Sunday, August 2, 2009

John and Rue Carpenter's Music "Therapy" for Children, Turn-of-the-Century Style

Earlier this week, I came across the following composer’s instruction written into a piece of piano music: “Bigger, with Emotion”. Struck by the imprecision and mild flakiness of this instruction, my partner and I discussed the delicate balance between musical guidelines that are too vacuous and vague and those that are too rigid and precise. In the spirit of that conversation, this week’s book offers a turn-of-the-century look at how clever those instructions can be. Like some other books I’ve featured, it was a gift that I gave my partner because of her interest in music, early childhood education, and, more specifically in this case, music "therapy" for children.

The intriguing title is Improving Songs for Anxious Children, with words, music, and art by John and Rue Carpenter (this is the title page’s claim, but in the book itself the art is all signed “RwC” and the music is all signed “J. A. C.”; it is likely that they both collaborated on the lyrics). This copy is the third edition, published by G. Schirmer of New York in 1913, and distributed by The Boston Music Company. The first edition was published by A. C. McClurg & Co. of Chicago in 1904, under the title When Little Boy’s Sing (which volume 45 of The Critic described as “happy in conception and pleasant in arrangement and decoration”) and included twelve songs. In 1907 McClurg published the second edition, which added twelve more songs and changed the title to the more gender-neutral Improving Songs for Anxious Children (of this, the New York Times, in its November 16 “Books for the Babies” column on children’s books available for the holidays, reported that it was “a charming book with the quaintest of pictures and rhymes,, to which the latter may be sung”). In 1913, Schirmer obtained the rights to seventeen of the songs from the collection and issued the third edition. Left out of this final version were songs such as “Aspiration”, “The Thunderstorm”, and, happily, “Happy Heathen”.

As John Carpenter’s biographer, Howard Pollack, observes, these songs were all written shortly after the John and Rue’s wedding, probably in 1901 and 1902. “The couple intended these songs as household music for the edification of children,” writes Pollack, “in the tradition of such French songbooks as La Civilité and Puérile et honnête, which the composer’s mother had sung to him as a child. The songs also resembled Yvette Guilbert’s Chansons de la vieille France (illustrations by A. Roubille), which the composer kept in his library.” (42-3)

One thing that the study of book history teaches is the importance of judging a book by its cover and this was no exception. Indeed, it was the beautiful, over-sized cover that drew me to this book in the store in the first place. The binding is hardback deep yellow cloth with a yellow, abstract floral patterned paper pasted over all but the spine edge on both the front and back boards; the title and author credits are on another pink slip of paper pasted on top of the floral paper. The pages measure a terrific 35.5cm x 27cm and are of a mid-weight semi-gloss stock. There are no gathering signatures, but the book was printed in oblong octavo (not, as most online dealers inexplicably claim, quarto) and is paginated from the half title page to the end of the content, 1-50. A final unnumbered white leaf of the same stock ends the book and there are blank flyleaves conjugate with the paste-downs at front and back, made of a pink construction paper. A printer’s mark (24045) appears on the copyright imprint (on the verso of the title page) and in the lower inside corner of the half title; I believe that this is the first, or possibly second, printing of the third edition (which it seems went through three issues).

The book would have been handled by adults, playing the music for children, and so the condition is generally better than it would have been had the book been handled by children. At the second opening, between the half title and title pages the spine has split, causing some of the gatherings to hang loose, but none of the leaves are separated. The corners of the front and back boards are bumped considerably and there is some chipping to the fore-edge of the boards. Two leaves (pp. 29/30 and 41/2) have tears in the lower margin (not affecting the text) and the upper stitch of the four-stitch binding (evident in the pp. 24-25 opening) has come undone. There is no owner’s marginalia. Few dealers seem to be selling the 1904 or 1907 copies, which suggests that they are markedly rare (the 1904 edition is valued at $300 to $400). The 1913 edition is slightly less rare, though still worth collecting (valued at between $50 and $100).

I’m not sure what the term “Anxious” in the title is meant to suggest about the book’s target audience, but the seventeen songs in the collection are each aptly titled. In their order in the book, they are:

Practising [as in, practicing playing music]
For Careless Children
Red Hair
The Liar
A Wicked Child
Maria, -- Glutton
Good Ellen
A Plan [to terrorize his parents when he grows up]
Making Calls
When the Night Comes

Many of the songs present first the lyrics in the form of a poem, accompanied by a water-color illustration of the central conceit, followed by the musical notation (written for piano with accompanying lyrics) which is often decorated with additional illustrations on the theme.

To return to the original premise of this post, however, one of the more amusing features of the music are the instructions Carpenter provides at the start of each song. Most musicians are familiar with the traditional Italian tempo and mood directives such as “Largo”, “Capriccio”, “Vivace”, etc. Carpenter, however, uses English adverbs carefully chosen to correspond to the song’s subject. Thus, for example, the song “Stout” is to be played “Heavily”, the song “Practising” to be played “Slowly and painfully”, “Vanity” is “Languidly” played in 6/8 time, “Humility” must be played “Slowly and without display”, “A Plan” (in which the narrator plots to get a horse and gun and become a reckless cowboy) is to be “Loud and manfully” played, and, of course, “Good Ellen” is to be played “In Moral Tone”. Whether or not these instructions are useful to the musician is debatable (as a pianist, I would have no idea how to play something “morally”), but they make for fun reading nonetheless.

The couple responsible for this book deserve some notice as well. John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951; shown here in 1932), considered “the most American of our composers” by Walter Damrosch, was one of the first composers to incorporate popular music and jazz into his orchestral works. Inspired first by Debussy and Stravinsky, he went on to write ballets on modern themes (one titled “Skyscrapers”) and cinematic music as well (his “Adventures in a Perambulator” was meant to be the score for the sequel to Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”). Carpenter loved to draw material from American icons, ranging from the poetry of Langston Hughes (used as lyrics) to the George Herriman comic strip “Krazy Kat” (made into a ballet). His first wife and the woman responsible for the art in Improving Songs for Anxious Children was Rue Winterbotham (?-1931), a notable designer, artist, and art collector, who served as a leading figure in Chicago’s art world in the 1920s.

This collection of music was the Carpenter’s first published collaboration, and it was well received and, for its time, slightly unconventional. Pollack writes: 

Although somewhat coy and precious, these children’s songs exhibit a gentle irony free from the more conventional sentimentality of Carpenter’s earlier music. Some of the songs even register a mild sort of anti-Victorian protest, for instance, the arbitrariness of gender roles (“Red Hair”) or the agony of being seen and not heard--or fed (“Making Calls”). Others...project a dreamy, visionary utopia where “little boys / Can hop and play / the whole long day / And never be scolded for noise”. The charmingly deadpan humor of Improving Songs also strikes a distinctly American note, making the collection a turn-of-the-century precursor to the world of Our Gang and Peanuts [and a late contemporary of Peck’s Bad Boy]. The music contains many trademarks not only of the contemporary vernacular but of of popular American music yet to come. The poignant “Making Calls”, for instance, has the sweet yearning of a late Gershwin tune, while the childlike bravado of “A Plan” anticipates Richard Rodgers. Even the simply lullaby “When the Night Comes” has a slightly jazzy flavor, including a final major triad with an added sixth, a chord whose unusual spacing emphasizes the music’s modal ambiguity. At the same time, these songs exhibit Carpenter’s characteristic refinement, in particular the beautifully Schumannesque “Spring”.

Of Rue’s artwork, Pollack states that the “elegantly cartoonish illustrations perfectly match the music and texts.” But Pollack also seems to mistake some of the Carpenters' subtle humor. For example, the narrator of “Red Hair” is clearly a little boy whose red hair and feminine clothing -- no doubt imposed upon him by his parents -- have made him remarkably self-conscious about his gender image. Pollack, however, fails to see this and writes, instead: “The little girl who wants to get rid of her red curls and have straight black hair ‘like other boys and not like silly girls’ has enormous bows on her shoes, her dress, and her hair; even her dog has bows!”

As noted earlier, however, the Carpenter’s collection of children’s songs went over well, even being adapted for concert performances by orchestras in Chicago and New York throughout the first two decades of the century. The critical magazine Current Opinion praised the works: “Absolutely unqualified is Carpenter’s triumph in the realm of children’s songs.... Both verses and music are by Mr. Carpenter, it is understood. [sic] They reveal a subtle insight into child psychology and an intangible something we may call the comic spirit in music. These songs are...vivid and colorful.” Even more flattering was the letter poet Louis Untermeyer sent Carpenter after his wife started singing the music at home: “If your other work has half the originality and strength of these children’s songs we both believe...that no writer that America has yet produced can equal you in eloquence and sincerity.” And according to Kate Douglas Wiggin, the songs in Improving Songs for Anxious Children were quite simply “among the wittiest of their kind in all musical literature”.

What so many of these contemporary reviews neglected to mention, however, was the role Rue (shown here, on the left of the photo, with her friends on a beach in France in the 1920s) played in John’s musical output. She did more than just add artwork to their book. As Pollack points out, she was “the guiding genius behind her husband’s work” and that it was only after their marriage “that the sentimentality that marred his juvenilia from the 1890s” evaporated and his style both matured and gained its “verve” and “fun”. “Rue helped bring Carpenter -- literally and figuratively -- into the twentieth century,” Pollack concludes. And, of course, without her hand in the partnership we would not have this beautiful, witty book of children’s songs to collect, peruse, and enjoy today.

1 comment:

  1. The final photograph of Rue Winterbotham Carpenter is of her, her daughter, Ginny Carpenter, and Sara Murphy (see F. Scott Fitzgerald) frolicking on a beach in Cap d'Antibes in probably 1923. It is thought to have inspired a drawing by Picasso of three nudes dancing.