Sunday, April 12, 2020

"La valse au petit chien": composers and their dogs


A year after their return to Paris following a trip to Majorca that had proved disastrous for Chopin's health, Chopin and Sand had, to all intents and purposes, become a settled couple, spending most of their time together when not working. George Sand had decided to rent a beautiful garden apartment behind Rue Pigalle and the couple's quiet existence was punctuated by a social life centred around the artists in their circle, including the painter Delacroix and the novelist Balzac. Their domestic setting was further enhanced when Chopin and Sand decided to adopt a stray dog that had followed Chopin home on the streets of Paris. George Sand described the incident in a letter to her son Maurice:

"This morning we have acquired a delightful little puppy, no bigger than a fist, dark brown, with a white waistcoat, white stockings in front and white shoes on the hind legs. This gentleman followed Chopin in the street, and simply would not leave him. Then, oh miracle, Chopin took the little dog in adoration and has spent the whole day looking after it, even though it did its "something" in the drawing room and gave us all fleas. Chopin finds this charming, mainly because the dog is all over him and cannot stand Solange [George Sand's 12-year-old daughter]. Solange is fiercely jealous. At this moment the little thing is sleeping at my feet. It has been called Mops, which is, quite simply, the Polish for Pug." [George Sand: letter to Maurice Sand, Paris, 20 September 1840].

Though the Rue Pigalle apartments where they lived at this time no longer exist the novelist Balzac has given us a detailed description of the dwelling's exotic furnishings after paying Sand a visit early in 1840:

"I have just returned from George Sand... She lives at number 16 rue Pigalle, at the end of a garden, and over the stables and coach house which belong to the house on the street. She has a dining-room in which the furniture is carved oak. Her little salon is café-au-lait coloured, and the salon in which she receives has many superb Chinese vases full of flowers. There is always a jardinière full of flowers. The furniture is green; there is a side table covered with curiosities; also pictures by Delacroix, and her own portrait by Calamatta...

[Luigi Calamatta: portrait of George Sand, 1837]

The piano is magnificent and upright, in rosewood. Chopin is always there. She smokes cigarettes, and never anything else. She rises at four o'clock; at four Chopin has finished giving his lessons. You reach her rooms by what is called a miller's staircase, steep and straight. Her bedroom is brown; her bed two mattresses on the floor, in the Turkish fashion. Ecco, contessa. She has the pretty, tiny little hands of a child. And finally, the portrait of [Wojciech Grzymała] as a Polish castellan, three-quarter length, hangs in the dining-room, and nothing would more strike a stranger's eye... What your brother is right about is the incredible influence of the atmosphere of Paris; literally, one drinks ideas. At all times, all hours, there is something new..." [Honoré de Balzac: letter to Ewa Hańska, Paris, 15 March 1840]

In the mid 1840s Chopin and Sand moved to the fashionable Square d'Orleans in Paris and around that time George Sand acquired two dogs, named Marquis and Dib. In October 1846, during the last of Chopin's annual visits to Sand's Nohant country retreat (a chateau 100 miles south of Paris), he wrote to his family in Warsaw:

"The little dog Marquis (you remember) is staying with me and is lying on my sofa. He is an extraordinary creature: he has a soft fluffy white coat which Mme Sand herself brushes every day, and he is as intelligent as can be. I can't begin to tell you all his original tricks. For example, he will neither eat nor drink from a gilt vessel: he pushes it away with his nose and upsets it if he can." [Chopin: letter to his family in Warsaw, Nohant, 11 October 1846]

A regular guest at Nohant between 1844 to 1856 was the young painter Louis-Eugène Lambert, a friend of George Sand's son Maurice, and like Maurice a student of Delacroix. Lambert later became well known for his paintings of cats and dogs and it's possible that his 1854 painting of a Bichon Frise is none other than a portrait of Marquis.

[Louis-Eugène Lambert: Bichon Frise, 1854, possibly George Sand's dog Marquis]

Lambert also painted some frescoes on the walls and ceilings at Nohant, and created various canvasses of Nohant life, including a romantic depiction of the Nohant kitchen.

[Louis-Eugène Lambert: La cuisine de Nohant (c. 1850s)]

Nohant, George Sand's country home, had become a valuable haven for Chopin, and in the seven summers he spent there he had composed some of his greatest music. At the beginning of November 1846 Chopin left Nohant, unaware that he would never return. He had just completed his last great piano masterpieces, the Barcarolle, Polonaise-Fantaisie and two Nocturnes Op.62, and travelled back to Paris to resume his teaching for the winter months. A few weeks after his return to Paris he ended a letter to George Sand, who was still at Nohant, with the following remark:

"Please thank Marquis for missing me and for sniffing at my door." [Chopin: letter to George Sand, Paris, 25 November 1846]

In 1846 George Sand and her children had begun putting on plays at Nohant (having built a small stage with various pieces of painted scenery). Sand's son Maurice also began developing a puppet theatre. Chopin helped out by providing music, and a musical sketch by Chopin has survived entitled Gallop Marquis, a light-hearted bagatelle no doubt demonstrating the fun antics of Sand's dogs, it's second section containing the annotation "partie Dib".

[A portion of the manuscript of the little "Gallop Marquis" that Chopin sketched for the fun activities of Nohant during the summer and early autumn of 1846. The piece presumably depicts the antics of George Sand's two dogs Marquis and Dib (over the 13th and 14th measures Chopin has written "partie Dib")]

Apparently George Sand's dogs enjoyed getting involved in Nohant's amateur theatrical productions:

"Marquis is acting too. The costumes get him tremendously excited. He takes part in the action, jumps to the arms of people being murdered, weeps at the feet of those singing romances and at the end dances a 'pas de deux' with Lambert. He takes the play seriously and feels all the emotions of the audience." [George Sand: letter to Emanuel Arago, Nohant, 9 December 1846]

"Did yesterday's pantomime induce Dib to dance?" [Chopin: letter to George Sand, Paris, 15 December 1846]

"I can well imagine the excitement of Marquis and Dib. Lucky spectators, simple-minded and untaught!" [Chopin: letter to George Sand, Paris, 17 January 1847]

Chopin's famous Waltz in D flat, Op.64 no.1, was possibly first sketched during the autumn of 1846 at Nohant (it was first performed publicly by Chopin at his very last Paris concert, on 16 February 1848, his rendition leading one of those present to marvel at the suppleness of Chopin's playing). According to an unsubstantiated legend the waltz's creation was the result of a dare, when Sand challenged Chopin to set the movement of her dog Marquis chasing his tail to music. Whether the story of the waltz's inspiration is true or not, one of Chopin's most gifted pupils, Camille O'Meara, had no hesitation in her correspondence in referring to the waltz as "la valse au petit chien".

[Chopin's Waltz in D flat Op.64 no.1, followed by an explanation of the work's unusual subtitle, recorded live at the 2018 Oxford Summer Piano Series]

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Mozart owned several dogs over the years, the family dog when he was a child being named Bimperl, a fox terrier.

[A 1995 reconstruction by Ingrid Ramsauer of a Bölzlscheibe (shooting target) created by Leopold Mozart in December 1777, depicting Bimperl (the family's fox terrier) dancing on the piano while Mozart's sister Nannerl plays]

The letters Mozart received from his father during his travels with his mother to Munich, Augsburg and Paris in 1777/78 are full of descriptions of the family dog's daily activities:

"As the weather is fine, we take an early walk every day with our faithful Bimperl who is in splendid trim and only becomes very sad and obviously most anxious when we are both out of the house, for then she thinks that because she has lost you two, she is now going to lose us as well. So when we went to the ball and she saw us masked, she refused to leave Mitzerl, and, when we got home, she was so overjoyed that I thought she would choke. Moreover, when we were out, she would not stay on her bed in the room, but remained lying on the ground outside the porter's door. She would not sleep, but kept on moaning, wondering, I suppose, whether we should ever return." [Leopold Mozart, letter to his son, Salzburg, 12/13 October 1777]

Mozart's fondness for animals is obvious from his letters home, and his frequent greetings to the dog, the family canary, and so on. In 1780, during rehearsals for his opera Idomeneo in Munich, Mozart wrote long letters to his father in Salzburg, describing the frantic preparations for the opera's premiere, including Mozart's frustration with several of the singers:

"I must teach the whole opera myself to Del Prato [Vincenzo dal Prato, 1756–1828, an Italian castrato singer]. He is incapable of singing even the introduction to any air of importance, and his voice is so uneven!... The day before yesterday Del Prato sang in the most disgraceful way at the concert. I would almost lay a wager that the man never manages to get through the rehearsals, far less the opera; he has some internal disease... When Del Prato comes I must sing to him, for I have to teach him his whole part like a child; his method is not worth a farthing" [Mozart: letters to his father, Munich, 15 & 22 November 1780]

In the midst of this and other long rants, Mozart doesn't forget to send greetings to the family pet:

"Give Bimperl a pinch of Spanish snuff, a good winesop, and three kisses." [Mozart: letter to his father, Munich, 22 November 1780]

In Vienna Mozart and his wife Constanze likely acquired at least two dogs (Goukerl and Katherl). An almost certainly apocryphal story tells of how Mozart's dog was the sole follower of its master's hearse as it made its way to St. Marx Cemetery on the outskirts of Vienna on 6 December 1791, and where Mozart would be given a third class burial, the exact location of his grave subsequently lost when the grave was reused.

[Pierre-Roch Vigneron (1789-1872): "Le Convoi du Pauvre" c.1819, a coloured French copper engraving said to have been owned by Beethoven, who hung it on his wall as a constant reminder of Mozart's humble death]

In addition to his love of dogs, Mozart also kept various other pets when he lived in Vienna, including a starling which he taught to sing the opening theme of the last movement of his Concerto K.453 and for whom, at its demise, the composer held an elaborate funeral in his back garden.

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Some other dog-loving composers, pictured with their beloved pets/companions:


[Schubert with the painter Leopold Kupelwieser's dog Drago, Schloss Atzenbrugg, 1821 (detail from Kupelwieser's 1821 watercolour)].


[Grieg with his labrador, hiking on Løvstakken, Bergen, Norway, c.1900]


Elgar was particularly fond of dogs, and had two close dog companions at the end of his life, Marco (a spaniel) and Mina (a cairn terrier), and his very last composition is actually a short and beautiful orchestral piece named Mina. On his 70th birthday, 2 June 1927, Elgar conducted a concert of his music with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a national radio broadcast. At the conclusion of the broadcast Elgar spoke into the microphone to wish listeners goodnight, ending with "and goodnight Marco". Elgar had an accomplice, his niece Madge Grafton, stationed at his home with Marco to check the dog's reaction and apparently on hearing Elgar call out his name Marco became very excited and rushed around the room barking, looking for his master!

[Elgar with his spaniel, Marco, Worcester, September 1927]


[Debussy with his collie, Xanto, and fox terrier, Boy, outside his home, 1907]


[Rachmaninoff with his Newfoundland, Levko]


Gershwin also owned several dogs over the years, including Bombo, Tinker, and most notably Tony, a wire-haired terrier who was notorious for getting lost in New York and having search parties sent out for him.

[Stills of Gershwin's wire-haired terrier Tony as a puppy, taken by Gershwin himself]

In 1936 Tony followed Gershwin from New York to California where the composer was about to start work on an RKO movie starring his old friend Fred Astaire. Gershwin flew to California on 10 August 1936 with his brother Ira and Ira's wife Lee, but Tony travelled by car. Unfortunately for Tony he suffered greatly from travel sickness during the 3000 mile car trip and his carer had to break the journey for a few days to allow Tony time to recover. Eventually he made it safely to Los Angeles and was able to join his dog loving owner at Gershwin's rented Roxbury Drive home.

[Tony, Gershwin and Gershwin's mother Rose, Beverly Hills, California, USA, 1936]

The movie Gershwin was working on when he first arrived in California in 1936 was Shall We Dance (released in May 1937) and it features a memorable scene with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers involving dogs of various shapes and sizes on board a transatlantic ocean liner, for which Gershwin created his delightful Walking the Dog incidental music. According to the movie's choreographer Hermes Pan, Gershwin improvised the music for this scene right on the set during rehearsals after the director Mark Sandrich asked Gershwin if he could add music to make the scene more comical. The original soundtrack score used for the movie has never been published, and in the 1950s Ira Gershwin, remembering the delightful Walking the Dog sequence but unable to track down his brother's original score, got in touch with Hal Borne, Fred Astaire's rehearsal pianist while at RKO, and asked if he could recreate the Walking the Dog music from memory. Despite the almost 20 year gap Hal Borne did his best to recall the incidental music, which was then published as a piano solo entitled Promenade. Not surprisingly, given the amount of time that had passed, Borne was not able to remember Gershwin's music exactly, so in the early 1990s I created my own piano version of the Walking the Dog scene, which I transcribed directly from the Shall We Dance film soundtrack, and which I recorded in 1997 on Volume 4 of my Authentic George Gershwin CD collection. Hearing the true harmonies of Gershwin's original Walking the Dog was a revelation, with so many echoes of the extraordinary harmonic language of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess which the composer had completed only a year earlier.

[Gershwin transcribed Gibbons: Walking The Dog (coupled with the original Astaire/Rogers dog walking film sequence from the 1937 movie Shall We Dance.]


[Britten holding his dachshund Clytie, 1954. The score is of his opera Gloriana (1953), written for the coronation of Elizabeth II. According to the photographer "the dog demanded to become part of the picture. Britten swivelled on the piano seat to make room for his canine collaborator, who leaped into the safety of his arms, while yet casting a wary eye on me".]

[Britten, holding one of his dachshunds, talking with German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 6th December 1965]


[Gibbons with his most severe critic, Georgia, a wheaten Scottish terrier]

Composers and their pets, accompanied by Elgar's Mina...

[A slide show (plus rare home movies of Elgar and Gershwin) accompanied by Elgar's last composition, Mina, composed 1932/33 and named after his cairn terrior Mina (played by the Northern Sinfonia of England conducted by Neville Marriner), plus a short postlude about Anna Magdalena Bach's love of songbirds]