Racism then and now: a musical insight

In the middle of the 18th century, when the Atlantic slave trade was at its height, there was a then famous black composer working in France. Even those of you who are lovers of classical music have probably heard of him. His name was Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a violinist, although that was only one of his talents. Others included athlete, military commander, huntsman and swordsman. He wrote several violin concertos for his own playing, and the slow movement of one of them can be heard here:

I think one might be forgiven for thinking it was a lost work by Mozart or Haydn. It seems extraordinary that a composer of such talent is today almost totally forgotten.

There’s a strange paradox here. When Saint-Georges was alive, it was a time that we like to think was one in which black people were very much worse off than they are now. It would be idle to pretend that wasn’t the case, and yet here we have a black man operating at the highest levels of the French aristocracy in a way that would perhaps cause comment even in 21st century England. Our aristocracy is not known for its multi-cultural plurality. Certainly it seems hardly likely that black people were seen as “animals” rather than “human”, as is widely supposed to have been a prevalent view during the slave trade, and yet for a black man to be tolerated in the highest echelons of society.

Of course, it must be remembered that musicians in the 18th century were nothing more than fancy servants, so not too much should be read into Saint-Georges’ social position. Indeed, and perhaps ironically, he was thrown into destitution after the revolution of 1789 since he was seen as a lackey of the hated aristocrats. But many composers died in destitution, Mozart being a prime example, and yet their reputations have survived and even perhaps been enhanced as a result of the romantic notion of the tortured artist. What has prevented Saint-Georges from being better known?

My suspicion is that his obscurity is a result of the racism that dominated Europe and the Americas after the end of the slave trade, rather than of the racism that existed during his lifetime. Be that as it may, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is yet another example of black people’s contribution to the arts and society having been effectively expunged in our modern consciousness. If anyone ever asks you if there have been black composers of classical music before the mid-20th century, you will now be able to say, “Yes”, even if you might have said, “No” yesterday!

The power of poetry: a Lenten reflection, and some French music from the Reformation

This is where I ‘fess up to being something of a philistine. I’ve never been much of a connoisseur of poetry. Obviously I’m partial to the odd Shakespeare sonnet, can recall some bits of Tennyson, Wordsworth and similar worthies from school, and like everyone else can’t resist any poem that starts, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” But that’s about as far as it goes. In part I blame Radio 4 and any other such outlet for poems being read out loud. Why by all that is sacred do poets have to read their work with that ridiculous sing-song voice that seems to be saying, “This poem is deep, profound, and brimful of meaning. If that’s not apparent from its banal sentiments or, alternatively, from its opaque mode of expression, then rest assured that this voice is a guarantee in itself.”

So no, poetry is not one of those things without which my life would be merely an empty husk. On the whole I’m more at home with dense prose and complex sentences. Rather like my recent treatises here on free-will and determinism. But every once in a while a poem seems to express with economy and precision a thought, or a perspective, that captures some truth or another in a way that 100 pages of closely argued text could never do. It’s Lent, and as part of my reflections on the season I came across just such an instance. It’s a poem in French written around the middle of the sixteenth century. The poet is Antoine de la Roche-Chandieu. He was part of the Calvinist reformation, and he wrote a collection of poems entitled “Les Octonaires de la Vanité du Monde”, and they were set to music by the little-known French composer, Paschal de L’Estocart.

The particular poem that caught my eye is called, “Mondain, si tu le sçais, di moy” (Earthling, if you know, tell me)

Mondain, si tu le sçais, di moy quel est le Monde ?
S’il est bon, pourquoy donc tant de mal y abonde ?
S’il est mauvais, pourquoy le vas tu tant cerchant ?
S’il est doux, comment donc a il tant d’amertume ?

S’il est amer, comment te va il allechant ?
S’il est amy, pourquoy a il ceste coustume
De tuer l’homme vain sous ses pieds abatu ?
Et s’il est ennemi, pourquoy t’y fies tu ?

(Earthling, if you know, tell me what is the world?
If it is good, then why is there so much evil all around?
If it is bad, why do you search for it so much?
If it is sweet, then why is there so much bitterness?

If it is bitter, how are you so attracted by it?
If it is your friend, then why is it in the habit
Of killing proud men, trampling them under foot?
And if it is your enemy, why do you trust it?)

This poem captures for me the duality of the world and our experience of it. The horrors of life (so poignant now given what’s happening in Japan at this very moment) crowd in on us, and yet we go on regardless. For Christians especially the problem of evil, the seemingly limitless suffering that comes not only from what we have collectively done to the world (the nuclear element in Japan’s current tragedy) but also from what the world does to us (the earthquake and tsunami elements) and how this can be compatible with “a loving God”, has dominated our spiritual and intellectual struggles from the beginning.

I suspect that no amount of analysis, no amount of intellectualising, will get us closer to that dialectic core than this poem does, and which is enhanced even more by de L’Estocart’s haunting setting:

An excursion into cultcha

If you’re a classical musician, or musical critic, look away now. I have no qualification whatsoever for writing what follows, and Schubert and Haydn studies will not be moved further by even a millimetre as a result of it. I know enough about music to comprehend approximately what a fugue is, and to recognise a movement in sonata form if it doesn’t stray too far from the exposition-development-recapitulation-(coda) model. I can hear a modulation, but there’s no point in asking me to tell you from a score what key all those sharpened, flattened or naturalised notes mean we’ve modulated to. So you won’t find erudite observations like, “Haydn flirts boldly, yet only fleetingly, with a crushing B flat minor from his sunny starting point of D major, like a cloud passing over a distant sunlit landscape.” I’ve just made that up, but if you’re a music critic don’t try telling me you haven’t written that exact poncey sentence at some time, even though you probably got the keys right.

So with my excuses made, let me unleash on the world my untutored musical thoughts. It struck me whilst I was exercising this morning to the strains of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet (and that I was using a masterpiece of the canon as a backdrop to something as base as exercise surely proves my musical philistinism beyond doubt!) not only that it’s quite hard to maintain a decent aerobic rhythm when a slow movement kicks in, but also that both my favourite string quartets have theme and variation slow movements. The other is Haydn’s “Emperor”, with its famous movement from which the German national anthem derives. I wondered whether it was simply a coincidence that both these quartets contain such movements, or whether it might be a significant component in my choice.

I suspect it has something to do with slow movements in general. From a young age, slow movements seemed to me to be stretches of boredom one had to endure before perking up again with a jolly or bombastic minuet or scherzo, and a hopefully breathless and breathtaking finale. Symphonies with the least dirge-like slow movements – Mendelssohn’s Italian or Beethoven’s 8th come to mind – were thus always those I welcomed most appreciatively. My love of the moto perpetuo of the baroque is another consequence of my preference for music that can be visualised as a rushing, gurgling stream rather than a serene, placid lake. Slow movements such as those of “Death and the Maiden” or the “Emperor” have changes of pace and timbre that keep my attention when a shimmering but unremittingly slow movement would have me drifting off. And to a musical novice such as me, these variation movements have a simple and transparent structure, with clearly delineated chunks that signal that something new is being done to the theme, even if I haven’t a clue about exactly what. And in the case of the Haydn, it’s wonderful to hear that theme moving unaltered amongst the voices, and to marvel at how different the same music can be in the hands of a master.

I’d like to think that my musical taste and appreciation have matured as I’ve got older, but I suspect that deep down it’s still the fast and furious that I love, and that prevents the child in me from telling me that I’m bored.