France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

Man of Roma:

Ce poste n’est pas daté, j’espère, et en tout cas il exprime l’amour des Italiens pour les Français.

Originally posted on Man of Roma:

The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.

After Rome’s fall in 476 CE, the Holy Roman Empire, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

This Empire – Frankish, Germanic and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only – considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.

When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror, the Ottoman Mehmed II, thought he was continuing the power of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was…

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How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?

Japanese little girl. Click for attribution and to zoom in

In the previous post we have shown two little Japanese girls capable of perfectly playing some music of the classical period.

Which surprised me in many respects and made me reflect.

Germany, Vienna and Italy

First of all by ‘classical style’ we mean the music created from the mid 1700’s until the first decades of 1800 thanks to contributions from Germany (Southern Germany – Mannheim etc. -  but not only), Vienna and Italy, which changed the spirit & the technique of music into something inspired by the ideals of ancient classical art.

In other posts we’d mused about this magical region where many centuries earlier Roma and Germania met (and clashed,) ie the Roman provinces (Germania Superior, Raetia, Noricum and Pannonia) along the axis of what was once the limes germanicus or frontier of the ancient Roman Empire (look at this map!) that separated the world of Rome from the un-romanized Germanic (and non Germanic) tribes (read more: 1, 2, 3.)

It may be a simplification (and an obsession,) but that ‘classical music’ in its narrow sense (in the broad sense it refers to all Western art music since its beginnings) was much later to be born in such cultural crossroads – well, it didn’t happen in our opinion by mere chance.

[Roman & non Roman. Where are hence the traces of this duality in today’s societies? - we had asked ourselves]

Haydn. Portrait by Thomas Hardy. Wikipedia image

Now this ‘classical music’, that followed Baroque and developed before the spread of Romanticism, is characterized by formal balance, a certain restraint and a terse simplicity attained with extreme economy of means together with a very refined taste: which makes the performance of such art daunting despite its apparent easiness. Its model is in fact that of Hellenic art, although adapted to modern times (and to modern music, since we know so little of ancient music.)

This may be a reason why playing Mozart, Haydn or Boccherini and Clementi ‘well’, that is, with the necessary purity, is often more difficult than rendering subsequent and technically harder pieces of the Romantic and contemporary repertoire. I saw pianists who could easily play Brahms and Scriabin but sweated their way through the end of a Mozart adagio.

The Japanese and the Russians

Now, that these Japanese children, coming from a different planet, are able to do this extremely well – isn’t it amazing?

Classical balance and taste is nothing one can improvise. One needs to have breathed such air.

Take the Russians, such formidable musicians. Not completely European ok but closer to us than the Japanese for sure, they have traditionally always hesitated before the classical repertoire (and when they didn’t … the result was often not among the best.)

So, the Russians fail where the Japanese don’t – there must be something in those Eastern cultures I am not aware of.

Some readers have got any ideas?

ψ

In the meanwhile, as an Italian, I know the Japanese – a few I’ve met who study bel canto in Rome – love Italian opera quite a lot whose style always resisted the complexity of the romantic and late-romantic German harmonies and voicing (Verdi Bellini and Donizetti etc. on one hand, Wagner or Richard Strauss on the other hand: two different universes altogether! Roman & non Roman?)

Once more. What these oriental people may find in the Western ‘classical’ style of music?

Mario: “By the way, I heard that classical music makes hogs as fat as whales.”

MoR: “What?? Are you kidding me?”

Mario: “It is true! This Vietnamese pig farmer, Nguyen Chi Cong, found a new way to make his 3,000 hogs eat more quickly and happily by having them listen daily to the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. It seems the soothing effect is also working for other domestic animals!”

MoR: *Rolling eyes*

ψ

Related posts:

Music, Politics and History

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

See also the series dedicated to the notions of ‘classic’ & ‘classical’ (1, 2 and 3)

Change and Continuity in History. 1

Cathédrale Marie-Reine du Monde. Montreal. Click for credits

Cathédrale Marie-Reine du Monde. Montreal. Click for credits

This conversation between Paul Costopoulos, a Canadian of French and Greek descent, and Man of Roma, started from the noble death of the Stoicists and landed on many themes such as religion, the Old and the New World and change and continuity in history.

Paul
As for Antiquity as much respect as I may have for that era and it’s people I pretend that the mores then current are not relevant today.

MoR
Well, I don’t know Paul. Here in Europe religion is waning, people are trying to understand what their values are and sometimes do embrace weird beliefs (have you ever heard of the Temples of Damanhur in northern Italy?)

Personally, I prefer to get back to our Greco-Roman roots, which is not a barren exercise, ancient thought being totally incorporated in modern thought. As for Stoicism, human equality and brotherhood or natural law are elements of its legacy. And I wish I had a better knowledge to tell you how much of the American constitution is ‘ancient’.

Even in my curious for-fun exploration of science I recently discovered this connection between Pythagoras and the modern theories of the universe. We can ‘make sense’ of the universe, stated both Pythagoras and Einstein. Is there an affinity between our rationality (math etc.) and the universe? Fascinating theme.

I mean, WE are the ancients Paul …

The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Click for credits

The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Click for credits

Paul
I was steeped in classicism and Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. A potent mix. However over the years I have taken leave of organized religions but not of the values I got from that environment. As many seem to have done, I have not thrown the baby with the bath water. This being said I have not reversed to Paganism.

As for the Stoicists, I respect their opinions like I respect other point of views but suicide is not my cup of tea to solve any problems whether of honor or health or a way to escape execution…let the tyrant kill me, I will not give him the pleasure of doing it for him.

As for being “Ancient” that notion is intriguing. I guess some of the values I still adhere to may make me Ancient, but I also feel modern and with my time. I’m sure you do too, otherwise what would we be doing here.

MoR
I feel modern too and I also feel that we basically agree. Although I think there are at least 2 differences between us:

1) I am agnostic, I don’t much imagine somebody superior up there (although how can I know) and I think that if this Being exists there’s no evidence that He really cares for us;

2) belonging to the 2 opposite sides of the pond we might have a different perception of what is change & continuity in history.

As for point 1) I confess I feel some void since I used to sincerely pray Jesus and my guardian angel before going to sleep until I was 12. Then I stopped. I attribute to this imprinting – not to Jesus’ power – the fact that when I go to bed I often need to read valuable books, and I found that classics, poetry etc. work fine for me, they give me peace and help me counter today’s superficiality.

Am I a neo-pagan? No Paul, I am not. Art and thought suffice. I am well aware I’m not such a great intellectual, but my approach suits me. I’m content with it.

[As for point 2 see the next post]

Paul
We are not so different. Yes, I believe in a God … but I cannot be sure there is one, this is called faith.
As for continuity well on this side of the pond, as you say, we keep on speaking European languages, we learn European history since our roots are out there. Even our monuments are, very often European inspired, for instance the Catholic cathedral in Montreal, Marie-Reine-du Monde, is St-Peter Basilica redux even to Bernini’s torsados over the Altar [see the image at the top of the page, MoR.]
We may look at diversity and development with less apprehension than Europeans though and we question the past maybe more easily, it is less heavy on us, what is 600 years compared to Rome’s over 3000? We cannot say as Serbia’s foreign minister during the most recent Balkan’s war: “My country has too much History!”

(The conversation continues within this post and its comments section.)

France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.

After Rome’s fall in 476 CE, the Holy Roman Empire, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

This Empire – Frankish, Germanic and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only – considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.

When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror, the Ottoman Mehmed II, thought he was continuing the power of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped by the Papal and Neapolitan armies in 1480.

After the fall of the Second Rome someone began to refer to Moscow as the “Third Rome“, since the Russian Tsars felt they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christian tradition.

It should also be noted that the sovereigns of the two great continental empires dissolved in WWI, the German and the Russian, both bore the name of Kaiser and Tsar, that is Caesar.

ψ

So many heirs of Rome indeed! Seems like a futile historical game.

Well, it is not.

ψ

Let us see how other nations went on claiming the Roman heritage.

The Victorians, the Italians and the USA

Benito Mussolini. Wikimedia. Public Domain

The British Victorians, for example, who felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.

Or both the Italian patriots, who unified Italy, and later the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. They felt like the heirs of ancient Rome and the creators (again) of a “Third Rome”: after the capital of the Pagan world – they argued – and after the capital of Catholicism, Rome was now to become the capital of a totally New World. A disproportionate idea, without a doubt.

And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the superpower of the ancient times (try to google America, new, Rome: you’ll get an interesting number of results.)

We will though today talk about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity.)

Can’t France in fact lay claims as well?

The First French Empire

France inherited many elements from Rome, after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar: language, food habits, behaviours, genes, technologies and a fundamental aestheticism, among the rest.

We have already mentioned the connection between Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. Less obvious are similarities like that between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Wikimedia

Much more significant though is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some scholars, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people.

The person who shaped this centralism (later continued by Napoleon) was probably Louis XIV (1638 –  1715, see image above,) one of the greatest kings ever. He was called the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) and was associated with Apollo Helios, the Greco-Roman god of the Sun. He also encouraged classicism in the arts and Voltaire compared him to the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Other great personages such as Napoleon Bonaparte (or even Charles de Gaulle, why not) bear the traces of the Roman heritage. Napoleon was inspired first by the Roman Republic. Roman-like, he became First Consul of the French Republic.

Then, after receiving the crown from Pope Pius VII (in Paris, this time) on December 2 1804, he became Emperor of the French people and encouraged a classicist Empire style in architecture, decorative arts, furniture and women’s dresses based on Ancient Hellenic attire (see below,) a style soon popular in most parts of Europe and its colonies.

Napoleon identified himself with Caesar, was continuously studying his works and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever, like Caesar and Alexander.

Empire silhouette Dresses. 1804. Metropolitan M. of Art. Fair use

Two dresses, ca. 1810. Courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

The French and the Italians.
Who Envies Who?

Antonio Gramsci, in Notebook IX of his Prison Notebooks, reflects on some words written by the French writer Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) in Histoire d’un crime:

“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today.” This ancient fatherland – argues Gramsci – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. “Something that was said, and is especially said, today, to displease no small number of people.”

Well, something said to displease whom? I believe our philosopher referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.

Focusing on the Italians, one can wander and wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.)

France was always admired in Italy – Gramsci observes. France meant the French Revolution, the participation of a large share of the population to the political cultural and state life, it meant a decorous parliamentary activity and many other things that the young Italian state could not exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed a strong dislike and a substantial envy.

I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins when they behold our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc. This envy surfaces every time we do something better: with soccer or Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion, and so on.

But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.

If they may envy us, we envy them more.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When West / North Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

Arturo Benedetti MichelangeliThe Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920–1995) is considered one of the greatest virtuosos of the 20th century. His style is classical in the sense of classicism and in a way that is more than emblematic. Why?

Italy never totally absorbed romanticism with its emphasis on excessive emotions, irrationality, free form etc. A sense of grace, elegant beauty and formal perfection together with a preference for simplicity over complexity have often been among the components of the Italian attitude in Arts.

Michelangeli’s style though (together with Maurizio Pollini’s) personifies all this even too much. He not only provides further evidence of this anti-romanticism present in the Italian culture – due to the Italian classical heritage (not many doubts about it.) Michelangeli’s peculiar (and sacred) approach to music crosses in our view a line by breaking the balance between form and emotion, between the rational and the lyrical side of a work – a balance which is typical of the best classicism. He reaches such a controlled perfection that his performances are prodigious, true, and proverbial, ok, but they are often very chilly as well (not many doubts either.)

[Maurizio Pollini has somewhat bypassed great Romantic piano music too - going though towards contemporary music - and his style is not very far from Michelangeli's, of whom he was also a pupil]

In other words, Italian musical classicism is brought by Michelangeli to a limit where passion and musical spontaneity seem to disappear. He never lets himself go and every single note is under his control.

In fact “Michelangeli was known for his note-perfect performances” (Wikipedia). “His fingers can no more hit a wrong note – writes Harold Schonberg, a famous New York Times music critic- or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired.”

Michelangeli’s performances of Romantic authors are therefore generally baffling. His interpretation of Frédéric Chopin‘s Ballade in G minor, one of the great works of Romantic music, can very well bring out this point, we believe:

As Squishym (a Youtube user) well observes “it sounds detached for the most part and the timing has a lot of strange hesitations for no apparent reason (perhaps an attempt to simulate emotion?)” Yes, very well said indeed.

An opinion confirmed by the above said Harold Schonberg, who wrote: “The puzzling part about Michelangeli is that in many pieces of the romantic repertoire he seems unsure of himself emotionally, and his otherwise direct playing is then laden with expressive devices that disturb the musical flow.”

In Domenico Scarlatti‘s sparkling and rationally crystal clear baroque Michelangeli seems instead much more at ease. This beautifully and very fast played sonata shows all his supreme coolness.

Michelangeli was sometimes considered at his best with the impressionistic French repertoire (Debussy and Ravel). Here follows Chopin’s Berceuse, where the flaws shown in the Ballade in G minor are in our view not present because of the pre-impressionistic genre of this marvelous piece. Benedetti Michelangeli’s playing radiates here his exquisite magic.

Finally Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in d-moll BWV 1004 for violin solo. The art of Bach, Busoni and Michelangeli combine to bring to life an awesome, unparalled musical experience. As the teacher and commentator David Dubal observed, Michelangeli “was best in the earlier works of Beethoven and seemed insecure in Chopin, but he was demonic in such works as the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and the Brahms Paganini Variations.”

Demonic.

Let us listen to this demonic Michelangeli (the performance here being unfortunately – and horribly – cut into two separate videos):

Ψ

Other related posts:

Music, Politics and History
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

On my piano teacher, Pauline O’Connor, pupil of Michelangeli:

A Refined but Passionate Celtic Goddess of Piano Music is no More

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