Reading an Instrument

'Gaspard de Gueidan Playing the Musette de Cour' (1738), Hyacinthe Rigaud.

A Love Letter to the Musette de Cour

Is there an instrument that sings to you in a way that you can’t explain? The acoustic guitar in the Magnetic Fields song of that name is charged with ‘bring[ing] me back my girl,’ presumably because it’s the only tool for the job. For Marianne Moore, the workings of the mind, the most complex and exciting phenomenon in the known universe, can be compared to Walter Gieseking playing Scarlatti sonatas on the piano. In some of Jean-Martin Charcot’s experiments with hypnosis at Salpêtrière, tuning forks would send patients into cataleptic fits. The composer Oscar Bettison, known for his unusual sound palette, has invented the ‘wrenchophone,’ because no existing instrument could make the sounds he hears in his head.

For me, the instrument that demands my attention, as if via some sort of pheromone, is the musette de cour. The de cour indicates both that the instrument is French and that its home in France was not the club, but the court. The musette de cour is a bellows-blown bagpipe that, uniquely among bagpipes, made its way into the classical repertoire. It was often used to signify rusticity and the pastoral, which have always been endlessly fascinating to slumming aristos. While the musette was in vogue, briefly, in the middle of the eighteenth century, music was written for it by both Boismortier and Rameau, by Philibert Delavigne and Nicholas Chédeville, and especially by Jacques-Martin Hotteterre and Michel Corrette.

Compared to the Highland bagpipe, the pipe you are most likely familiar with, the musette is a delicate instrument, as it drones in either D or G to the Highland pipe’s A. The Highland pipe moves me, too. It should. I am a man of Scottish family, and the Highland pipe’s music is a simple, frontal sensory attack, like a bomb going off very slowly. A young piper busking outside my local New World supermarket in New Zealand gives me a fever of ancient excitement such as I imagine was felt by the humblest pikeman in a schiltron.

But the musette’s appeal is more neotenic. Neoteny refers to adaptive juvenilisation. Juvenile features in creatures are advantageous, as the holders of those features are seen to be desirable or sympathetic, the way a cat is perceived to be ‘cuter’ than a tiger and a kitten is cuter still than a cat. But it is not only creatures that can be neotenic. The musette is a cute junior bagpipe. If words like ‘skirling’ or ‘screeling’ or perhaps ‘squeaning’ are associated with the sound of, say, the Highland pipe, we’re forced, by contrast, to use words like ‘mewling’ for the musette’s music. The mewling of the babe for its milk in the night.

One of the most ambitious works written for the instrument—and about the instrument—takes as its subject the perpetual infancy of the musette. This is Michel Corrette’s comic soprano cantata La naissance de la musette (The Birth of the Musette) (1741). The first third of the piece is a mixture of precious nursery music and anxious scene-setting. But then (at the point where the video above starts, at 17.34) the singer comes in to introduce the child that the prophecy has spoken of. The musette’s explosive birth-yowls as it enters the piece (and the world!) are extraordinary, but of course they are entirely appropriate. (Imagine describing la naissance of the euphonium in music; it would sound like the birth of Leviathan.) The cries are mimetic, truly like a child’s. The instrument is born wailing, obviously, but it will continue to make the same noises throughout its life. It will never develop, but it will also never age or decline. It will live, as long as it is played, in its everlasting immaturity. And while it is immature and vulnerable, it calls out to us to help it, or at least to listen to it.

Today, parts originally written for the musette are often played on the much more readily available hurdy-gurdy. The hurdy-gurdy is a jolly instrument for a country fair, but it is a raspy-throated character, a pantomime donkey. It should be obvious, then, why this substitution is not completely satisfactory. It is replacing a smooth, sweet block of cheese with a similarly-shaped pumice stone.

In ‘Musical Hypnosis: Sound and Selfhood from Mesmerism to Brainwashing,’ James Kennaway notes that ‘the quasi-hypnotic states achieved with music’ ought to be ‘understood as a “voluntary, self-controlled, learned change of self-consciousness.”’ Despite the old fears of society’s guardians/prigs, and in defiance of the hopes of culture’s idealists/cranks, music cannot overcome you against your will. No matter how powerfully moved you feel by a song, as if the music is doing something to you, you are complicit in your own enslavement. So, while there may be nothing inherent in the sound of the musette that can explain its hold on a listener like me (and still less that would make someone else appreciate it), once I consider the qualities of its sound and account for my own character, I can begin to understand my susceptibility to it. Or, rather, once I consider the musette’s sound and acknowledge my susceptibility to it, I can begin to work backward to understand my own character.

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