The BBC does a fantastic job bringing culture to the ordinary TV viewer, from Mary Beard’s wacky-trainer-wearing tour of Ultimate Rome, the Empire Without Limit recently shown on BBC2 to Waldemar Januszczak’s zany tour of the art of The Dark Ages: An Age of Light on BBC4. Their most recent offering, Revolution and Romance: Musical Masters of the 19th Century (BBC 4 Tuesday 9pm) features Radio 3 presenter and writer Suzy Klein whose infectious enthusiasm brings this period of change in music history vibrantly alive. The first episode (broadcast on 31st May) ‘We Can Be Heroes’ can be watched on BBC iplayer. It’s a feast of well-written commentary, beautiful photography, quality recording and engaging analysis.
Klein takes us back 200 years to the dawn of the 19th Century when musicians were no longer confined to the concert hall but ‘burst out onto the public stage’ becoming influential in both politics and revolution and earning the equivalent of one of today’s celebrity footballers. The revolution in thinking and imagination known as Romanticism followed in the wake of the French Revolution and out of this period emerged composers like Verdi, Wagner, Rossini, Liszt, Mahler and Debussy. The series explores the transformation that took place in the musical world during this century and how and why musicians became national heroes and remain so to this day. In Klein’s words, ‘Music exploded into life and life exploded into music.’
The Enlightenment order and logic of 18th Century was replaced by an anti-authoritarian chaotic spirit of genius and madness. The heroic genius of the individual. We’re told how tens of thousands grieved at Beethoven’s funeral, how musical soirees were born inspired by the music and songs of Schubert, how the lines of art and life were blurred in the works of Berlioz and how the artist and his innermost thoughts and feelings became the focus of musical innovation. We are entertained with anecdotes about Paganini who was thought to have murdered his wife and used her intestines as violin strings; of Rossini who was immortalised in a steak, brioche and fois gras dish, and of the strivings of Schumann to eschew celebrity whilst married to a virtuoso pianist.
Most memorable is the account of how ‘Lisztmania’ ravaged Vienna in the 1840s as women went crazy for the handsome pianist stealing his used wine glasses and cigar butts. Klein describes the ‘insatiable public hunger’ for Liszt who was surrounded by fans whilst transported in carriages drawn by white horses. Wanting to make his imprint on human history, however, he turned his back on celebrity and focussed on his legacy producing what Klein considers his greatest work, the futuristic and atonal Faust Symphony.
Fittingly, Episode 1 ends at the memorials of these greats which stand in Vienna’s cemetery built in 1863. Here Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss are ‘monumentalised for eternity’ – heroes of their age.
What struck me whilst watching Klein’s documentary was the perennial tendency of mankind to misplace his worship. We are all drawn to adoration of something or someone whether or not we are aware of it. We worship talent, looks, confidence, success, power, money and those who possess them, that is if we’re not already worshipping ourselves. When faced with outstanding artistic or musical talent, it is tempting to succumb to envy, idolatry or even depression. I’ve been guilty of falling into all of these pits at various times forgetting to give thanks and glory to the God who gave the gifts in the first place, who fashioned such beings in the wombs of their mothers and gave them and their gifts to us to enjoy.
This is the discipline of Christian art appreciation at its most basic level. Engage with the work, marvel at the artistic skill and merit but then look beyond it to the One who created these artists, who never dies and whose surpassing beauty is only dimly seen and heard in their greatest compositions. Those who attain heroic status in this world do so only for the shortest time.
‘All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall but the word of the Lord last forever.’ Isaiah 40:8