”Avecque si, avecque la, Avecque la marmotte.”
Everybody knows ”The Marmot Boy’s Song”, even those who have no idea that it was composed by the young Beethoven and that the lyrics were written by the not so young Goethe. The song was composed at the beginning of the 1790’s when Beethoven was in his early twenties, virtually unknown as a composer. Goethe was over forty, one of the best-known writers in Europe at the time. It’s a mystery why exactly this song by Beethoven was included in the singing books for schools, for it’s not better than his other songs (although it’s not worse, either). Some of its qualities surely destine it to become a part of musical education: it’s easy to sing, it has a simple structure and piano accompaniment, and the lyrics about the marmot and eating-drinking are almost idyllic.
”I have come already through many a land, with the marmot
and always found something to eat, with the marmot,
here and there, with the marmot.”
It’s a wonderful world where you can wander freely, and wherever you go, you’re given something to eat, and you leave every place with a full stomach. And there’s even a lovely marmot in it.
It’s a pity that the original version is not about this.
Although Beethoven wrote music to the first verse only (the other three verses didn’t appear in the first edition in 1805), all of the four verses can be sung perfectly to Beethoven’s melody, and several singers sing it like this (the version in the Hungarian singing books only contains the first and the last verses – and even those are distorted in meaning).
If we have a look at what Goethe’s poem is really about, several things will become more understandable about Beethoven’s music. In this case the marmot is not the adorable cartoon character but the symbol of poverty and loneliness: it was the typical companion of wandering beggars at the end of the 18th century, who accompanied their songs on hurdy gurdies. In the original lyrics there’s no mention of ”beautiful countries”, not even the fact that the boy with the marmot always ”received” food. ”I have come already through many a land… and always found something to eat,” (”Ich komme schon durch manche Land… Und immer was zu essen fand”) the beggar sings without much emotion. We learn from the second verse that he saw lots of men chasing women, from the third that sometimes some women looked at him, and the closing verse says exactly the opposite of what the Hungarian translation suggests. It may be sad, but we don’t find out whether the boy with the marmot says goodbye with a full stomach. ”Now do not let me go like this, you gentlemen,” the beggar pleads, ” The fellows love to eat and drink.” (”Nun laßt mich nicht so gehn, ihr Herrn … Die Burschen essen und trinken gern”).
The French refrain with the exaggeration of the marmot’s presence (”Avecque la marmotte, / Avecque si, avecque la, / Avecque la marmotte.” – ”With the marmot, here and there, with the marmot.”) only emphasizes the beggar’s solitude.
The schematic piano tune was composed to symbolize the rolling accompaniment of the hurdy gurdy, and the melancholy of the melody reflects the state of mind of the beggar with the marmot, who has accepted his fate.
The song should not necessarily be restricted to an older audience, but if we teach it to children, at least it deserves some explanation. And, of course, a decent Hungarian translation that can be sung.