Archive for July, 2020

Very Short Napoleon

July 16, 2020

A Very Short Introduction
David A. Bell
(Oxford, 2015)
160 p.

The Napoleonic Wars
A Very Short Introduction
Mike Rapport
(Oxford, 2013)
144 p.

I’ve been aware for some time that my knowledge of European history, which is fair to middling through the medieval and early modern periods, and passable to half-decent in the past two centuries, scrapes to a low ebb in the eighteenth century. What better way to set about plugging this gap than by learning about the man who bestrode the age like a short colossus? So, at least, was my reasoning, and so I’d been on the hunt, in a general way, for a good biography of Napoleon.

The trouble is that though biographies of Napoleon are plentiful, they are also bountiful: readers can choose from volumes of 600 pages, 800 pages, 1000 pages, and 2000 pages. I needed something briefer. Then, gently and sweetly, these two books came into view, and I seized on them.


David A. Bell gives a very nice potted history of Napoleon’s life and legacy. Beginning from his childhood in Corsica, he relates his startling rise to prominence in the years immediately following the French Revolution.

Napoleon’s early genius was in military affairs: he had apparently boundless energy, fierce determination to win, and a rare talent for crafting and executing complex and effective military tactics. At age twenty-six this ability had already made him a French general; by age twenty-nine he was one of the most powerful men in Europe. “That little bugger scares me,” was the assessment of one of his commanders. He fought in Austria, Italy, and then, casting about, in Egypt, which he intended to turn into a French colony.

Things became more complicated as his star rose. He was an adept at cultivating a public image, and the people of France fell in love with him, but the presiding powers, both in France and in neighbouring nations, were harder to convince. And Napoleon himself began to change as his power waxed: “I am the French Revolution” was his claim on the way up, but, as is well known, in time he came to embrace the trappings of power, assumed at least some of the signs and privileges of the aristocracy, and declared himself Emperor. Many have seen this as a betrayal of the principles he originally espoused, understandably, though Bell cautions that at least some of the showmanship may have been a calculated effort to cultivate better relationships with the monarchs who surrounded France.

So long as Napoleon kept moving, expanding, and fighting, he seemed unstoppable, but it was less clear what he could or would do if peace should come. He made plans to invade England, but a few tussles and it was clear that he could not compete with the British navy. (Hurrah for Jack Aubrey!) Eventually, and famously, he amassed an army of 650000 men and plunged eastward toward Moscow in the summer of 1812. But it was a long march, and time passed, and winter came early, and his army was destroyed as they tried to get home; I was shocked to learn that only 85000 men returned from this campaign.

His downfall, which came in the years shortly after this disaster, would have been nearly as swift as his rise but for a surprising coda. On April 20, 1814 he bid farewell to his remaining army and was taken to the isle of Elba. It is unclear to me if he was a prisoner at this point, or merely in exile. In any case, a year later he did the unexpected: left Elba and landed unannounced in France. The people rallied to him, the army rallied to him, and he entered Paris in triumph once again. It didn’t last long — just one hundred days — but it showed the tenacious hold he still had on the hearts of his countrymen. Imprisoned on St Helena, he lived the last years of his life quietly and died in 1821, aged 51.


His was obviously an exceptionally interesting, and even dazzling, life. He marked French politics and culture in ways that endure. A couple of specific points stood out to me.

Bell stresses that Napoleon pushed European warfare toward a model of “total war”; no longer would armies fight it out neatly on a battlefield, but whole nations mobilized to fight one another. In this way he was able to amass huge armies, the likes of which had never been seen before. The size of his army helped him to win battles, but also affected his tactics in a regrettable way, for in later years he was willing to sacrifice many lives in mass charges at the enemy, an approach to warfare that would return, on a massive scale, in the First World War.

Second, I was forcefully struck by the authoritarian streak in his consolidation of political power. He folded up almost all of the free press in France, replacing them with papers dedicated to praising him. He commissioned artists to create works praising him. He created a sophisticated network of domestic surveillance, and established an agency that read people’s mail. He knocked foreign dignitaries off their chairs and put his family members in their places. All in all, he cut an unbecoming figure of boastful self-aggrandizement and obvious nepotism. The contemporary politician whom I was most reminded of was Trump, and that was something I did not expect. In fact, in these respects Trump is not nearly so bad.

While acknowledging his authoritarian tendencies, it would be unjust to the man to equate him with the murderous dictators of the twentieth century. He built no gulags and had no systematic policies to execute his opponents. Yet it is certainly true that a great many people — a great many — died as a result of his ambitions. These military affairs are well covered by Mike Rapport in his little volume on the Napoleonic Wars. Rapport sets the stage for these conflicts, describing the powder-keg that existed in the international tensions between France, Britain, Prussia, and Russia (principally) before Napoleon came to power, and relating how he ignited it. He doesn’t go into much detail about the tactical course of individual conflicts, but he does do a very nice job of describing what it was like to be a soldier or sailor or civilian impacted by these wars, how nations recruited soldiers (and the lengths to which people would go to avoid conscription), and, finally, how the Napoleonic wars changed European, and world, politics. I found the book a helpful adjunct to the potted biography.

Composer duels!

July 11, 2020

On his YouTube channel, David Hurwitz recently set the cat among the pigeons by proposing a series of “composer duels”. It’s a fun parlour game, and I can’t resist setting them up and knocking them down myself.

Here are the duels he suggested:

Bach v. Handel: The easiest of the bunch. Bach all the way. Endless invention, dazzling playfulness, inexhaustible enjoyment. Sure, Handel wrote Messiah, for which I am grateful, but set beside the B Minor Mass, the Magnificat, the Passions, the motets, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering, the Passacaglia and Fugue (582), the English Suites, the GOLDBERGs, the music for solo violin, the cello suites — well, it’s no contest.

Scarlatti v. Couperin: No strong opinion on this one, as neither means much to me. Probably Scarlatti, just to spite the French.

Haydn v. Mozart: For his operas alone I have to pick Mozart. Then there are the Requiem, and Laudate Dominum, certain piano concertos, and the string quintets, and the clarinet concerto. Although I like and enjoy Haydn’s music a great deal, I don’t think I love anything of his as much as I love what I love by Mozart.

Dvorak v. Brahms: A tough one, but I’ll go with Brahms, if only for the late piano and clarinet works, which are the Brahms I love most. In orchestral music Dvorak has the edge with his wonderful tone poems, but it’s not enough for me to give him the palm.

Schumann v. Chopin. Chopin. Schumann makes me nervous and unhappy.

Sibelius v. Nielsen: Well, Nielsen’s music leaves me cold, so it’s not a fair fight. Sibelius, hands down. Violin concerto, late symphonies, tone poems.

Bruckner v. Mahler:  Both great symphonists, and there are times when I think Bruckner is God’s greatest gift to the nineteenth century, but pushed to choose I pick Mahler, whose marvellous symphonic landscapes have given me so much joy, and who wrote my very favourite symphony (No.2).

Ravel v. Debussy: An easy one for me: Debussy. The mysterious and evocative piano music, La Mer, the Nocturnes, the greatest mood opera of all time in Pelleas et Melisande. Apart from Gaspard I can’t say that I love anything of Ravel’s, and I have a marked dislike for his piano concertos.

Verdi v. Wagner: The biggest, baddest composer duel of them all! Verdi has the good tunes, which counts for something, I guess, but for sheer luxurious sound there’s nothing like Wagner, and I can’t cast my vote against the man who gave us Tristan and Parsifal

Stravinsky v. Schoenberg: Who-berg? Stravinsky is such a sunny, witty composer — Haydn for the twentieth century — that he wins easily for me. Even his serial music, however regrettable it may be in the grand scheme of things, nonetheless beat Schoenberg at his own game. 

Some other possible duels that come to mind: Shostakovich v. Prokofiev (though it would be fairer to Prokofiev to match him up against Weinberg); Beethoven v. Schubert (ouch!); Ockeghem v. Dufay (ouch!); Janacek v. Bartok (Janecek, without hesitation); Cage v. Feldman (Feldman in a heartbeat); Berg v. Webern (Webern, even though he was a Nazi). There are some good comments attached to the video chat:

Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy

July 3, 2020

The Spanish Tragedy
Thomas Kyd
(Methuen, 2009) [c.1585]
187 p.

Where words prevail not, violence prevails.
(II, i)

The Spanish Tragedy was an Elizabethan hit, earning the admiration of contemporary playwrights and audiences, and establishing, in hindsight, a new dramatic genre for the Elizabethan stage: the revenge tale.


The action takes place mostly in the Spanish court in the aftermath of a battle between Spain and Portugal in which Spain was victorious and the Portuguese prince, Balthazar, was taken captive.

The seeds of the bloody spectacle that will eventually engulf the court were sown in that battle. It’s a bit complicated, but it goes like this:

Immediately before his capture, Prince Balthazar had killed a Spanish nobleman named Don Andrea, on whom a young Spanish noblewoman, Bel-imperia, had doted. She consequently conceived in her heart a hatred for Balthazar. Yet, as part of the peace plan between Spain and Portugal, she is offered to Balthazar in marriage. Her wits distracted, she begins to take a shine to the brave, young Spaniard, Horatio, who had captured Prince Balthazar in battle. But when Balthazar learns of this attachment, he brutally murders Horatio.

Thus far we have two dead men, both admired by Bel-imperia, who herself remains intended in marriage to the killer.

It is when Horatio’s father, Hieronimo, learns of his son’s murder, and of who committed it, that the revenge plot really kicks into gear. He and Bel-imperia form a compact to revenge themselves on Balthazar and everyone connected to him. Hieronimo adopts an affable demeanour in the court, but plots mercilessly, and eventually, in the play’s blood-soaked climax, exacts his revenge. Bodies litter the stage.


It’s an entertaining story. The tragedy that eventually swallows whole all the principal characters emerges naturally from the dramatic tensions of the tale — unlike, for instance, the tragic downfall of Tamburlaine, which had an arbitrary quality about it. Here the basic ingredients — a lover’s passion, a father’s grief — are elemental and powerful, and they propel the drama forward.

The verse in The Spanish Tragedy is not always top-tier. Kyd makes frequent use of parallel constructions in his lines, and though this sometimes works, more often I found it had a leaden quality. Consider this passage, in which Bel-imperia confesses her burgeoning love to Horatio; she interrupts an exchange in which the ‘love as war’ motif had been bandied about, and she says:

BEL-IMPERIA. Let dangers go; thy war shall be with me,
But such a war as breaks no bond of peace.
Speak thou fair words, I’ll cross them with fair words;
Send thou sweet looks, I’ll meet them with sweet looks;
Write loving lines, I’ll answer loving lines;
Give me a kiss, I’ll countercheck thy kiss:
Be this our warring peace, or peaceful war.

Perhaps that could have a winsome simplicity about it, if delivered by the right actress, and the final line does tie it up rather nicely with a bow, but I felt like I could guess the lines before having read them.

A worse example is this one, an exchange between the ghost of Don Andrea (killed in battle by Balthazar, recall, just before the play begins, and himself seeking revenge) and a personification of Revenge. They’ve just seen Andrea’s friend Horatio killed by Balthazar:

ANDREA. Brought’st thou me hither to increase my pain?
I look’d that Balthazar should have been slain;
But ’tis my friend Horatio that is slain,
And they abuse fair Bel-imperia,
On whom I doted more then all the world,
Because she lov’d me more then all the world.

REVENGE. Thou talk’st of harvest, when the corn is green;
The end is crown of every work well done;
The sickle comes not till the corn be ripe.
Be still, and, ere I lead thee from this place,
I’ll show thee Balthazar in heavy case.

Andrea’s lines are about as bad as any I’ve yet encountered in my tour of Elizabethan drama. Thud. Admittedly, Revenge’s lines make a decent recovery.

On the other hand, there are some really fine sections in the play as well. In this passage Hieronimo, father to the murdered Horatio, is asked by a minor character where to find Lorenzo, who had assisted Balthazar in Horatio’s murder, and Hieronimo, in a distracted state, talking more to himself than the questioner, answers:

But, if you be importunate to know
The way to him and where to find him out,
Then list to me, and I’ll resolve your doubt:
There is a path upon your left hand side
That leadeth from a guilty conscience
Unto a forest of distrust and fear,—
A darksome place and dangerous to pass,—
There shall you meet with melancholy thoughts
Whose baleful humours if you but behold,
It will conduct you to despair and death:
Whose rocky cliffs when you have once beheld,
Within a hugy dale of lasting night,
That, kindled with worlds of iniquities,
Doth cast up filthy and detested fumes,—
Not far from thence where murderers have built
A habitation for their cursed souls,
There, in a brazen caldron fix’d by Jove
In his fell wrath upon a sulfur flame,
Yourselves shall find Lorenzo bathing him
In boiling lead and blood of innocents.
(III, xi)

I could see that working very well as a set piece. The same could be said of a later speech of Hieronimo, delivered when he witnesses a play in which a grieving father avenges his son’s death. It provokes from Hieronimo a passionate outburst of self-accusation for the patience with which he himself proceeds in his bloody plotting:

HIERONIMO. See, see, oh, see thy shame, Hieronimo!
See here a loving father to his son:
Behold the sorrows and the sad laments
That he deliv’reth for his son’s decease.
If love’s effect so strives in lesser things,
If love enforce such moods in meaner wits,
If love express such power in poor estates,
Hieronimo, as when a raging sea,
Toss’d with the wind and tide, o’er-turneth then
The upper-billows course of waves to keep,
Whilst lesser waters labour in the deep,
Then sham’st thou not, Hieronimo, to neglect
The swift revenge of thy Horatio?
(III, xiii)


The play has a few interesting elements that were, possibly, borrowed by Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet. One is the use of a vengeful ghost on stage; in this case Don Andrea’s, and in that King Hamlet’s. Both want to see their killers punished. Kyd’s ghost has none of the Catholic elements that Shakespeare’s does; he simply wanders the stage (perhaps always present?) and comments on the action at the end of each Act, functioning something like a Chorus in Greco-Roman drama.

Another, very striking similarity to Hamlet is the use of a play-within-the-play. In this case Hieronimo stages a play for the king and court that becomes the means by which he avenges himself on Balthazar. I would be curious to see how well this would work on stage, because, although the idea is a good one, it felt abrupt to me on paper.

But I’ll probably never have a chance to see it staged. Revivals have been very occasional, and the play is more often read than seen, and to say it is “often read” would be an exaggeration.

This relatively low profile has limited its influence. T.S. Eliot made a reference to it in The Waste Land, a modest efflorescence of glory. Insofar as it fathered imitators, it could be said to stand behind a long string of revenge tales, from The Count of Monte Cristo to, well, almost all of Tarantino’s films, but then it itself owes a debt to Seneca in that respect. To cite Eliot again, there is behind any individual talent a tradition, and Kyd was no exception.