Thursday, March 6, 2008

bonaparte's retreat

"Bonaparte's Retreat" is not a dance tune. Rather, it represents another fiddle tune genre, more poular on the concert stage than anywhere else: a programmatic piece meant to depict an event imitating the action in its sound. . . . Bayard (1944) traces the tune to an Irish march, "The Eagle's Charge," (also known as "The Eagle's Tune") and gives references to printed versions in Irish collections.
Jeff Todd Titon, Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, 2001

"Bonaparte's Retreat" is an instance of a genre which has largely died out at its origin, but which has remained trapped in Appalachia for a century. As with all fiddle tunes, the essence of the piece is a loose melodic and rhythmic structure, in this case built around a central narrative metaphor. Individual fiddlers (and disjoint histories of the tune) develop idiosyncratic expressions of this melodic / thematic core.

Tommy Jarrell (1901 - 1985) performs his interpretation of a version with a long pedigree:

One could also compare the various interpretations of the central melodic / thematic schema synchronically in two recordings from 1937, both made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in Kentucky, 1937.

Luther Strong (1892 - 1963)

William H. Stepp (1875 - 1947)

On October 26, 1937, Alan Lomax wrote to his supervisor at the Library of Congress, Harold Spivacke, that "This afternoon the best fiddler I have heard in Ky. is coming to play. . . ." He was referring to Bill Stepp.
Jeff Todd Titon, Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, 2001

By considering the intersection of these three versions, we can separate the melodic backbone of the tune from the embellishments and interpretations imposed by the various performers. These latter idiosyncratic additions serve as a commentary on and interpretation of the underlying melodic / thematic core.

This particular recording (the only one) of William H. Stepp's version of "Bonaparte's Retreat" was brought to the attention of Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990) and used as the melodic basis of the "Hoe-Down" movement of his Rodeo ballet (1942).

Aaron Copland, "Hoe-Down," 1942 (interpreted by Buster Keaton)

Now, despite Titon's comments above, Stepp does indeed perform "Bonaparte's Retreat" in a break-down, or hoe-down style. Nevertheless, to use this particular melody as a representative instance of such a dance demonstrates a profound insensitivity to both the particulars of the style and of this tune.

More striking than this, however, is the fact that Copland's version mimics the melody and rhythm of Stepp's version so precisely. Comparing the two, we find a far stricter melodic and rhythmic similarity than exists between any two of the performances of Stepp, Strong, and Jarrell. In following Stepp's performance so precisely, in fact, Copland has lost the distinction between the tune (its melodic and thematic backbone) and the interpretation of it (the idiosyncrasies of different players which emphasize different strands in the melodic / thematic core).

The three fiddle versions each illustrate a monotonous march punctuated by bursts of cannon, a trek, hastened and desperate, but also dignified and glorious. Stepp's version is more glorious than the others, yet there is still a sense of monotonous march punctuated by desperation and excitement. Stepp layers a frantic and ecstatic veneer onto the incessant flight, the chaotic running, of the underlying melodic structure. Yet Copland, in lifting the literal melody from Stepp's performance, lifts this ecstatic veneer without the underlying desperation. The monotony and rhythm of the march is absent from "Hoe-Down" where the melody, Stepp's idiosyncratic frills and all, is put through the paces of orchestral variation. The lull and swell of dynamics and instrumentation here is not motivated by any particular thematic or aesthetic narrative, but rather exemplifies the standard moves of a the large orchestral spectacle.

Here, we can separate out, I think, those expressive variations in dynamics, tempo, and timbre which are motivated by a coherent thematic structure and those which simply represent the catalog of techniques available. Certainly, if Copland's "Hoe-Down" is not an exemplar of the latter, it inspired such travesties. Consider, for example, how much further from the thematic core of Stepp / Strong / Jarrell the melody has come in this 1973 performance by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer:

and again here in this 1987 performance by David Gamble:

Gamble and Emerson are certainly talented performers, but, under Copland's influence, they have taken a narrowly defined melody and used it as fodder for displays of speed and virtuosity. There is no sensitivity, however, to any theme or meaning to the music besides the melody itself. Both Emerson and Gamble impose a narrative structure of sorts on the sequence of variations they traverse, but it seems to serve only as an excuse for flourishes. Yet even Stepp was constrained by a prior narrative structure, one that forced him to impose flourishes and virtuosity in a meaningful fashion, one that would enhance the underlying structure and interpret Bonaparte's Retreat as a joyous event.


Anonymous said...

This is a killer post.

Anonymous said...

I agree- I came across William Stepp's "Bonaparte's Retreat" on the recent 20 disc History of Country Western music." When I heard it I realized that Copeland simply stole the arrangement in whole (i.e. plagiarized) for his Rodeo rather than simply interpreting an old Appalachian folk tune, which is what it was passed off as.

Nice to see this post as it sort of confirms things for me.

Anonymous said...

Love the connection to the old Irish! Many traditional tunes were notated starting with Bunting at the Irish Harp Festival in 1792. Much was lost, for example all the lyrics. But this was the Irish Literary Renaissance, and the newly-educated Irish and Scots were searhing for and finding their own suppressed history.

Unknown said...

Have you compared this tune with the opening movement to Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major? Wondering what you think about the connection, if any and his interpretation.

Anonymous said...

I've been learning a lot of fiddle tunes but I've been holding off on "Bonaparte's" because of the weirdly different versions that have been out there (particularly those that sound just like "Hoedown"). This is the first explanation I've ever gotten of this, and it's very, very well presented. Thanks, man!

Anonymous said...

I am a ballet teacher using the Copland version for a recital piece I've choreographed for my students. I'd been curious for a long time about this piece. Every time I research it, the remark that it is based off a folk tune is always there, but that's where the analysis stops. Since it's hands down the most famous of Copland's works where the general public is concerned, I'd been suprised not to have more info available. So, great explanation; I finally appreciate its origin and can pass it on.

Mark Simos said...

I know I'm finding this post three years late, but a good post (like a good fiddle tune) should have a long shelf life - and this is a good post.

Copland worked, I'm pretty sure, from Ruth Crawford Seeger's transcriptions of the Library of Congress recordings that appeared in various printed books such as "Our Singing Country."

It's possible he never even listened to the field recording himself. He certainly didn't have a lot of knowledge of the tradition out of which the piece came.

It would be a WONDERFUL thing (hmm!) for someone to do an orchestral version of this tune that really DID honor the genre of 'programmatic or descriptive fiddle tune' and expand that into orchestral form. Now there's an interesting challenge...


Theo said...

The Copland version was also quoted in the soundtrack of an animated cartoon film called "Fievel Goes West", which I watched when I was a kid. When I heard the Stepp version of Bonaparte's Retreat, something clicked, and I thought "I know that tune from somewhere..." Perhaps that chain of influence was partially responsible for my interest in old-time music!