Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gendarmes' Duet

When I was finding information about Jacques Offenbach yesterday, the most surprising thing I learned was that the United States Marine Corps Hymn ("From the halls of Montezuma...") takes its melody from a song in his operetta Geneviève de Brabant. It seemed like a big cognitive disconnect: this macho, All-American song really comes from a French comic opera? I'm sure certain members of our armed forces would be surprised to know that!

Moreover, I thought, knowing a little about Offenbach, it wouldn't surprise me if the original lyrics to his tune were satirical or anti-military, instead of straightforwardly patriotic. So today I did a little sleuthing: I located the score of Geneviève de Brabant in the music library here at Vassar. It was an old, old book, and on its flyleaf someone had written "Offert à ma soeur chérie, 9 avril 1868" (Given to my dear sister, April 9 1868). This was just a few months after the operetta had premiered! The frontispiece is a line drawing of two soldiers, because the hit song, which became the Marine Corps hymn, was the "Gendarmes' Duet." (Discoveries like these are why I love the Vassar library--and why I ought to take advantage of it while I still can!)

The Gendarmes' Duet comes in the second act. Its authentic French title is "Couplets des deux hommes d'arms" (Song of two men-at-arms). The characters are Grabuge, a sergeant, sung by a "comic baritone," and Pitou, a "simple gunner," sung by a "comic tenor." Here are the French lyrics, and then my translation.
G: Protéger le repos des villes
P: Courir sus aux mauvais garçons
G: Ne parler qu'à des imbéciles
P: En voir de toutes les façons
G: Un peu de calme après vous charme
P: C'est assez calme ici, sergent!

G: Ah, qu'il est beau...
P: Ah, qu'il est beau...
G: D'être homme d'arme...
P: D'être homme d'arme
Mais que c'est un sort exigeant!
G: Ah, qu'il est beau...
P: Ah, qu'il est beau...
G & P: D'être homme d'arme!
Mais c'est un sort exigeant!

G: Ne pas jamais ôter ses cottes
P: C'est bien penible, en vérité
G: Dormir apres de longues trottes
P: Rêver, c'est la félicité
G: Sentir la violette de Parme
P: Vous me comblez, ô mon sergent!

G: Ah qu'il est beau... (etc)
----------------------------
G: To keep the peace in towns
P: To run after naughty boys
G: To speak only to imbeciles
P: To see them in every way
G: A bit of calm afterwards is charming
P: It's pretty calm here, sergeant!

G: Oh, it's so nice...
P: Oh, it's so nice...
G: To be a man-at-arms...
P: To be a man-at-arms...
But it's a demanding life!
G: Oh, it's so nice...
P: Oh, it's so nice...
G: To be a man-at arms
G & P: To be a man-at-arms
But it's a demanding life!

G: Never to risk your neck
P: That's quite painful, in truth
G: To sleep after a long march
P: To dream, that's happiness
G: To smell Parma violets
P: You overwhelm me, oh my sergeant!

G: Oh, it's so nice... (etc.)
So, as I thought... definitely satirical. I forgot to mention that there's a note on the music that Pitou should sing in "voix de tête," which means "head voice"...so if he's meant to sing falsetto, that just makes it even funnier. And more satiric. And less the image that the Marines want to portray. The men-at-arms here are lazy, have nothing to do, are self-satisfied and smug. And there's more than a hint of effeminacy/homoeroticism in the last lines, where Grabuge dreams of smelling Parma violets and Pitou replies ecstatically "You overwhelm me!"

I mean no disrespect to our armed forces by undertaking this investigation, but I'm the kind of person who tends to be skeptical about big ideas like God or America or The Army. So when I read a Marine writing that "The Marine Corps is Valhalla for Warriors. U.S. Marines need no song. They have a hymn" and "When you have attained absolute perfection, there is no need for further modification" (reference), my first instinct is to cut him down a little. To tell him that the Marine Hymn was not created by God, but by a French-German-Jewish composer for a pleasant little operetta--and it's meant to satirize military music. I get the same way whenever I hear people rhapsodize about the "beauty" of "The Star-Spangled Banner." "It began as a drinking song!" I want to shout at them--which explains why it is so damn hard to sing, as well as the rather wheezing melody. Just because I love my country doesn't mean I have to thrill to every one of its patriotic symbols.

5 comments:

Tony said...

Dear Marissa
If you go to http://omf.blogspot.com/search?q=gendarmes and read the comments to the first post you will see why I was happy that a correspondent gave me a link to Marissabidilla, even though it has cost me 20 pounds sterling. I have been posting pieces about this song for four years and it is nice to think that I shall never again need to do so.
Sincerely
Tony

Marissa said...

I am delighted to hear that you found my sleuthing useful--and that it played a part in Save the Children getting a £20 donation. The blogging world works in mysterious ways!

dhdinwiddie said...

Dear Marissa

We macho types are into recycling. Have done it a bunch over the years. I have a cd, "Esprit de Corps", at least twenty years old with the Galop from "Genevieve de Brabant" by Jaques Offenbach, transcribed by John R. Bourgeois, Colonel Director of the Marine Corps Band. And we have little time for being racist. All you have to do to join the tribe of Marines is successfully go through Boot Camp. Then you too may wear the eagle, globe, and anchor.

Semper Fi

dhdinwiddie

Unknown said...

I have discussed the history of the "Hymn" with Col. Bourgeois while playing under his baton in the National Sousa Foundation Band. Be assured that, at least at the level of "The President's Own," USMC musicians, if not the grunts, are aware of and delight in the history of this piece.

Tommy T.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Thanks for your comment, Tommy. Happy Veteran's day, sir!