Thursday, February 26, 2009

On history's clock it was sunset


So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admirarion. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last.
The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor.
Those words come from Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August. It tells how the secret treaty system among the European powers transformed what should have been in a regional conflict in the Balkans into the catastrophic Great War. Shortly after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis the Washington Post published an article describing how Barbara Huchman's book had influenced President Kennedy's decision to negotiate with the Russians, rather than confront them off Cuba. The policy of negotiation had, arguably, averted a nuclear holocaust.
Barbara Tuchman (1912-89) was an influential and best-selling author at a time when the appropriate career for a woman was considered to be as the wife of an author, rather than as an author in her own right. Her teaching appointments included Harvard and the US Naval War College, and she twice won the Pullitzer Prize for general non-fiction. One of her most remarkable, and neglected, contributions is Tuchman's Law. This states The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold. Just as The Guns of August spoke to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which was written in 1987 and in which she introduced Tuchman's Law, speaks to today's financial crisis:
Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening, on a lucky day, without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena.
Barbara Tuchman's work is one of many threads in another book by a remarkable woman titled The Girl I Left Behind - A Narrative History of the Sixties. This memoir, which I am currently reading, is by the journalist, researcher and speechwriter Judith Nies. She worked with a group of anti-Vietnam congressman in Washington in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was active in dismantling the institutionalised sexism that pervaded Capitol Hill.
The collapse of the old order provides the link to my header image. Elgar's Symphony No. 2 in E flat was written by a Catholic Englishman in 1911. The composer dedicated the work to the late King Edward VII, and the opening Allegro vivace e nobilmente was influenced by the funeral of the King described by Barbara Tuchman in my first paragraph. Tonality dominates the symphony, but it is fluctuating and unsettlingly ambiguous; while the harmony is saturated with the chromaticism that had shocked listeners in Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht nine years earlier.
I know many readers will consider it one of my multitudinous eccentricities that I rank Elgar's Symphony No. 2 as one of the great works of the twentieth-century. In fact I rank it right up there with another masterpiece that speaks of a time when 'On history's clock it was sunset' and with which it is contemporaneous, Mahler's Ninth Symphony. But I am content to be dubbed a maverick. I am reading Judith Nies. I have revisited Barbara Tuchman. Elgar's turbulent E flat symphony in the mighty 1976 EMI recording by Sir Adrian Boult resounds on the stereo. Elgar's inscription from Shelley's Invocation on the score of the symphony says it all -
Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight.
The Girl I Left Behind was borrowed from the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich. No other material mentioned in this article was supplied free of charge. My header image shows the original 1976 LP release of the final Sir Adrian Boult recording of Elgar's Second Symphony. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

6 comments:

Pliable said...

Email received:

Hooray for eccentricity.

I agree with you wholeheartedly about the Elgar (yet, I dissagree with you about Liszt's Fausy Symphony). The 2nd Symphony is in my top five favorite works. I've loved it ever since I was eight, when I obtained the HMV set--on 78's!!!--of Elgar conducting it. The EMI recording you feature is also one of my favorite performances. There's an Earlier Boult EMI of the 2nd that was re-issued on Great Recordings of the Century many years ago. That performance impressed my by its sheer violence, especially in the Scherzo. This work is definitely a statement of "things to come" in the 20th Century.

Cheers
David Cavlovic

Drew80 said...

You are not eccentric at all, Pliable. The Elgar Second IS one of the great works of the 20th Century.

Philip said...

I too am in total agreement re the Elgar. And this is a timely corrective, as Sounds and Fury took an almighty, albeit vacuous, swipe at Elgar yesterday as a device to denigrate Jessica Duchen. Or at Jessica as a device to get at Elgar, who knows with ACD.

Pliable said...

Good point Philip. I too found the Sounds and Fury comment about Elgar silly.

But, I have to say, I found Jessica's piece about Handel equally silly. It could have been written by Norman Lebrecht.

Sadly, that style of controversial sound-bite journalism is what the paid for media wants these days. Which is why so many people read music blogs.

Philip said...

Yes, I'm afraid this is all so, Pliable. I did think that perhaps Jessica was just seized with the impulse to be a bit impish and stir things up, and so, hugely though I disagreed, I took it in good part. But it rather quickly got a bit out of hand on both sides, notably with the extraordinary, ad feminam diatribe from 'newmusicologist' in the Independent, and then with Jessica's own Lloyd Webber comparison, which was way OTT, not worthy of her, and had me reaching for the antihypertensives.

Pliable said...

Email received:

Bob: I thoroughly enjoyed your column and the excellent tribute to Barbara Tuchman. She asked the right questions of history.

She was my model as a narrative historian in framing THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND and in constructing a narrative that knit togehter many disparate events to create a cohesive picture of a very complicated (and still misunderstood) time.

Best,
Judith Nies.