The Three Most Important Problems in “Beauty and the Beast”

(Image from Animation Magazine.)

I had very little inclination to see the live-action Beauty and the Beast after seeing multiple clips and hearing half the soundtrack, but as it so happens I am in love with a certain someone who wanted very badly to see this movie, and we all make concessions in the name of love, as clearly demonstrated in the aforementioned movie. I have many strong opinions about so many things in this movie (then again, I have strong opinions about basically everything), but these are the three things I have deemed The Most Important Problems.*

*Those of you who know me may be surprised that the aggressively mediocre singing is not one of my three Big Problems with this movie, to which I say this**: yes, the bland auto-tuned, digitally constructed lifeless android singing voice of the otherwise lovely Emma Watson is cringe-worthy, and Gaston’s lack of deep baritone goodness is a crime, but Disney was kind enough to warn us all going in by pre-releasing recordings. Hats off, actually, to the sound engineers, who are the real heroes for creating something out of almost nothing and preventing this from becoming a Les Miz/Mamma Mia/Phantom of the Opera-level, aurally offensive mess.

**I told you I have very strong opinions about basically everything.

Problem the First
Before the “Be Our Guest” scene, the harpsichord comes out to play and the other enchanted objects urge him to play more quietly. “Sotto voce,” the harpsichord responds in confirmation.

Ahem.

HARPSICHORDS HAVE A FIXED VOLUME AND CANNOT PLAY MORE QUIETLY AND THE HARPSICHORD HIMSELF SHOULD KNOW THAT. SHAME ON YOU, HARPSICHORD.***

***”But it’s a double-manual harpsichord, so he could simply play the quieter manual and that would count as playing quietly!” you protest. That was my thought too, reader, but I’m pretty sure I saw both manuals going so either Mr. Harpsichord is full of it or he’s just too fed up to correct his friends.

Problem the Second
Yeah, it’s the harpsichord again. In another moment in the movie, he plays the theme from the “Funeral March” movement of Chopin’s second sonata as a gag.

Excuse me, but the movie is pretty clearly set in the baroque era, SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE CHOPIN, AND THEREFORE THIS THEME, EVEN EXISTED. #SORRYNOTSORRY FOR THE CAPS LOCK, THIS PARTICULAR ANACHRONISM REALLY IRKS ME.

Problem the Third
Finally, not a harpsichord problem! In the closing ballroom scene, it appears that the violinists are playing with modern and not period bows. For a movie that took such great pains to make a period-appropriate harpsichord come to life, it’s a real shame they couldn’t rustle up some period bows for the violinists. ARE THE VIOLINISTS TIME-TRAVELERS? EXPLAIN YOURSELF, DISNEY!

That is all. I bring this post to you because the internet is already saturated with a deluge of thinkpieces about whether this remake is too derivative of the animated original, whether LeFou’s outrageously rampant gayness is awesome, terrible, or will cause the world to implode upon itself, how the movie is too feminist, how the movie is not feminist enough, etc. etc. etc. I can promise you that hardly any of these essays will talk about accuracy in harpsichord portrayal, or musical anachronism in a movie where none of the musical numbers are remotely close to being in the baroque style. So here I am, a random person with strong opinions who picked a weird hill to die on, to offer my thoughts. You’re welcome, internet.

But Disney, I have to give you credit for featuring a harpsichord as a character. A+ for effort in raising harpsichord awareness.

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Bad Book Review No. 1: If you’re going to write about music, know about music first

Okay, so I can’t sleep. And I’ve always wanted to write unofficial reviews of bad books. So naturally, 2:30 in the morning is the perfect time to put together a little rant about one book in particular that has always bothered me; and hey, this may become A Thing. I’m going to say, right up front, that I’m kind of a book snob. Sorry.

So for my Bad Book Review #1, I will tell you exactly what bothers me about Define “Normal”, by Julie Anne Peters. (Hey, this is like a middle school book report, only…better?)

Now to be fair, this isn’t a bad book. It’s your typical going-through-middle-school/uncovering-facades-type young person novel, and it touches on some dark topics like depression, abandonment, etc. Then again the characters use slang like “cronk” and “bode” unironically, so I guess you win some and you lose some. However, I did actually read this several times in my youth because it’s fairly enjoyable reading, except for one thing which has always really bothered me.

One of the main characters, a punk-type girl with a prickly exterior, is secretly a budding concert pianist. So as it stands, classical piano is an important element in this book. The problem is I don’t think the author knows anything about classical piano.

Let’s establish some facts here. Our thirteen-year-old quasi-heroine (who goes by “Jazz”) tells the protagonist that she wants to go to Juilliard. Great! Juilliard is one of the most prestigious conservatories in the world (with its latest acceptance rate at 5.5%), so good for you!

But hold on for a minute. If you want to have the remotest chance of getting in to Juilliard, you have to be brain-smackingly good. So this is where it all falls apart.

One piece that Jazz plays, which astounds the main character, is Bach’s Minuet in G.

Hold on, this Minuet in G?

This is the piece that every six-year-old plays once they learn how to read notes. But let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt; maybe this is some obscure Minuet in G that is really difficult. The best I could think of was maybe a minuet from one of the partitas, and there is indeed a movement marked Tempo di Minuetta from his G Major Partita.

But why would someone learn a tiny part of a partita and not learn the whole thing? It’s like if Justin Bieber only performed one stanza of “Baby” at each of his concerts. So I’m going to have to assume that Jazz is indeed playing a piece most often played by babies. And she wants to go to Juilliard. Well, okay. Nothing wrong with dreaming big!

Next, Jazz entrances people with her rendition of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn.” The author describes how our pianist’s rendering of the piece is so expressively powerful that the protagonist can clearly see a baby fawn frolicking with mama deer.

A few problems.

1. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is an orchestral piece. (There is a version arranged for solo piano, but it wasn’t by Debussy.)

2. It’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” not “Fawn.” It’s all well and good that the main character can see the baby fawn so clearly, but this isn’t just a matter of spelling. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is not about frolicking fawns, it’s about a mythological goat-creature trying to have sex with nymphs.

 

Well, maybe Jazz’s repertoire is just very creatively constructed. The glowing jewel of her repertoire though, which she was slated to play at a competition in the book, is Chopin’s Polonaise.

But wait, which one? There are at least twenty-three polonaises by Chopin. Was it the one he wrote when he was seven? Or the Polonaise-Fantasie? All we are told is that Jazz struggles with it, which isn’t surprising if 1/3 of her repertoire is a piece played by the post-toddler set.

In a piano lesson, Jazz’s teacher tells her that the Bach and Debussy are “perfect,” but the Chopin is not quite there. And that’s it. He doesn’t tell her if it’s an issue with her technique, or expressiveness, or if she’s muddying the harmonies with the pedal, or needs to improve the clarity of the melody, or what. He just tells her it’s almost there, and leaves. If only I could get away with teaching like that! “Yeah, this one thing is perfect, and that one thing isn’t. That’ll be a hundred dollars.”

So to Julie Anne Peters:

Look, I realize that music isn’t the center of your novel, and you might not have been counting on a book about an aspiring concert pianist to be read by…an aspiring concert pianist. But it doesn’t hurt to do a little bit of research. College students do it all the time.

To all pianists who hope to go to Juilliard:
Don’t play Minuet in G.
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