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:
- the date when his show started at Versailles,
- the date when it was patronised by the royal family there, and
- 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. 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:
- Feu Séraphin: histoire de ce spectacle depuis son origine jusqu’à sa disparition, 1776-1870 (1875), which gives:
- 1772 for the show’s opening in Versailles – no evidence;
- April 1781 for granting of the title Spectacle des Enfants de France – no evidence, the subsequent playbill being apparently undated;
- 1784 for transfer to the Duke of Orléans’ speculative development in the gardens of the Palais-Royal – no evidence.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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:
- Huygens’ use, perhaps in the 1650s, of a projector described by Kircher with a local light source and for entertainment.
- Such a device was shown and commercialised for the elite in Western Europe by Walgensten in the 1660s.
- Leibniz’s thoughts on marionette shadow puppetry in the 1670s.
- 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.
- 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.” 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:
- 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.
- In autumn 1776 he showed Chinese shadows in Petersburg to acclaim.
- 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.
- Some of this appears to have been automated, but my Czech fails me. 9
- 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.”
- 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).  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.  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))
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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:
- Sacre bleu! He didn’t even invent it, and watch him trying to use the state to kill off the competition! ↩
- The preceding pygmy spectacle also sounds good. More Gallic dwarves some other time. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Jouer des proverbes: a society game where the party has to guess the proverb played out by one of their number. ↩
- Grimm’s satire on French operatic decadence, Le petit prophète de Boehmischbroda (1753), is also justly famous, and contains a chapter on marionettes. ↩
Translations from Welsh and Yiddish revealing ornithomancy amongst the 19th century north Welsh and Jewish Lithuanians.
One day about A. D. 550 the blackheaded gulls, flying as usual along the coast of Wales, and scanning the sea sharply for food or any- thing else interesting to a gull, found floating in a coracle — a round, wicker work canoe — a human baby a day or two old, contentedly asleep on a pallet made of a folded purple cloth. Several gulls seized the corners of this cloth and so carried the child to the ledge of the Welsh cliff where they nested, plucked feathers from their breasts to make a soft bed, laid the baby on it, then hastened to fly inland and bring a doe to provide it with milk, for which an angel offered a brazen bell as a cup. There the blessed waif lived for several months; but one day, in the absence of all the gulls, a shepherd discovered the infant and took him down to his hut and his kind wife. The gulls, returning from the sea, heard of this act from the doe. They at once rushed to the shepherd’s cottage, again lifted the babe by the corners of its purple blanket, and bore him back to the ledge of their sea-fronting crag. There he stayed until he had grown to manhood — a man full of laughter and singing and kind words; and the Welsh peasants of the Gower Peninsula revered him and called him Saint Kenneth. 1
Tradition has it that the only Welsh understood by living members of my family is “Here is the news in Welsh,” but here’s a bash at the last of several amusing anecdotes told by David Evans of Carmarthen about a mid-19th century north Welsh patrilineal forebear:
Simon Jones used to get awfully angry with superstitious folk who believed in ghosts, corpse candles and birds etc., but once something happened that shook his faith too. His sister Mary was languishing with tuberculosis and he was called home from Sheffield. On reaching Bala it was already late and he had to walk home to Llanuwchlyn through the dense trees on the Llanycil side of the lake. He was into the trees when suddenly, with uncanny accuracy, a big bird flew past and smote the hat from his head. As if this wasn’t unnerving enough, the bird came past again, wailing terribly, and struck off his hat once more. Now he knew this to be a portent of the certain death of his sister. He crept in terror to Lon, where he found his parents praying, and Ap Vychan watching over Mary. He could not refrain from telling Robert Thomas what he had seen and heard on the road, but to avoid hurting his sister Mary he told his tale in English. Mary understood the word “bird”, and she read in the face of her brother an impression of terror in his telling, so she asked Robert Thomas, after Simon Jones had gone out, “What was Simon, my brother, saying to you, Robert, about a ‘bird’?” He judged it better simply to reveal the story to her, but she, like the common people, who thrust disagreeable things, and death in particular, far from them, said, “Oh, ‘right’ sure I am that we’ll hear in the next few days of the death of our sister-in-law in Sheffield.” That woman was indeed quite poorly at the time, but Mary got the first call after all. 2
I saw a white bird up in the black night
And knew that time would soon put out the light
Of my eyes in the black night. 3
You will know about the serinette and otherwise named mechanical musical instruments which were used to teach melodies to finches. But you may not be aware of the small birds which, working from on top of larger organs, created an extra revenue stream by selecting fortune cards, which were sometimes accompanied by little prizes in unregulated lotteries. Uriah Katzenelenbogen 4 on Russian imperial Lithuania at the beginning of the 20th century:
Birzh was a center of Jewish organ-grinders, in Birzh referred to as loyerleit, certainly originating from the German word Leierkastnman [barrel organ man]. However, in Birzh the word leierman was not connected to the German word leiern [to crank] (play on a barrel organ), but with loyern [to lie in wait for]–to ransack, to wander.
Near Chanukah, scores and scores of Jews with their organs and with small animals and birds–squirrels, white mice and parrots that would draw slips of paper with fortunes from a box–would set out from Birzh through the villages and cities. Rich organ-grinders even had monkeys, a small bear. They would lay aside their barrel organs, animals and little birds and be middle class like everyone else. They would come home at the time of the Days of Awe when, incidentally, the substantial mud started and it was not easy to wander. On simkhas torah, they would carry the old rabbi to the synagogue and celebrate with the Torah.
The organ-grinders’ wives showed off their large earrings and golden bracelets and colorful wide clothing. I remember these women–with open full faces, but with their sad eyes. Their wandering husbands left them in a more permanent loneliness than the wives whose husbands were in America or Africa. The “American women” and the “African women” hoped that they would soon join their husbands. I think that because of their association with monkeys and exotic birds, jaunty young organ-grinders would leave for [South] Africa and Australia in an easier frame of mind than the other young Birzher men. 5
I have found piglets and parrots performing this work for organ-grinders, but as yet no such anecdote with Simon Jones’ personal charm. Suggestions?
Update: I remember that Andreas Pum, the WWI veteran turned organ-grinder in Joseph Roth’s Die Rebellion, gets a parrot called Ignatz to help him in his last job as toilet attendant. It is precisely what he would have liked previously for his barrel organ—except that it doesn’t tell fortunes. He also has a moving relationship with small birds while imprisoned.
- Ernest Ingersoll, Birds in legend, fable and folklore (1923). I also saw my first pair of choughs, or King Arthur and friend pace Ingersoll. ↩
- She died, presumably of tuberculosis, in 1837. Simon Jones, perhaps building on the Sheffield connection (cutlery!), later had a shop in Bala, but unfortunately George Borrow only had eyes for the Anglicans when in 1854 (Wild Wales) he stayed at the White Lion at Bala and went to church in Llanuwchllyn.
Comparison of source and target will reveal that I have adopted common practice among (literary) translators of lonely languages and omitted a phrase that was beyond me—”elai o’i bwyll ar darawiad wrth wrando straeon gwrachïaidd felly, a dywedai, ‘O! yr heu gacen bwci baw.'” I also wonder whether the “religious fellowship” in “Ymlusgodd i’r Lon, a braw arno, a chafodd fod ei rieni yn y gyfeillach grefyddol, ac Ap Vychan yn gwarchod gyda Mary” isn’t more than a way of saying that the parents are praying. And then there are the unknown unknowns. Any assistance gratefully received. ↩
- Translation by A.Z. Foreman. ↩
- “Cat’s elbows”: perhaps the only way of explaining, in the light of the subsequent enthusiastic collaboration of Lithuanian nationalists with the Nazis, how a Jew could have ever identified with their cause to the extent Uriah did. ↩
- JewishGen, in Gloria Berkenstat Freund’s translation. ↩
Featuring Abel and Marguerite Chevalley and their Concise Oxford French Dictionary.
From Abel and Marguerite Chevalley’s intro to the 1934 Concise Oxford French Dictionary:
It is not sufficient to be a Frenchman, even highly educated, if you want to succeed as a French-English lexicographer. Nor can an Englishman, even with first-class honours in French, be guaranteed to find the best English equivalents for French words or idioms. Every living language gets stratified as it grows. Very few people are at home in its different strata. Mrs. Malaprop’s language was probably free of malapropisms when she spoke to her cook, and the most purist précieuse would perpetrate malapropisms of another sort if she had to deal with the butcher and the grocer. Languages are like houses: they must be lived in—from attic to basement—before they can be called ours. The number of people who have become familiar, in this intimate manner, not only with one but with several houses is, of course, limited.
Culture and knowledge are not sufficient. A taste for words as words; an instinct of divination leading in abstracto to the ‘mot juste’, and an insight into the risks and difficulties of others, less gifted; the sporting spirit that sustains, year in year out, a lifelong word-hunt; an acute sense of the correspondences and discrepancies between words of apparently the same sort and sound in two languages that are now frères ennemis and then “heavenly twins’, these are also not enough. A great thing, perhaps the greatest, is to have lived both French and English, meeting on their own ground all conditions of men, and transacting with them all kinds of business; to have travelled, under the sting of necessity, up and down the social order, always in a spirit of comprehensive sympathy but with that touch of amusement that goes to the making of humour. You must have run a hundred times, half angry, half smiling, from loft to cellar before you can flatter yourself that you know every turning, nook, and corner in your own house; and even then you knock your shins against unsuspected obstacles. What if the house were a double affair, more than half built in the air, of metaphors, shadows and shades, and visions, ever changing, ever moving, without perhaps one single exact counterpart in the two enchanted fabrics? I am not sure that the King’s English does in this sense belong to the King rather than to the bricklayer, and the French of France to the Académie rather than to the nearest pub. But I am sure that the lexicographer who has frequented both is also the best prepared for the task. These conditions must be sadly missing in the world of dictionaries.
I’ve been on holiday too long, but that’s still how I feel about borderline Dutch and Low German, and older houses in places like Hamburg and Strasbourg flash me back to ramshackle dwellings in the diseased swamp and blighted heath that separates the bishops of Utrecht and Münster. With other languages the feeling varies from residence through squatting to Airbnb (sorry, I broke the toilet). The Great House of Russian, on the other hand, is often as strange to me as the 60s West End of London to the anthropomartians above. How different the world might have been had Peter the Great spent some of his tobacco revenues on a translation of Erasmus’ proverbs.
The Chevalleys are interesting. Marguerite translated “from the American, English [sic] and Norwegian into French”, and it sounds as if her lexicography echoed the popular Protestant theology of her father, Auguste Sabatier. Abel has a German, but not a French, Wikipedia page because he represented the French state in the exclavation of East Prussia after the Treaty of Versailles. He wrote that “the English novel owes its existence and power to the authors of the 18th century and its prestige to Walter Scott”, and authored a study of Queen Victoria and a Ripper-type novel loosely based on the Beast of Gévaudan. Son Claude was a better mathematician than diplomat, applying from within the Great Satan for a job at the Sorbonne while simultaneously being rude about the artist then known as French science.
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.
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.
- 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. ↩
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.
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.)
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!
Cumulative songs (and monstrous nested stuffing recipes) in Quixote and Estebanillo González, with the grossest video you’ll see today.
Quijote and Estebanillo
One of my favourite English kids’ songs is “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly,” which I know from the Burl Ives version I heard as a child:
Current bedtime reading is La vida y hechos de Estebanillo González, the mid-C17th picaresque of a scoundrel’s adventures in the Thirty Years War. In Captain Stevens’ 1707 English translation, 1, a Spanish cumulative verse like “I know an old lady” is translated by reference to “The house that Jack built”:
My Master is such a Worthy Person, that he had rather see his Servants made much of, than please himself, and therefore he and his Friends never put their Landlords to any more Charge than a Dish of Imperial Stuff’d Meat with an Egg in it. He ask’d me, What that Stuff’d Meat was made of? And I bid him order me a new lay’d Egg, and a Squab Pidgeon, and two Loads of Coals, and to send for a Cobler, with his Nawl and Ends, and a Grave maker, with his Spade, and then he should know what else was wanting, that he might provide it, whilst we were at Work. The Landlord was amaz’d, and went away half beside himself, to get the Necessaries for the ordering of that Dish of Stuff’d Meat. A while after he return’d with all I had demanded, except the two Loads of Coals. I took the Egg and the Squab-Pidgeon, which I Gutted, and cutting it open enough with my Knife, for I had all my Tools about me, clapp’d the Egg into the Belly of it, and then said to him, Now, Sir, take Notice of this Stuff’d Meat, for it is just like the Tale the Children tell of, This is the Stick that beat the Dog, the Dog that bit the Cat, the Cat that kill’d the Mouse, the Mouse that eat the Malt, the Malt that lay in the House that Jack built; for this Egg is in the Pidgeon, the Pidgeon is to be put into a Partridge, the Partridge into a Pheasant, the Pheasant into a Pullet, the Pullet into a Capon, the Capon înto a Turkey, the Turkey into a Kid, the Kid into a Sheep, the Sheep into a Calf, and the Calf into a Cow, all these Creatures are to be Pull’d, Flea’d and Larded, except the Cow, which is to have her Hide on, and as they are thrüst one into another, like to a Nest of [English ]Boxes, the Cobler is to Sew every one up with an End, that they may not slip out; and when they are all fast Sew’d into the Cows Belly, the Grave Digger is to throw up a deep Trench, into which one Load of Coals is to be cast, and the Cow laid a top of it, and the other Load upon her, and the Fuel set on Fire, to Burn about four Hours, more or less; when the Meat being taken out, it is all Incorporated, and becomes such a delicious Dish, that formerly the Emperors us’d to Dine upon it on their Coronation Day, for which Reason, and because an Egg is the Foundation of all that curious Mess, it was call’d, The Imperial Egg Stuff’d Meat. 2
Before we look at Jack, some culinary credibility in this stuffing demonstration using real animals in Fernando Fernán Gómez’s 1974 Spanish Golden Age picaresque potpourri, El pícaro:
I hope that was gross enough. Back to Jack.
Stevens (1707) beats Wikipedia‘s first (1739) sighting of the house that Jack built by 32 years, so adepts may want to do a bit of gardening there. Cervantes in Quixote (1605), as well as an imperial relleno adobado like Estebanillo’s, 3 has a more extended version of Estebanillo’s Tom and Jerry cumulative song, which Shelton in 1612 translates more-or-less literally and without reference to Jack:
And so, as men say, the cat to the rat, the rat to the cord, the cord to the post; so the carrier struck Sancho, Sancho the wench, she returned him again his liberality with interest, and the inn-keeper laid load upon his maid also; and all of them did mince it with such expedition, as there was no leisure at all allowed to any one of them for breathing. 4
I think this is the same song of the starving grandparents found in Spanish oral tradition, whose accumulation is pretty much along the lines of the house that Jack built. A quick translation:
An old woman and an old man had nothing to eat but a cheese, and along came a (rhyming) rat and ate it.
Then along came the cat
And killed the rat
Which ate the cheese
Of grandma and grandpa.
Then along came the dog
And killed the cat
Which killed the rat
Which ate the cheese
Of grandma and grandpa.
Then along came the stick
And killed the dog
Which killed the cat
Which killed the rat
Which ate the cheese
Of grandma and grandpa.
Then along came the fire
And burnt the stick
Which killed the dog
Which killed the cat
Which killed the rat
Which ate the cheese
Of grandma and grandpa.
Then along came the water
And killed the fire
Which burnt the stick
Which killed the dog
Which killed the cat
Which killed the rat
Which ate the cheese
Of grandma and grandpa.
The ox to the fold
My story’s told
That couple so old
No cheese did behold. 5
But the verse is undated, and so while it might be older than Cervantes, so might it equally be a variant of some version of “The house that Jack built” taught to a Spanish girl by some Napoleon-fighting Brit during the Peninsular War, or some such curiosity, and so we will ignore it.
Spanish origins, or a universal technique?
So was the Jack architecture copied from the Spanish? Estebanillo is shorter in Spanish than English, which might suggest that Jack and other Aarne-Thompson 2035-type (food) chain songs were quite new in English in 1707 but already well-established in Spanish when the novel was published around 1650:
Original Repare vuesa merced en este relleno, porque es lo mismo que el juego del gato al rato Literal translation Your Grace, note this stuff’d meat, for it is just like the game of the cat with the mouse Stevens’ gloss Now, Sir, take Notice of this Stuff’d Meat, for it is just like the Tale the Children tell of, This is the Stick that beat the Dog, the Dog that bit the Cat, the Cat that kill’d the Mouse, the Mouse that eat the Malt, the Malt that lay in the House that Jack built
OK, then there’s the literality of the Cervantes translation, but the casual reference to the cat who killed the mouse (or, for you rhymers, the cat who the rat did splat) Canarian polylinguist Bartolomé Cairasco de Figueroa in Tragedia y martirio de Santa Catalina de Alejandría (ca. 1580) and the lack of any known source in English again might suggest that the device was deeply ingrained in Spain but not in England:
Éste es el gato
que mató al rato
On the other hand, perhaps this kind of thing was going on everywhere in the 16th century. I should be able to think of Dutch examples, and early German counting tales, Zählgeschichten, but can’t. Can you suggest anything in another language in early modern Europe?
Or perhaps it’s actually universal – of all places and times, a spinoff from the use in oral cultures of cumulative techniques for the rote-learning (particularly by children) of genealogies and itineraries. Let us imagine a visit to some early descendants of Shem in an Arabian desert:
Abraham begat Isaac;
Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob;
Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;
… or some of Japheth’s spawn, shivering amid painted savages in a British marsh:
Venta Silurum, 9,000 paces
Venta Silurum, 9,000 paces; Abone, 14,000 paces;
Venta Silurum, 9,000 paces; Abone, 14,000 paces; Traiectus, 9,000 paces;
Afterword: cumulative song striptease?
What game did you play as a child with the house that Jack built? I can’t remember, but a book of dances and games (Bailes y juegos: diversiones varias para entretenimiento y recreo de las tertulias y sociedades… por un aficionado (1903)) describes what may be a rather unusual way of accompanying “La llave del jardín del rey,” the key of the garden of the king:
The game director takes a key with a cord tied to it and gives it to the player to his right, saying, “This is the key to the garden of the king.” The recipient passes it to the player to his right, saying the same thing, and thus the key travels from hand to hand until it returns to the director. He again hands it to the player to his right, saying, “This is the cord which holds the key which gives access to the garden of the king.” The recipient hands it to the following player, saying the same thing, and so on and so forth until the key comes once more into the hands of the director, who continues by saying, “This is the mouse which ate the cord which holds the key which gives access to the garden of the king,” which everyone else repeats. Then, when the key has been returned to the director, he continues, “This is the cat which ate the mouse which ate the cord which holds the key which gives access to the garden of the king.” Then he adds, “This is the lion which ate the cat which ate the mouse which ate the cord which holds the key which gives access to the garden of the king.” Finally, he adds, “This is the hunter who killed the lion which ate the cat which ate the mouse which ate the cord which holds the key which gives access to the garden of the king.” Thus the list increases, the director being empowered to vary the words as he wishes in order to cause more errors and the payment of more items of clothing. 6
Prenda is of course actually forfeit here, rather than an item of clothing, as in Dickens:
‘This,’ said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, ‘this is, indeed, comfort.’ ‘Our invariable custom,’ replied Mr. Wardle. ‘Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now — servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.’
But search engines seek sensation. As did Pepys:
[A]fter dinner the Comptroller begun some sports, among others the naming of people round and afterwards demanding questions of them that they are forced to answer their names to, which do make very good sport. And here I took pleasure to take the forfeits of the ladies who would not do their duty by kissing of them; among others a pretty lady, who I found afterwards to be wife to Sir W. Batten’s son. Home, and then with my wife to see Sir W. Batten…
What a back-and-forth and to-and-fro of customs! And the Russians (or Fabergé at least) even prefer their nestled stuffings topsy-turvy, with the egg on the outside and the emperor inside! Where will it ever end!
- The printer was in Bearbinder Lane – check this splendid map of early modern London. ↩
- Mi amo es tan gran caballero que más quiere tener contentos a sus criados que no a su persona; y así él y sus camaradas no hacen de gasto al día a ningún patrón si no es un relleno imperial aovado.
Preguntóme que de qué se hacía el tal relleno. Respondíle que me mandase traer un huevo y un pichón recién nacido y dos carros de carbón, y mandase llamar a un zapatero de viejo, con alesna y cabos, y un sepolturero con su azada, y que sabría todo lo que había de buscar para empezar a trabajar en hacerlo.
El patrón, medio atónito y atemorizado, salió en busca de lo necesario al tal relleno, y a el cabo de poco espacio me trujo todo lo que le había pedido, excepto los dos carros de carbón. Toméle el huevo y el pequeño pichón, y abriéndolo con un cuchillo de mi sazonada herramienta, y metiéndole el huevo, después de haberle sacado las tripas, le dije desta forma:
-Repare vuesa merced en este relleno, porque es lo mismo que el juego del gato al rato: este huevo está dentro deste pichón, el pichón ha de estar dentro de una perdiz, la perdiz dentro de una polla, la polla dentro de un capón, el capón dentro de un faisán, el faisán dentro de un pavo, el pavo dentro de un cabrito, el cabrito dentro de un carnero, el carnero dentro de una ternera, y la ternera dentro de una vaca. Todo esto ha de ir lavado, pelado, desollado y lardeado, fuera de la vaca, que ha de quedar con su pellejo; y cuando se vayan metiendo unos en otros, como cajas de Inglaterra, por que ninguno se salga de su asiento los ha de ir el zapatero cosiendo a dos cabos, y en estando zurcidos en el pellejo y panza de la vaca, ha de hacer el sepolturero una profunda fosa, y echar en el suelo della un carro de carbón, y luego la dicha vaca, y ponerle encima el otro carro, y darle fuego cuatro horas, poco más o menos; y después, sacándola, queda todo hecho una sustancia y un manjar tan sabroso y regalado que antiguamente [lo] comían los emperadores el día de su coronación; por cuya causa, y por ser el huevo la piedra fundamental de aquel guisado, le daban por nombre relleno imperial aovado. ↩
- Cervantes 1615/Shelton 1620 ↩
- Y así como suele decirse “el gato al rato, el rato a la cuerda, la cuerda al palo”, daba el arriero a Sancho, Sancho a la moza, la moza a él, el ventero a la moza, y todos menudeaban con tanta priesa, que no se daban punto de reposo ↩
- Una vieja y un viejo no tenían para comer más que un queso, y vino un ratón y comióselo.
Entonces vino el gato
y mató al rato,
porque comió el queso
de la vieja y el viejo.
Vino el perro y mató al gato,
porque mató al rato
porque comió el queso
de la vieja y el viejo.
Vino el palo
y mató al perro,
porque mató al gato
porque mató al rato
porque comió el queso
de la vieja y el viejo.
Vino el fuego
y quemó el palo,
porque mató al perro
porque mató al gato
porque mató al rato
porque comió el queso
de la vieja y el viejo.
Vino el agua
y mató al fuego,
porque quemó el palo
porque mató al perro
porque mató al gato
porque mató al rato
porque comió el queso
de la vieja y el viejo.
El buey ya durmió
el cuento acabó
la vieja y el viejo
sin queso quedó. ↩
- El director del juego sacará una llave que tenga atado un cordón, y se la dará al jugador de su derecha, diciendo: «Esta es la llave del jardín del rey.» El que recibe la llave, la entregará al de su derecha, diciéndole lo mismo, y así irá la llave de mano en mano hasta que vuelva al director. Este volverá á entregar la llave al de su derecha, diciendo: «Este es el cordón que sostiene la llave que da entrada al jardín del rey.» El que la reciba, la dará al siguiente, diciéndole lo mismo, y así sucesivamente hasta su vuelta á manos del director, quien seguirá diciendo: «Este es el ratón que se comió el cordón que sostiene la llave que da entrada al jardín del rey», volviendo á repetirlo todos los demás. Luego el director continuará cuando vuelva á entregar la llave: «Este es el gato que se comió el ratón que se comió el cordón que sostiene la llave que da entrada al jardín del rey.» Después añadirá: «Este es el león que se comió el gato que se comió el ratón que se comió el cordón que sostiene la llave que da entrada al jardín del rey.» Por último, añadirá: «Y este es el cazador que mató el león que se comió el gato que se comió el ratón que se comió el cordón que sostiene la llave que da entrada al jardín del rey.» Así se irá aumentando la relación, teniendo facultad el director de variar las palabras que quiera, á fin de que resulten más equivocaciones y de que se paguen más prendas. ↩
How to write pastiche inconsistent non-isochronous subdivision for mechanical organ. With metrical analysis of the notes inégales in a bit of the Furtwängler recording of Mozart’s Gran Partita.
I still haven’t managed to find a communicative functionary in the northwestern Czech Republic, but I have as a result got to know several nice southern Germans with interests in mechanical music and pre-Sarajevo central Europe. One of these has now put me in touch with a Swiss gentleman who was looking for someone to write a couple of one-off arrangements of Austrian favourites for his roll-controlled salon organ for Mrs’ birthday. The catch is that he wants the music to sound not as it might be written but as it is played, which involves rhythmic give-and-take far more complex than for example American swing.
Irregularity in Austrian waltzes
The best known example of Austrian-ish rubato is the Viennese waltz, which British classical musicians, with their honest Hanoverian (i.e. Prussian) rhythmic heritage, tend to perform by making their beat 2 eat into beat 1’s tail by roughly a semiquaver and with simple tempo changes. Danubians, however, (still) vary the amplitude of the beat-2 lurch from bar to bar, depending on factors such as where they are in the phrase and what’s happening in the melody (the bar subdivision of which may not coincide with the accompaniment), and tempo is up for grabs to a far greater degree.
I should say that waltzes like this aren’t designed for people with three legs of unequal length: as Harold and Meredith Sears observe, the Viennese waltz is fast, and dancers tend to either canter (foot down on beats 1 and 3) or hesitate (foot down on beat 1); while Franz Fuchs from Klosterneuburg on the Danube compares it to Alpine skiing and indulges in a bit of gratuitous abuse:
It has everything, except the Prussian goosestep.
Irregularity in other Austrian genres
This variation extends to other forms. Franz has written a simple guide with MIDI examples of how to take a written polka and turn it into music (version 4), as well as an excellent introduction to the the application of inequality in various genres, including the Viennese and Alpine waltzes, Ländler and Steirer, the polka and Boarisch, marches and mazurkas. But not yodelling, which is beyond irregularity:
But this irregularity is also irregular. As Franz wisely comments:
None of these indications is to be regarded as an absolute must. It always comes down to the nature of the melody. In folk music there are no exact rules. Time and again you will find situations or entire melodies where this information simply isn’t appropriate and where you’ll have to accentuate differently. Some waltzes are if anything fast Ländler, while in others some passages are played in the exact metre. You have to try it out for yourself with every piece. Above all, you have to listen and investigate how other musicians do it.
Here’s a nice polka from Die Hoameligen showing amongst other things that stuff gets tighter when there are semiquavers around:
Obligatory Ernst Mosch moment
This eccentricity also extends to a considerable degree into the literate tradition. While Brits, Yankees and Prussians play their marches and polkas more or less straight down the line, their southern German counterparts deviate considerably. Regular readers know that I’m just looking for an excuse to usher on Ernst Mosch and his Egerländer Musicians, here playing along with their gold disc at the 1965 Stuttgart Radio Exhibition:
… and for a curious contrast of absolutely no other interest, here they are again in 1981, celebrating their 25th anniversary with a piece of Sudeten swing (do check the rest of the recording, though):
Inequality in Viennese Mozart
It’s also found in performance of parts of the classical repertoire untouched by popular dances. The Furtwängler recording with the Vienna Phil in 1947 starts up the bar 2-3 vamp in the Adagio from Mozart’s K.361 Gran Partita like a steam train on a cold, wet morning, and shifts continually throughout:
In contrast here’s a recording by Mackerras and a group of London players which, while superior in many ways, slots into a very slightly lilting rhythm in bar 2 and more or less stays there:
Just for fun I’ve had a bash at calculating the ratio between semiquavers 1 and 2 for each quaver in bars 2-3 Furtwängler’s notes inégales. Here is the relevant line in the score:
… and here in Audacity format is the relevant clip from Furtwängler, slowed to roughly half tempo and containing my time event labels for semiquavers, which are available here as a text file. (Judging when a note happens is akin to determining whether one’s favourite uncle has entered the room on the basis of his stomach or his smile, so by all means suggest improvements. 1)
The following chart shows for this miniscule data set the irregularity of the irregular ratio between semiquaver 1 and 2 for the 16 quavers in question:
Grouping the quavers into 4s, you get the following mean semiquaver ratios, which might indicate that players tend to favour long-short feet at the beginning of a metrical unit and short-long at the end:
Austrian rhythm and notes inégales
I think that the irregular ratio and the use of short-long as well as long-short probably distinguish this practice from French notes inégales, which I understand to be invariably long-short. If the two are related at all then I imagine notes inégales to be a pedantic, lobotomised offshoot of some Austrian or Italian tradition, rather like the robotic valse-musette.
However I wonder whether all those treatises detailing performance practice actually tell the whole story. Perhaps Thurston Dart, who I seem to recall in the Interpretation of music preaching against mixing equal and non-equal notes, would have revised his opinion had he been as fond of mid-C20th German popular music as he was of American jazz. Perhaps there’s a Two Cultures thing going on: progressives play early music and conservatives play commercial folk, and ne’er the twain shall meet, till earth and sky stand presently at God’s great judgment seat, and that’ll be fun. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Loss of inequality in barrel organ music
I haven’t seen any evidence of inequality in serinette, flute clock and other barrels from the C18th Black Forest or other southern German foci of production, nor have I found great criticisms of a loss of rhythmic flexibility in historical Central European writing. Perhaps this is because the tunes being pinned were often religious or foreign or high art and thus exempt, or because pinners were working from paper scores and were unmusical or didn’t regard interpretation as within their contract scope, or because irregularity was a characteristic principally of marginal (bi-cultural) areas (think of the Oberkrainer, Zillertaler, Egerländer repertoires…) about which no one cared a great deal, or because irregularity was regarded as Luddite and mechanical constancy as the future, or because people were so delighted with such cheap and reliable results that the loss of eccentricity seemed a minor price to pay, or because grinders added variation themselves by modifying their crank speed. More perhapses. In a way the survival of such techniques is another echo of the Audi cliché of the southern German lands: Vorsprung durch Technik … und Tradition.
Down to work: my modus operandi
Based on my limited knowledge of the styles involved, and bearing in mind Mr Fuchs’ comments, I’m going to record simple mixes with Audacity, MIDIfy the results, import them into Sibelius and then fiddle around until I get some results, which, since they are going to Switzerland, are at least one transaction unlikely to be affected by Brexit.
- I hope you’ll also read W. Bas de Haas & Anja Volk, “Meter Detection in Symbolic Music Using Inner Metric Analysis” and report back ↩