Today is Saint Patrick’s Day throughout the Western world, a day to venerate and celebrate the life, death, and Christian service of Saint Patrick (the day coincides with the supposed date of St. Patrick’s death). Of course, now the holiday has devolved into a drunken festivity in which everyone pretends to be Irish for a day, downing pints of green beer and wearing green.
The real story of Saint Patrick is far more interesting than the debauched modern celebration. Patrick was the son of a wealthy family in what is now Britain in the declining years of the Roman Empire. Irish raiders captured Patrick and sold him into slavery in the Emerald Isle. Working alone as a shepherd, isolated and afraid, Patrick turned to Christ for solace and strength.
After escaping captivity, God called him back to Ireland, not as a slave, but to deliver Ireland from its spiritual bondage. After his ordination, Patrick returned and preached the Gospel to the pagan Irish, sparking a major religious revival among the people there. Ultimately, Ireland became second perhaps only to France in its dedication to the Catholic Church, and unlike its Gallic co-religionists, maintained that devotion well into the twentieth century.
In looking back at posts from March 2020, it’s wild how many of my posts were about two plagues on humanity: the Democratic Party primaries and The Virus. What’s particularly interesting is how those posts—including the one below—still assumed that life would begin returning to normal after two weeks; after all, we were all promised “two weeks to flatten the curve,” and now we’re living under perpetual public health tyranny.
Amidst all of that plague talk, I penned a short post about the Strasbourg “Dancing Plague” of 1518. After being told to vegetate indoors for a year, I’m beginning to think a mystery plague that causes hysterical dancing might be preferable to the foolishness we’re enduring at present.
But I’ll keep the preamble brief and let the post do the talking. Here is 23 March 2020’s “The Boogie Woogie Flu“:
To take us into the last weekend in January, I thought it would be nice to do at least one more entry in my unplanned Friday miniseries on “The Joy of Romantic Music” (read the second installment here). I very much enjoy the music of the Romantic composers, and have discovered some new favorites as I’ve been covering them in my Pre-AP Music Appreciation class.
Last Friday I wrote of the beauty and power—the sheer joy—of Romantic music, a topic I’ve covered once before on this blog. In writing last week’s post, I noted briefly that Romantic music is nationalistic, which was certainly true in a number of cases.
Europe following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was a hotbed of political activity and nationalist sentiment. The Congress of Vienna (1815) redrew the map of Central Europe, reducing the hundreds of German principalities, bishoprics, duchies, baronies, and the rest into about a dozen political units, hoping these larger Germanic kingdoms would serve as a bulwark against future French aggression. They did, and more—under the steady Realpolitik of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Prussia gradually grew to unite these new lands into the Second Reich—a unified Germany.
Meanwhile, smaller nations chafed under Austrian or French influence. Bohemia—now part of the Czech Republic—fought against Austrian political rule and the German language that came with it. Bohemians championed the revival of their native Czech language, and began revisiting Czech folklore and music as the resting place of the national spirit.
This process was not unique to Bohemia or the Czechs, but today’s featured piece, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s The Moldau, is a prime of example of how nationalist musical ideas can capture beautifully a sense of a place, while also transcending national identity and borders.
This semester started with two weeks of online learning (of which today is the last day before students and teachers return to campus after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day), so it’s been an unusually slow start to the already sleepy January term. However, that hasn’t stopped my music classes from listening to great music; indeed, we’re now covering what is perhaps my favorite period in the history of Western music: the Romantic Era.
While I adore Baroque and classical composers and their works, Romantic music builds upon the forms established in those eras, stretching and expanding upon them to reach new heights of emotional intensity and musical expressiveness. The music of the Romantic composers delights with its musical exploration of the supernatural, the mysterious, the Gothic, and the nationalistic.
Beethoven was a key figure in the transition from the Classical period—the time of Mozart, Haydn, et. al.—and the Romantic period, which saw the emergence of composers like Chopin and Saint-Saëns. Classical music is renowned for its preciseness, its almost mathematical symmetry. Romantic music, on the other hand, is less predictable, more flowing and emotive. It was Beethoven who expanded classical music’s possibilities—for example, stretching symphonic form to unforeseen lengths (his symphonies are, on average, much longer than those of Mozart and Haydn, and Beethoven wrote substantially fewer of them)—and introduced new extremes of mood and dynamics into music.
While preparing a separate post on hymns (which I will likely post Friday), it occurred to me that today is Veterans’ Day in the United States, the observance formerly known as Armistice Day. I’ve never thrown back to past posts on a Wednesday before, but it seemed fitting to recognize our fallen heroes on the day.
It’s hard to believe that the centennial observance of the Great War has already passed, yet we’re still dealing with the fallout from that terrible war just over a century later. The more I’m learning about the great Baroque, classical, and Romantic composers of Europe, the more the senseless loss and nihilistic destruction of that conflict weighs on me—and that the shimmering, confident civilization that fostered those composers also destroyed itself.
One nugget of wisdom I’ve heard before is “if you want to learn something, teach it.” As a private school educator who taught pretty much every course in the standard high school social studies curriculum and a plethora of music courses, I can attest to the Truth of this statement. I essentially taught myself, for example, the highlights of Western philosophy from teaching a Philosophy course for many years (a course I very much wish the school would revive).
I’m shifting increasingly towards teaching music exclusively (though I’m still teaching a couple of American History survey courses), and teaching a Pre-AP Music Appreciation class has been one of the great joys of that transition. Years ago I created and taught a course called “History of American Popular Music,” which covered the early Tin Pan Alley tunes all the way through blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and beyond. This Pre-AP course is focused on the great works of Western music, going back to the medieval period.
Currently, we’re wrapping up a big unit on Baroque music. The Baroque style—as epitomized by greats like Bach, Monteverde, Corelli, Handel, and others—delights in contrasts. Just as Baroque paintings highlight stark contrasts between light and dark, Baroque music revels in sudden contrasts in dynamics. It also loves to play around with complexity, as any Bach fugue will quickly demonstrate.
The last composer in our unit is George Frideric Handel. Handel, a German-born composer, made a major splash upon his arrival in England in the 1710s, where he sought to introduce Italian opera to sophisticated London crowds. What was meant to be a temporary visit turned into over four decades, and Handel is interred at Westminster Abbey—a huge honor. It’s one of those delightful twists of history that Handel the German became one of the most English composers in history—and one of the greatest composers of all time.