Archive for the 'History' Category

Mendelssohn & Lind: Nothing to see here, please move along!

In January 2009, the Independent published a story speculating on an affair between the composer Felix Mendelssohn and the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. I have only just discovered that the Journal of the Royal Musical Association published an article by one George Biddlecombe in 2013 which purports to get to the bottom of this story, and concludes that “Mendelssohn wrote passionate love letters to Jenny Lind entreating her to join him in an adulterous relationship and threatening suicide as a means of exerting pressure upon her”.

But the evidence presented in the paper supports no such claims. A half-competent lawyer for the defence could drive a coach and pair through the material presented here. A paper written in 2013 refers to two documents (not apparently in the public domain) written in 1980, describing a post-prandial conversation in 1947, a conversation about some letters allegedly discovered at Lind’s death in 1887, letters which were purportedly written by Mendelssohn to Lind before his own death in 1847. Where are these letters? Allegedly burnt at the time of their re-discovery in 1887. Who read them? As far as I can tell from Biddlecombe’s paper, possibly only Lind’s widower, Otto Goldschmidt, a man who died in 1907. What language were they written in? Presumably German, since that was Mendelssohn’s mother tongue, and Lind spoke it. Could the various English solicitors who pepper this story and who MAY have been present at the discovery and burning of the letters in 1887 read German? Even if they could, did anyone other than Goldschmidt actually read the letters?

Did these letters actually exist? This is not obvious to me, and the evidence is only third- and fourth-hand. But even if they did exist, we have only Otto Goldschmidt’s alleged word, at several removes over 126 years, to say that the letters contained statements of passion by Mendelssohn to Lind. They may have been shopping lists, for all we know with certainty. Even though the various intermediaries in this fanstastical story may have been lawyers of integrity, and fine, upstanding men (as Biddlecombe seeks to show), who knows what Goldschmidt’s motivations may have been, whether in 1887 or later. All here is hearsay, and hearsay repeated after long intervals of time, and buried in obscure documents not open to our inspection. No court would accept such ramshackle, hearsay evidence for the claims made in this paper. George Biddlecombe surely knows this, for why else would he resort to a discussion of other sources (eg, third-party letters, memoirs) to buttress his claim of an affair? But these other sources, too, are less than compelling. A hill of beans is what they don’t add up to.

What a shame that this paper traduces the reputations of two people, both long dead, on such flimsy grounds. What a shame that others rush to endorse its argument. The problem is both too much imagination and too little. An affair is imagined when the evidence – the firm, uncontestable, irrefutable evidence – does not support any such claim. At the same time, there is a failure to imagine that two people can have a deep, intense friendship without also being lovers.

Reference:

George Biddlecombe [2013]: Secret letters and a missing memorandum: New light on the personal relationship between Felix Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind. Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 138 (1): 47-83.




The second time as tragedy

Yanis Varoufakis, Greek Minister for Finance, speaking at a press conference in Berlin on 5 February 2015:

“As finance minister in a government facing from day one emergency circumstances caused by a savage debt deflationary crisis, I feel that the German nation is the one nation in Europe that can understand us better than anyone else.

No-one understands better than the people of this land how a severely depressed economy, combined with a ritual national humiliation and unending hopelessness can hatch the serpent’s egg within its society.

When I return home tonight, I will find myself in a parliament in which the third-largest party is not a neo-Nazi party, it is a Nazi party.”

West Germany received debt relief in 1953, yet now deny it to the rest of Europe. The hypocrisy and economic negligence of the German government of Mrs Merkel reminds me of the British Government’s hypocrisy in the Great Depression: insisting that Australian Federal and State Governments continue to pay all interest and loans owed to British lenders, while at the same time seeking debt relief for British loans from American creditors. Every Australian economist, including no doubt the very impressive former Sydney University academic Dr Varoufakis, knows the name of Sir Otto Niemeyer, bullying representative of colonial rapacity. The unspeakable Mrs Merkel and her condescending ilk will, like Niemeyer, live long in the memory of Greeks.




Australian Buffaloes

An article from the Sydney Morning Herald of 1924, about the introduction of buffaloes to Australia in 1857, an adventure involving both a great-great-grandfather and a great-great-great-grandfather of mine. I wonder if the ship mentioned below, the Florence Street, was named after a member of the illustrious Street Family of New South Wales.

To the late Captain Peverley, of Balmain, belongs the credit of having introduced the buffalo to Northern Australia, though he did so indirectly in a measure, when the good barque the Florence Street became a total wreck on the northern coast, not very far from where Wyndham now stands.

Captain Peverley, ship master and ship owner had, when he settled in Balmain, 28 ships of various sizes and capacities; he always boasted that not one was a “coffin ship”, and that he himself would sail on them in any sea, in any weather, and he would add as climax that he would give a first-rate rope’s ending to any of his crew, who dared to complain or say otherwise. He was a true type of the ship’s master of the old windjammer days, days when Sydney Harbour was crowded with sailing craft of all kinds, the days of the middle and late ‘fifties, when the gold fever had reached its crisis after the astonishing yields from Bendigo and Ballarat.
Continue reading ‘Australian Buffaloes’




Mattawamkeag, Maine

My high-school English teacher, Gary Whale, interviewed by ABC radio about the town of Yamba, NSW, Australia, available as a podcast.

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Yamba Surf Club was founded in 1908. The photo shows Tommy Walker surfing at Yamba around 1911. (Photo by O. B. Notley, from Manly Life Saving Club Australian Surfing Museum.) The post title is a reference to an O. Henry story.




Chickens, roosting, home

Re-reading Ian Hancock’s fine history of liberal white politics in Rhodesia reminds me that the first politician in that sad country to harass and intimidate his political opponents was not Robert Gabriel Mugabe, but Ian Douglas Smith. Smith and his Rhodesian Front party arrested, tortured, silenced, detained, and killed black opponents of white rule.  As far as I know, no white opponents were murdered, but they were arrested, deported, silenced, shouted-down in public meetings, made the victims of malicious innuendo, traduction, and defamation, and otherwise intimidated if they dared oppose RF rule.  I know at least one opponent who committed suicide rather than kill his fellow citizens in defence of white privilege.  These actions, Smith insisted, were for the maintenance of Western, Christian, values. Bah, humbug! As early as May 1965, in Smith’s first election as an incumbent prime minister, he prevented any white or black opposition politician from gaining access to state-owned media.  In contrast, Smith himself was treated with great deference and respect, despite continuing to hold racist views that would have shamed a Klansman, after Mugabe came to power in 1980.  He should have been tried as a war criminal.  In a more just world, he would have been.

The terror that Robert Mugabe has unleashed on his homeland is different in scale, perhaps, but not in kind from that of Ian Smith.  The evil that men do may well outlive them.

Reference:

Ian Hancock [1984]: White Liberals, Moderates and Radicals in Rhodesia 1953-1980. New York: St Martin’s Press.




Charles Burney

This post is a history of the family of Charles Burney FRS (1726-1814), musician and musicologist, and his ancestors and descendants.

Sir MacBurney was one of the 60 Knights who participated in a jousting tournament, supervised by Geoffrey Chaucer on the orders of Richard II, held at Smithfield in London in 1390.

One James Macburney is said to have come south to London from Scotland with King James I and VI in 1603.   His descendant (likely a grandson), also James Macburney, was born around 1653 and had a house in Whitehall.   His son, also called James Macburney (1678-1749), was born in Great Hanwood, Shropshire, around 1678, and attended Westminster School in London.   In 1697, he eloped with Rebecca Ellis, against his father’s wishes. As a consequence, the younger James was not left anything when his father died.  The  younger man’s stepbrother, Joseph Macburney (born of a second wife) was left the entire estate of their father.

This younger James Macburney (1678-1749) was a dancer, violinist and painter, and was supposedly a wit and bon viveur.  He and Rebecca Ellis had 15 children over 20 years, of whom 9 survived into adulthood.   By 1720, he had moved to Shrewsbury,  and Rebecca had died.  He married again, to Ann Cooper, who apparently brought money to the union which helped her somewhat feckless husband. This second marriage produced 5 further children, among whom were Richard Burney (1723-1792) (christened “Berney”).  The last two children were twins, Charles Burney (1726-1814) and Susanna (1726-1734?), who died at the age of 8.  Their father James had apparently dropped the prefix “Mac” around the time of the birth of the  twins.

One of Charles’ half-brothers was James Burney (1710-1789), who was organist at St. Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, for 54 years, from 1732 to 1786. Charles Burney worked as his assistant from 1742 until 1744.

For a period, Charles Burney and his family lived in Isaac Newton’s former house at 35 St Martin’s Street, Leicester Square, London.  Among Charles’ children were:

  • Esther Burney (1749-1832), harpsichordist, who married her cousin Charles Rousseau Burney (1747-1819), also a keyboardist and violinist.
  • Rear Admiral James Burney RN FRS (1750-1821), naval historian and sailor, who twice sailed around the world with Captain James Cook RN.
  • Fanny Burney, later Madame d’Arblay (1752-1840), novelist and playwright.
  • Rev. Charles Burney FRS (1757-1817), classical scholar.
  • Charlotte Ann Burney, later Mrs Broome (1761-1838), novelist.
  • Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1844), novelist.

Charles’ nephew, Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848), artist and violinist, was a brother to Charles Rousseau Burney, both sons of Richard Burney (1723-1792), Charles’s elder brother.  This is a self-portrait of Edward Francisco Burney (Creative Commons License from National Portrait Gallery, London):

image

In 1793, Fanny Burney married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay (1754-1818), an emigre French aristocrat and soldier, and adjutant-general to Lafayette. Their son, Alexander d’Arblay (1794-1837), was a poet and keen chess-player, and was 10th wrangler in the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge in 1818, where he was a friend of fellow-student Charles Babbage.  He was also a member of Babbage’s Analytical Society (forerunner of the Cambridge Philosophical Society), which sought to introduce modern analysis, including Leibnizian notation for the differential calculus, into mathematics teaching at Cambridge. d’Arblay was ordained and served as founding minister of Camden Town Chapel (later the Greek Orthodox All Saints Camden) from 1824-1837, and then served briefly at Ely Chapel in High Holborn, London. The founding organist at Camden Town Chapel was Samuel Wesley (1766-1837).

Not everyone was a fan of clan Burney. Here is William Hazlitt:

“There are whole families who are born classical, and are entered in the heralds’ college of reputation by the right of consanguinity. Literature, like nobility, runs in the blood. There is the Burney family. There is no end of it or its pretensions. It produces wits, scholars, novelists, musicians, artists in ‘numbers numberless.’ The name is alone a passport to the Temple of Fame. Those who bear it are free of Parnassus by birthright. The founder of it was himself an historian and a musician, but more of a courtier and man of the world than either. The secret of his success may perhaps be discovered in the following passage, where, in alluding to three eminent performers on different instruments, he says: ‘These three illustrious personages were introduced at the Emperor’s court,’ etc.; speaking of them as if they were foreign ambassadors or princes of the blood, and thus magnifying himself and his profession. This overshadowing manner carries nearly everything before it, and mystifies a great many. There is nothing like putting the best face upon things, and leaving others to find out the difference. He who could call three musicians ‘personages’ would himself play a personage through life, and succeed in his leading object. Sir Joshua Reynolds, remarking on this passage, said: ‘No one had a greater respect than he had for his profession, but that he should never think of applying to it epithets that were appropriated merely to external rank and distinction.’ Madame d’Arblay, it must be owned, had cleverness enough to stock a whole family, and to set up her cousin-germans, male and female, for wits and virtuosos to the third and fourth generation. The rest have done nothing, that I know of, but keep up the name.” (On the Aristocracy of Letters, 1822).

References:

ODNB

K. S. Grant: ” Charles Burney”, Grove Music Online. (Accessed 2006-12-10.)

POST MOST RECENTLY UPDATED:  2014-08-30.




London life – WW I

On 22.00 on Monday 4 August 2014, Ryoji Ikeda turned-on an installation of a vertical light at Westminster,  entitled Spectra, to commemorate the centenary of the entry of Britain into World War I.   The light can be seen from many places elsewhere in central London, appearing to curve over the viewer and ending in a burst of brightness.  The effect is ominous and hauntingly beautiful, particularly in the early hours of the morning when alone on the streets.

 

London-WWI-4August2014-RyojiIkeda-Spectra

 




Kriegsspiel 1914

Kriegsspiel 1914:   A war game re-enactment of the battles between German and Allied (French, Belgian, BEF) forces on the Western Front between late August and late September 1914, organized by Philip Sabin of the War Studies Department at King’s College London.   Our team comprised Evan Sterling, Nicholas Reynolds and myself, and played as Germany.  We beat the Allies, capturing more territory than Germany had captured in actuality in 1914.  In other words, we not only beat the Allies, we beat History.

The photo shows the final placement of German forces (black boxes) after 6 rounds of fighting, with the yellow boxes showing territory held by Germany.     Cells without yellow boxes are held by the Allies.  This was immense fun.   (Photo credit:  Nicholas Reynolds.)

Kriegsspiel1914-30May2014




Passover Seder

Passover-Seder




The old man

The actor Richard Burton famously played Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1953.    The following story is from a profile of Burton written by journalist John McPhee in 1963 for Time Magazine, and recounted in the current New Yorker  (“Elicitation”, 7 April 2014, p.57):

He [Burton] had completed about 60 performances and the box office was beginning to slide when the house manager came to his dressing room one evening and said, “Be especially good tonight.  The old man’s out front.”

“What old man?”

“He comes once a year,” said the house manager. “He stays for one act and he leaves.”

“For God’s sake, what old man?”

“Churchill.”

As Burton spoke his first line – “A little more than kin, and less than kind” – he was startled to hear deep identical mutterings from the front row.  Churchill continued to follow him line for line, a dramaturgical beagle, his face a thunderhead when something had been cut.  “I tried to shake him off,” remembers Burton.  “I went fast and I went slow, but he was right there.”  Churchill was right there to the end, in fact, when Burton took 18 curtain calls and Churchill told a reporter that “it was as exciting and virile a performance of Hamlet as I can remember.”  Years later, when Winston Churchill – The Valiant Years was under preparation for television, its producers asked Sir Winston who he thought should do the voice of Churchill.  “Get that boy from the Old Vic,” said the old man.

They got that boy from the Old Vic.