Timur and Bayezid I: Vivaldi’s Turkish Delight

Today’s musical November post takes us back again to Italy, however this we will be promenading down the 18th century alongside the music of one of my favourite composers since I was a child: Antonio Vivaldi. My dad used to play a lot of classical music to me when I was little, and I grew big in my affection for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, being Autumn- fittingly enough- my chosen one. Nevertheless, I will be talking in here about a piece of his, which perhaps is a bit less known, which is the opera Bajazet. Bajazet, also known as Il Tamerlano was composed in 1735, and tells a story of love and war during the 14th century, with the stage for the action being Turkey and the Balkans area. From the musical point of view Bajazet is a very interesting piece of its period due to its arias. In the 18th century, it was quite a common practice to re-use areas from other operas and musical pieces, creating what is known as a pastiche: so a pick-and-mix of your suitable and favourites from other artists- a bit like creative plagiarism. This may sound bad, but it was quite common; not only Vivaldi but other great composers such as Handel used this technique in their work. However, this is not to say it was not an original piece- it was- and in fact Vivaldi himself did compose the arias for some of the characters in his opera, mainly those for Bajazet, Asteria and Idaspe.

Continue reading “Timur and Bayezid I: Vivaldi’s Turkish Delight”

Richard Wagner: Rienzi

As part of our Musical November month, and as my first contribution to the Winchester History blog, I will be looking at the story of Wagner’s Rienzi. First performed in  1842, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (usually shortened to Rienzi) is an opera by Richard Wagner. It tells the story of Cola di Rienzi in his attempt, and temporary succession, of overthrowing those in power to restore, what he considered, a failing Rome.

The opera was written by Wagner after the publication of Lord Lytton’s novel, Rienzi, a fictitious tale of Rienzi’s life. The opera follows a similar suit, perhaps not true to the facts, but certainly in keeping with the ‘revolutionary’ themes.

Before reading – or to the listen to while reading – here is a clip of Wagner’s Overture from Rienzi:


Who was Cola di Rienzi?

Born in 1313 in Rome, Nicola di Lorenzo was an Italian leader most famous for his attempts in restoring Rome to the greatness it had long before achieved.

The collapse of the Roman Empire had caused unrest across Italy – as there was no hegemonic power to oversee events, this caused a fragmentation of political identities and relationships. When Rome lost its papal authority in 1305, when it moved to Avignon in France, this only heightened the loss of pride the people of Rome had once felt, but it also sparked some response, most notably from Rienzi.

His father, Lorenzo Gabrini, was a Roman tavern keeper, and also from where the name ‘Rienzi’ was derived from. Not much is known about his mother, other than that she died when he was very young, in around 1323. After his mother’s death Rienzi moved out of Rome to live with his uncle, not to return for another 10 years.

In 1343 Rienzi was sent by the city’s government to make a pledge on behalf of the Roman popular party to Pope Clement VI in Avignon. The party had just reached ascendency and Rienzi was adamant in creating change within Roman society. Despite the fact Pope Clement sent him away with nothing more than having made him notary of the Roman civic treasury, Rienzi returned to Rome with his passionate ideas still in motion – and began plans for a revolution.

Taken from Google Maps: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Avignon,+France/@43.941557,4.8332525,6z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x12b5eb8739bc9d07:0xe6429b6efa1d7b36
Taken from Google Maps

This revolution, he claimed, would lead to the return of the greatness of Ancient Rome. The events that followed would depict the story of Wagner’s Rienzi.

The events

On May 20th 1347, Rienzi held a meeting on Capitoline Hill, a summoning of people to a parliament which would discuss his ideas for this new Rome, the return of it as a capital to a “sacred Italy”. This “sacred Italy” was to be an Italian brotherhood, which would promote and spread peace and justice across the world. He proclaimed his administrators would be “tribunes of the peace…and liberators of the sacred Roman Republic.” Perhaps ideological and romantic views, but this certainly stirred something in those whom this parliament threatened.

During the meeting, as well as discussing reforms of political structure in Rome, Rienzi had announced a number of legal proclamations against the nobles of Rome. In doing so, many of these, led by the Orsini and Colonna families, rose against Rienzi and his claims. Despite initially repelling their attacks, on November 20th 1347, Rienzi was forced to flee, at first to the Maiella Mountains of the Abruzzi region. This was due to a decline in his popularity and support in his ideas. The stir he had caused was now dying down. This, alongside continuous attacks by nobles and the Pope labelling him as a heretic, caused him to resign barely a month after the initial attacks.

Distance of the Maiella Mountains from Rome Image taken from Google Maps: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Maiella,+Majella+National+Park,+67030+Pacentro,+L'Aquila,+Italy/@42.05,14.05,7z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x133043a6c54550e3:0xb48866617e9360d8!5m1!1e4
Distance of the Maiella Mountains from Rome
Image taken from Google Maps

Still on the run, Rienzi ended up in Prague in 1350, hoping to gain the sympathies of  Emperor Charles IV. His attempts were unfounded and instead led to him being handed over to the Archbishop of Prague, who later handed him to Pope Clement in July 1352.

However, Pope Clement soon after died. With the arrival of a new pope, Innocent VI, Rienzi was absolved of heresy, freed and sent back to Rome in order to help Cardinal Gil Albornoz in his challenge of returning Rome as the papal authority. He returned to Rome on August 1st 1354. In some ways, it was a triumph for Rienzi, who was cleared off his charges and allowed to return to the city he had once loved so much. In others, as shown by following events, it was the beginning of the end of his ideals and of his life.

His Last Stand

Though he returned to Rome with the title of senator, and was there by the Pope’s own command, there was still much anger and resentment against Rienzi from aristocratic families. As well as continued harassment from the Colonna family, he also struggled in terms of money and therefore used this as an excuse for his rulings to be made solely by his own discretion. Due to what appeared to be a dictatorial system growing, riots broke out in Rome on October 8 1354. In his attempts to calm protests, he was met with missiles and other attacks. Fearing for his life and in an attempt to escape, he disguised himself in amongst the crowd as a rioter, but was recognised, and killed.

His death with a brutal one, his assassins gleeful at his demise. They stabbed him multiple times and apparently joked as they dragged his body to the Piazzo San Marcello, near the Colonna palace. His biographer claims that ‘because he was so fat, he burnt easily and freely.’ Not the most pleasant of pictures nor the most heroic of deaths.

His death is far more romantically portrayed in the opera, and despite the Roman people turning against him, Rienzi stands firm with his beliefs, and he perishes refusing to move from the burning Capitol square.

Further Reading

Cola Di Rienzi Proclaims Himself ‘Tribune’ of Rome

The Plot of Rienzi 

Cola Di RienziCity-states

Cola Di Rienzi Murdered

Simone Boccanegra: Verdi’s Doge

As part of our musical November theme, we are covering historical events that are related with some exceptional and interesting modern pieces of music. Our case for today offers us with a window into the 14th and 19th century, to learn about a powerful Italian man, and from the point of view of another Italian; an opera master. How this concoction came to happen? Well, keep on reading 🙂

Only in Italy a pirate could become ruler, or more precisely Doge, of an important city such as Genoa. For those unaware of the power politics of this geographical area, Italy was divided in two factions: the Guelphs and Ghibellines, supporting the Pope and the holy Roman Emperor respectively- the north of Italy had been and would be a political war zone for years, even centuries. The situation was tame down with the Concordat of Worms in 1122, but this division and game of allegiances continued well into the 15th century. So, time came to decide who was going to be boss in Genoa in 1339, and the Ghibellines put forward this interesting fella, Simone Boccanegra, who according to Verdi’s opera was a pirate. In the opposition sat the Guelph candidate, who was an old school aristocrat. But as it stands up until the 16th century the Doge was elected by popular vote in Genoa, and thus our man comes to power.

Continue reading “Simone Boccanegra: Verdi’s Doge”

Too Much Too Young- The Specials, Ska and West Brom!

As part of our music month, I am posting about a song which very much not only paints a picture of the political scene at the time, but showed a new movement arising in the urban hubs. The song I am talking about of course, is Too Much Too Young by the Specials, a band based in the Midlands and was one of the many taking advantage of the changing political landscape and the views of the time. As a band, they were one of the few to have both black and white members, which at the time in the late 70’s/early 80’s of Britain, this was a very weird thing to happen. Here is the song:

Too Much Too Young Lyrics by the Specials

Music and youth culture went hand in hand like bread and butter, and with the generation coming through containing a lot of the common wealth nations such as Jamaicans and more Asians mixing with the white children; it was a mixed society where the rules were broken and the club scene was somewhere you could not only let your thoughts be known but also to let your hair down. The club scene itself was often playing what was known as Ska music, which had its roots from Jamaica. The Specials used the Ska beat to vent their frustrations and the dissatisfactions of the British underclass growing up out of sight and mind on bleak and soulless inner-city council estates.

Image of the Specials

In this song in particular, we are hearing the dissatisfaction with the welfare state, how far too many young girls are getting children too early and missing out on the fun that could be had at the time. The title itself, Too Much Too Young, further illustrates that the society at this age were doing far much more than was perhaps expected of them, and in a way throwing their lives away before they had lived their lives to the way that they should have done. But the effect the lyrics had on the society which listened to them created an obvious message that this was the generation that were going to enjoy their lives; they weren’t going to live by the norms of getting a job, having a family. Instead they would party until the sun rose and not have any regrets about doing so. Even the build up of the band, with 2 Jamaicans and the bands colour scheme of black and white made the racist society look outdated. The Specials helped to create a new idea which many generations since have followed.

Image of some of the National Front activities in 1980’s England

The fact that at the time, the current political climate was full of massive demonstrations about putting a cap on the amount of migrants allowed to come into the country doesn’t sound too dissimilar to today. However it was an awful lot more violent, with groups such as the National Front regularly demonstrating against anybody that wasn’t a white Briton. The fact that groups such as The Specials so openly promoted integration amongst races would have angered a lot of the Front’s members. However it wasn’t just The Specials that were making big moves to integrate the blacks amongst the white community. Further down the road in the West Midlands, football club West Bromwich Albion had their own idea on how to integrate the races.

Image of the band- The Three Degrees on their tour of the UK, with West Brom players Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis.

West Brom was a normal football club like many other: managed by a good manager in Ron Atkinson, they were playing competitive football at the highest level in England. However what made them different from most other teams was the fact that they were the first team to play more than one black player at a time, and they were regularly integrating with the squad. The amount of pressure that must have been on Cyrille Regis, (a brilliant striker who had a hunger for goals he regularly tended to), Laurie Cunningham, (a pacey midfielder who flew whilst on the ball and who was taken from us too early), and Brendon Batson, (a solid defender and who would later become an important member of the Players Football Association), is hard to imagine. These were the men that led the football of the late 1970’s early 1980’s forward, showing not just the fans but the players and the manager themselves that it could be done, and not only that but that they can play football.

Laurie Cunningham floating over the pitch

After reading the Three Degrees- The Men Who Changed British Football Forever by Paul Rees, I was struck by just how much not only these 3 men but the music of the time had on the society around them. Cunningham himself helped destroy the racial stereotypes in society around him but having a white girlfriend with whom he regularly went out with every weekend on the Birmingham club scene. He also became such a good footballer that he played for Real Madrid, one of the biggest teams in the World. Both Cunningham and Regis further emphasised that a mixed community worked by representing England on a number of occasions, letting their feet do the talking. In Rees book he regularly talks of the fact that Cunningham would let his feet do the talking, and although he was subject to an awful lot of racist abuse, he would consistently silence his doubters with his skill.

Video showing the skill and grace of Laurie Cunningham

The trio at West Brom and the music acts like The Specials all helped to change a period of racial prejudice and create a new period  rebelling against the system and acceptance of certain aspects at the same time. Too Much Too Young made not only people dance but think about their own lives and make them think of themselves. The fact it is convincing them not to get held down too early by family, marriage and life illustrates a changing shift at the time. It was songs like Too Much Too Young which really did help to shape a generation.  With the music and the way that football was changing, it has helped improve both society and the outlook on race within this country. If you have time, I would suggest reading the Three Degrees, it is an excellent book, talking not just about the football but the cultural significance of these 3 great football players and the spirit of the Midlands music scene.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, and I hope you enjoy the rest of WUHstry’s music month.

Over there lies the long way to Victory. Songs for soldiering.

I can easily recall one happy childhood memory related to the school and, more particularly, to my English lessons. I went to the Jesuits school in my hometown, and there the Principal acted also as teacher of English. He was a well-humuored man, keen on cycling and other sports, and very enthusiastic about the English language, its teaching and its importance for the future (being a Spaniard, the knowledge of other languages has usually been regarded even with some suspicion). To encourage the young learners, Padre Fermín will open every lesson with a song. The ritual began when he opened the door, and we started to sing, standing. By the time he reached his seat the brief music was almost finished and so, in due order, we sat ourselves. The favourite song, the one we use to sing as if marching to find our future, was “It’s a long way to Tipperary” or better said, its chorus (I’m afraid our English was even worse at that time and that was all our little minds were able to learn by heart). Little we knew that particular song had been sung while marching to meet their future by many a young man, not so young as we were then, but young enough. And the future of many of them was a grave with no name in a foreign land. We may had not felt as happy if we had possessed that knowledge.

The fact is that WWI was consider a just and necessary war by lots of otherwise peaceful citizens. Volunteering was rife at the outbreak of war, and young men of almost every nation involved in the conflict join the rank and file with enthusiasm and, I daresay, in many cases with joy. Come to that, war was the epitome of manhood, courage, heroism, sacrifice, patriotism…(Most of us think otherwise these days, but now is now, and then was then). And with the joy of joining their fellow countrymen and engage the enemies in combat (and obviously defeat them; no one joins a fight to lose it) came the songs. After all singing is an obvious expression of joy (also of sorrow, but we are still at the outbreak of war, sorrow will come later, with pain and grief, and different songs) and those happy fellows who were to evict the “Hun” from Belgium, or to recover the lost Fatherland or whatever their sacred mission it was, had the need to express their feelings about King, Country, themselves and the enemy.

“It’s a long way to Tipperary” was one of the favourites within the BEF, as was “Keep the homes fires burning”. For the Germans it was “Die Wacht am Rhein” and for the French “Sambre et Meuse”. The Americans were still far away, but they will have their own song in “Over there”. But there are some subtle differences between what each ones were singing, reflections on the different approaches to war in each country.

For instance, both the French and German songs are military marches, while the English were popular tunes, more related with home than with the front. And the American was an engaging tune suitable for attracting recruits to a not really well-known conflict. “Over there” was also made for the occasion, and “It’s a long way…” was quite new at the time, been written in 1912. But the continental songs were older, both dating from the 19th. And both are far more warlike than their companions here.

Both the French and German songs are set against a long story of confrontation and territorial claims from either side of the river Rhine. “Die wacht”calls (roars like thunderbolt says the song) for someone “to defend the German Rhine”. But the Fatherland may rest at ease, because every German wants to be in The Watch and so no enemy will enter the shore “Solang ein Tropfen Blut noch glüht”; as long as a drop of blood (German, of course) still glows. Come the time of WWI a new stanza was added, the seventh, which goes as this:

So führe uns, du bist bewährt;

So lead us, you are approved 

In Gottvertrau’n greif’ zu dem Schwert!

With trust in God, grab the sword!

Hoch Wilhelm! Nieder mit der Brut!

Hail Wilhelm! Down with all that brood!

Und tilg’ die Schmach mit Feindesblut!

Erase the shame with foes’ blood!

Apparently this stanza was frequently used as propaganda in postcards and the likes during the war. Charming. Note the reference to Kaiser Wilhelm and the usual need of washing past offenses with the enemies’ blood. The enemies quite clear being the French. Not coincidentally the song was allegedly written in the wake of French Prime Minister Thiers claiming that the French border should be anchored in the Rhine river. Fittingly, the musical arrangement gained momentum and popularity in successive Sängerfest (choral competitions closely associated with German culture) thus competing as a kind of substitute national anthem with the nowadays official Deutschlandlied.

Following suit, “Sambre et Meuse” was composed shortly after the Franco-Prussian war and the crushing defeat suffered by the French army. The real name is, in fact, “The Regiment of Sambre et Meuse” and is begins with the verse “Tous ces fiers enfants de la Gaule”: All these proud children of Gaul…another call to all the nation to unite against the common enemy. In the chorus we can find another statement not to be taken lightly:

           Cherchant la route glorieuse                      Seeking the path of glory

Qui l’a conduit à l’immortalité                   That led them to immortality

One could say that those paths of glory usually led to death not immortality. But again, there is the call to arms, the urge to rally against the enemy, the soldiers refusing to retreat, surrounded, fighting til the last man, against all odds. And when the last man is taken prisoner, but better to be a captive he kills himself. Le Héros se donna la mort.

With all these appeals to death, sacrifice and bloodshed,on both sides the outcome of the war could well have been forecasted since that was the mood of the combatants, at least at the first stages. Later on, soldiers resorted to other songs, not so referring to slaughter and bravery, but to longing, fear and loathing.

“Tipperary”, in the other hand, was a popular tune adopted by units of an army away from home, with a sense of duty and of a certain faith “in the justice of our cause”, but filled with men that, given the opportunity after the first bouts of enthusiasm, would surely have preferred to be back at home, sipping their tea. It is humorous and light. No blood, no guns. Just a couple of commoners trying to outsmart the other, and a town far away where there is someone dear. Probably the exact feeling of almost every Tommy. And there were reports of this song sung by units as they arrive to France, even before they got engaged in combat. Maybe they were having second thoughts about their mission.

           It’s a long way to Tipperary,

It’s a long way to go,

It’s a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye, Piccadilly,
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.
Many of them will lose heart and soul in Mons, Somme, Passchendaele. And now they rest a long way from home, among their comrades, maybe singing Tipperary in the silent language of ghosts. They are still longing for home and their Molly-Os.
Still three years will pass until the US army get into the field. But they will bring their own song with them. One of those fresh, defiant, over-confident songs that so well described American spirit. They have no particular dislike for anyone but, when push comes to shove…well
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
Just in case you are not getting the innuendo, old boy. Over there was written and composed by music hall star George M. Cohan in April 1917 and was used to increase recruiting and sell the US public the view of a short expedition to put an end to the war that Wilson’s administration was favoring. A sort of friendly yet powerful “vini, vidi, vinci”. So the song was for internal consumption, and so there is just the slightest reference to “the Hun”: “Johnny, show the “Hun”you’re a son-of-a-gun”. Again, it sounds more like a little brag than a real threat to a bitter enemy. That was probably the approach most American citizens have to war in Europe: something went wrong absurdly, but the Yanks were coming to put and end to it and everybody would be friends again. It seems that Europeans were quite confused after almost three years of horror to get the point in Yankee counseling; they went over there and their lives were soon severed by machine guns and high explosive. Just like everyone else.
I can recall another happy memory. Me aged 12 or so watching the TV at night. Black and white film. James Cagney, for once, dancing and singing instead of killing people and calling his Ma’. A catchy song called “Over there”. I spent months humming that particular song. Again not knowing as with “Tipperary” the tragedy after the music. Now it seems so unfair that I should have such happy memories associated with songs that also represent the fury and madness of war. That I have so enjoyed what for others could have been a moment of grief. That my happy memories could be somewhat intertwined with other people sad reminiscences. There is just one thing to comfort me: at least I happen to know the lighter, and happier ones. But soldiers in 1914, or 1917 had to get to know all the hatred and bloodshed that was sung in the long marches to the front. I wonder if a tune came to their minds amidst the ghastly sounds of the fight. And which one was it.

History through Song Lyrics: Unconventional Sources

I would like to inaugurate this blog (without considering last week welcome post) with my favorite controversial topic in history: Non-academical history. It does not really matter how it is called, but what does matter is that it exists, and it can be use for a better understanding of history, or a more engaging, touching and easier way to get along with history. Usually, this kind of history, popular or public history, is conceived in a variety of ways. The most common are: museums, and in general the heritage industry, tv shows, and books. But today, I would like to talk about one which is not commonly considered and I, personally, think it is rather interesting and useful.

I remember how in my first year of A-levels one of my classmates made up a funny song about the French Revolution, in order to remember the main events and personalities. And thanks to that, I would never ever forget those things. The issue I am presenting here is music as a source in the learning and teaching of history. Music is an art that has been linked with history since ancient times, and it has been developed through it until the present day, and it will most likely continue the process in the future. We know about the role of entertainment of musicians in the past and nowadays…But what about the rest? It is not the most common of the cases but many artists and bands do create material related with history. Although sometimes it is needed to read deeply through the lyrics, the ideas are still there.

My research has brought together material from diverse places and periods, but I would like to focus on the most modern evidences. 1974 was a critical year in the history of Portugal; after years of dictatorship the country was ready to embrace democracy as their political system. The use of music was crucial for the coordination of the whole movement known as ‘Revolução dos Cravos’ (The Carnation revolution). Those songs used during this revolution have prevailed in history. They are a symbol and they are living history, those lyrics portray the spirit and meaning of the whole event. One of the most famous songs used for this event was “Grândola, Vila Morena”, written by Jose ‘Zeca’ Alfonso, a couple of years before this happened. Despite the fact the song was previous to the event, the Portuguese people identify themselves in that circumstances with these lyrics:

”Grândola, vila morena

Terra da fraternidade

O povo é quem mais ordena

Dentro de ti, ó cidade

…Em cada esquina um amigo, em cada rostro igualdade”

(Could be translated as: Granola, dark land, land of fraternity, your population rules within you, oh city…In everycorner, a friend, in every face equality)

The perfect song for a revolution against the fascist regime that was oppressing the population…The song by which this is remembered.

But this is maybe the most evident case. An even more modern example: in 1990, one of the most celebrated german rock band of all times, The Scorpions, released their album Crazy World, in which their famous song ‘Wind of Change’ was included [5]. Just with a quick look to the lyrics and a bit of historical knowledge, the topic can be disguised: The fall of Berlin Wall, in 1989. Such an important event in western modern history immortalised in a radio hit, famous in the whole world. And the list goes on. Published in May, 1983, Iron Maiden’s album Piece of Mind contains their famous song ‘Die with Your Boots On’. “They die with their boots on, yes they die” lyrics in honor of the disastrous and miserable General G.A. Custer’s death at Little Big Horn. The last example is from the album Lost in Space Part II, the third EP of Tobias Sammet’s metal opera project known as Avantasia, published by Nuclear Blast.The following extract is from the song ‘Promised Land’, which embraces a rather historical and religious topic; the Crusades and the Holy Land:

“Like moths to a flame
Driven by vanity
They been off to Jerusalem
Chasing a dream
Calling on me
We re just trading in needs”

The Crusades, the end of fascism in Portugal, the fall of the wall in Berlin and one of the biggest disasters in the history of war, all in music…All historical. And these are just four, rather recent, examples…We  might question now: what can music offer to the study of history for academical historians (and other humanists) but, also, how can these lyrics been used for students (like ourselves) or for lower levels, where history in most of the cases is not a choice but a must.