Archives for posts with tag: If it ain’t broke

François Joseph Gossec

François Joseph Gossec, according to Mozart, according to Wikipedia, was “a very good friend and a very dry man”.  Perhaps being “dry” contributed to his longevity.  He lived (1734-1829) to the ripe old age of 95.  That’s pretty impressive, considering that three lifespans of a Schubert or Mozart (contemporaries?) could fit into his.  And equally impressive is the evolution of musical styles and periods that he lived through.

Gossec is not a composer that I would call popular or even particularly well-known today.  The inclusion of a Gavotte piece in the Suzuki repertoire is another curiosity that begs the question: why?

Despite the relative obscurity of the composer, the Gavotte in question has certainly enjoyed a fair amount of play.  Warner Brothers’ composer Carl Stalling included the piece in a number of the Looney Tunes cartoons, including several cues in this episode called “Porky’s Party” (look for the silk worm):

Stalling uses the music for humor, but what was the composer’s original intention? What is this music? What was its purpose? Instrumentation? Context?

Because the piece is sometimes referred to as “Gavotte (Rosine)”, I proceeded under the assumption that the piece likely was taken from an Opera written by the composer in 1786 called Rosine ou L’épouse Abandonnée, and accordingly I put in a request (login required) to IMSLP for an original score.  IMSLP user Jean-Séb responded to my post, suggesting that the Gavotte may have been made famous by Willy Burmeister.  Where have I heard that name before?

Of course! Willy Burmeister was the editor of the “Lully Gavotte” music I had uncovered in a prior post.

But Who is Willy Burmeister?

A google search quickly reveals that the editor in question was no Willy Burmeister, as is printed in the “Lully Gavotte” I found, but rather Willy Burmester. (At least the “Lully” publisher, misspelling the name of the even the editor, was egalitarian in its mistakes).

Burmester (1869-1933) was a charismatic violinist who was also known for an edition of pieces by “old masters”, Stücke alter Meister, the 5 volumes of which can be found here.  That this is the second time I arrived at the Burmester Stücke while looking into origins strengthens my hypothesis that these editions, with their liberal treatment of the original music, served as a reference for the Suzuki literature. I am guessing that Dr Suzuki even owned a copy of the Burmeister Stücke, copying out the pieces in the editions note for note, but this is just a guess.

There are other similarities, too, between the Suzuki books and Burmester’s. To state the obvious, the books are divided into volumes. And the pieces in the collection are referenced by short, simple titles, “Menuett”, “Gavotte”, “Air,” nicknames really, without any of the kind of specific title information one would need to uniquely identify the piece.

For example, No. 9 from Volume 2 of the Selected Pieces is titled, simply, “Gavotte” and attributed to JS Bach. Here is the Burmester’s arrangment. Note that Burmester’s Gavotte is the “Gavotte en Rondeau” from JS Bach’s Violin Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006 –the same “Gavotte en Rondeau” whose performance by Arthur Grumiaux, pressed into the golden record sent into space to represent the culture of planet Earth, has traveled beyond the gravity of the sun toward the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

And here is recording of Burmester playing his arrangement of it:

Aside from the terse title, what else is notable about Burmeister’s arrangement of this piece for (hint) solo violin?

Burmeister has written an accompaniment for it.

I have often wondered about the accompaniment for some of the pieces in the volumes.  My past thinking was that the accompaniments had been fleshed out for the purpose of supporting the soloist-student with more sound.  But now I hypothesize that the accompaniments are filled out because Burmester did it first.  Suzuki looked to Burmester’s Stücke as an example.

(Suzuki teachers: here’s a question. Aside from the “Gavotte by Lully” (by Marais) and the Gavotte by Gossec, are there any other Suzuki pieces, either current or from editions past, that you can find in Burmester’s Stücke alter Meister?)

The Gavotte

So now we have a working theory of how Gossec’s Gavotte found its way into the Suzuki Volumes. But I still don’t know what relation Burmester’s, and thus Suzuki’s, version of Gossec’s Gavotte has (if any) with Gossec’s original.  The search goes on for the original score…

Doug Goodkin, one of the finest music teachers in the world, teaches his students that “rhythm” means “the way the words go”.  In the case of “The Two Grenadiers” in Suzuki Cello School Volume 2, the words don’t go that way at all.

The Two Grenadiers, originally called, Die bieden Grenadiere, Robert Schumann’s Opus 49, is a dramatic ballad that he wrote in 1840, a year sometimes called his “song year” because he produced so many of them during this time.  1840 is also the year that Schumann married his love, the famous pianist Clara Wieck.  The piece is a setting of  a poem by Heinrich Heine about two French soldiers released into Germany after imprisonment in Russia. The two soldiers, one on the verge of death, and other obliged to returned to his wife and children, respond to the news that their army had been defeated and Napoleon captured.

Why did someone think it a good idea to remove the words from this particular music and teach it to children around the world?  This is wrong on a number of levels.

Taking the poetry away from the music renders the song meaningless in more ways than one.  It’s like taking its soul and leaving an empty corpse–empty gestures where there were once symbols and meanings.

That this is a political setting of a political poem is left by the wayside.  A student would have no idea, for example, why la marseillaise, the now-French national anthem, is quoted in the music, although in 1840, a listener would have heard this as a political gesture.

And what to make of the now random rhythms left as vestiges of words that they had once been setting?

Although the structure of the song includes a verse that repeats, there are no repeat signs in the music:  Schumann writes it out as if it were through-composed.  As an accomplished songwriter, Schumann sets each word according to its specific sound, meaning and rhythm.  What is good for “goose” is not good for “gander”, and words in corresponding places in different verses are given their own individual rhythmic treatments.

To add insult to the injury of taking away the words, the Suzuki arrangement does not even preserve Schumann’s rhythms, instead distilling down what was once rooted in poetry to a series of random events.

Let’s look briefly at how the source music relates to the Suzuki version.

Comparison of Two Grenadiers Opening Phrases

Two Grenadiers, 1st phrase

Let’s set aside for a moment the curious piano introduction that originally inspired musicologist Susan Youens to research this music, and focus on the opening of the vocal melody.  In the original version, Schumann sets the opening phrase (above) by dividing the beat four different ways: into 1 part (quarter note), 2 parts (eight notes), 3 parts (eight note triplets) and 4 parts (dotted eighth note-sixteen note), a rhythmic smorgasbord that (I would agree) may have been too much to ask a Suzuki book 2 student to digest.  So what does Suzuki do? They filter out everything but the quarter note and dotted figure (after all this is a piece about the French) and reduce the music to a lesson in hooked bowing.  However, instead of keeping the dot on beat 4, where Schumann had thought it a good idea to put it, Suzuki shifts the dot to beat 2.

Strangely, in the last phrase (below), Suzuki removes several other formerly-contented dots, inserting another where before there was none:

Comparing the last phrase of Suzuki's Two Grenadiers with Schumann's original

Two Grenadiers last phrase

In the section of ascending fourths in Suzuki m. 15 (below), corresponding to Schumann’s m. 15 or more closely m. 49, things continue to go askew.

Illustration comparing Suzuki measure 15 with Schumann's measure 15 and 49 of Two Grenadiers

Comparing Suzuki's measure 15 with Schumann's measure 15 and 49

Suzuki’s alterations turn Schuman’s elegant amphibrachs in m. 15 and its corresponding verbal adaptation in m. 49 into an exercise of random rather than motivic events, with obligatory dotted rhythms and corresponding hooked bowings.

The music continues:

Comparing measure 19 in the Suzuki with measure 53 of Schumann's original in The Two Grenadiers

Adding notes in measure 20

…Schumann repeating the above music twice.

These are just a few examples of the infidelities in Suzuki’s treatment of Two Grenadiers. Why not include the composer’s music as he wrote it?

And to ask the larger question, why is this piece included in the Suzuki cannon at all?

In answer to the latter, one might respond that this song is one of the great examples of the Romantic lied, a great piece itself, that it written in a minor key that modulates to its parallel major and so it includes both 2 “low 1” fingerings and their corresponding “regular 1” (both B and E flat and natural).

I would counter that there are many examples from this period, that appropriating a lied is not important (there is no precedent of taking music from every period or genre, and certainly undue influence has been placed on certain periods (baroque) and even certain composers (Bach)), that if a lied were specifically desired, other more child-appropriate songs could be found (a much closer appropriation of Schubert’s Wiegenlied is included in book 3), that if there were no other choice but to include Die bieden Grenadiere in the Books, that they be faithfully reproduced; and lastly that this piece as presented does not actually represent Schumann but is merely Schumann-ish.

Children use their bodies, their minds and their voices to learn and internalize music. By divorcing this music from its native rhythm, Suzuki makes utilizing the poem that is latent in music for learning, context and meaning impossible.  Then, either the teacher or parent is then required to invent their own ways of connecting to the music or the student is required to memorize a series of random items.

My primary focus here had been to speak about musical considerations alone.  In speaking of song, however, music cannot be divorced from word.  And in this case, politics similarly cannot be extracted. Youens, who writes extensively on this song, even goes so far as to say that implicit in the poem is the Nationalism that will ultimately lead Germany into the atrocities of World War II.  Custom tells us not to discuss religion or politics in polite company.  These topics should also not be included in children’s music.  I had earlier alluded to the piano opening as curious–it’s unusual, ambiguous harmonies are “clarified” in Suzuki’s accompaniment,but just as important is the song’s quiet, mysterious ending, the poem’s ironic commentary, which is diplomatically removed in the Suzuki.

The two Grenadiers is a perfect example of the danger of removing music from its original context, sanitizing it, and depositing it in a compendium–the danger of art becoming post-modern detritus, sticky sweet candy with no nourishing value.

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