song culture

Ces jours plus longs qu’un siècle, ou tout rire dètonne,
où l’on est poursuivi par un air d’Offenbach…
-Lambert Thiboust

Looking over our archives, LI is struck with how often, how obsessively, how dog going back to its vomit-ly, LI writes about the second empire. Napoleon III and all that. During the brief era of analogies (remember? Iraq as Germany? Japan? El Salvador? Malaysia? Vietnam? Andorra?), we inveighed against the practice of picking out some broadly historical event broadly similar to one unfolding now and using it for nickel prophecies – but in fact we have a weakness for that very thing, seeing starcrossed likenesses between the Second Empire and the Bush era - the coup d’etat, the second rate political operatives elevated to the status of demi-gods, the controlled flow of outrages to amuse and occupy the cognitive space of the sugar tranced populace, the use of military aggression as domestic political pablum, and, as the empire retracted, the visible attempt to cretinize the dwindling base, all active participants in the sophistry of their own deception – a scenario in the psychology of the dupe done in the grand manner. The latter, though, is admittedly much more the m.o. of the current crewe – the ability to turn out of small fry ever willing to secrete their own more and more fantastic excuses for the five hundred billion dollar and counting fiasco in the Middle East and to rigorously ignore the ruling clique’s devastating history of incompetence and worse when dealing with the very small but real problem posed by one terrorist band is surely an historical anomaly, more like cult activities of the past – Jonestown, the Anabaptists of Munster – than like anything seen in American or French history.

Well, so there you have a naked showing of motives. And now, to advance crabwise upon the whole vexed question of subversive art. In a post that is swimming somewhere back there in the pipeline, we remarked that La Marseillaise is a strong example of a piece of ‘art’ that has been stamped as subversive at various times during its career. Most national anthems lead decorous ceremonial existences, but not that song. It was composed in the moment in which the popular army was crystallizing in France – in 1792 – and it was bound up with the fortunes of that army. Goethe, hearing soldiers sing it on the field of Valmy, called it the Te Deum of the revolution. Eugene Weber wrote an essay asking the question, who were these singers? using La Mareillaise as an excuse to ask about the frenchifying of France. In 1792, the majority of the population inside the Hexagon did not speak French, or at least spoke it badly, as a second language. They spoke langue d’oc, or Breton, or something close to Catalan. High culture did speak French – as high culture spoke it in Spain and Germany and Russia. Weber’s point is that songs were one of the great, unheralded instruments for making the French French. Singing was a part of the rhythm of everyday life. In fact, as Weber points out, the National Assembly was always getting visited by delegates from this or that group who sang to them. Laura Masson has written a whole book about the song culture of the revolution, from which I will cull a quote:

“A deputation from the Piques section arrived to ask the deputies [of the Convention] to attend their celebration of the ‘martyrs of lbierty’ several days hence. One of their mamembers sang a ‘patriotic song of his composition,’ and the deputy Laloi moved that the deputation’s speech and song be included in the Convention’s bulletin. Danton objected, “the Bulletin of the Convention is in no way meant to carry verse throughout the Republic, but rather good laws written in good prose. Moreover, a decree requires the Committee of Public Instruction to give preliminary consideration to all that concerns the arts and education.” Laloi responded with common republican praise of song, but Danton was not to be dissuaded. “One must not invoke principles we all recognize in order to reach false conclusions. Certainly, patriotic hymns are useful… for electrifying republican energy: but who among you is in any condition to pass judgment on the song performed at the bar? Did you truly hear its words and its meaning. Because I myself cannot judge them.” The song was sent to the Committee without further debate.”

Keep in mind this mix between song and politics when thinking about the banning of La Marseillaise under Napoleon III and the sly boosting of its tune by Offenbach in Orphee aux enfers. If you start following the commentators on Offenbach’s use of the tune, you soon run into the question of subversion – although hardly ever do we find the question of what is being subverted, and what can be subverted, being posed.

roger said…
Interesting range there, LCC. But I still think the little man in the clip I mentioned in a post a couple of posts back - here:
is more touchant.

And here is a clip from a bizarre film about the love of Offenbach and Hortense Schneider, with a song from Perichole:

Unfortunately, I can't find the revolt of the gods clip from Orphee aux enfers. Damn it!
northanger said…
thanks LCC for the great links.

ooh la la
Anonymous said…
Hmm, on the subject of song culture, I read something in John Aubrey's brief lives this morning that I thought I'd share with my buddies - there was a seventeenth century British traveller named Cavendish who went from Greece to babylon in the 1640s, and comes home, and he tells John Aubrey that the Greek sing their greek. He even gets an old greek guy to meet Hobbes, who is working on his Greek, and the old greek guy sings him a page of Xenophanes - Aubrey even provides the notes. He calls it a prick song.
It is funny how reading aloud now is so anti-song. You listen to the awful reading of poetry on NPR, when they read poetry, and they try to surround it with the aura of not singing it - not rhyming anything, but investing the whole in this bogus, sentimental voice.
How odd that we are so anti-song...