Contributor: Robert Samuels
Location: Beethoven-Haus Bonn (Bonngasse 24-26, 53111 Bonn)
Description: The deaf composer is perhaps the most perfectly Romantic image of the transcendent genius. His music exists in his thought – his thought is, indeed, entirely musical. But this music exists only in the mind. The composer has no need to hear it in the phenomenal world, because he hears it already, perfectly, with the inner ear of the intellect.
Four hearing aids made for Beethoven in 1813 reside today in the Beethoven museum in Bonn, the city of his birth. They symbolise the most important element of the myth of Beethoven, a myth that was created and cultivated assiduously by the architects of Romanticism. Victor Hugo, no less, commented of Beethoven’s symphonies that ‘these marvels of euphony have sprung from a head whose ear is dead. It is as if we saw a blind god who creates suns’. As physical objects, however, the ear trumpets also testify to the pathos of an individual who today we would describe as having ‘additional needs’ rather than ‘transcendent powers’.
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Contributor: Alice Rhodes
Location: Wellcome Collection, London, UK
Description: This song sheet, titled “Mary’s Ghost or the Favorite Anatomy Song” and advertised as “being No 1 of The Ballad Singer, a Collection of Comical Comic songs,” started life as a poem, first published in Thomas Hood’s 1826 collection, Whims and Oddities. In Hood’s darkly comic ballad, and its musical setting by J. Blewitt, the eponymous ghost appears to her widowed fiancé to deliver the unfortunate news that she has been grave-robbed and that her material body is now scattered across the medical schools and laboratories of London. Together, Mary’s posthumous predicament, and the material afterlife of the poem itself, raise questions about the materiality or immateriality of body and text and about the relationship between dissection and collection which are as pertinent today as they were for late Romantic writers like Hood.
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Contributor: Mirosława Modrzewska
Location: Teatr Wielki – Opera Narodowa (the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera)
Description: The story of Frédéric Chopin’s piano is part of Polish Romantic cultural heritage. It has been passed down in a poem by Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883) entitled Fortepian Szopena. Norwid wrote the poem in the years 1863-64 and it refers to an authentic event in Warsaw, which took place on September 19th, 1863 during the Polish insurrection against Russian occupation. Continue reading “Frédéric Chopin’s grand piano”
Contributor: Robert Samuels
Location: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Description: You can see the ‘Messiah’ violin today. It is on display at the Ashmolean Museum as the centrepiece of their collection of musical instruments. It was made in 1716 by the most famous of all violin makers, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. It is, indeed, a ‘Stradivarius’, a ‘Strad’, the most perfect example from the hands of the man reputed to make the most beautiful-sounding instruments the world has ever known.
You can see it today. You can see it, but you cannot hear it. No-one can. The violin rests in its glass case, mute symbol of perfection in sound, unplayed, forever. It has never been played. It was kept by Stradivari himself in his workshop, its perfection such that he wished never to part with it. Kept after him by his son Paolo, sold on Paolo’s deathbed in 1775 to Count Cozio di Salabue, a collector who never touched it. Bought from him by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a violin maker and collector who kept it under lock and key, but told everyone of its worth, causing it to be named ‘Le Messie’, because like the Messiah its coming was eagerly awaited but never seen. It may possibly have been heard, once, at the London World Exhibition of 1862, where, in a competition organised by himself, he entered an unidentified violin anonymously, which was declared superior to all others played against it. The Messiah did eventually come to London, exhibited in 1871 at the Exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall. But still it was not heard. Bought at last by the London dealers W. E. Hill and sons, it was those sons, Arthur and Alfred, who quite rightly bequeathed it at last to a museum where its perfection could remain unchallenged forever.
The mythical status of this unheard and yet peerless instrument is of course a Romantic trope. While all of the history recounted above is true, it is also couched in terms which betray its Romantic intent.
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Contributor: Delia da Sousa Correa
Location: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.
Description: Purchased on 22 November 1869 for the 50th birthday of the novelist George Eliot by her partner George Henry Lewes, this Broadwood piano was delivered to a grieving household. Lewes’s middle son, Thornfield, had returned from farming in Africa with a painful illness and had died, aged 25, just a month previously. It was a period when neither Eliot, who was writing Middlemarch, nor Lewes, were able to work. That the piano was purchased then, indicates that it represented something of deep significance. Not surprisingly, no flurry of references to the new piano fills Eliot’s correspondence at this date. Fittingly however, the piano has an implied presence as a source of solace a decade later when, on the first anniversary of Lewes’s own death, a line in Eliot’s diary for 8 Sept 1879 reads simply: ‘Darwin. Schubert’ (Journals, 180). ‘Darwin’ may denote a visitor, or his books; Schubert she must have been playing at the piano. Eliot’s journal further records that she had ‘Touched the piano for the first time’ after Lewes’ death on 27th May (Journals, 175). This piano is, however, representative not just of the personal importance for George Eliot of Romantic music but of its significance for numerous areas of Victorian culture in Britain.
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