the Bellows-Mender – pretty close to an organ:

Not to mention the mock queens and virgins of older festivals.

In gathering material about the world of the organ grinder, I’ve certainly been neglecting some non-simian sidekicks. More suggestions most welcome, as always.

I dread to think what would happen to you (m) nowadays if you dressed up as a woman and danced round a barrel organ in the back streets of Whitechapel.

Stuff

  1. I’m afraid the British Library seems to have made a bit of a mess of the metadata for its sound collection. Another entry has an interesting abstract:

    Fanny Lander talks about her background and family; her father (bricklayer); the buildings he worked on; the school she went to; memories of Scan and Will Tester playing for dances; working in service for an Irish family; dancing at the Servants Ball in the Coach and Horses, Chelwood Gate; changes in the village (Chelwood Gate); farming; memories of organ-player and monkey; local gypsies; Linfield Fair; Brighton man who used to sing outside the post office; Maggie Ridley (school friend); East Grinstead band; Danehill bell ringers; Albert and Walter Lucas; hand bell ringers in Coach and Horses on Boxing Day; how she and her husband housed two evacuee children from Bermondsey during the war; East Grinstead at start of World War 1; more about being in service; closeness between servants and family; songs sung at home; dancing [at this point Reg Hall plays melodeon – see Item Notes]. Will Marten and his sister Mary then join conversation and they all discuss Scan Tester’s family; pub songs; poverty being reflected in the music; Ashdown Forest; changes in farming; comparisons of town and country; moving sheep from Romney Marsh; increase in local traffic; anecdotes about local policeman and cars, 1920s/1930s; anecdote about San Tester’s brother Trayton.

    But, as another part of the metadata indicates, the recording is actually of Bates, Charlie, 1909- (speaker, male), and Wood, Bert, 1890- (speaker, male) talking about something completely different, and Ms Lander is nowhere else to be found.

Is the Cibber piper in the V&A a notorious plague-pit drunkard?

Featuring O du lieber Augustin, the Thomases Dekker and Middleton, Daniel Defoe and various disreputable beggars and foreigners.

Statue + story

A serendipity in The flowers of literature (1824) links the sculpture portrayed above to a story:

THE BAGPIPER.

In a garden, on the terrace in Totteuham-court-road, is a statue, which is an original work of the famous Caius Gabriel Cibber, the father of Colley Cibber.

The statue in question is executed on a fine free-stone, representing a Bagpiper in a sitting posture, playing on his pipes, with his dog and keg of liquor by his side, the latter of which stands upon a neat stone pedestal.

The following singular history is attached to its original execution. During the great plague of London, carts were sent round the city each night, the drivers of which rung a bell, as intimation for every house to bring out its dead. The bodies were then thrown promiscuously into the cart, and conveyed to a little distance in the environs, where deep ditches were dug, in which they were deposited.

The piper (as represented in the statue) had his constant stand at the bottom of Holborn, near St. Andrew’s church. He became well known about the neighbourhood, and picked up a living from the passengers going that way, who generally threw him a few pence as the reward of his musical talents. A certain gentleman, who never failed in his generosity to the piper, was surprised, on passing one day as usual, to miss him from his accustomed place:—upon inquiry, he found that the poor man had been taken ill in consequence of a very singular accident. On the joyful occasion of the arrival of one of his countrymen from the Highlands, the piper had in fact made too free with the contents of his keg: these so overpowered his faculties, that he stretched himself out upon the steps of the church, and fell fast asleep. These were not times to sleep on church steps with impunity. He was found in this situation when the dead cart went its rounds; and the carter supposing of course, as the most likely thing in every way, that the man was dead, made no scruple to put his fork under the piper’s belt, and, with some assistance, hoisted him into his vehicle, which was nearly full, with the charitable intention that our Scotch musician should share the usual brief ceremonies of interment. The piper’s faithful dog protested against the seizure of his master, and attempted to prevent the unceremonious removal; but, failing of success, he fairly jumped into the cart after him, to the no small annoyance of the men, whom he would not suffer to come near the body; he further took upon himself the office of chief mourner, by setting up the most lamentable howling as they passed along.

The streets and roads by which they had to go being very rough, the jolting of the cart, added to the howling of the dog, had soon the effect of awakening our drunken musician from his trance. It was dark; and the piper, when he first recovered himself, could form no idea either of his numerous companions or his conductors. Instinctively, however, he felt about for his pipes, and playing up a merry Scotch tune, terrified, in no small measure, the carters, who fancied they had got a legion of ghosts in their conveyance. A little time, however, put all to rights;—lights were got, and it turned out that the noisy corpse was the well-kno’wn living piper, who was joyfully released from his awful and perilous situation. The poor man fell badly ill after this unpleasant excursion, and was relieved, during his malady, by his former benefactor, who, to perpetuafe the remembrance of so wonderful an escape, resolved, as soon as his patient had recovered, to employ a sculptor to execute him on stone—not omitting his faithful dog, keg of liquor, &c.

The famous Caius Gabriel Cibber was then in high’ repute, from the circumstance of his having executed the beautiful figures which originally were placed on the entrance gate of old Bethlem Hospital; and the statue in question of the Highland bagpiper remains an additional specimen of the merits of this great artist.

It was long after purchased by John the great duke of Argyll, and came from his collection, at his decease, into the possession of the present proprietor.

The statue

The V&A says:

This is a fine example of late 17th-century garden sculpture; its weathered surface is evidence of its exposure to the elements. The subject may be related to genre works produced by the Netherlandish sculptor Pieter Xavery (active 1667-1674), and connections have also been suggested with the bronze statuettes by Giambologna (1529-1608). 1 The sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630-1700) was a native of Denmark, and also studied in the Netherlands and Rome, before settling in England in the 1650s. He was appointed Sculptor in Ordinary to William III, in 1693. Cibber introduced a fluent style of sculpture, as well as new figurative subjects into Britain, thanks to his training in Europe

[…]

This work was probably made for the Duke of Argyll, as it was housed at his house in Whitton for 100 years. It was then moved to 178 Tottenham Court Road occupied by the studio of a sculptor named Hinchliff. Later it was under the possession of Hinchliff’s son, with whom it remained until ca. 1835. At some point it was removed to Stowe House, Buckinghamshire. It was included in the Stowe sale of 1848, sold as lot 134 for £38 17s 0d to a Mr. J Browne. Re-purchased by Mr. Mark Philips. Then in the gardens at Snitterfield, Mr Philip’s seat at Warwickshire. Later in the possession of Sir George Trevelyan at Welcombe. Then included in the sale of garden ornaments held by Sotheby’s in 1929 and bought in for 115. It was then acquired by the museum by private treaty, via Alfred Spero and Kerin Ltd, London in 1930 for 150.

Nothing about plagues or drunks there (though the keg is clearly visible), and, on the other hand, there is no mention of statues in most versions of…

The story

The Viennese myth of der liebe Augustin was fabricated by the prolific historical fantasist, Moritz Bermann, and published in Alt-Wien in Geschichte und Sage in 1865. It combines and locates in Vienna two items with no demonstrable link to one another or to the Austrian capital: firstly, the late 18th century popular song about a beloved and probably fictional wastrel:

Oh you darling Augustine,
Money’s gone, it’s all gone!
2

… and secondly, a much older story about a different person’s drunken escape from a plague pit, and it’s the story we’re interested in. A marketing genius, his creation speaks to the Viennese view of themselves as down-to-earth and darkly humorous (there may have been more truth in that before the empire tumbled in 1914), 3 and his invention still furnishes hope to modern tourists suffering from a surfeit of Habsburgs.

Bermann claims that he has exclusive access to a chronicle of the life of a Max Augustin, who is born in 1643 into a Viennese family of innkeepers. Shunning work, Max earns his living as an itinerant bagpiper in the city’s most disreputable taverns. One night in the plague year of 1679 he is staggering along singing a particularly gloomy version of the title song when he falls into a plague pit. The following morning, having sobered up, he plays his pipes to attract the attention of the corpse carriers, and goes on to die less sensationally in 1705.

Unfortunately for Bermann, the same story, featuring a nameless bagpiper, turns up in Paul de Sorbait’s 1679 Pest-Ordnung, which consists of the plague notes of a fellow Viennese physician, Johann Wilhelm Mannagetta, who died in 1666, 13 years before Max Agustin’s plague. 4 I can’t find the 1679 edition online, so here’s the 1681 reissue:

The same story is told of a bagpiper, who, having fallen asleep in the tavern, was taken for a plague-death, and thrown into the pits on top of other uncovered bodies, but he woke up, and reaching around him, supposed that these were those with whom he had been drinking, and hence to enliven them he pulled his pipes out of the bag and blew, causing no little fright to the corpse carrier who was arriving with another body.

Der gleichen Geschicht erzehlet man auch von einem Sackpfeiffer, welcher im Wirtshauß entschlaffen, für einen Pest-verstorbenen gehalten, und in die Gruben auff andere unbedeckte Cörper geworffen, da er aber erwachte, und umb sich griffen, vermeinte, daß es die jenige wären, mit welchen er getruncken, derowegen vermeinte sie zu ermuntern, zoge auß dem Sack seine Pfeiffe herfür und pfieffe, dardurch dann die mit einer andern Leich ankommende Todtenträger nicht wenig erschreckt hat.

Mannagetta mentions other interments of the undead in Italy (including a woman who gives birth to twins), this kind of thing is quite common in Italian literature (think of the Decameron), and the whole story may well be a southern import, or from Indian, like most things. However, Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is in no doubt that it took place in London, not Vienna, and in 1666, again before Bermann’s date:

It was under this John Hayward’s care, and within his bounds, that the story of the piper, with which people have made themselves so merry, happened, and he assured me that it was true. It is said that it was a blind piper; but, as John told me, the fellow was not blind, but an ignorant, weak, poor man, and usually walked his rounds about ten o’clock at night and went piping along from door to door, and the people usually took him in at public-houses where they knew him, and would give him drink and victuals, and sometimes farthings; and he in return would pipe and sing and talk simply, which diverted the people; and thus he lived. It was but a very bad time for this diversion while things were as I have told, yet the poor fellow went about as usual, but was almost starved; and when anybody asked how he did he would answer, the dead cart had not taken him yet, but that they had promised to call for him next week.

It happened one night that this poor fellow, whether somebody had given him too much drink or no—John Hayward said he had not drink in his house, but that they had given him a little more victuals than ordinary at a public-house in Coleman Street—and the poor fellow, having not usually had a bellyful for perhaps not a good while, was laid all along upon the top of a bulk or stall, and fast asleep, at a door in the street near London Wall, towards Cripplegate-, and that upon the same bulk or stall the people of some house, in the alley of which the house was a corner, hearing a bell which they always rang before the cart came, had laid a body really dead of the plague just by him, thinking, too, that this poor fellow had been a dead body, as the other was, and laid there by some of the neighbours.

Accordingly, when John Hayward with his bell and the cart came along, finding two dead bodies lie upon the stall, they took them up with the instrument they used and threw them into the cart, and, all this while the piper slept soundly.

From hence they passed along and took in other dead bodies, till, as honest John Hayward told me, they almost buried him alive in the cart; yet all this while he slept soundly. At length the cart came to the place where the bodies were to be thrown into the ground, which, as I do remember, was at Mount Mill; and as the cart usually stopped some time before they were ready to shoot out the melancholy load they had in it, as soon as the cart stopped the fellow awaked and struggled a little to get his head out from among the dead bodies, when, raising himself up in the cart, he called out, ‘Hey! where am I?’ This frighted the fellow that attended about the work; but after some pause John Hayward, recovering himself, said, ‘Lord, bless us! There’s somebody in the cart not quite dead!’ So another called to him and said, ‘Who are you?’ The fellow answered, ‘I am the poor piper. Where am I?’ ‘Where are you?’ says Hayward. ‘Why, you are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you.’ ‘But I an’t dead though, am I?’ says the piper, which made them laugh a little though, as John said, they were heartily frighted at first; so they helped the poor fellow down, and he went about his business.

I know the story goes he set up his pipes in the cart and frighted the bearers and others so that they ran away; but John Hayward did not tell the story so, nor say anything of his piping at all; but that he was a poor piper, and that he was carried away as above I am fully satisfied of the truth of.

And the only earlier published source I can find for the story is also British: Thomas Middleton & Thomas Dekker’s The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie: Or, The Walkes in Powles (1604), which deals with the 1603 London plague outbreak. Its form is even simpler than Mannagetta/Sorbait: the drunkard dumped in the plague pit has neither name nor bagpipes:

[T]his that I discourse of now is a prettie merrie accident that happened about Shoreditch, although the intent was Sad and Tragicall, yet the euent was mirthfull and pleasant: The goodman (or rather as I may fitlier tearme him, the bad-man of a House) being sorely pesterd with the death of seruants, and to auoyde all suspition of the Pestilence from his house aboue all others, did very craftily and subtilly compound with the Maisters of the Pest-cart, to fetch away by night as they hast by, all that should chance to die in his house, hauing three or foure seruants downe at once, and told them that he knew one of them would be readie for them by that time the Cart came by, and to cleare his house of all suspition, the dead body should bee laide upon a stall, some fiue or sixe houses of: where, there they should entertaine him and take him in amongst his dead companions: To conclude, night drewe on-ward, and the seruant concluded his life, and according to their appointment was enstalde to be made Knight of the Pest-cart. But here comes in the excellent Jest, Gentlemen-Gallants of fiue and twentie, about the darke and pittifull season of the night: a shipwracke drunkard, (or one drunke at the signe of the Ship,) new cast from the shore of an Alehouse, and his braines sore beaten with the cruell tempests of Ale and Beere, fell Flounce vpon a lowe stall hard by the house, there being little difference in the Carcasse, for the other was dead, and he was deaddrunke, (the worse death of the twaine) there taking vp his drunking Lodging, and the Pest-cart comming by, they made no more adoo, but taking him for the dead Bodie, placed him amongst his companions, and away they hurred with him to the Pest-house: but there is an oulde Prouerbe, and now confirmed true, a Druncken man neuer takes harme: to the Approbation of which, for all his lying with infectious Bedfellowes, the next morning a little before he should be buried, he stretcht and yawnde as wholesomly, as the best Tinker in all Banburie, and returned to his olde Vomit againe, and was druncke in Shoreditch before Euening.

However, Johann Heinrich von Falckenstein, Civitatis Erffurtensis historia critica et diplomatica (1739) 5 claims to have seen documents showing that in 1517 a drunken beggar called fell into and escaped from a plague pit without the aid of bagpipes (dodgy translation?):

Around Michaelmas there arose in the city a great mortality from a plague outbreak. At the Canons Regular [i.e. the Augustinians], 60 bodies were put in a pit in one go. The hole was covered over at night with boards. There was at the time in Erfurt a beggar, a rogue called Schuch, who that evening wanders drunkenly through the churchyard and arrives at the board-covered pit, in which the dead bodies were laid in layers; and since the boards weren’t fixed properly, the drunken Schuch falls in. But because he was so drunk that he could no longer hear nor see, he remained lying among the dead as one of them. When he wakes up in the morning he imagines he is lying somewhere else and reached around him; but, perceiving that he found himself among the dead, he began to lament: and although the people in the neighbourhood heard him, no one dared to go to him, since they believed that it was one of the dead who had come back to life, or that the noise and wailing came from a ghost. But around nine o’clock when new corpses were brought to the pit to be buried, they found in it the rogue, the beggar Schuch.

Um Michaelis erhub sich in der Stadt ein grosses Sterben von der eingerissenen Pestilenz. Zum Reglern legete man auf einmahl in eine Grube 60. Cörper. Das Loch legete man des Nachts zu mit Bretern. Da war nun damahls in Erfurt ein Bettler, ein Grundschalck, Schuch genannt, derselbe gehet des Abends besoffen über den Kirchhof, und kommt zu der mit Bretern oben bedeckten Grube, worein die todten Cörper Schichten weise geleget wurden; indem nun die Breter nicht allzufest geleget waren, so fällt der besoffene Schuch hinein. Weil er aber so sehr bezecht war, daß er von feinen Sinnen nicht wußte, also blieb er auch unter denen Todten, gleich als ein Todter mitliegen. Wie er des Morgens erwachet, vermeint er, er liege an einem anderen Orte, grieff um sich; wie er aber wahrnahm, daß er sich unter denen Todten befande, fing er an zu lamentiren: Und ob es schon die Leute in der Nachbahrschafft höreten, so getrauete sich doch niemand hinzu zugehen, weilen fie vermeinten, es wäre einer von denen Todten entweder wieder lebendig geworden, oder das Getöß und Lamentiren komme von einem Gespenste her. Als man aber gegen neun Uhr wiederum Verstorbene zur Grube brachte, um dieselbe dahinein zu begraben, so fand man den Grundschalck, den Bettler Schuch darinnen.

A motif summary:

Questions

  1. Is there any prior information linking Cibber’s statue with the plague, or is the story published in The flowers of literature merely a charming falsehood like Bermann’s?
  2. Wouldn’t a copy of the statue, complete with a plaque with the story, true or false, work rather well on the pedestrianised junction of Tottenham Court Road with Howland Street, opposite 178? You could advertise the V&A & add a silver lining to the dreadful shadow cast by the Bloomsbury Group over the touristic prospects of the area. Calling Linus Rees and Fitzrovia News… This vulgar Orpheus would of course be happy to contribute songs of death and disaster at the unveiling.
  3. How many small mammals would we have to add to the story before it overtook the Pied Piper of Hamelin?
  4. Does the story tie up with the not entirely pointless tradition of (annoying) beggars, spoons virtuosi and amped guitarists being killed or humiliated as scapegoats? For example, this note in Charpentier (trans.), Oeuvres complètes de Virgile (1831):

    When the plague raged in Marseille, a miserable person, a beggar was chosen, who, after having been fed and fattened at the expense of the public purse, was sacrificed.

    Lorsque la peste régnait à Marseille, on choisissait un misérable, un mendiant, qui, après, avoir été nourri et engraissé aux frais du trésor public, était sacrifié.

    Or Philostratus, Life of Apollonius:

    when the plague began to rage in Ephesus, and no remedy sufficed to check it, they sent a deputation to Apollonius, asking him to become physician of their infirmity; and he thought that he ought not to postpone his journey, but said: “Let us go.”

    And forthwith he was in Ephesus, performing the same feat, I believe, as Pythagoras, who was in Thurii and Metapontum at one and the same moment. He therefore called together the Ephesians, and said: “Take courage, for I will today put a stop to the course of the disease.”

    And with these words he led the population entire to the the theater, where the image of the Averting god has been set up. And there he saw what seemed an old mendicant artfully blinking his eyes as if blind, as he carried a wallet and a crust of bread in it; and he was clad in rags and was very squalid of countenance. Apollonius therefore ranged the Ephesians around him and said: “Pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods.”

    Now the Ephesians wondered what he meant, and were shocked at the idea of murdering a stranger so manifestly miserable; for he was begging and praying them to take mercy upon him. Nevertheless Apollonius insisted and egged on the Ephesians to launch themselves on him and not let him go. And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar who had seemed to blink and be blind, gave them all a sudden glance and his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognized that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.

    After a little pause Apollonius bade them remove the stones and acquaint themselves with the wild animal they had slain. When therefore they had exposed the object which they thought they had thrown their missiles at, they found that he had disappeared and instead of him there was a hound who resembled in form and look a Molossian dog, but was in size the equal of the largest lion; there he lay before their eyes, pounded to a pulp by their stones and vomiting foam as mad dogs do. Accordingly the statue of the Averting god, Heracles, has been set up over the spot where the ghost was slain.

Stuff

  1. I thought of the 16th century Pfeifferbrunnen (piper fountain) statue in Berne, which has a goose instead of a dog.



  2. James J. Fuld, The Book of World-famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk (2000) is pretty good on the tune, though I think his first date is 10 years early. A couple of early dates:

    See also Polly put the kettle on, which sounds to me like a parody of the German song, and other stuff like Did you ever see a lassie and Daar wordt aan de deur geklopt, and I’ve heard of a Czech version.

  3. Freud’s story in Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud. Life and Work, Vol. 2 (1955) about the young Mahler rushing out onto the street to escape warring parents and being confronted with an organ-grinder playing “Ach, du lieber Augustin” is probably less about who he was than about who he wanted to be – a transfigurer of the commonplace.
  4. Via Gertraud Schaller-Pressler in Wien, Musikgeschichte: Volksmusik und Wienerlied (2006).
  5. Via Johannes Nohl, Der schwarze Tod – Eine Chronik der Pest 1348 bis 1720 (1st ed. 1924). Nohl also mentions one Kumpan in 1549 Danzig/Gdansk, who I haven’t managed to trace.

Christmas carousels

Impossible automata for my street organ this holiday season. Featuring Georg Büchner, Ignaz Bruder, German Christmas pyramids, dancing Hasidim, Lieutenant Kijé as you’ve probably never seen it, Le Tigre, and a crustacean.

The other day someone sent me some of the excellent light verse produced at Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ photogenic waiting room for Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Doing a bit of backreading, I met up again with the barrel-organ metaphysics (more another time) of Reinhard Heydrich, Butcher of Bohemia and Moravia. That same someone then sent me the source of that story -Lina Heydrich, Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher (“Life with a War Criminal”, 1976)- and located in the final chorus of Heydrich Senior’s sentimental opera, Das Leierkind (“The Barrel-Organ Child”), 1 the quote in question:

Ja, die Welt ist nur ein Leierkasten,
den unser Herrgott selber dreht,
und jeder muss nach dem Liede tanzen,
das grad’ auf der Walze steht.

An alternative translation:

Yes, the world is but a barrel-organ
Which our Lord God himself doth grind,
And all must dance unto the song
With which the cylinder is tined. 2

You can’t (always) blame fathers for their sons. Heydrich Senior is merely echoing the blows of fate/fateful bellows attributed to organ-grinders in 18th and 19th century romantic fiction – Büchner’s ballad singer’s quasi-Lutheranism announcing Marie’s betrayal with the drum-major of Woyzeck (1837), for example:

Auf der Welt ist kein Bestand,
Wir müssen alle sterben,
das ist uns wohlbekannt.

Gregory Motton:

On earth we can’t abide,
We all must die
As everybody knows. 3

Topical lyrics of this type had their visual counterpoint in ballad busking in a) proto-PowerPoint illustrations, and/or b) social and occasionally political automated tableaux which, along with bellows and barrel, ran off the crank on many Black Forest organs. The latter seem to have developed from the the region’s weight-powered flute clock automata, and Ignaz Bruder of Waldkirch (1780-1845) is their best-known manufacturer:

They offer more wide-ranging but less precise theatrics than my splendid organ-god – none of them beat 4/4 or 3/4:

But let’s cut to the chase. Automations seen this Christmas which I might try to add to the organ if I were a rich wastrel:

  1. I met a nice small candle-powered Christmas pyramid/Weihnachtspyramide at the German Deli in Hackney Wick. Here‘s a similar one:

    I’d go for a triple-decker cranked version populated with home-made figures representing farmers, warriors and priests, or promotors, policemen, and bureaucrats, crowned by an organ-grinder. Say no to electrically-powered Star Wars scenes:

    Large municipal executions have also become popular over the last couple of decades. Like the one above, to eliminate draughts and working people they are usually mains-powered and use decorative lightbulb candles and recorded music:

    I think I recall seeing a very large hybrid incorporating a carousel ride at a fair I played at once in Germany, but I can’t find anything on YouTube and I was probably tipsy.

  2. A bunch of (male) Haredim hand-in-hand, observed dancing around in a circle outside a house on Stamford Hill, London, humming a song. They were rather like this:

    … but actually reminded me more of vlöggelen/vlöggeln at Easter at Ootmarsum in the (Roman Catholic) eastern Netherlands:

  3. Everyone knows the sleigh ride/troika from the Prokofiev’s orchestral suite:

    … but the virtually unknown eponymous film (1934), with its Hitlerian Emperor Paul I, is quite marvellous, and the robotic servants of the machine society -how un-Soviet!- are simply dying for recycling:

    Work is said to be underway on a device that will coordinate music playback with video in order to enable me to (write music for and) accompany (suitably edited) films.

  4. “Deceptacon” by Le Tigre (ta, SG), which, like the Fellini / Rota partnership, surely owes a lot to the Kijé generation:

  5. A lobster. Robert Conquest’s paraphrase of Shakespeare’s take on the ages of man in As you like it:

    Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
    Then very pissed-off with your schooling
    Then fucks, and then fights
    Next judging chaps’ rights
    Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.

    The path to the pot is plagued by good purpose. The DG’s splendid adjunct auntie S has a pet herring gull, rescued as a broken-winged chick, and loves animals. 4 Having plied the organ-grinder with champagne and milk-based vodka, the DG announced to her that the organ-grinder had a pet lobster, rather like Gérard de Nerval:

    Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? …or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn’t mad.

    “Oh, how wonderful,” she exclaimed. “And where do you keep it?!”

    But the organ-top would be a more impressive and in many ways satisfactory location.

Stuff to avoid: Google’s winter solstice doodle, which is a perpetual motion con (no candle or crank needed) and a blasphemy – their logo replaces the Christmas pyramid’s seraphim. 5

Stuff

  1. Anyone got a score?
  2. Tined? Wassat?
  3. I like Motton’s first line -I was looking for a two-syllable noun meaning permanence- but I’d also like to hang onto the Bestand/bekannt rhyme. Motton says Leierkasten is a hurdy-gurdy, which is quite reasonable, and the BBC turns it into a simple violin, which is pretty naughty given their wealth.
  4. Though she was enjoying her beef stew.
  5. Milton says (Samson Agonistes (1671)) that seraphim can play trumpets in between singing the old “Holy, holy, holy!” or whatever else they get up to:

    Where the bright Seraphim in burning row
    Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow,
    And the Cherubick host in thousand quires
    Touch their immortal harps of golden wires

So where does Silvio Berlusconi stand on organ-grinders?

Unfortunately Alan Friedman’s excellent authorised bio, My Way, leaves us none the wiser.

Older readers may recall the PDL’s successful “showgirl” candidate list for the 2009 European Parliament elections. Gabriele Cappelletti wrote that

Berlusconi is not the cause, but rather the consequence, the inevitable and fatal embodiment of the Italian Way (sistema-italia) matured from the Renaissance until today… If Italians lost their heads over organ-grinders 1 instead of beautiful women, Berlusconi would surely have found a way to nominate an entire band.

Friedman’s book is, as he says, an intimate portrait. However, though it throws more light on Berlusconi’s early career as a musical entertainer, it fails to answer this most burning of questions for non-Italians.

Talking the other with someone else about Italian organ-grinders in Greater Russia, I learned about Berlusconi’s efforts, recently rewarded in controversial circumstances, to get his friend Putin to recognise the suffering of Russian Italians under Stalin and have them added to the official list of persecuted minorities. Did this gesture include, he wondered, a nod to the people who brought civilised street music and puppet theatre to Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa in the early nineteenth century?

Or is my blogging this here simply a sign of incipient echolalia, barrel organ syndrome?

Stuff

  1. In fairness, suonatori d’organetto may also be accordionists, and that’s probably the most instinctive translation for most Italians.

There’s so much brilliant German shit on YouTube

Was: How pleased I am to find both the Zarah Leander and the Nina Hagen versions of “Ich weiß, es wird einmal ein Wunder gescheh’n” on the line.

Someone now on another side used to put on a wobbly Zarah cassette when we did leather gigs over in the Federal Republic, and her sombre timbre recalls dark drunken nights on the way home, swerving back and forth over tree-lined moon-dappled country roads in the minibus to get rabbits for Sunday lunch:

She’s by far the most compelling singer in German from the second half of the 30s, partly no doubt because of Hitler’s curious decision to guarantee American domination of the entertainment industry by exiling half of Germany’s creative class in a westerly direction and murdering the rest to the east. But I’ve no doubt she’d have shone amidst better than the following appalling rubbish, posted by my good friend the ex-president:

I believe Nina Hagen figured she was what Zarah Leander could have been:

Even when she was on Planet P-Funk:

Let’s be honest: Madonna was so utterly, hopelessly inadequate:

In 1981, Hagen her daughter Cosma Shiva to the world. The father is the 1988 late Dutch guitarist Ferdinand Karmelk . in 1987 married Hagen in a “punk wedding” on Ibiza the then 17-year-old musician “Iroquois” from the London squat scene. After only one week separated the pair again. In 1989, she was romantically involved with the Frenchman Frank Chevalier, from this relationship comes a son. In May 1996, Hagen married the 15 years younger than David Lynn. The couple separated in 2000 In January 2004, Hagen married the 22 years younger Danish singer Lucas Alexander Breinholm. The separation took place in January 2005 From 2005 to 2010 Hagen was associated with a 28 years younger physiotherapists in Canada. Since 1982, Hagen is a vegetarian. She settled in August 2009 in Schüttorf of Pastor Karl-Wilhelm ter Horst reformed Protestant baptism. .

Post-war was pretty grim for reasons already outlined, but in the 60s came the spaghetti versions of the Wild West novels of Karl May (the German Zane Grey – he didn’t actually change his name to match, unlike Francisco González Ledesma aka Silver Kane, the late, Spanish equivalent). Older Dutchpersons tend to think of cowboys and Indians as German-speaking, because until quite late in the 20th century there was no daytime Dutch television, so they all watched the German channels:

And then, at long last, with Beethoven and Goethe getting restless in their graves, Zarah Leander’s old employers signed Siggi Götz, the Bavarian Benny Hill (does that make him the fastest milkman in the East?), to return German culture to pre-Hitlerian heights:

[
Fassbinder’s Lola, a distressingly brilliant swords-to-JCBs film, is also up there, again courtesy of Richard:

I sing Capri-Fischer, whose message from the Wirtschaftswunderbar is: why send troops to [Italy|whatever] when you can buy it:

Although I’m probably a bit more like a bovine Gracie Fields:


]

Dos entrevistas con organilleros

Un italiano en Boston College en 1937, y un chileno con organillo falso en 2011.

Existe un debate sobre si el “Harmoni-pan/Harmonipan” era un producto genérico o no. Los organillos con cilíndros perdieron la guerra con las máquinas con rollos de cartón/papel a principios del siglo XX, pero no siempre se dieron cuenta, porque a mucha gente les daba igual si el instrumento podía tocar 8 o 80 canciones.

Si alguien en Barcelona o Londres o más allá tiene uno, me gustaría hacerlo un exámen.

Pero las entrevistas. Primero Bonfiglio Guglielmetti:

When organ grinders swing with “Organ Grinder’s Swing” the boys gather round in droves to hear the music play. At least, such was the case during the week when a distinguished organ grinder, Bonfiglio Guglielmetti of 16 Salem Street, Boston, visited the College. Arriving unexpectedly and playing his theme song, he immediately drew a crowd and commenced to cater to their musical desires, limited only by the eight tunes which his organ contained.

Genially and willingly and with a sense of humor which added to his air of savoir-faire and nonchalance, Mr. Guglielmetti submitted to an exclusive interview for the Heights with Vincent J. Ventrone ’39, of baseball fame, acting as interpreter.

In this indirect fashion, it was learned that Mr. Guglielmetti is a married man with four children. He is a native of the city of Piacenza, Italy, and first came to this country fifteen years ago. Since then he has returned to the old country three times, the last time wo years ago. He diplomatically confided that he likes both countries equally well but brought out the fact that there is a difference beween the two. For whereas he was accustomed to eating in Italy, he has lost the habit over here due to poor business and the fact that he can find nothing else to do but push the organ handle.

This organ, marked on the side with the words “Harmoni-pan, Frati and Co., Berlin”, it was revealed, is a relic of its kind for it was made in Germany over a hundred years ago [sic]. It is plain except for a few untranslatable seals decorating it and contains eight tunes – “no hot ones” – which are changed approximately once a year. No monkey goes with the outfit for sanitary reasons; and then, too, he considers that would be one more mouth to feed.

Etc etc.

También hay organillos falsos – una caja bonita (o no) con dentro un reproductor de CDs. Se nota por varias cosas, incluso un cambio drámatico de sonido. Hay un organillero muy gitano con uno en Barcelona, que me encanta, pero a quien no le apetece hacer frikadas conmigo. Este vive en Chile:

Cuentos, Canta, borrachos, y demás noticias