The secret life of organ-grinders

Speculation in French revolutionary fiduciary currency, the murder of the great British ballad-singer, & a revised date (1802) for the start of the supposedly post-Napoleonic emigration of Italian puppeteers & organ-grinders

Napoleon, apparently in 1797, warbling lines <a href=''>apparently</a> written by Kotzebue in 1802:

Napoleon, apparently in 1797, warbling lines apparently written by Kotzebue in 1802: "Es konnt' ja nicht immer so bleiben / Hier unter dem wechselnden Mond" - "It couldn't always stay this way / Here under the changing moon." Image: Wikipedia.

Louis-Marie Prudhomme (1752-1830) alleges that the introduction of fiat money in France by print-keen revolutionaries in 1789 caused the disappearance from the streets of ambulant musicians and vendors of old clothes and hats, of water carriers and scrap dealers (Miroir historique, politique et critique de l’ancien et du nouveau Paris, 1807):

The money trade on the front steps of the Palais Royal occupied all this class of individuals. Some have today become the owners of handsome mansions. We recognise more than one of these faces in beautiful carriages.

[Sous le règne des assignats on n’entendait plus de musique ambulante dans les rues, ni de marchands de vieux habits ou chapeaux. On voyait beaucoup moins de porteurs d’eau, de marchands de ferraille, etc.; le commerce d’argent qui se faisait au perron du Palais-Royal, occupait toute cette classe d’individus. Il en est aujourd’hui qui sont devenus propriétaires de beaux hôtels. Nous reconnaissons plus d’une de de ces physionomies dans de beaux carrosses.]

Grigorovich’s Petersburg puppeteers joke about a similarly ill-conceived reform in their country – Russia’s first paper currency was issued by the Assignation Bank in Petersburg and Moscow in 1769 in response to looming exhaustion of the Imperial silver reserves by military expenditure in the Turkish wars.

Fiercely anti-monarchical during the monarchy, and ferociously anti-revolutionary during the revolution, Prudhomme was prone to hyperbole. But, though surprising, I think there may be truth in his subsequent observation that street musicians had become both considerably more numerous and accomplished (?) since 1802-3 as a consequence of the ingress of a great number of Italian singers with a far more advanced form of barrel organ:

Depuis quatre à cinq ans, les musiques ambulantes sont très multipliées et plus complètes, par un grand nombre de chanteurs et chanteuses Italiennes qui parcourent les rues: l’on a porté à un haut degré de perfection l’orgue organisé.

There are few stats, and cultural historians tend not to be good at numbers anyway, but I think a traditional account might say that French economic difficulties under the monarchy, the Revolution, and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) had a devastating effect on popular theatre both at home and abroad; that the Congress of Vienna (1814-5) curbed radical liberalism and nationalism, and made it possible for the next hundred years for small entrepreneurs to travel and do business right across Europe in a way never seen before; and that, facing economic recession at home, a new wave of Italians, using the padrone system to maintain a stream of labour, took to the road with a smaller, better-defined cast of commedia puppets, improved organs, and other delights.

Prudhomme situates the beginnings of this new wave of Italian emigration 15 years earlier, at least as regards France, and that kind of makes sense: the conquest and colonisation of northern Italy by French armies 1792-1802 led to the establishment of client states, presumably encouraging and facilitating migration to France; these client states encompassed areas which were already struggling before the war, and which we know to have been major sources of organ-grinders, puppeteers, clowns and so forth; and Napoleon himself, as a good Italian, was fond of barrel organs, which, in addition, unlike orchestras, didn’t “talk about what they have seen or have not seen.”

Obviously the extension of this new evangelism, of Punch to the English, and of Puchinella to the Russians, didn’t take place until after 1815. Douglas Jerrold was the son of a printer of ballads, which were retailed by street singers. In 1840 he wrote in Heads of the People: Or, Portraits of the English:

The London Ballad-Singer has fallen a victim to the arts of the Italian: he has been killed by breathings from the South, ground to death by barrel-organs from Lucca and Pisa, and Bologna la Grassa. To him Di tanti palpiti has been a scirocco; Non piu andrai, a most pestilent and withering air. Like the ruffian of a melo-drama, he has “died to music,” – the music of his enemies. Mozart, Rossini – yes, and Weber, – signed his death warrant, and their thousand vassals have duly executed it.

Napoleon lost Waterloo, and the English Ballad-Singer not only lost his greatest prerogative, but was almost immediately assailed by foreign rivals, who have well-nigh played him dumb. Little thought the Ballad-Singer, when he crowed forth the crowning triumphs of the war, and in his sweetest possible modulations breathed the promised blessings of a golden peace, that he was then, swan-like, singing his own knell; that he did but herald the advent of his provençal destroyers.

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