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Crayfish Canon by Gossec

Gossec avec écrevisse

The French expression, "Marcher comme une écrevisse," means to retreat, and anyone who has ever watched a crayfish swim knows that it swims only backwards. In this respect, the crayfish makes an even more apropos mascot for any retrograde canon.

American and Japanese students of violin are familiar with Gossec perhaps only through his comic and delightful Gavotte in G which serves as the culmination of the first volume of repertoire in the Suzuki method. YouTube is littered with thousands of proud parent videos of their children reaching this landmark achievement, the piece perhaps serving as the centerpiece of their first solo violin recital, but these parents will not be familiar with Gossec's Crayfish Canon, which was never published.

One can picture François Gossec at the keyboard with pen in hand in the company of a violinist or perhaps a full trio (2 vn, vc), explaining what it means to read the notes backwards, drawing brackets between the final two notes in each part, writing the verb "retrograder' to show that the previous note is to return, and writing the word 'fin' [end] above the first note in each part.

canon by Gossec

One can certainly forgive the slip of Gossec's pen in spelling out the word "Ecrevisse." Having been born in a small southern town in the Austrian Netherlands, between Brussels and Reims on the Orbais, Gossec's first language should have been a walo-picård dialect of Walloon, the northernmost of the Romance languages. (This language was also spoken relatively recently near me, in parts of Wisconsin, USA.) The Walloon word for crayfish is "grevesse" ( Who knows how it was spelled two hundred years ago? As a child, perhaps Gossec caught crayfish in the Eau d'Heure Lakes not far from his village. Perhaps he ate them.

Although Gossec taught counterpoint, solfège and harmony at the Conservatoire de Paris, and co-authored with Cherubini a treatise on counterpoint, this canon is the farthest thing from either style antico or pedantry. it is fun and inventive, conceived in contemporary string trio textures, and engages with great introspection and depth its retrograde direction. What it might lack in motivic reinforcement it more than makes up in harmonic and textural diversity and formal coherence. Even the meticulous string bowings are retrogradable.

Since this canon serves as our March puzzler, I won't divulge the full palindrome, even despite the ease of its solution. Instead I'll reinforce my point about the ingenuity of this canon's harmonic structure with a bit of illustration in April. In the meantime [music theory jargon alert!] I'll just say that when the dominant modulation in measure eight returns in retrograde, it appears instead as a tonicization of the dominant, ushering in the final phrase. While a dominant modulation sounds appropriate in the first half of a short form like this, it would seem out of place in the second half, and it is cleverly avoided through the chromatic treble line in the reverse direction. Now the dominant appears as a chord rather than the tonic of its own key.

I have not been able to ascertain the date of composition or notation of this bit of manuscript, and would be appreciative to learn it. But another, similar canon for four parts is dated 1811, during Gossec's professorship at the Paris Conservatory and is now in the collection there. Gossec taught at the conservatory from just after the Revolution (1799) until its dissolution by King Louis XVIII in 1816. For those of you who have been following my previous posts, you'll see that Gossec, Cherubini and the great tenor Pierre-Jean Garat were colleagues at the Conservatory. Not only was this an exciting time in French history, but Gossec was the foremost musical representative of the French Revolution (Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: Gossec, François-Joseph).

Another notational detail: please notice the last notated barlines are single, drawn only across the individual staves, another emphatic indication that the end is not the end. It was the intention of the archivist at the Bibliothek de Berlin to stamp the final bar of the piece with the red stamp of the library, but as we few understand, this was a failure!

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