Revolution and Romance

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.


Ludvig van Beethoven Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

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



Blogging – One Year On

Roquesreviews reached its first anniversary last week.  On 25 May 2015 my first book review appeared and now here I am a year on, 26 posts later, reflecting on how it’s going.

26 posts doesn’t sound very impressive, does it?  That’s an average of two a month which, given that the posts are mostly book reviews, is reasonable.  Not a complete disgrace anyway.  But is anyone actually enjoying the blog?  Social Media has been my main source of  readers but to be honest, though there have been a good number of visits and views, the likes can be counted on two hands and that’s pretty dispiriting.  Is there some coffee I need to wake up and smell here?

Cup of coffee

Reluctant to quit,  I’ve been doing some research. I recently stumbled upon WordPress’ ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course which advises posting answers to various questions whether you’re new to blogging or have been at it for a while.  Today I’m focussing on this one:

Why are you blogging publicly instead of keeping a diary?

  • Predisposition
    The main reason is that I love writing.   Secondly,  I love reading.  The third reason is that I’m a Christian and I want to serve God with these two passions.  So I review the books that have touched my heart and mind in the hope that you might read them too and be encouraged and stimulated whether you share the Christian faith or not.  I keep a diary too as it happens (and have done since the age of 11) but the diary cannot by definition be a blessing to another.   It’s private.  And I want to bless others with my writing not store it up for myself.
  • Inspiration
    I was a late starter when it comes to literature.  It wasn’t until my ‘A’ levels that I really got going and became an avid reader.  Up until then I’d existed mostly on a diet of ‘Malory Towers’ and ‘Flambards’.  Then two English teachers and a friend studying art history, in their very different ways, inspired me.  I discovered Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Iris Murdoch, Jean Rees, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster – the list goes on and on and despite a rejection from Oxford University I went on to study English at St Andrews… and read on.  I enjoyed writing about the books I was reading and have kept records ever since.
  • Conviction
    In the last couple of years I’ve been learning how the Lord can use literature (and the arts more generally) in the life of a believer to his/her own, and others’ encouragement.    Novels, music, paintings and films are not the big bad distraction from the Gospel that I’d always feared but are part of what is sometimes called ‘Common Grace’.  (I’m not talking about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ here).  What I really want to do by writing this blog is to bless others, Christian or not, by sharing my thoughts on books (and the occasional painting or other art form) and how they have helped me understand and love Jesus more.

My prayer is that you will be helped or encouraged by what you find here.  It will then all be worth while.