The Masque of the Red Death




Here’s some seasonal macabre.

The Conte fantastique after Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death by the gifted André Caplet (1878–1925), for harp and string quartet, deserves to rank alongside the better-known works with harp by his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

Given that today’s date (#DieInADitchDay) has been constantly on the lips of sinister, mendacious Tory toffs desperate to pull up the drawbridge and feast on the bendy bananas so long denied them, the plot has a topical ring:

The prince and his nobles have taken refuge to escape the Red Death, indifferent to the sufferings of the population, sealing the doors shut and awaiting the end of the plague in luxury behind the walls.


Prix de Rome 1901: far right, Ravel; 3rd from right, Caplet. Source:

Here’s Caplet’s Conte fantastique with the great Lily Laskine (1893–1988):


Caplet’s sonic treatment is just as dramatic, and its dénouement just as scary, as Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price. Here’s a trailer:


French slang


A worthy competitor with the various classy Scandi noirs that enrich Saturday nights on BBC4 is the French Spiral, whose seventh series has just started. If you’re new to it, it’s worth starting from the beginning—in which case, let’s talk again sometime next year.

The French title Engrenages doesn’t translate easily, referring to interlocking gears—by extension, an inescapable series of events, almost a vicious circle: “Enmeshed”, perhaps?

As with the Scandi noir series, the Grauniad recaps—and their BTL comments—are most enlightening. This led me to Alison Crutchley’s article on the language of the series, “Pute de merde de con! The linguistics of Spiral slang“—again to be read with important BTL comments. As you may imagine from A French letter (a drôle resumé of my Li Manshan film), my schoolboy French is utterly unable to keep up with such dialogue as it flies past; but the article makes fascinating reading.

Thus I learn of loan words like bagnole (from Occitan), “car” (also caisse); and clebs, “mutt”, from Arabic. And

Spiral’s cool kids use Verlan, a type of back slang. Karen calls her girl friends les meufs, Verlan for femmes; Zach texts keufs to his accomplice, to warn him of les flics (“police”).

What’s more, keuf (from keufli) has been re-verlaned, with further resonance, to feuk! And occurring along with the Chinese underworld theme of series 7 is noich (or noichi), for chinois.


Further topics (also continued in the BTL) include the minefield of using tu and vous (cf. Italian, and this splendid Chinese story); gender; and the subtleties of swearing (cf. French taunting), with arcane variants and combinations of putemerde, and con. It’s amusant to learn that the French for fisting is le fist-fucking, although le fisting apparently serves too—either way, let’s consider it another English export in which we can take patriotic pride.

But just when we thought we were world leaders at punning, it turns out that French is exceptionally rich in puns too. Is rien sacré?

Surely this is the way to inspire kids to learn foreign languages. Surely Quelle bande de branleurs! (“What a bunch of wankers!”) is more attractive and practical than La plume de ma tante. I did indeed relish languages at school, but for some reason the ones that I (like the board of the LA Phil) favoured were all dead (cf. Revolution and laowai). So now I regret that it took me so long to realize that languages could be not so much an elegant yet gratuitous abstraction, or a sadistic ordeal of irregular verbs, but rather, a pathway to understanding fascinating cultures and communicating with real living people (“Like, hello?”).

Conversely, in this case I’m relieved that I can enjoy the script’s linguistic niceties from the comfort of my sofa without having to negotiate them in the gritty milieu that the drama depicts—as has been aptly observed, it’s hardly a promo from the Paris Tourist Board. Spiral really puts the noir into noir.

Meanwhile in Glasgow, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is helpfully provided with a glossary… For English word games, see here; for the evolving Chinese language, here. And don’t miss this post on how not to learn Japanese!

Popular culture in early modern Europe


We often study Chinese culture (both expressive and material) rather in isolation, but many parallels are suggested in

  • Peter Burke, Popular culture in early modern Europe (1978, thoughtfully updated in 2009 edition),

a lucidly-written single-volume work on the period 1500 to 1800. Of course it’s a vast field, but Burke’s broad coverage is enriched by illuminating detail.

Think away television, radio, and cinema, which have standardized the vernaculars of Europe within living memory, not to mention changes which are less obvious but may be more profound. Think away the railways, which probably did even more than conscription and government propaganda to erode the culture peculiar to each province and to turn regions into nations. Think away universal education and literacy, class consciousness and nationalism. Think away the modern confidence (however shaken) in progress, science, and technology, and the secular modes in which hopes and fears are expressed.

Indeed, many in Europe had little access to these features well into the 20th century—and many Chinese still later. So the historical coverage not only makes a useful perspective on popular traditions enduring today (e.g. Italy or east Europe), but is also full of lessons for our studies of popular culture in modern China.

Many (not least in China) tend to visualize Europe as a monolithic, reified, “developed” (and largely secular) modern bourgeois society, whose music (for instance) is represented by the “classical” canon. In the wake of the industrial revolution, change in the popular cultures of Europe was already a complex issue by the early 1900s, when study began to take off in earnest; but in China, for all its own revolution, many of Burke’s perspectives still seem relevant in the late 20th century. So it may be easier to see the parallels here than it would be with a study of modern Europe.

In Chapter 1 he discusses “The discovery of the people” by early-19th-century intellectuals, just as traditional culture seemed threatened—of which he gives some fine examples, long predating 20th-century concerns. Already before the industrial revolution, with the growth of towns, the improvement of roads, and the spread of literacy, the centre was invading the periphery.

Burke adduces early collections of folk-songs from Germany, Russia, Sweden, Serbia, Hungary, and Finland. The intellectuals also discovered popular religion and festivals (cf. Zhao Shiyu‘s work on Chinese temple fairs), along with folk music. Burke discusses aesthetic, intellectual, and political reasons for this interest. Along with the reaction against the Enlightenment, and the growth of nationalism,

the discovery of the people was part of a movement of cultural primitivism in which the ancient, the distant, and the popular were all equated.

In Chinese discourse on folk culture, terms like “simple” and “primitive” were still common in the late 20th century.

At the same time, Burke unpacks problems with studying the subject through the work of early European folklorists: distortion, creative bias, and the notion of “improvement”. Just like the CCP in China,

it is all to easy to continue to see popular culture through the romantic, nationalist spectacles of the intellectuals of the early 19th century.

On “restoration” he observes:

To read the text of a ballad, a folktale, or even a tune in a collection of this period is much like looking at a Gothic church which was “restored” at much the same time. One cannot be sure whether one is looking at what was originally there, at what the restorer thought was originally there, at what he thought ought to have been there, or at what he thought should be there now. Not only texts and buildings were subject to “restoration”, but even festivals.

Burke criticizes the notions of primitivism, communalism, and purism, stressing that “popular culture does have a history”.

In Chapter 2, “Unity and variety in popular culture”, Burke notes pockets where there was still a shared culture on the lines of the (dodgy) model of tribal societies, but observes that the broad picture was not monolithic or homogeneous: social stratification was widespread. He refines the model of interdependent great and little traditions, both urban and rural, that Robert Redfield suggested in the 1930s:

There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little traditions, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition. The great tradition was transmitted formally at grammar schools and at universities. It was a closed tradition in the sense that people who had not attended such institutions, which were not open to all, were excluded. […] The little tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted informally. It was open to all, like the church and the market-place, where so many of the performances occurred.

So in the early period the elite, the nobility, local literati, and the clergy had access to and participated in both cultures.

In the Cracow area about 1565, more than 80% of the poor nobles were illiterate. The style of life of some rural nobles and parish priests was not so different from that of the peasants around them.
But this situation did not remain static throughout the period. The upper classes gradually withdrew from participation in the little tradition in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Following Kodály and Gramsci, Burke also notes that “the people” were not a homogeneous group. As in 20th-century China, the peasants formed 80–90% of the population. But apart from peasants and craftsmen, women, children, shepherds, sailors, beggars, and so on, all had important sub-cultures. The diversity of occupations makes a useful reminder for China, both in imperial and modern times; the peasantry was itself stratified, as the CCP would observe. Burke cites Kodaly again:

Many traditional folksongs are appropriate only for one social group, like the Scandinavian drängvisor, or farm-hands’ song, and the pigvisor, the “complaints” of ill–treated maidservants.

He notes ecological differences:

Leaping dances seem to be associated with mountainous regions, in the Basque country, in Norway, in the highlands of Bavaria, Poland, and Scotland, because this was an old form of dance which did not survive in the plains.

In the countryside farmers, herdsmen, and shepherds also had different cultures, as did blacksmiths, carpenters, woodsmen, miners, and bandits. Similar stratification was notable in the towns: guilds, craftsmen (weavers, tailors, shoemakers, journeymen, apprentices, and so on), and shopkeepers.

Burke notes religion and ethnic minorities as markers of cultural difference—not only Catholics and Protestants, but Jews and Muslims. And he discusses the male category of “wanderers”—soldiers, sailors, beggars, and thieves. He notes variation by gender and region, coexisting with other types of variation. Excluded from most of the categories, “women’s culture is to popular culture what popular culture is to culture as a whole.” Other potential elements in a cultural geography of Europe would include architecture, literacy, and topography. He observes interaction between great and little traditions, finding traffic in both directions, with creative transformations.

In Chapter 3, “An elusive quarry”, Burke interrogates the sources, their literati bias and unreliability:

We want to know about performances, but what have survived are texts; we want to see these performances through the eyes of the craftsmen and peasants themselves, but we are forced to see them through the eyes of literate outsiders.

The attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants

were expressed in activities and performances, but these activities and performances were only documented when the literate upper classes took an interest in them.

And when, as often, festivities were described by foreign visitors, they

are likely to miss all sorts of local or topical allusions and may misunderstand what the festivities mean to the participants.

Or (as in China) popular activities may be recorded simply because the authorities were trying to suppress them. And of course

A text cannot record a performance adequately, whether it is a clown’s or a preacher’s. The tone of voice is missing, so are the facial expressions, the gestures, the acrobatics.

Further, Burke notes that printed texts (including sermons) are likely to vary from the texts performed. Print not only recorded popular culture but undermined it. He lists six kinds of mediator, and explores oblique approaches to popular culture, adducing witch trials and “iconology”. And he notes the useful perspective of rebellion, also fruitful for China.

Discussing folk-songs and epics “collected” in the 20th century, he comments:

Historians whose sources consist of fragmentary texts have a lot to learn from folklorists whose sources are living people, who can be observed at work and even questioned. What I am advocating is a rather more indirect use of the modern material, to criticize or interpret the documentary sources.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at once what the regressive method is not. It does not consist of relatively recent situations and cheerfully assuming that they apply equally well to earlier periods.

He notes the potential for historians to learn from anthropologists.

Part Two, “Structures of popular culture”, opens with Chapter 4, “The transmission of popular culture”, focusing on the “active bearers of culture”. While observing that

Shepherds made their own bagpipes as well as playing them. The men of the household made the furniture, and the women made the clothes. […] Anyone who fell ill or had an accident would be treated at home,

he stresses that

Neither the household nor the village was culturally autonomous.

Semi-professional healers, traveling pedlars, and wandering minstrels [a term, I note, encrusted with romantic flapdoodle] were also part of the picture. He unpacks the notion of “popular artist” (one who works mainly for a public of craftsmen and peasants), and the spectrum of professionals and amateurs. I like his list of occupational performers for England:

Ballad-singers, bear-wards, buffoons, charlatans, clowns, comedians, fencers, fools, hocus-pocus men, jugglers, merry-andrews, minstrels, mountebanks, players, puppet-masters, quacks, rope-dancers, showmen, tooth-drawers and tumblers. [1]

(For instances of the evocative use of lists, see Last night’s fun and Accordion crimes.)

But again there were gradations, as with shawm bands in China today. Like tinkers and pedlars, many performing groups were itinerant. The Russian skomorokhi (interestingly seen as antecedents of Pussy Riot here) travelled in bands of up to one hundred men. Burke’s description of “strolling players” in 18th-century England reminds me of Chinese opera troupes today:

Two actors would be sent ahead of the rest to get permission to play in the towns and villages on their route. Their properties and costumes would be secondhand, even dilapidated, and they would perform in inns or barns.

la Tour

Georges La Tour, The hurdy-gurdy man. Cf. the lirniky of modern Ukraine.

Several more features suggest China. Solo bards were also common—as in Spain, France, Serbia, and Russia. Whether solo or in a group, they were often equated with beggars; and many “vagabond-entertainers” were blind. Itinerant preachers were also widespread. Besides human opera, ritual puppet plays may remind us of groups still performing in regions like Fujian and Gansu.

Less well documented were the amateur performers, and semi-professionals (as in China), “part-time specialists who had another occupation but might derive a supplementary income from their singing, playing, or healing.” Performers of plays and other festivities were often organized into guilds. Funeral wailers were hired, as in Britain, Italy, and Russia. Popular healers and diviners are listed for England, Sweden, Poland, Spain.

Burke explores the physical setting, noting that it is easier to document public performances (church, tavern, market-place) than domestic occasions. He outlines the balance of folk tradition and individual innovation, refuting the “collective creation” myth.

Chapter 5, “Traditional forms”, explores genres, discussing the variety of dance and song forms; themes and variations; and the process of composition—all recurring issues in ethnomusicology. He includes preaching and material culture, seeking not only formulas and motifs but structures.

Chapter 6, “Heroes, villains, and fools” goes on to look at stock characters, probing the attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants. In popular culture the images of rulers, the clergy and saints, the nobility and knights, the middle class and officials, are sometimes ambivalent, but the lower classes seem “conservative”, accepting them and structuring their world through the models provided by the dominant group. Conversely, craftsmen and peasants also saw society in terms not of harmony but of conflict, complaining of poverty and injustice. Here Burke lists five points along a spectrum of responses: fatalist, moralist, traditionalist, radical, and millenarian.

The Chinese peasantry since the 1940s have also clung to such heroic figures from the imperial past, remaining quite resistant to the cultural values of the CCP while absorbing new elements (like the PLA soldier in the medium’s pantheon here).

Under “ordinary people”, Burke notes that craftsmens’ image of the peasant was unflattering. Nor, in the male-dominated sources, do women emerge well:

Most popular heroines were objects, admired not so much for what they did but what they suffered. For women, martyrdom was virtually the only route to sanctity.

More common are images of deceitful and malicious women.

Under “outsiders”, outlaws (another popular theme in China) are usually, though not always, portrayed as heroic, “enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities to whom they were usually obedient in real life”. Negative instances are those of the Turk and the Jew (both “scarcely human”), as well as the witch; and the stereotypes of Catholics and Protestants about each other.

Hatred of outsiders was so common as to make one wonder whether most ordinary people of the period were not what psychologists sometimes call “authoritarian personalities”, combining submissiveness to authority with aggressiveness towards people outside their group.


Breughel, The combat between Carnival and Lent.

in Chapter 7, “The world of Carnival”, Burke pursues the theme of relieving tensions, putting myths and rituals in the physical context of festivals, both Carnival itself and “carnivalesque” activities. Here he explores ritual—always a prominent theme—in greater detail, and ritual reversal, “the world upside down”. Carnival was both a holiday, a game, and a time of ecstasy and liberation, with food, sex, and violence. He subsumes public executions and mocking ceremonies like the charivari, and explores the tensions between social control and social protest. He cites Victor Turner:

By making the low high and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle.

But the “safety-valve” of ritual was not always able to contain popular dissent. Riots and rebellions made more direct forms of action. Popular rebellions, of course, are a major theme in Chinese history—studied selectively in the PRC.

The concern of the upper classes that popular festivals might pose a threat to the status quo leads to Chapter 8, “The triumph of Lent: the reform of popular culture”. Always alert to change, Burke describes the attempts of the educated (“the reformers, or the godly”), notably the clergy, to “improve” popular mores, on both theological and moral grounds. Again (as in imperial and modern China) folk religion was a principle target—miracle and mystery plays, popular sermons, and religious festivals such as saints’ days and pilgrimages.

He suggest two main periods, the first until around 1650 led by the clergy, the second in which the laity took the initiative, adding secular arguments. He outlines the “culture of the godly” that they hoped would replace the old pagan ways (more echoes of modern China). Battles were waged not only over rituals but over images and texts. One important weapon was the dissemination of vernacular Bibles. Burke is sensitive to changes in the meaning of words, such as the ever-thorny “superstition”.

One major result of this reformist zeal, unevenly achieved, was the widening of the gulf between great and little traditions, discussed in the final Chapter 9, “Popular culture and social change”. Over the whole period popular culture changed in ways that no-one could have foreseen. Burke lists population growth and urbanization, the rise of “commercial capitalism” with increasing division of labour, and the communications revolution. Though he warns against exaggerating the impact of such changes, by the 18th century the peasantry were coming to own more material objects, and better ones—although east Europe remained relatively poor. A gradual shift was under way “from the more spontaneous and participatory forms of entertainment towards more formally-organised and commercialized spectator sports.” Although he also shows that it was often in the outlying regions that traditional culture was best maintained,

In the larger towns, the process of social change seems to have enriched popular culture. In the countryside, particularly in outlying regions, the same process led to cultural impoverishment.

This topical comment from the Highlands of Scotland comes from the late 18th century:

The noblest virtues have been ruined, or driven into exile, since the love of money has crept in among us; and since deceit and hypocrisy have carried mercenary policy and slavish, sordid avarice into our land.

Under “the uses of literacy” Burke stresses the influence of the printed book, and then the press. He explains methods for assessing literacy rates around Europe, with partial evidence suggesting that “more people could read in 1800 than in 1500, that craftsmen were generally much more literate than peasants, men than women, Protestants than Catholics, and Western European than Eastern Europeans”.

Whereas some secular reformers feared that popular literacy would make the poor discontented with their lot, the godly saw it as a step to salvation. Again Burke unpacks the idea of “access” to books, with some fine examples under physical, economic, and linguistic access. He takes a nuanced approach to how all this affected popular performances, although “the book was both a dangerous competitor and a treacherous ally”.

The spread of literacy and the decline of the epic occurred together in Western Europe, while illiteracy and the epic survived together in Sicily, in Bosnia, in Russia.

I note that even the lowest literacy rates around Europe surpassed those of China in the mid-20th century; and even in the early 1990s I found few books in peasant homes there.

Burke cites the work of a sociologist working on the modern Middle East, where print is among factors said to engender “a high capacity for empathy, a willingness to accept change, to move from one place to another, or to express their own opinions about society; in a word, modernity.” However, in early modern Europe such changes were less spectacular. Old themes did not go out, but new themes did come in: as in modern China, cultural changes were not so much “substitutive” as “additive”.

He moves on to unpack the concepts of secularisation and politicisation:

Hopes and fears which had traditionally been expressed in religious terms now needed another mode of expression and increasingly found it in the political.

Despite the problems in assessing piecemeal material, and always sensitive to differing social strata, he finds an increasing sense of involvement with politics, at least in Western Europe.

Craftsmen and peasants had good reason to be more aware of the state by the end of the 18th century than they had been three hundred years before.

Burke notes the gradual withdrawal of the upper classes from the popular culture that they had previously shared—as in China. But as ever he asks probing questions:

Who withdrew? From what did they withdraw? In what parts of Europe? And why? The clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie had their own reasons for abandoning popular culture.

In many regions the upper classes literally spoke a different language from ordinary people. But—at different times in different parts of Europe—they came to reject their whole culture.

And it was this gap that led to “discovery”: only when folk traditions became “alien” to the elite did they provoke curiosity, leading to the rise of folklore studies.

Looking back over the whole period,

The change in the attitudes of educated men seems truly remarkable. In 1500, they despised the common people, but shared their culture. By 1800 their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture, but they were in the process of rediscovering it as something exotic and therefore interesting. They were even beginning to admire “the people” from whom this alien culture had sprung.

After 1800 factors like urbanization, education, printing, and railway transport were to transform culture still more radically.

* * *

Houshan 1995

Medicine-pouch vendor, Houshan temple fair 1995.

While Burke’s study is based on the period before 1800, and has been amply supplemented since, it offers thoughtful perspectives on the diverse little traditions that still persist today, and were even more widespread alongside the great traditions of Renaissance and baroque. Relevant to our studies of imperial and modern China are not only the many commonalities they share—recurring themes like ritual, reform, and so on—but ways of studying and unpacking the sources. I do recommend the book, not least to Chinese students: here’s a Chinese edition.

Great works missing the crucial element


The current Munch exhibition at the British Museum includes his 1892 sketch for what soon became The scream(my title: People taking pleasant stroll). This suggests further drôle potential—such as

  • Leonardo’s charming landscape Just got a text from Mona Lisa saying she’s held up in traffic
  • Vermeer’s early sketch Girl not wearing any earrings (“Oops, forget me turban too—What Am I Like?!”)

and of course The last-but-one supper, without the kangaroo:

And then there’s the ouevre of Alphonse Allais (see The world of Alphonse Allais, “translated” by Miles Kington), including a totally white canvas called Anaemic young girls going to their first Communion through a blizzard, and a red composition entitled Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes by the Red Sea (the latter an early version of the popular Explosion in a tomato factory at sunset). Such experiments were yet more radical than that of Monet’s Rouen cathedral in the morning fog (see also “F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted“).

Further suggestions welcome.

For Chinese poetry, I think of the popular Tang genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“. And on the musical front, there’s a popular series called Music Minus One, providing recordings of the accompaniments to famous pieces of chamber music, jazz, and so on without the solo part, to help soloists practise. Some Wag once gave me a blank CD entitled Music Minus One: the Bach partitas for solo violin.

I still await a response to my requests for versions of Das Lied von der Erde without the mandolin, L’enfant et les sortilèges without the cheese grater, and the finale of Éclairs sur l’au-delà … without the triangle.


* For some musical screams, see my posts on Sibelius 7 and notably the horrifying sequence in Mahler 10.

Another fine female composer


Today—all day—is another great reason to tune in to BBC Radio 3 for their fantastic selection of female composers, part of their ongoing commitment to the topic. So much fine music to explore… (for my 2017 post, see here).

Yet another coup this week was their broadcast of Céphale et Procris, a tragédie en musique by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729).

The opera was first staged in 1694—just as a Chinese monk was copying a numinous score of the shengguan ritual ensemble repertoire in Beijing. In Paris, Jacquet kept composing despite losing her young son, her husband, and her brother.

After only a few performances, the opera wasn’t heard again until the 1990s. But it sounds wonderful.

Following Lully, her soundworld often anticipates Rameau, including the tragic final sequence, and this aria from Act IV, Funeste mort:

Where have I been? * (And perhaps you—unless you’re more au fait with the niceties of French baroque than me.) I now find that YouTube is awash with Jacquet’s works. For now I’ll cite from her wiki entry:

Her talent and achievements were acknowledged by Titon du Tillet, who accorded her a place on his Mount Parnassus when she was only 26 years old, next to Lalande and Marais and directly below Lully. A quote from Titon du Tillet describes her

marvellous facility for playing preludes and fantasies off the cuff. Sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners.

So let’s all explore Jacquet de La Guerre’s ouevre—harpichord pieces, trio sonatas, cantatas!

For leads to some other female baroque composers, see here. For 20th-century French female composers on this blog, see Lili Boulanger and Germaine Tillion. So many names to add to the T-shirt


* “Nobody tells me anything”—and there was I thinking I’d discovered an unknown singer called Aretha Franklin

Musicking at the Qing court 2: Pedrini and Amiot


pedrini 2

To return to my fantasy of Bach at the 18th-century Beijing court (see—and hear!—The Feuchtwang variations), the musicking of the European missionaries there makes an intriguing tangent to the varied material on all the diverse forms of musicking at the Qing court (a list to which I’ve now added Manchu shamans).

An authority here is François Picard (list of publications here, including this useful summary—and note his CDs, introduced below).

Jesuit missionaries had established themselves as early as 1589 at the Ming court, and continued to find favour at the Qing courts of Kangxi and Qianlong. As Picard explains:

Their strategy was to convert the Chinese to Christianity, starting from the top. They did this, first of all, by demonstrating their status as experts and thus gaining access to the court; they then aimed to prove the superiority of the West, of Christendom, and therefore—syllogism—of Christianity, in the realms of science, astronomy, cartography, measurement, and music, the study of which belonged to the field of scholarship in both civilizations. Acoustics, instrument-making, notation, and performance were all part of that strategy of integration, competition, and persuasion.

Following Matteo Ricci (1562–1610), Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666), and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–88), Tomàs Pereira (1645–1708; for a range of studies, see here) is notable for his major compilation for the Kangxi emperor on the theory of Western (art!) music. This was completed by the Lazarist priest Teodorico Pedrini (1671–1746), who, reaching Beijing in 1711 (after an epic eight-year journey that puts the travails of British train commuters in perspective)* was active there along with Florian Bahr (1706–71) and Jean Walter (1708–59). Pereira and Pedrini are further discussed by several scholars, including Joyce Lindorff and Peter Allsop (e.g. here). The Jesuit priest Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–93) arrived in Beijing in 1751.

Even transporting the keyboard instruments was a mind-boggling task for the missionaries. While they were braving such obstacles, Bach’s long-term residency in Leipzig was bearing fruit in a constant stream of creation.

François Picard’s work bears fruit in his collaboration with Jean-Christophe Frisch and his ensemble XVIII-XXI Musique des Lumières, notably an enterprising series of CDs—with contributions from the Fleur de Prunus ensemble and the choir of the Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris, and instructive liner notes with further references.

While the missionaries were not mainly concerned with documenting or performing Chinese music, Amiot notated some Chinese melodies, and some canticles were set to Chinese texts.

The Congregation of Musicians of the Northern Church in Beijing, numbering about thirty young musicians, including several Manchu princes, would accompany important celebrations, the most spectacular of which was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.


Liuyejin, in gongche solfeggio with stave transnotation, Amiot 1754.

Some of Amiot’s Divertissements chinois, based on Kunqu melodies, are imaginatively recreated with Chinese instruments on the CD

  • Teodorico Pedrini: concert baroque à la cité interdite (Auvidis, 1996)

Other CDs in the project include

  • Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718-1793), Messe des jésuites de Pékin (Auvidis, 1998)
  • Chine: jésuites et courtisanes (Buda Records/Musique du monde, 2002)
  • Vêpres à la Vierge en Chine (2004)

In the chamber items with both baroque and Chinese instruments, the timbres blend well—and would do so even better had the latter been set up in 18th-century fashion, with silk or gut strings.

All this makes an intriguing if inconclusive exploration of elements: whereas ornamentation is common to both traditions, it’s more of a challenge to reconcile Chinese heterophony with the harmonic basis of baroque music. Amiot didn’t take the “superiority” of his musical culture for granted—Picard cites a perceptive passage:

Here, there is neither bass, not tenor, nor treble, everything is in unison, but that unison is varied according to the nature and capacity of each instrument [what we now call heterophony! SJ], and the composer’s skill, the beauty of the piece and the whole art of music lies in that variation. […] It would be of no avail to endeavour to prove to the Chinese that they must find pleasure in something in which they really find none at all.

In Picard’s notes for the Chine: jésuites et courtisanes CD he cites some contemporary reports relevant to the “suite-plucking” of the nobility, such as notes by courtier Gao Shiqi:

[The Kangxi emperor] ordered the ladies of the palace to play a melody, hidden behind a folding screen. He then said: “The people of the palace are excellent with string instruments (xiansuo).” He ordered his courtiers to show their art and successively play the hupo, pipa, and sanxianzi string instruments. He then said: “Play the qin piece “On the beach the geese are landing” (Pingsha luoyan) on the four string instruments—hupo, pipa, xianzi, and zheng—together.”

Adding female nobles to our list of performers, the emperor went on:

“The ladies of the palace have played the zheng zither since their childhood, to the point of forgetting to eat or sleep.** After ten years of efforts, they have attained sheer mystery [cf. Shenqi mipu].” He then ordered them to play “The moon is high” in a “changing tonality” (Bianyin yuer gao).

For more excursions in Qing ritual culture, see here.

* * *

To return to my Bach fantasy, European art music performed by European musicians at the Chinese court is a perfectly valid topic. It’s a welcome clue to early Chinese exposure to Western music, which from the late 19th century would become a major and more pervasive theme. And Amiot’s arrangements of Chinese melodies may have been performed by Chinese musicians. But while it’d be nice to think of European missionaries learning Chinese style, whether on Chinese fiddles (tiqin, sihu) or on violin, I can’t see any evidence; their contacts with the broader society, and indeed their tastes, were circumscribed.

Of course, world music “fusion” goes back to the Tang dynasty and earlier. But in the Qing, even within the rarefied milieu of the court, and despite the efforts of the missionaries, I find little evidence of more significant interaction, such as Chinese performing European music on Chinese instruments or Europeans taking part in Chinese ensembles.

For the Vêpres à la Vierge CD I took part, implausibly, on baroque violin, erhu and shawm—but I never quite knew whom I was impersonating (an imaginary missionary, either steeped in Chinese style or not? Perhaps even a Chinese Catholic convert keen to bury his musical heritage beneath superior Western learning?!). My ears conditioned by exposure to living Chinese traditions that often go back beyond the Qing, I found our experiments tentative; we were on firmer ground with the purely Western items, which now sound more successful to me. Later in a couple of concerts I began doing some semi-chinoiserie noodling on the two types of fiddles (miantiao? tagliatelle?) that I, at least, found a bit more satisfying; but I still couldn’t work out who I was—me, I guess.

Anyway, I was content to get back to my work with the living folk ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi—where besides indigenous traditions, Christian groups had come to adopt their own local shengguan wind ensembles for ritual observances.

Catholics in rural Shanxi—left: Wenshui, 1933 (see South Gaoluo: the Catholics);
right: Xinzhou, Shanxi, 1992 (see Shanxi, summer 1992).

* * *

For such imaginative cross-cultural time-travelling excursions, one might compare several projects on baroque music in Latin and south America, and the fine project of Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI on the routes of slavery:

—in line with their previous work on medieval music, such as their versions of the medieval estampies (better received than ours…)

* * *

In these two posts on the Qing court I’ve given just two instances of the great variety of musicking there. As you know, I don’t go in much for recreations. While such experiments are imaginative, as Taruskin reminds us, the whole social and aesthetic framework in which we experience them—our very ears—are quite different (see e.g. Bach and Daoist ritual); we can only hear them for what they are: our creative response, for our own tastes in our modern societies.


* Since this post entails historical re-enactment, many would doubtless welcome the nomination of Transport Minister Chris “Failing” Grayling to retrace Pedrini’s route.

** I dunno, these teenage kids on their mobiles, Typical!—Ed.

Un homme et une femme


*Guaranteed China-free!*

My posts on film, and the importance of soundtracks (such as Brief encounter, Breakfast at Tiffany’sCinema paradiso, The conformist, TampopoTwin peaksWild at heartPerformance, Killing Eve), offer me a pretext to praise Un homme et un femme (Claude Lelouch, 1966)—a very different classic on the eve of more radical French experiments.

However did they film the captivating restaurant scene near the opening? I’m mortified that I can’t find it on YouTube—but it’s OK, you can just watch the film! As Jean-Luis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, both widowed, explore their bond through their respective kids, the camera delights in their blossoming relationship, lingering adoringly on her complex, enchanted, enchanting expressions. This is one of several scenes that suggests the improvisation that Lelouch encouraged.

As ever, the soundtrack, by Francis Lai (who died on 7th November 2018), evokes the ambience perfectly (cf. Michel Legrand). Like the Pearl and Dean tune, the theme makes good practice for additive metres.

Anouk Aimée is also captivating in La dolce vita