Sunday, September 11, 2011

La Boite a Joujou [1913] and The Children's Corner Suite [1908]

There is a tradition in the history of the keyboard of writing pieces designed to appeal to children, partly as a way of seducing young minds and hearts into the duties and joys of learning to play an instrument, but also as a way of exploiting the adult emulation of childhood and youth by imagining it through music. Sometimes the two overlap, and other times the compositions, designed to capture the spirit of childhood, can only be executed by an adult mind and ability. Thousands upon thousands of keyboard compositions have been created for children to play, but few of them are successful, few last. The pedagogical side of art has a distinguished history. Paul Klee, for instance, designed many of his works to be demonstrations of principles which might be apprehensible to the childhood mind. Faux naif works of art are common in painting, sculpture, theater, even architecture; and of course cartoons and children's literature comprise a significant proportion of the world's textual archive.

What makes successful "children's" art? Is it a shrewd condescension? Is it a simplification of the same aspects which make "serious" or "mature" work? Or is it a discrete dimension, all to itself, with its own laws, its own rules, its own limitations? Whatare children, anyway? Are they just small adults, or a unique kind of human identity (not yet adult), in a special estate reserved for the innocent and unspoiled? Do children feel joy and sadness and fear and exhilaration and emptiness in the same way we do as adults? If not, then in what ways do they experience life differently?

Obviously, different experiences in childhood produce different adults. Children who are read to, instead of being set in front of televisions for hours a day, probably develop a verbal imagination, instead of, or to a greater degree, than those children who have a more exclusively "visual" upbringing, with television or computer screens. As a child in the 1950's, I was among the first generation of children who grew up watching television. The earliest televisions had very small screens, were only black and white, and the picture quality, in retrospect, was incredibly poor compared to contemporary technologies. But their effect was essentially the same. For instance, my education was enhanced by having the opportunity of seeing hundreds of old movies from the 1930's and 1940's, which were routinely shown on daytime television in those years. I remember "two on the aisle" programs, which would show complete, unedited feature films, with few commercials, five days a week on local television. I saw more movies than my parents--who had grown up in the pre-war years--ever could have, going to see them in theaters. When we went as a family to the movies, which wasn't often, it was usually to the Drive-Ins (or "motor movies") with big outdoor screens in front of huge parking lots with little speakers on posts. That was a separate experience which most children growing up today will never know.

Like most middle-class children of my generation, I was put practicing piano--taking weekly or bi-weekly lessons from a teacher. I was expected to spend 30 minutes a day, working on the "exercises" and simplified versions of familiar classical pieces. Progress, as I recall, was slow, and the teacher was often bored or frustrated with me. The pieces I was given to play were usually puerile and stupid sounding, and had naive themes, such as "rowing the boat" or "jumping jack" or "toy soldiers marching"--and were illustrated in a style which would have been contemporary with book illustration circa 1905. It all felt very old-fashioned and mechanical. By the time I was about 13, I had convinced my parents I'd had enough, and these lessons stopped. Later, in my mid-teens, I got interested in jazz, and later still, original classical pieces. I'm not sure my earlier "training" actually did me any good, but I progressed much more rapidly when interested, than when I'd been forced to practice in childhood. It seemed to me at the time that the whole point of learning an instrument was based on the concept that devoting a certain amount of time in childhood, developing coordination and focusing one's attention on a task, was an inherently good thing; the music, in other words, was just a pretext for this good work--of no ultimate value in itself.

I remember my first piano teacher--who was a neighbor and friend of my parents--tried to motivate her students by giving little marble busts of famous composers for the completion of certain thresholds of progress in the teaching course(s). I think I was given my bust of Chopin as a consolation prize, even though I hadn't really earned it. I promptly managed to drop Mr. Chopin, and chipped off the end of his sharp snowy nose--and ever afterward, the little Polish genius sat atop the little spinet in our living room, a casualty of the war between me and my parents over how little I was allowed to spend at the keyboard.

Among the list of famous composers who've created works inspired by, or designed to be played by, children, isn't very long. A few, like Debussy, seem to have felt a special kinship with the childhood imagination. Debussy's oeuvre includes a lot of keyboard work, because that was his instrument. He was a revolutionary composer in his time, but he kept a special place in his heart for works inspired by childhood, prominently among which, are The Children's Corner Suite [1908], and La Boite a Joujou[1913].

The relationship between our childhood musical experiences, and how we experience music later in life, is a diverting question. Children raised by parents for whom the ultimate, exclusive expression of music is rock & roll, or hip-hop (& rap), in whose presence the predominant musical environment is that, must have a very different sense of the world. This is a question of taste, but also the dilemma of the transformation of the public sense of culture which occurred during the 20th Century. It isn't that children no longer have a sense of the history of serious music, but that their sense of history itself may be said to "begin" at about the point that American musical roots were forming, towards the end of the 19th Century. The divergent streams of musical development which occurred at about the time that Debussy was composing these works (about childhood, or "for" childhood), have channeled his music away from the public consciousness into a quiet backwater which few people (or children) are likely to experience. Consequently, these works are now regarded as rather obscure. Nothing unusual about this, of course, but worth noting when talking about them.

The positive values once associated with the teaching of instrumental proficiency--as a good in itself--apart from the inherent quality of the music--have fallen away. Who today, would suggest to a child that they take up the electric guitar as a training device, in the way that parents once were expected to encourage their children to "take up an instrument" for their own good? The tendency to emulate the playing of an instrument, as a way to express a musical interest is something that happens later, in adolescence, out of pure interest. It's also an aspect of the adolescent cultural tradition, something which simply didn't exist prior to the 20th Century (and didn't really gain momentum until after World War II). The notion of a group of kids making a band with guitars often may only be the expression of the fantasy of participating in the teenaged culture, a specific segment of the musical culture, not restricted to adolescence, but certainly concentrated inside it. The spectacle of an aging adolescent musical culture in which players perpetuate their identity into middle, even old, age is one we've just begun to see over the last quarter century. It's a peculiar phenomenon, raising issues about the long term endurance of the adolescent popular culture. Privately, I've wondered for some time about whether popular adolescent musical culture is not in fact stuck in a rut; the rapid-fire, aggressive, frequently provocative (even grimly noxious and coarse) nature of popular contemporary musical expression, has been going on so long!) Is this a sign of some sickness of our society, or just evidence of the strength of a by-now quite mature (or chronically immature or angry) style?

I have no answers for any of these questions. Dwelling on the musical styles of a century ago may just be pure nostalgia by now. Debussy's Children's Corner suite may sound entirely out of step with our hardened, armored, suspicious milieu. Children must be acculturated with the raunchy, lewd and violent realities of our time. Who would spoil them with the stale cream-puffs of yesteryear? In any case, here are, first, a suite of photographs I made from my copy of the original piano reduction (or version) of Debussy's ballet for children, La Boite a Joujou. Though originally intended to be bought for, and owned and appreciated by, children, it's become a collector's item today, its original pochoir (1) color illustrations arresting, and unusual. Like certain earlier kinds of mechanical or handcrafted illustration techniques--photogravure, for instance, or outdated photo-reproduction processes, such as platinum-palladium prints--pochoir produces intense color images which rival most common media visual display of our time.

Joujou is not a great work of art, but its main theme is quite charming (2), which I've reproduced below (#7 in sequence). The others show the original titling and scene illustration. If they seem somewhat less self-consciously "innocent" than what kids are used to today, I would suggest that this is decadence of our cultural time. Disney's cartoon movies today seem intended for very glib adults, filled with sarcasms and bitter ironies and relentless brute provocation, instead of wooden doll figures and stuffed animals. It's true that human society and "nature" are a good deal more competitive, violent and harsh than how we think of childhood. And of course, there is a body of thought which regards children (or the child world) equally as violent, scheming and selfish as the adult world undoubtedly is. Privately, I think that most children tend to imitate what they see in their immediate environment--inside the family. Children who are violent, angry or difficult in other ways, may simply be emulating tendencies they perceive in their parents.

An additional treat is to listen to the piano versions of the Children's Corner suite. YouTube has an excellent set of recordings done by a Czech classical pianist [1930- ]:

Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
Golliwogg's Cakewalk

The style of Moravec's playing is slightly "delicate"--especially with Golliwogg, which I'd prefer done with a bit more élan, but overall this is a wonderful interpretation, especially the first piece.

Children may respond to adult versions of childhood. There's a reflective quality to all art made for children. Children aren't simply learning to be adults. They're learning to see themselves as we seem them--quite a different thing. Thus, children discern what is expected of them, what they're supposed to want to become. They learn to imitate what they realize we want them to be, rather a different thing than desiring to be something out of original motivation. What do children want? 19th Century writers seemed to think that children delight in being spoiled, frightened and comforted, in about that order. Many religions treat nearly everyone as a child, in order that we might accept what we are told is the correct behavior, the right choices. Perhaps the deeper truth is that we are indeed alone in the world, that there are no fixed answers, and we must determine for ourselves what the best behavior is, and how we should go about building upon past knowledge--both as individuals (from childhood onward), and as a species (humankind).


1. For Further Reading on Pochoir Books:

National Museum of History and Technology. Pochoir. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

University of California, Santa Barbara. Pochoir: Flowering of the Hand-Color Process in Prints and Illustrated Books, 1910:1935: An Exhibition by Burr Wallen and Stephen Greengard. Santa Barbara, CA: UCSB Art Museum, 1977.

Valotaire, M. “The Pochoir Process of Colour Reproduction.” In The Studio, XCII, 1926, pgs. 236-240.

2. Piano reduction of La Boite a Joujou for piano in five parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


Anne Gorrick said...

The Children's Corner was a really important piece to me when I studied piano growing up. It gave me hints that there was art/life beyond the fusty stuff my teacher insisted I learn. I've still got my original sheet music with all my teacher's notes. As I get older, I get fonder of these pieces, and have made several encaustic paintings using the music as collaged items.

The second piece you reference looks like it's in a beautiful copy...

Thanks, CF!

J said...
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