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.

From Charles Trenet, two musical De Gaulle anecdotes

Re the songs, L’âme des poètes and Douce France.

L’âme des poètes/The poets’ soul

Trenet’s 1951 song-about-a-song is a tribute to his friend, the poet Max Jacob, who died en route to Auschwitz in 1944. Long, long, long after the poets have disappeared, their songs still walk the streets. The crowd sings them, slightly absent-mindedly, ignorant of the author’s name, not knowing for whom their hearts beat. Sometimes we change a word, a phrase, and when we run out of ideas, we sing la la la:

Longtemps, longtemps, longtemps
Après que les poètes ont disparu
Leurs chansons courent encore dans les rues
La foule les chante un peu distraite
En ignorant le nom de l’auteur
Sans savoir pour qui battait leur coeur
Parfois on change un mot, une phrase
Et quand on est à court d’idées
On fait la la la la la la
La la la la la la

The anecdote:

In 1965 Charles Trenet is presented to General de Gaulle on the occasion of the annual gala of the Ministry of Justice. The Head of State says to him: “You know, I mentioned you this morning in the Council of Ministers. I said to them, ‘And above all, remember that long, long, long after you have disappeared, your decrees will still walk the streets.'”

Douce France/Sweet France

The French Wikipedia entry suggests a link between the commonplace taken as the title of this song, issued in 1943, and the 11th century Chanson de Roland, in which Roland dies fighting the Muslims at Roncesvalles, 1 his gaze fixed on Spain but his mind recalling sweet France:

Le comte Roland s’étendit dessous un pin.
Vers l’Espagne, il a tourné son visage.
Bien des choses lui reviennent en mémoire,
Tant de terres que le baron conquit,
La douce France, les hommes de son lignage,
Charlemagne, son seigneur qui l’éleva.
Il ne peut s’empêcher de pleurer et de soupirer.

Mad Beppo: Dear land of my childhood, I have kept you, cradled with tender thoughtlessness, in my heart:

Cher pays de mon enfance
Bercée de tendre insouciance
Je t’ai gardée dans mon cœur

The anecdote:

General de Gaulle visits Quebec, where the band, instead of striking up La Marseillaise, plays Douce France. The General doesn’t bat an eyelid and stands to attention.

I got to know Trenet’s repertoire via an artistic dynasty in Barcelona, which had a well-worn disc of La Mer from the early 1960s:

The clear barrel organ allusions in the arrangement of L’âme des poètes at the beginning of this post thus remind me of grandma, who inter alia created puppets like this Madrilenian dance scene with pianola which is currently in the marionette museum at Tibidabo:

Stuff

  1. Roland seems to have suffered a cerebral haemorrhage as a result of blowing the elephant horn. I believe this to be the first self-inflicted death by aerophone on record. Joshua’s trumpets at Jericho must have caused considerable loss of life, but afaik there were no recursive (or even friendly fire) casualties.

Where did Petersburg’s organ-grinders go in winter?

I fear only some of them migrated with the swallows. Featuring Boris Sadovskoy, Yuri Norstein, Aleksey Batalov, Rolan Bykov and Gogol.

Two films Friday night: Tralala Land, a preppy ramble contra elevator music, set to elevator music (Slate/Observer/Vice); then Aleksey Batalov and Rolan Bykov’s extraordinary 1959 version of “The Greatcoat” (in which story Gogol showed Russians how to write) – similar percentage of jazz, but with proper dancing (staggering), a professional score, drinking, smoking, crime, heartfelt singing… No organ grinders, though:


English: click the subtitle icon and select from the gear icon.

Grigorovich touches on the fate of the Petersburg organ-grinders during winter, which was marginally better than that of the livestock left to freeze to death in Haymarket Square in order to save on their pre-sale bed & breakfast. The following anecdote hints at what must have been a dreadful experience (translation corrections welcome). It’s from the the recollections of Boris Sadovskoy, one of the most curious literary figures in the run-up to the October Revolution, which is saying quite something, and posh but not preppy:

Many organ-grinders roamed Lower [Petersburg], 1 playing Italian arias and the inevitable Kamarinskaya. 2 During the winter of 1897, a couple of organ-grinders strayed into the shared courtyard. One turned the handle of the box while the other beat the tambourine dashingly and whistled like a nightingale. The latter was a cheerful, tough lad in a fashionable, fur jacket. In spring they played again, haggard, grim, in rags. The boy somehow whistled Kamarinskaya and stretched out to my window a ragged cap with a pitiful, pleading smile. He could barely stand from weakness. They visited the courtyard along with a classic Petrushka. From behind the screen, to the sounds of the barrel organ, jumped in turn his bride, the soldier, the apothecary, and the devil.

По Нижнему бродило много шарманщиков. Игрались итальянские арии и неизбежный камаринский. Зимой 1897 г. два шарманщика зашли на удельный двор. Один вертел ручку ящика, другой лихо бил в бубен и свистал как соловей. Это был веселый крепкий парень в щегольском полушубке. Весной они играли опять, испитые, угрюмые, в лохмотьях. Парень кое-как просвистал камаринского, протянул к моему окну рваный картуз с жалкой умоляющей улыбкой. Он еле стоял от слабости. Заходил к нам на двор и классический Петрушка. Из-за ширм, под звуки шарманки, выскакивали поочередно невеста, солдат, аптекарь и черт.

“The Overcoat” the world has been awaiting for the last 40 years is Yuri Norstein’s:

I’m confident there won’t be any barrel organs in that either. But, as you know, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Stuff

  1. Nieder-/Ober-? Can’t find anyone else who classifies Petersburg geography this way. Class – lowlife? Then why the capitalisation?
  2. Early and quickly ubiquitous nationalist ditty-dance by Glinka – a kind of Russian Birdie Song. The least dull version features Donald Byrne and Bobby Fischer:

Donald for Dalai Lama, or Pope, or Caliph, or something

A Trump Taj Mahal Casino multitrack jukebox, to help make religion rather better than it has been, again.

The most profound spiritual experience I’ve ever had was when, on my first visit to Atlantic City, I entered Trump’s Taj Mahal casino. 1 Louis C.K. recently recalled the devotional nature of some of the great man’s following – all great poissons have groupies:

“I saw this thing happening where buses were showing up from all over the country but with little old ladies from places like Ohio and Tennessee to Atlantic City … and they filed in to the Trump casino. They take what little they have. They have nothing! They take that nothing, the little tiny scraps, and they turn it into chips and they pour buckets of money into his machines. Then [Trump] showed up and he just walks around,” C.K. said, making a face like Trump surveying the scene. “And it wasn’t like, ‘Hi, folks, thanks for coming.’ It wasn’t like that at all. That’s not what he represented. That was what was fascinating to me. He didn’t say, ‘Thank you’ to anyone. He just walked around miserable-looking. And when I was in the elevator with him, I looked at his face and he just looked miserable. And everyone’s like ‘Donald!’ So excited to see him. And they’re giving him everything, and he has everything, right? And they’re leaving on the same bus with nothing, just ruining their lives. I saw this as a reverse charity, like a weird kind of charity. These old women, they don’t need anything. … They live in a shitty place and they have two dollars, and they’re like, ‘Eh, I don’t need it — it’s OK, he needs it!’ If he looks in the mirror, and he has 10 dollars, he’s going to kill himself. He has a $10 billion deficit in his heart. So if he doesn’t have that much money, he’s nothing. So they were like, ‘Donald, you take this!’ They come from miles around to give to him because they’re invested in his happiness. It’s so big, this desperate hole that people come from all over [to fill it].”

Louis misses what is perhaps the crucial element in this popular American Buddhist ritual: the wall of sound, ever changing, never changing. Friends, can up your ears, play simultaneously the following slot-machine videos, shifting volumes up and down to simulate the full walk-around experience, and you may then inkle something of the day my brain changed for ever:

The aural bath I’ve had that comes closest to the all-embracing profundity of the world’s megacasinos is Stravinsky’s portrayal of the Petersburg Shrovetide Fair in Petrushka, inspired in part by Grigorovich’s 1843 essay, here in my version for barrel organ:

Steve Reich tried to achieve a similar effect, but it’s Jesus’ temple post merchants, moneychangers and dove-traders: po-faced and predictable, and there’s no (implicit) bar:

Grigorovich on the Petersburg organ-grinders:

The Italian’s passion for his noble art often goes so far that he will spend entire months improving the barrel-organ; he plasters it with assorted vignettes and ornaments, to its sides he attaches a triangle, sleigh bells, cymbals, and a Turkish drum, he hangs on a larger bell, and, setting everything in motion with a cord tied to his leg, he looks smugly at his brethren, imagining himself owner of the eighth wonder of the world.

[
Страсть к благородному искусству часто простирается до того, что итальянец проводит целые месяцы на улучшение шарманки; он облепливает ее разными фигурками, украшениями, прикрепляет к сторонам ее треугольник, бубенчики, тарелки, турецкий барабан, навешивает колокольчики и, приведя все в движение веревочкою, привязанною к ноге, самодовольно посматривает на своих собратий, воображая себя обладателем восьмого чуда в мире.
]

Donald used to say that his Taj Mahal was the eighth wonder of the world, and maybe he was right, so we’re having duck tomorrow.

Stuff

  1. Disclaimer: My spiritual experience was slightly different when someone explained to me the funding arrangements and the fact that TTM was set up to compete with his smaller casinos there.

A sensational 1810 Parisian fire scene on top of an 1840s Russian barrel organ

But who are the three noseless Austrian ladies?

Before Christmas a kind person sent me Heinrich Riggenbach’s German translation of Dmitri Grigorovich’s 1843 anthropological essay, The Organ-Grinders of St. Petersburg (Петербургские шарманщики), produced for the Zurich publishing house Sanssouci, whose founder, Peter Schifferli, was a notorious barrel-organ enthusiast. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but some questions remained unanswered, such as the function of the automata of Napoleon and three noseless, foil-clad Austrian ladies, observed by Grigorovich on top of a small organ:

Napoleon mit blauem Rock und Dreispitz dreht sich um Damen ohne Nase, die von Kopf bis Fuss mit Folien beklebt sind. Ist der Besitzer dieser Kostbarkeit ein Italiener, dann wird er bestimmt ein Gespräch mit euch anknüpfen und es nicht unterlassen, tüchtig auf Napoleon zu schimpfen, und weiss Gott warum, auf die österreichischen Damen, die sich mit ihm drehen, wenn er die Bedeutung der Puppen der Reihe nach erklärt.

Riggenbach makes no comment, so I got hold of the Russian original:

Наполеона в синем фраке и треугольной шляпе, вертящегося вокруг безносых дам, с ног до головы облепленных фольгою. Если владелец этого сокровища итальянец, то он непременно вступит с вами в разговор и, объясняя значение каждой куклы порознь, не утерпит, чтоб не выбранить хорошенько Наполеона и бог весть почему кружащихся с ним австрийских дам.

… discovered a series of minor elisions during the entire course of Riggenbach’s translation, and foolishly thought I’d translate the whole thing into English & elucidate during festive downtime. I got to the Austrian ladies, still had no idea what they represented, and googled around. First find was Arkadiy Haimovich Goldenberg’s 2009 article about a dilettante organ-grinder and wastrel in Gogol’s Dead Souls, “What is Nozdryov singing with the barrel organ?” (“О чем поет шарманка Ноздрева?”), which suggests that the ladies might be images of death accompanying an early 18th century French song set during the War of the Spanish Succession, Malbrook s’en va-t-en guerre, which had become popular in various (updated and/or localised) forms across Europe.

Second up was a Thomas G. Marullo‘s translation – hitherto unknown to me – of Grigorovich’s piece and the rest of the 1844 Nekrasov anthology, Petersburg: The Physiology of a City:

a figurine of Napoleon, dressed in a blue coat and a three-cornered hat, twirling about the figures of ladies who are without noses and who are covered from head to foot with shiny foil. If the owner of this treasure is Italian, he will invariably engage you in conversation. He will explain to you the significance of each and every puppet, and for your benefit, he will not restrain from scolding Napoleon and the Austrian ladies who twirl about him. (God knows why.)

His explanation:

In 1810 Napoleon divorced the childless Josephine and married Marie-Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I. As a result, the Austrian court had little choice bur to submit fully to Napoleon’s many prescriptions and demands.

Immediately more convincing, but I doubted whether Russian peasants would really appreciate such elderly geopolitical metaphor, so I googled again, and came up with a third idea which I believe fits the bill.

Napoleon’s wedding in 1810 was celebrated with a great ball organised by the Austrian Ambassador to Paris, Karl Philipp von Schwarzenberg. The hall caught fire, killing a dozen or so, predominantly women because their clothing was more flammable. This created a European sensation, mostly for the manner of death of the most celebrated victim. Karl Philipp’s sister-in-law, Pauline, “was discovered under the remains of the burnt timber of the ball-room. She had succeeded in extricating herself, but had returned in search of her children, not having seen them effect their escape.” 1

If Pauline is the first Austrian portrayed on the organ-top, the second is probably Maria Pauline, her daughter, who was severely burned and died aged 23 in 1821. 2

As to the third, Rovigo lists three other female victims, amongst whom you may wish to choose: Sophia Theresia Walpurgis, Countess von der Leyen, Rhineland nobility; the wife of the Russian consul-general; and the wife of a French artillery officer, Touzard.

I don’t really know whether to finish the translation. On the one hand, translating something far beyond one’s capabilities is, along with pillow dictionaries and the composition of doggerel, a crucial step in learning a language; I can certainly contribute from a musical perspective; and selling little books is proving a nice little sideline. On the other, life is short and busy, and Marullo is obviously rather good anyway.

Animated Napoleonic scenes are quite common on top of Germanic barrel organs, but I don’t know of an illustration of this particular example. Tips welcome!

¡A por los títeres!

La feria madrileña imita a Petruskha.

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.

Hanseatic legionaries, playing at Waterloo and at Punch and Judy

A Hamburg organ-grinder’s dad at Waterloo, and whatever happened to his son’s Drehorgellieder?

Wikipedia implies that the Hanseatics saw no action after their triumphal entry into Bremen, Hamburg und Lübeck on June 30th, 1814, but they seem to have fought again in 1815. Here from Johannes Rabe’s excellent & principally oral history of Hamburg Kasper (Punch and Judy) puppeteers, Kasper Putschenelle: Historisches über die Handpuppen und Althamburgische Kasperszenen (1911) is an anecdote from the life of drum major Georg Heinrich Christoph Küper of Hanover. Küper joined the French in 1810 and may have gone to Russia, but in 1813, along with Napoleon’s other German allies, he smartly deserted them and joined the Legion, with whom he left for the Low Countries and even lower German in 1815. Like Thackeray in Vanity Fair, Rabe doesn’t describe the battle:

In the neighbourhood of Brussels and Antwerp one morning they marched off to the left, so that the 2nd Hamburg Battalion was at the head. Someone gave money to the child-beggars, who, turning somersaults and crying “Vivent les Anséates!”, ran alongside the battalion, and indicated to them that they should cry “Vive le tambourmajor Küper! Vive Leschew!” 1 to the following battalion. The instruction was promptly followed and elicited from those concerned the astonished utterance, “What the devil, how do the damned boys know our names!”, producing Homeric laughter in the battalion.

I am glad that Georg followed the money and ended up on the right side, because otherwise he probably would not have fathered son Georg in 1826, and Hamburg would have been deprived of a terrific puppeteer and organ-grinder. (And I hope someone makes the necessary changes to the Wikipedia pages about the Hanseatic Legion: to have been present at Napoleon’s final defeat is nothing to be ashamed of.)

Rabe’s life of Georg Junior, his family and dependants, and mid-century Hamburg urbanism is wonderful. Despite the disastrous culmination of romanticism in 1933, pre-C20th German popular culture online is dominated by idealistic fakelore – for example, the principal folksong archive doesn’t include any industrial era Moritaten. Rabe found in the archives of the municipal library 53 songs credited to Küper, and -despite the best efforts of the Allies- there are surely hundreds of barrel-organ songs out there. But the internet is not the place to look for Küper’s patriotic numbers, nor those about the 1858 comet, crinolines, velocipedes, and sex.

Georg Junior sang and worked mainly in Low German, also imitating other regional dialects of which there may still have been traces then in Hamburg districts. Reading of his exploits produces a tremendous nostalgia in me. One gag of his was also beloved of Hans W. when we made the streets musically unsafe 20 years ago in another border district and in a similar dialect: Küper would stand on a busy street and stare obsessively at a certain point. A crowd would gather round and follow his gaze, whereupon he would suddenly shout, “There! there! did you see it?” “No, no!” they would say, “I didn’t see anything!” “Me neither!” and he was off. Had-je-me-maar would also have understood.

So prizes, then, for anyone who can find the Neues Handwerkslied, dedicated presumably to his wife, “Sophie de hett eenen Küper, doch dat is een groten Süper”, or evidence of his mechanical masterwork, a portrayal of the Californian Gold Rush, documented in his pamphlet Beschreibung der Goldgruben Kaliforniens durch ein mechanisches Kunstwerk nach der Natur hergestellt. OK, or for a picture of Sophie, renowned for her cockiness, her figure and her rendition of the leave-taking song, Two friends stand hand in hand, here in a modern version:

Stuff

  1. A Lieutenant Leschew was killed at Waterloo fighting with British German forces. Did the confusion re the end of the Legion arise because for this last campaign its men were raised outside whatever official channels existed and assigned to British command?

Revenge of the mechanical musical instruments

A version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka for street organ.

Last week I was talking to a puppeteer about doing music theatre, and I thought I’d make a short example of using the street organ to accompany stage action.

As you probably know, Stravinsky’s marvellous ballet Petrushka brings not only a puppet to life: the  Shrovetide fair scene at the beginning uses real musicians to recreate accordions, a barrel organ and a music box.

I thought I’d sweep away the nostalgia and mechanise everything (apart from the video, of course, which is Bolshoi), using the long-lost score which was localised by Stravinsky for the first London performance using English folksongs ;):

More photos of street organists (and of hurdy-gurdy men: they’re distinct) over at Poemas del río Wang.