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Thursday, March 22, 2018

“Beethoven: The Composer as Hero”, by Philippe Autexier

144 pages, Thames & Hudson, ISBN-13: 978-0500300060

I have been a Beethoven aficionado since age 15 when my parents bought me an audio cassette box-set featuring all of his symphonies. Since then I have updated them – first to CD and then to my iPod – and have done my damndest to collect all of his music and to learn all that I could about dear old Ludwig van. This book, Beethoven: The Composer as Hero by Philippe Autexier isn’t bad at all, but at 144 pages it’s about as brief as brief can be. It is well-written, with Beethoven’s life chronicled from birth to deafness to death and everything else in-between. And there is a morsel or two about Beethoven that you may not get from grander, more scholarly works, such as the little tidbit that once when Ludwig van was walking in the woods with Ferdinand Ries (a composer, friend, pupil and secretary to Beethoven) and humming a tune out loud…that turned out to be the Third Movement to his Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, known better as the Appassionata. But this isn’t why you buy a book such as this, for every page has several photographs, most of them in color, and it is printed on some damn fine paper, to boot; it is rather nice having color portraits of the people in Beethoven’s life, such as his grandfather and other members of his family, or Muzio Clementi, Joseph Haydn, Rodolphe Kreutzer and Antonio Salieri, as well as many of his benefactors and other personal friends (not to mention street scenes, scenes of Beethoven playing the piano as a mesmerized audience looks on, scenes from Fidelio, etc.). Not a bad little book at all; just more of a primer on the great man than a proper biography.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

“Royal Web: The Story of Princess Victoria and Frederick of Prussia”, by Ladislas Farago & Andrew Sinclair

350 pages, McGraw-Hill, ISBN-13: 978-0070199415

If ever there was a “royal web” then it was spun by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, whose children and grandchildren would occupy damn near every throne in Europe in an attempt to institute “The Coburg Plan”, whereby Britain’s (relative) liberal institutions would be copied by the great nations of Europe, spreading peace and prosperity to all from the top down. Royal Web: The Story of Princess Victoria and Frederick of Prussia by Ladislas Farago (his last book before dying) and Andrew Sinclair chronicles just one small part of this plan when their eldest daughter, Victoria the Princess Royal, married Frederick of Hohenzollern of the Royal House of Prussia and, later, the Imperial House of Germany. Victoria (Vicky) was probably the most intelligent and politically astute of all of Victoria’s and Albert’s children; knowing that she would never be a monarch in he own right, her parents recognized that an advantageous marriage would allow her to become queen, or even empress of another power, and influence events from the throne beside the Throne, as it were. Albert had visions of a united Germany modeled on the United Kingdom, and from the time Vicky was still an infant he set his sights on Vicky marrying into the Prussian Royal Family. With this goal in mind, he set out to educate Vicky in a way that he never did his oldest son, Bertie (later King Edward VII). While Vicky was still a teen, she married Fritz, the son and heir of King William I of Prussia, and spent much of her life as the Crown Princess. The marriage of Fritz and Vicky was a love match-one of the few among royalty in the 19th Century, for both had a liberal vision for the future of Germany…unfortunately, Emperor William I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck did not share this view; in fact, they did everything possible to suppress the liberals, and Vicky was even accused of being an English spy. This was also a turbulent time for the Prussians as the war-hungry Bismarck goaded Prussians into war with the Danes, Austrians, French and even fellow German states. By the time Fritz became emperor, it was too late to make any major changes.

At first, I thought this was going to be a basic biography on Fritz and Vicky, but in truth it was rather short on personal history and dealt a great deal with Big Picture stuff (little is mentioned about their children except for William, who became Kaiser William II). It also gets bogged down in battles, wars, espionage and political intrigue, and while the authors try to simplify the history of Germany during this time (which consisted of 38 independent German states), it would have been helpful to include a map of Europe and Germany. Overall, Royal Web was a thumbnail introduction to its subject. One thing that the authors had at their disposal was the many volumes of letters between Victoria and Vicky (they wrote almost daily), part of which was saved when Vicky’s letters were smuggled out of Germany after her husband’s death. The relationship between the Wilhelm and his parents is also fascinating and disturbing, and while Vicky and Fritz were born into the wealth and privilege of royalty, their lives were filled with tragedies and disappointments. Things didn’t quite play out as expected. So while I wouldn’t discount Royal Web, if you’re looking for a straight biography of these two, there are many better books to be found. Emperor Frederick III, the liberal and pragmatic father of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the infamous and incompetent leader of the German Empire during the First World War, would have changed history if not for his short and tragic 99-day reign cut short by throat cancer. His wife, the very intelligent British Victoria Princess Royal, eldest child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, was hated in Germany mainly due to plotting by Bismarck…but has slowly been rehabilitated and recognized as a brilliant force in building the German Social Democratic tradition. This simple biography gives a good account of the travails and politics of late 19th Century Germany, its formation, and what could have been had this great couple been allowed to guide Germany into something resembling a Constitutional Monarchy along British lines. Shame.

Friday, March 9, 2018

“Richard and John: Kings at War”, by Frank McLynn

608 pages, Brécourt Academic, ISBN-13: 978-0306815799

Richard and John: Kings at War by Frank McLynn is a perfect example of a book that is simultaneously a joy to read and a chore to get through. I have loved history since I was 12-years-old after our first cross-country family vacation in which we visited myriad Civil and Revolutionary War battlefields. Since then I have attempted to ever-expand my knowledge and areas of interest; thus, when I found this book at my local 2nd and Charles (quickly becoming my go-to place) I snatched it up as I don’t know much about the reigns of these two famous and infamous kings of England. In that sense, I enjoyed every minute I spent with this book…however, getting from beginning to end was, at times, tedious, and passages of this book had me nodding off. Richard and John is extremely detailed, telling almost everything that is known about these two kings’ lives and how they governed the Angevin Empire (which included many parts of France as well as England). Two more different brothers there could not have been: Richard was a military genius and generally a man of honor, with his one potential war crime explained by McLynn within the text of the book; John, however, was devious, cowardly and paranoid, whose myriad war crimes cannot be explained away.

Both men have their fans, and both men have their detractors; McLynn definitely comes down on Richard’s side, almost to a fault, and while he does discuss some of Richard’s problems, he generally explains them away in some fashion. John, on the other hand, is shown in the worst possible light, with McLynn mentioning and disposing of most of the pro-John sentiment that’s out there throughout the text. McLynn builds a logical case for his thesis, acknowledging the many positive thoughts about John’s reign, indicating they may have some validity; he then proceeds to make his case clearly and concisely, showing why those positive thoughts must be wrong. I was impressed with the logical case that he built, as well as the even-handed way he dealt with those he disagreed with. Richard and John begins with Henry II, his wife, the illustrious Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the births of their children. Most prominent among these children were Richard and John, and McLynn quickly moves on to their childhood and their dealings with their parents. Richard seemed to inherit Henry’s military capability and John his paranoia and temperament. When Henry died and Richard ascended the throne, he dealt mostly with the parts of the Angevin Empire on the continent, especially his beloved Aquitaine. McLynn highlights the conflicts with Philip, King of France, as well as Richard’s military exploits during the Third Crusade (taking a chapter to give a short history of Saladin and how the Holy Land came to be in its current predicament at the time of the Crusade).

Once Richard was gone and John’s reign began he lost everything Richard had gained, eventually resulting in the signing of Magna Carta. McLynn gives a wonderful overview of just what Magna Carta was, what John’s barons wanted to get out of it, and what John was willing to concede to them. Most especially, he shows the reader how John wanted to get out of it almost as soon as it was signed. This attention to detail is what I loved about Richard and John, a book filled with fascinating stories and facts about these two monumental men…which is why it’s a shame that McLynn’s prose is exceedingly dull at times. I’m a fan of detail, but McLynn sometimes goes overboard with it and he can’t always tell it in an interesting fashion. That’s why this book tears at me; I can’t think of a more comprehensive look at these two kings and the tumultuous times that they were in power, but it shouldn’t be putting you to sleep even as you want to find out just a little bit more. That is, however, the only fault I can find with this book. McLynn uses so many primary sources that you can’t help but think he’s closer to being right than many others might be. He acknowledges when facts are scarce; when he makes an assumption he tells the reader that it’s an assumption, and then he doesn’t try to build a further case on top of that. He uses logic throughout the book to fight salacious interpretation of the history (such as how some historians feel that Richard was homosexual based on the interpretation of a few words in the old texts as well as the relative lack of illegitimate children and, especially, because of a salacious desire for one of England’s most famous kings to have also been a sodomite). In addition to the primary sources, he includes many secondary ones, though some of them are included mainly so he can knock down their arguments. The bibliography in this book is quite extensive.

While Richard and John is not the definitive book on the subject (I would like to read some opposing points of view to see how they make their argument), it is an interesting, comprehensive history of both these men and the military conflicts they took part in. While the book does deal with some domestic issues, these are mainly presented in how they affected the ongoing martial action which pervaded this time period. It’s fascinating reading for those with an interest in the subject, and definitely worth plowing through despite the fatigue-inducing prose.