Category Archives: Composers

The Great Sousa

Sheet Music cover (The Washington Post, J. P. Sousa) ill. by J. Bahr
Washington Post‘ by John Philipp Sousa. Digitally retouched (IM-stories). Published by Tessaro Verlag (Berlin, s.d.) and illustrated by Johann Bahr.

I am not a lover of national hymns, military music or marches. They might hearten the troops but they seldom encourage the creation of attractive covers. At least one exception is this winsome image for John Philip Sousa’s The Washington Post. It inspires gallant courteousness and good manners, not blaring heroism. And indeed Sousa’s fierce marching music suitably accompanied the stylish ballroom two-step. At one point the two-step was so much identified with Sousa’s melody that it was often called The Washington Post. Nevertheless we find distinct entries for the two dances in a tiny ‘dance class’ notebook of that time.

Carnet de cours de danse, +/- 1900.
Two separate entries for The Washington Post and the Two-Step dance (Nouvelle Danse Anglaise) in a dance class notebook, ca. 1900. (source Images Musicales archives).

The two-step dance had been introduced in about 1890: a quick-quick-slow slide instead of the half-jump Polka step or an ein-zwei martial stride. The civilised dance definitely called for a more sophisticated music. Don’t take my word for it — listen to the delicate rendition of The Washington Post by the United States Army Field Band.

The creator of the dancing couple on the cover above is Johann Bahr (1859–1910), a German painter and caricaturist for the satirical magazine Lustige Blätter. We found one of his drawings for that magazine (a mocking self-portrait?) and also a merry carnivalesque aquarelle.

traum-eines-caricaturen-zeichners, Johann Bahr
Traum eines Caricaturen-Zeichners‘ (Dream of a caricaturist), illustration by Johann Bahr for the Lustige Blätter. [ © Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg; source: Deutschen Digitalen Bibliothek ]
Lustiger Karneval. Aquarelle by Johann Bahr.
Lustiger Karneval‘. Aquarelle by Johann Bahr (source: eBay)

Bahr was not a prolific sheet music illustrator, still we count seven of his creations in our collection. One of them is again for a Sousa composition, the Kadetten-Marsch.

Sheet music cover (partition musicale) illustrated by Johann Bahr.
Kadetten-Marsch‘ (The High School Cadets March), by John Philipp Sousa. Published by Alfred Michow (Charlottenburg, s.d.) and illustrated by Johann Bahr.

Now John Philip Sousa, he was famous! Born in Washington, D.C. in 1854 he would forever be esteemed as the American ‘March King’. His father was a Spanish trombonist with Portuguese roots, his mother was German. Sousa started as an apprentice musician at the Marine Corps. He would become a member and later the youngest conductor of the United States Marine Band. At the end of that career, in 1892 he founded his own Sousa Band. With it he conquered the US and the world, touring multiple times.
Sousa made his mark on music history. Being a perfectionist —and also having a perfect pitch— he attracted the finest musicians in his band. He educated audiences by playing classics to perfection, and proved that America had quality music.

Photograph of John Philip Sousa standing with Camille Saint-Saëns
John Philip Sousa standing with Camille Saint-Saëns, ca 1915. [ source: Library of Congress ]
Apart from his noble musical career Sousa helped the development of the sousaphone, strongly defended the rights of musical authors, and was in his spare time an expert trap shooter.

Sousa at his favourite sport, trapshooting in 1916. { source: Pennsylvania State Sportsmen's Association ]
Sousa engaged in his favourite sport, trap shooting in 1916 [ source: Pennsylvania State Sportsmen’s Association ]
Sousa was not only a wildly popular director, a meticulous conductor, or an ingenious composer. He was also a shrewd entertainer, cleverly adapting his program to the sensitivity of the local audiences. European critics were surprised to hear him launch encores before the end of the concert, often in the middle of the enthusiastic applause that followed a piece. Sousa also introduced jazz sections, ragtime, cakewalks and coon songs in his gigs as early as 1900 at the Paris Exposition, giving some ideas to Claude Debussy.

John Philip Sousa, the Sousa, the "March King". [ ]
John Philip Sousa, the “March King”, ca 1915. [ source: Library of Congress ]
Sousa’s demeanour was always disciplined and his uniforms were meticulous (a valet accompanied him everywhere on tour). There were rumours that to direct he never wore his white gloves twice…

In 1876, as a young lad of 22, Sousa toured as the orchestra leader for the Living Pictures. For that show he also composed short descriptive pieces as accompaniment to scenes with barely-covered girls. The Living Pictures was a series of tableaux vivants that enlivened scenes of classical art and literature. Beautiful women in gauze scarves and flesh-coloured tights took artful poses in painted decors. In the shows announcement, the public was reassured: “The management begs to state that the entertainment will be strictly first-class in every respect, and nothing will be said or done that will offend the most fastidious.

'Cleopatra before Caesar' by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866.
Cleopatra before Caesar‘ by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866 [ source: wikipedia ]
‘Cleopatra before Caesar’, ‘The First Sin’, ‘Diana and her Nymphs Surprised’… Say no more!
The show was an entertaining enterprise of Matt Morgan. He was a British caricaturist, scene painter and theatre personality who defied the authorities and moral standards. It is said that his cartoons ‘… attacked the impropriety —actual or rumoured— of the Prince of Wales; and most shockingly, of Queen Victoria herself.‘

Photograph of Matt Morgan (1837-1890) [ source : Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. ]. On the right an article
Photograph of Matt Morgan (1837-1890) [ source : Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. ]. On the right an announcement in the Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 2, Number 107, 26 June 1876.
The risqué Living Pictures spectacle might have been classy in Washington, it definitely was less welcome in Pittsburgh: Sousa and other staff members were called to court on charges of obscenity.

We close this small tribute to Sousa with an impromptu duel between the sousaphone and the Dodge.

Readings on Matt Morgan:

  • ‘Sex, Art, and the Victorian Cartoonist: Matthew Somerville Morgan in Victorian Britain and America’, Richard Scully, IJOCA, 2011 (
  • Matt Morgan on Broadway, blog
  • Matt Morgan of FUN – Yesterday’s Papers (blog)

Polnareff, père et fils

‘Amarantina’ by Léo Poll, published by the composer (Paris, sd).

Léo Poll, the creator and publisher of the Argentinian tango ‘Amarantina’, was a Russian Jew. He was born in Odessa in 1899 as Leib Polnareff. In 1923 Leib Polnareff arrived in Paris where he became a pianiste-démonstrateur or a song plugger. A piano player was employed by music publishers and music stores to help sell new sheet music. In the office or shop, patrons could select any title, which was then delivered to the song plugger who started to play the tune so that the customer could decide whether to buy the sheet music.
Leib Polnareff chose the pseudonym Léo Poll and became a well-known piano player accompanying vedettes such as Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet. He also composed and arranged several songs and he even had his own orchestra ‘Léo Poll et son orchestre’. You can listen to his composition ‘Un jeune homme chantait’ performed by the legendary Edith Piaf:

un jeune homme chantait
‘Un jeune homme chantait’ by Léo Poll & Raymond Asso, published by Les Editions de Paris in 1937 and illustrated by Würth.

During the Second World War, Léo Poll and his wife fled Paris to the country side in the Zone Libre. They were very lucky to end up  in the small village Nérac. There, despite the presence of the Gestapo, a young girl of 16 who worked for the mayor forged identity papers for Jews. Thanks to her Léo Poll escaped deportation and extermination. Quite the heroine, Odile Perella-Dubergey! Still, she had to wait 70 years to be honoured for risking her life in the Resistance.

In 1944 the couple got a little boy: Michel Polnareff who would become a popular singer-songwriter in France from the mid-1960s on. After the war the family returned to Paris where Michel grew up in an artistic environment. He learned to play the piano when he was 4 years old and at 11 he won a premier prix at the Paris Conservatoire. He also learned the guitar and started busking in Montmartre in 1964.

In 1966 his first disc La poupée qui fait non was an unexpected but phenomenal success.

The androgynous Michel Polnareff was a non-conformist who liked to provoke. That caused him a lot of problems during his career. The most spectacular drawback happened in 1972. For his show ‘Polnarévolution‘ at the Olympia, six thousand posters showing the singer with naked buttocks hung across billboards all over France. Polnareff was found guilty of ‘gross indecency’ and was fined 10 francs per poster.

polnareff naakt
Poster for Polnarévolution at the Olympya in Paris, 1972, a collectors item!

Recently Michel Polnareff settled accounts with his father Leib in his autobiography Spèrme. Allegedly, Léo Poll was a tyrannical brute at home, forcing his son to practice the piano for hours on end and hitting him with his belt.

Love me please love me...

Agamemnon: a Local Family Affair

Cover of the sheet music 'Laiss' tomber', one step by L. Aga
Cover of the sheet music ‘Laiss’ tomber’, one step by L. Aga and H. Valle.

Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae. When Helen, the wife of his brother Menelaus, ran off with Paris, Agamemnon started the Trojan War. Thus he had a major impact on the turn of events in Greek mythology. The homonymous hero of our story, the publisher Gaston Agamemnon, does not share this renown.
We knew nothing about this man but for two other sheet music in our collection (see our previous posts on ‘Eventide‘ and ‘Le Rajah‘). All three pieces were published, composed and illustrated by the same three persons. All in the year 1923. Intriguing… We investigated this mere detail of French music publishing. Please follow our footsteps in history.

'Eventide' and 'Le Rajah' sheet music covers (partition de musique)
‘Eventide’ and ‘Le Rajah’ sheet music published by G. Agamemnon in 1923.

Gaston Agamemnon held shop in Mantes-la-Jolie, a middle-sized city along the Seine, 60 kilometres west from Paris. He started in 1903 as a manufacturer of piano’s and other musical instruments. We believe to have found an image of Mr. Agamemnon on an early postcard of the Rue de la Mercerie. On the doorstep of his rather large boutique he looks curiously at the photographer.

Postcard Rue de la Mercerie, Mantes-la-Jolie (ca. 1910).
Rue de la Mercerie, Mantes-la-Jolie (ca. 1910). On the left is probably Mr. Agamemnon on the doorstep of his musical shop. (source: “Mantes histoire“)

At his front window Mr. Agamemnon advertises ‘Cours et Leçons‘, ‘Violon & Solfège‘ and ‘Vente-Location‘. Apart from teaching and selling instruments, he also sells sheet music: we see many chansons prominently on display in his shop window.

A small article in Le Petit Parisien of 1909 relates how Gaston narrowly escaped from a fire accident: apparently a window had acted as a magnifying glass for the sun rays that set alight wood shavings in his workshop, leaving him half asphyxiated.

Information on Agamemnon in various archives.
Left: a small article in Le Petit Parisien of 1909. On the right Agamemnon’s advertisement in the Annuaire des Artistes of 1905.

More significant is the advertisement in the Annuaire des Artistes of 1905 in which Agamemnon promotes his services as Editeur de Musique (publisher) and Chef d’Orchestre (director). He also specialises in teaching modern techniques for the violin and the piano. We also learn from dusty archives that Agamemnon was married to Claire Fenayrol. Aha, we found his Clytemnestra!

From the 1893 registry of Mantes-la-Jolie: the marriage between Gaston Achilles Agamemnon and Claire Amélie Fenayrol. (source: online archives of the Département Yvelines)

The rue de la Mercerie is no more. It vanished together with large parts of the city centre of Mantes-la-Jolie in 1944, during Allied air raids. The enormous damage was documented by the Vichy regime in newsreels. This video is an excerpt from video archives.

Almost all of Mantes-la-Jolie’s city centre was rebuilt after the war, as illustrated by the two ‘before-and-after’ postcard views.

One of the city architects who helped rebuild the town centre was Raymond Marabout (born 1886). We found early pictures of him as aerostatier during the First World War. He was wounded when he had to jump from his airship.

Airship, WWI. Pilot is Raymond Marabout
Raymond Marabout in action with his airship during WWI. (View more pages from this photo album at Europeana 1914-1918.)

Raymond Marabout was not only an airship pilot and architect, but also an illustrator: he signed the three ‘Agamemnon’ covers above. He was also a rather good painter. We found this lovely post-impressionistic landscape on an auction site.

Painting by R. Marabout
Landscape, oil painting (60X81cm) by Raymond Marabout. (source:
Signature of painter-illustrator Raymond Marabout
Raymond Marabout’s signature on a sheet music cover (left) and on the oil canvas (right).

Le Rajah‘ sheet music is jokingly dedicated à mon ami Sidi-Ben-Marabout suggesting that Gaston Agamemnon and Raymond Marabout were friends. Agamemnon probably also befriended the painter Maximilien Luce, to whom he sold his house of Rolleboise.

'Rolleboise, la baignade', oil on canvas by Maximilien Luce
‘Rolleboise, la baignade’, oil on canvas (135x148cm) by Maximilien Luce.

Gaston Agamemnon had at least one son: Lucien. Having learned the violin, Lucien became director of the Conservatoire in Mantes-la-Jolie. The BnF lists him as the author of a handbook on music theory and also as a composer until the 1960’s. Using the pseudonym L. Aga he created in 1923 the three ‘lighter’ compositions (one step and fox-trot shimmies) that his father published. These three items in our collection are thus traces of a brief family cooperation. Strangely, we also found reference to a painter Lucien Agamemnon around 1950. Is it the same person? Probably, as he also signed his work L. Aga.

Huile sur carton du peintre Lucien Agamemnon.
Oil on cardboard (40x50cm) offered on ebay for 30€. Signed below-left L. Aga (Lucien Agamemnon?).

We discovered a portrait of Lucien Agamemnon, not drawn by our illustrator Raymond Marabout, but painted by Frédéric Luce (son of Maximilien).

‘Le violoniste Lucien AGA’ by Frédéric Luce. Oil on canvas (33 x 54 cm), probably from 1959. (source: auction house Oger Blanchet)

On Lucien Agamemnon we also discovered an odd newspaper fait divers, recounting that Lucien was a victim of road rage.

Lucien Agamemnon being victim of road rage (Le Matin, 18-09-1937).
Our composer L. Aga being assaulted by a motorcyclist, which resulted in a work incapacity of 25 days (Le Matin, 18-09-1937).

Digging deeper into the family history we discover Jean Agamemnon (1921-2003), grandson of Gaston and son of Lucien. Poet, artist and friend of the Luce family he became conservator of the Maximilien Luce museum in Mantes-la-Jolie (later musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu) until 1996. It fits to conclude this article on the Agamemnon-Marabout-Luce families with a sheet music cover illustrated by the anarchistic painter Maximilien Luce…

Sheet music cover by Maximiline Luce (partition de musique).
‘Les Pieds devant’, by Marcel Legay and Maurice Boukay. Published by Ondet (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Maximilien Luce.

… and comfortingly sung by George Brassens. For all who seek solace: come on, sing along!

Tu t’en iras les pieds devant,
Ainsi que tout ceux de ta race,
Grand homme qu’un souffle terrasse.
Comme le pauvre fou qui passe,
Et sous la lune va rêvant,
De beauté, de gloire éternelle,
Du ciel cherché dans les prunelles,
Au rythme pur des villanelles,
Tu t’en iras les pieds devant.

Tu t’en iras les pieds devant,
Duchesse aux titres authentiques,
Catin qui cherches les pratiques,
Orpheline au navrant cantique.
Vous aurez même appris du vent,
Sous la neige, en la terre grise,
Même blason, même chemise,
Console toi fille soumise,
Tu t’en iras les pieds devant.

Tu t’en iras les pieds devant,
Oh toi qui mens quand tu te signes,
Maîtresse qui liras ces lignes,
En buvant le vin de mes vignes,
À la santé d’un autre amant,
Brune ou blonde, être dont la grâce,
Sourit comme un masque grimace,
Voici la camarde qui passe.
Tu t’en iras les pieds devant.

Tu t’en iras les pieds devant,
Grave docteur qui me dissèques,
Prêtre qui chantes mes obsèques.
Bourgeois, prince des hypothèques,
Riche ou pauvre, ignorant, savant,
Camarade au grand phalanstère,
Vers la justice égalitaire,
Nous aurons tous six pieds de terre.
Tu t’en iras les pieds devant.