Monday, November 27, 2017

The Best Musical of the Year! 1776.

When our long-widowed nana definitively left Austria, after sticking it out through the whole war, I always imagined that she came out to New Zealand by ship. Why? Because for the whole of my life, there was, lodged in our basement, a big, green, metal-bound ship’s trunk ‘made in Vienna’ which had arrived at the same time as she. 

Now, has been kind enough to tell me that she actually arrived by airplane. So I guess that great, hefty case followed on after. Anyway, I have kept it for the seventy years since, and it now sits on my verandah as a stand for a lovely big fern plant pot. With no fern in it any more. The peahens have co-opted it as the favoured place to lay their eggs.

Once a fern... now an egg-basket
The Witwe Rudolfine Gänzl brought with her, on the trip to the other end of the world, a curious bundle of possessions. There were, naturally, the large bundles and books of photos and the diaries and ephemera of past years, but also a varied collection of knick-knacks (‘A present from Augsburg’ etc), a good collection of postage-stamps, an odd variety of books, one or two ordinary pictures … Why? Of course, what she didn’t bring was a groschen or a penny. I was told later that she wasn’t allowed to. So she took what little Austrian money she had and spent it on things she imagined she might cash in when she arrived in New Zealand. Books, stamps …

 What of this little hoard has survived has descended to me. I keep the remaining knick-knacks on my bedroom shelves. They remind me of my background and my childhood. A fair painting by great-Aunt Maggie, a 1930s oil of Halstatt, another of the Matterhorn, a print of Salzburg, and a few ‘investment’ folios of woodcuts share my walls with the Derain, van Dongen, Picasso, Procktor, Sutherland inter alia. Some of them are all right. I’m fond of the Matterhorn which mother used to relate was among my first words ‘Ma-er-horn’.

 The stamps I sold to a London dealer in the 1970s. Maybe even at a tiny profit. And the books. Well, of course, they are all in German. There were a handful of interesting items: a nice edition of Dante, one of Boticcelli, the expected number of alpine and mountaineering books (my family’s vice), some which I know now were published by members of the extended family, but also some veriest oddities. Which, until today, I hadn’t really investigated.

Today, I was sorting shelves. Picking out what stuff I would keep (why?) when the rest of my theatrical stuff walks out of this house and my life in a couple of months. One of Nana’s books had got in among the French libretti – the special libretti which I kept when the large bulk of my collection went to Harvard. Beloved favourites like Les Fêtards, Joséphine vendue par ses soeurs, Les Douze femmes de Japhet, Geneviève de Brabant and other greats of the C19th musical theatre. So here was this German one, stained a little with the cover-wax from the C18th bible it had travelled with, and which had been fatally damaged by sea water. Die seidene Schuhe a two-act musical comedy, published in … 1776!

Why, for heaven’s sake? What was this show from the pre-history of the musical theatre? So I looked. And I got a big surprise. I didn’t find a tiny mention in a corner of Google or Hathi, I found dozens! And a dozen libraries holding copies, around the world, in German or the original French. Yes, of course, French.

 So, Les Souliers mordorés, ou la cordonnière allemande, which runs to 94 pages of text with lyrics, was said to be written by one Alexandre de Ferrières. Baron or Marquis or Monsieur. My copy calls him Serrières and says his name was actually Baligand ‘würklichen Hauptmann unter einem Churypfälzischen Leibgarderregiment’. Others say Balligand. The most authoritative says he was ‘Français d'origine, mais officier dans les troupes de l'empereur’.

As for the music, it is not credited in my copy, but it was the music that was given the publicity in France. The composer was one ‘Alessando Maria Antonio Frizeri’. Or Fridzeri. Or Friziéri. Or Frexit or Friner or Frixer. Said to be fashionable Italian but probably French. But that wasn’t what got him his press. He had been – and the fact was printed on bills and libretti – blind since the age of one. Or from birth. Or from three years old. My goodness, that should get him a Hollywooden film starring Daniel Day Lewis!

At 35 years of age, this was apparently his second produced show, and it saw the light of day at Paris’s Comédie Italienne (the precursor of the Opéra-Comique) on 11 January 1776. It was billed as a comédie bouffon mêlée d’ariettes (ie a ‘musical comedy’). The press of the time told us that it was taken from an old tale, but the original was too rude and to had to be de-sexed for the stage. Any way it was judged ‘une des plus jolies comédies’, ‘très plaisant’ and went on to be played for the Emperor at Versailles on 16 February. The piece was a jolly success, the score was published by its composer … and, as we see, it went on to be played at Frankfurt, Cassel et al in a German version. I also spot it being done in Belgium, Martinique and … Philadelphia (24 December 1796)!


So nana’s naughty musical wasn’t exactly unknown in its time. Well, I shall have to go looking for a French script – and I’m sure it will have been pilfered by the English too – and the music is out there somewhere …

Ah, well. I suppose anyone searching for the script and score of Irma la douce or Valmouth in the year 2217 will have much the same trouble...

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