Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN 138,  entry Dec. 2010
revised December 2021

eon Jessel—>The Parade of the Tin (or Wooden) Soldiers—>Betty Boop—>Totò

    contains audio     

I'm not too bad at connecting music with composers, although like many, I'm hazy when it comes to the precise names of Strauss waltzes, Sousa marches and the famous last movements of Almost Anyone's Violin Concerto. Yet, I did know that Claude Joseph Roget de Lisle wrote La Marseillaise and that Fučík composed the great circus march, Entrance of the Gladiators, so I figured I was doing pretty well. But the other day I heard one of the world's most famous marches, one that "everyone knows", and realized I didn't know the name of the composer and I had not forgotten it but had never known it! I polled a few musician friends and got the same result —no hits.

The march was called, originally, The Parade of the Tin Soldiers and the composer is Leon Jessel (the image, right, is from 1918). Harold B. Segel, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, said the change from "tin" to "wooden" came in 1911 when Russian impresario Nikita Balieff chose Jessel's piece for a choreography routine and changed the title. Balieff's wooden-soldier routine was a reference to a tale about Czar Paul I: he left his parade grounds without issuing a "halt" order to marching soldiers, so they marched to Siberia before being remembered and ordered back. OK, but no matter what title you are familiar with, you know the march. That march we all know winds through some lighthearted moments on its way through the string of associations in the title of this entry, but, alas, it passes through unspeakable darkness in the life of the composer.

Leon Jessel was a German composer, born in 1871 in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland). He was the eldest son of a shopkeeper and was meant to take over the shop, but couldn't leave music alone. He had early instruction from an organist in Stettin. He composed and sent an early work, "Zukunftsträume" (Future Dreams) to the great "Waltz King", himself, Johann Strauß (the Younger), who encouraged him to compose music, and that was that. He supported himself as a rehearsal pianist for a number of small local theaters in southern Germany and moved up into composing. In his personal life, he met a non-Jewish woman and left his synagogue and converted to Christianity in 1894 in order to marry her. He celebrated by writing an operetta about it, "Die Brautwerbung" (Courtship). They moved to Berlin in 1911, where Jessel composed. He and his wife divorced and Jessel remarried in 1921. 

Jessel had early success with an operetta, "Die Beiden Husaren" (The Two Hussars) (1913) and then "Schwarzwaldmädel" (The Girl from the Black Forest -
German libretto by August Neidhart, 1867-1934). It opened in Berlin in 1917 and within 10 years had played 6,000 times (!) in Germany. It is the only one of his operettas that ever crops up today, at least among the remaining stalwarts of German-language operetta.  All in all, Jessel wrote two dozen operettas and many light orchestral works and songs.Today we can say he was one of the many German and Austrian composers of the post-Johann Strauss generation, the best-known of whom was Franz Lehar. Other than that, not much remains of Jessel's music but Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. It was not from an operetta but was composed for the piano. It is known around the world.

Jessel wrote The Parade in 1905. The original German "tin" title is still found in some English versions, although "wooden" is much more common. The piece was well-known in vaudeville in Europe and the US in the 1920s and, in a performance by a vaudeville troupe, the Parade was filmed with sound by inventor Lee DeForest in 1923. There is also a 1923 Victor recording of a version by Paul Whiteman's orchestra. There were no lyrics, but English lyrics were written later by Ballard MacDonald (1882-1935) and are often heard. There was then a choreographed production of the music on stage in 1928, a color film of which still exists. Perhaps the best-known early use of the music was Max Fleisher's 1933 Betty Boop cartoon, Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. The cartoon opens with a few live seconds of the popular violinist of the 30s and 40s, Rubinoff, as he plays and conducts his orchestra in the opening bars, but Jessel's name is not in the film credits that I noticed. (I would like to be wrong, but I bet Jessel got no money from it. More about royalties at Copyright Laws that Make Your Head Hurt.) If you can't recall the melody, read the MacDonald lyrics in a natural cadence and the melody may pop into your head:

The toy shop door is locked up tight and everything is quiet for the night.
And suddenly the clock strikes twelvethe fun's begun!

If you still can't hear it, listen to it!

There's some confusion about  names and titles. Don't confuse Jessel's Parade of the Wooden [or Tin] Soldiers with Victor Herbert's "March of the Toys" from his 1903 operetta, Babes in Toyland. The name situation is not helped by the wonderful Laurel & Hardy 1934 version of Herbert's operetta. It was originally filmed as Babes in Toyland but then reissued as March of the Wooden Soldiers. Confused yet? It's amusing, yes, but the fun is over; here is the "unspeakable darkness". (If you don't want to read about a person whose life was ruined and taken by absolute evil, you can skip the next paragraph, but maybe you shouldn't.)

In the 1920s and into the 1930s, Jessel's operettas were popular. The music was light but robust, and the plots fed the nostalgia for turn-of-the-century German imperial enthusiasm with such catchy songs, for example, as "We Wander through the Wide, Wide World" from The Girl from the Back Forest. That operetta was one of Hitler's favorites. In 1930 the handwriting on the wall in Germany was perhaps still unclear. Maybe Jessel thought that his conversion to Christianity and his sense of nationalism would help him. His second wife was even a member of the the Nazi party. Yet, none of that helped. None of it. His works were banned in 1933.  (Ironically, in that same year the German post office issued a commemorative stamp on the occasion of the first filming of his Black Forest operetta!). His wife was expelled from the Nazi party in 1934; Jessel was forced out of the Reichsmusikkammer (State Music Bureau) in 1937 and recording and distribution of his music was prohibited. In 1939, he wrote to a friend: "I cannot work in a time when hatred of Jews threatens my people with destruction, where I do not know when that gruesome fate will likewise be knocking at my door." The goose-steppers came calling in 1941 and arrested Jessel for spreading Greuelmärchen ("horror fairy tales") about the state. The Gestapo took him to their infamous torture chamber at Alexanderplatz in Berlin. He was then taken to the Jewish hospital in Berlin where death finally had mercy on him on January 4, 1942. He is interred at the Wilmersdorf cemetery in Berlin and remembered in the exhaustive Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit (Lexicon of Persecuted Musicians in the National-Socialist Period) published by the University of Hamburg.

His Parade, of course, is remembered and remains popular. The music has gone through many incarnations over the decades. It is perennially choreographed on stage and is still a favorite among dance troupes such as the Rockettes, for example, in their Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall in New York each year. (They cancelled their whole show this year (2021) because of the pandemic, but they have used it for decades. The trail to Italy and Naples is via the first feature-length Italian color film, Totò a colori (both these images). The film is from 1952 and features Neapolitan comic, Totò, as one Antonio Scannagatti, a down-and-out composer who dreams of moving to Milan and cracking La Scala and the big-time publishers. After a series of misadventures, Totò tries to flee pursuers by masquerading as a marionette (shown). He "escape dances" across the stage to the music of The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, jerked along by invisible strings. It reminds everyone —as it is meant to do— of Pinocchio. It's a masterpiece of pantomime and one of the best loved and most widely-recalled Totò episodes in Italian cinema.

So, there is no satisfaction in this tale, but if there is solace at all, it is that Leon Jessel lives on in that one little march that I will never again be able to listen to in quite the same way.

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