Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mark Twain's Music Box

I suppose there are two kinds of music, -- one kind which one feels, just as an oyster might, and another sort which requires a higher faculty, a faculty which must be assisted and developed by teaching. Yet if base music gives certain of us wings, why should we want any other? But we do. We want it because the higher and better like it. But we want it without giving it the necessary time and trouble; so we climb into that upper tier, that dress circle, by a lie: we pretend we like it. I know several of that sort of people, -- and I propose to be one of them myself when I get home with my fine European education.
--Mark Twain, from "A Tramp Abroad"

Mark Twain was an amateur musician who was extremely sensitive to music.  He once told his wife that "songs are good remembrancers.  Almost every one I hear instantly summons a face when I hear it." 

During their European travels in 1878, while Twain was gathering material for the book that would become "A Tramp Abroad," his wife Olivia presented him with an enormous and outrageously expensive music box.  The phonograph was still in its patent phase so this item represented modern technology (I like to think of it as a very expensive eight-track tape player, in this particular case, something no one could afford and that was soon replaced with something that worked much better).  But more importantly, the music box represented Old World sophistication, a vehicle whereby Twain might remedy his cultural insecurities.

For although he had by this time made a fortune writing of his backwoods upbringing, this background and its implicit lack of refinement occasionally caused him insecurity as he sought to live among Hartford's society people.  This music box played ten tunes to be chosen by the purchaser.  If he chose correctly, he could impress his society guests but only if the list did not represent his own musical tastes; he wanted to show Hartford that the author of Tom Sawyer was also a man knowledgeable in the realm of high (i.e., European) culture.

In her essay, "Mark Twain's Music Box: Livy, Cosmopolitanism, and the Commodity Aesthetic," Kerry Driscoll mentions the preliminary list of 16 tunes that cost Twain heavily in angst and time, so much time, in fact, that he was no longer in Europe when he finally whittled the list down to the necessary ten.

Only five of the music box's final ten are known but the entire preliminary list survived.

The Final Playlist for Music Box: (five known out of 10)
Wedding March from Wagner’s Lohengrin
The Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhauser
The Lorelie from Das Rheingold
Miserere from Verdi’s Il Travatore
The Russian National Anthem

Preliminary List of Proposed Melodies: (16)
Miserere from Verdi’s Il Travatore
Overture from Rossini’s William Tell
Wedding March from Wagner’s Lohengrin
The Lorelei from Das Rheingold

“Hymn” (Driscoll assumes this might be the theme from Mendelssohn’s Symphony #2 – Hymn of Praise)
Last Rose of Summer
Bonnie Doon
Auld Lang Syne
Lament of the Irish Immigrant
Way Down in Tennessee
Long, Long Ago
Day After Day (Drifting From Home)
Overture from Boieldieu’s The Caliph of Baghdad
Russian National Hymn
Der Fremersberg

A few decades later, Twain included the following in a sketch he called "The Villagers of 1840-3," which was a grouping of situations, characters, and items from Hannibal.  He titled the following list "Songs that tended to regrets for bygone days and vanished joys."

Oft in the Stilly Night
The Last Rose of Summer
The Last Link is Broken
Old Dog Tray (he mentions that this is "one of the d----dest, oldest, vilest songs")
For the Lady I Love Will Soon be a Bride
Gaily the Troubadour
Bright Alfarata
“Negro Melodies”
My Old Kentucky Home (in the “Villagers” sketch, he recites the line, “The day goes by like a shadow on the wall, with sorrow where all was delight”)
Swanee River, Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground  (all his "negro melodies" are actually Stephen Foster tunes).

Although the preliminary music box list is heavily laden with a nod to classical, European music, Twain did manage to sneak in a few tunes that he probably had known and loved as a boy.  And in his autobiography, he also mentions specific tunes -- Nelly Bly, Old Dan Tucker, Buffalo Gals, and Camptown Races -- that the minstrel show musicians played when they traveled through Hannibal, giving the future humorist his first encounter with professional humor and the life-long music lover some tunes he would never forget.

Here are some tunes that Mark Twain no doubt enjoyed, three from the music box list (Last Rose, Bonny Doon, Der Fremersberg -- the third an orchestral piece that he encountered in Baden-Baden and absolutely adored), two from the Villager's Sketch list (Last Rose, Bonny Doon) and one mentioned in the autobiography in conjuction with his boyhood recollection of minstrel shows (Old Dan Tucker).


"Mark Twain's Music Box: Livy, Cosmopolitanism, and the Commodity Aesthetic," by Kerry Driscoll. From Cosmopolitan Twain: Mark Twain and His Circle, edited by Ryan and McCullough, University of Missouri Press, 2008.

"Villagers Sketch, 1840-3" from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and Other Unfinished Stories by Mark Twain, ed. by Walter Blair, University of California Press, 2011.

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