Monday, March 28, 2016

Dancing the Walk

For a couple of weeks I've been obsessed with the term praeambulum, as it relates to walking, or coming before, or an emergency vehicle that isn't ready yet---

wait, that's a pre-ambulance.

You see how confusing these terms can get?

Terms that have been in use for several centuries can really lose their flavor as well. Once there was a logical connection to something; then, they lost that connection. Now nobody knows why it is called that.

The term praeambulum has been around for quite some time. In fact, when I mentioned that the term was in vogue during the 18th century in Germany, and played an example, I forgot about another praeambulum I also recorded last summer from the Buxheimer Organ Book, which dates from about a century after the earliest keyboard music known to exist.

But we'll get to that next week. Instead, this week, I want to leap forward to the early 20th century for another piece about walking. Well, not really walking so much as dancing.

Ever seen a cakewalk?

Debussy: Golliwog's Cakewalk

The custom was in vogue in the late 19th century in America, among its African-American population. Unfortunately it was also appropriated into minstrel shows and the like, another of those fads that was adored and yet associated with various racial stereotypes, hijacked and made grotesque. Knowing what I know now it is hard to approach this piece with the same innocence as when I was a kid.

I'd like to think that Debussy had only harmless fun in mind when he wrote "Golliwog's Cakewalk" as the last piece in his "Children's Corner Suite" (which he dedicated to his 3- year old child). There may be a bit of buffoonery in it, but it is not necessarily meant to mock a dance craze that James. P Johnson claimed was considered by "some Parisian critics to be the acme of poetic motion." Parisians loved ragtime and all things coming from African American traditions around the turn of the century, and they don't seem to have been burden by our horrible track record of treating its practitioners.Then again, the Golliwog dolls that were in fashion at the time and from which the piece gets its name suggest that they may not have been very enlightened after all. (then again, who really was around the turn of the century, anyhow?)*

When it came to outright mockery, though, the target our composer had in mind was a white European by the name of Richard Wagner. Wagner had come in for a great deal of criticism for his approach to music and his high priestly scorn for everyone and everything else, and the middle section, where the music slows down considerably in my rendering, contains quotes from the opening of Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde"--it is a very famous passage, actually. Debussy mocks it by holding its seriousness up against some fun-loving asides, rapido. Wagner would have been the last guy to take a joke like that.

Something to remember: if you find yourself annoyed by some composer or piece of classical music, and wish to make fun of it, it is quite likely that some other composer of classical music has already beaten you to it.

I hope you've been enjoying our walks, even if they are somewhat disturbing. The trouble is, we have been dealing with human beings, complex animals with multifarious attitudes which may call forth a chuckle or a frown. Or both. I suppose we could take a walk in a garden by ourselves to escape from it. The weather's getting warmer around here. Or perhaps, next week, we can try to take refuge in a church.


*or now, for that matter...

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