An Adventurer Looks for the Next Fight

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Georges Lefebvre: Napoléon ISBN 978-2-84736-677-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ It is no coincidence that I devour biographies of political or religious leaders. I am trying to understand how such people’s minds work to grasp the awe-inspiring policy of people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. And it is no coincidence that I have read now a second biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, written by Georges Lefevbre back in 1936, with just as much pleasure and interest as I took in the work by Max Gallo. Napoleon Bonaparte’s political reforms had a profound impact on my home country’s destiny, and his personality – basically a cunning political adventurer seeming war for the benefit of the psycholigical kick – reminds me of some of today’s political leaders. This said, 2019 is the 250th anniversary of Bonaparte’s birth. That alone should be a reason to take a look at this extraordinary man.

When I speak about Bonaparte, I am more interested in the homo politicus than in the general. It is indisputed that he was a military innovator, a daring commander and an intellectual heavy-weight – despite strategic and tactical errors, despite the disaster in Russia and the lost battle of Waterloo. As for his political ambitions, now that is another story. As Lefebvre shows, Bonaparte’s decisions were often contradictory and at odds with his political goals, dictated by emotions, faciliated by an applauding ignorant crowd and a complying entourage. It is this facet of the man that reminds me of the appalling decisions made by Trump or Johnson. At the same time Bonaparte was a ruthless dictator, an enemy of democracy and hell-bent to break the law to increase his political power. He did not care about the public good, the interest of the nation, not even about even the legacy of the French Revolution of which he claimed to be a child. He was after power and glory, nothing else. His political career was about his ego, just as for Trump and Johnson.

While General Bonaparte seemed to be guided by reason and strict military logic, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte appears as quite a different man. In domestic affairs, the wish to consolidate the political power of the state institutions quickly gave way to Bonaparte’s desire to concentrate all the power in his person. In foreign affairs, calculated risk-taking gave way to recklessness, military caution to deliberate provocation. Just to give you an idea: In 1803, Bonaparte was far from ready to win a naval war with Great Britain. 43 French battle ships were operational, but 23 were still under construction. His government was almost broke, and the French people gladly had adjusted to a life in a pacified country on a pacified continent.

Nevertheless Bonaparte treatened the British government’s interests by insinuating that he could invade once more Egypt and thus triggered a war he actually wanted to fight much later. Great Britain launched a preventive maritime campaign to deny France the command of the seas and cripple its overseas trade, while Great Britain’s allies Austria and Russia engaged France and its allies on the continent. Bonaparte engaged in a policy that could lead either to the subjugation of all Europe or his own fall. It was all or nothing. In the end France won this round, that is the third Coalitiin War – against all odds. And this victory encouraged Napoleon to push his luck further and further.

Whenever an adventure was looming at the horizon, Bonaparte could not resist. As a general he had to hold back his horses as he had superiors and political masters that defined policy goals and red lines. Once Bonaparte had secured the supreme political authority for himself, there were no more limits to his desire to cover himself with glory in a military campaign. He became addicted to success and to the veneration by his peers and by the crowds.

We should consider this evolution of a man when we try to evaluate the actions of Trump and Johnson. And we shouldn’t bet all our money on their early failure. I have deceived myself with the idea that Trump will shoot down Trump. He didn’t. He and Johnson may be lucky and win once or twice. That will be the moment to look out for and get ready for a new edition of Waterloo. Emboldened by initial success they may plot ever more adventurous schemes and ultimately fail, but only after having influcted a huge collateral damage on our societies.

Now a last word about the book: Lefebvre goes to great length to explain the rise an fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the socio-economic conditions in post-revolutionary France, its fractured political landscape and the interests of the other European powers. He does it with much knowledge and an excellent pedagogical approach. His work, written more than 75 years ago, remains one of the landmarks in the field of research on the Napoleonic era. However, at times the author expects the reader to be himself an expert in French history. Many names, functions and technical terms go unexplained, and the editors of the modern edition would have been well-advised to add a glossary, a name index and a timeline of significant events.

In 1804 Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 saw its premiere, and the composer had given it the title “Bonaparte”. But once Bonaparte had proclaimed himself Emperor of France, Beethoven lost any sympathies for the autocrat and renamed it “Eroica”:

The Case Beethoven vs. Napoleon

Treason, Emprisonment and Two Heroes

combo montecristo_edited-2Alexandre Dumas: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (Tome 1 & 2) ISBN 978-2-253-09805-8/978-2-253-09806-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tom Reiss: Black Count. Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo ISBN 968-0-307-38247-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Holocaust has been an important subject on this blog lately, and I must confess, reading about it was exhausting and at times depressing. What I needed then in terms of reading was a radical break, and I found it in Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo”. What a beautiful work! There’s love, treason, conspiracy, suffering and vengeance. In the end, the evil ones will be punished while the just triumph and real romances starts to blossom. What more can you expect from a novel in the middle of the summer? I was amused by the plot devised by Edmond Dantès alias the Count of Monte Cristo, captivated by Dumas’ extensive descriptions of people and landscapes, and en passant I learned a couple of new-old French words I had to look up in my battered dictionary. Well done!

The novel by Dumas naturally led me to Tom Reiss’ book about the person who inspired the character of Edmond Dantès: Alexandre Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, son of a nobleman and a slave from Santo Domingo, the Haiti of these days. Dumas senior was the first black general of the French army, a hero of his times. He was a contemporary of another general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Dumas contributed in a decisive way to Napoleon’s victory of Austria and took part in his ill-fated Egypt expedition. Being a black man in a high position illustrated that the decade following the French Revolution let France’s human rights record glow in a bright light.

However once Napoleon announced his political ambitions and turned into a violent autocrat, this light began to fade. Black people in France became subject to ever stricter segregation rules. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was to suffer from both this worsening climate and the jealousy of Napoleon. Dumas was famous, he was an imposing figure and the Austrians called him the “Black Devil”. Napoleon did not tolerate any perceived rivals, and certainly not black ones. His government abandoned Dumas when he was taken prisoner by the Italians and thrown into jail. Dumas even suspected that the French government gave the order to poison him.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ fate at the hands of the Italians inspired his son, Alexandre Dumas the novelist, to start his novel with the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès at the Château d’If. And when Dumas mocks the customs of the French nobility and the newly empowered bourgeoisie in his novel, he obviously refers to the climate in which his father first strived and then sunk into misery. Dantès’ quest for justice under the alias of the Count of Monte Cristo reflects the novelist’s desire to avenge his father and to have his former glory restored.

Tom Reiss book is remarkable for two reasons: The story of the black general needed to be told as he has been forgotten in France while Napoleon is still glorified by many. And the way Reiss let’s the reader embark on his own investigation about this man is a brilliant story in itself. Digging through French military archives and breaking into a safe to get hold of the general’s personal document – mon Dieu! “Black Count” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and again I would like to say: Well done!

Edmond Dantès was illegally imprisoned after a vile denunciation, and Dumas novel is about the transformation of a man in a cold and damp cell. Dantès learns of a hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo, and after his escape from the Château d’If, he takes up the alias “Comte de Monte-Cristo” first to help hose who helped his father while he was locked away, and then to punish those responsible for his captivity. This transformation from protector to avenging angel is one of the turning points of the novel, and it’s setting is Rome during the carnival season. What other music could I recommend than Hector Berlioz’ overture “Le Carneval Romain”:

The Cursed Saltarello or Why We Should Be Foolish

Voltaire – A Genius, a Slave of his Passions

Max Gallo: “Moi, j’écris pour agir” Vie de Voltaire. ISBN 978-2-253-12894-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I seem to develop a certain passion for highly ambiguous people from the past: the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the Czech writer Franz Kafka and now the French poet and philosopher Voltaire. Interesting. Perhaps I am beginning to discover that most people who “made a difference” had to confront and overcome internal conflicts and a hostile environment to accomplish their mission? Perhaps I am beginning to realize that excellence always comes at a very high personal prize?

Compromise is a word I do not use very often, moderation is not a virtue of mine, my ambition is well-hidden. Voltaire did not compromise on his personal goals – becoming rich, influential and famous. He would not moderate his opinion, though he would often deny to have written what he had indeed written. And his ambition was obvious to anyone in Paris and beyond, obvious to the courts of Louis XV and Frederic II, who played him as they pleased. Voltaire in turn served the French and German monarchs and betrayed them at the same time.

Voltaire, born François Marie d’Arouet, brilliant writer of poems, essays, novels, plays, pamphlets and scientific treaties – what a man! Voltaire, liar, lackey, lover – what a life! Max Gallo, one of the most acclaimed French historians, has written an impressive biography of Voltaire. Profound knowledge coupled with a magnificent narrating style – a pleasure to read from beginning to end. If you can read between the lines, you will find out that Gallo is in love with his subject. And without making himself any judgment, Gallo leads the reader to play the role of the prosecutor, the advocate and the judge of Voltaire.

Voltaire – what a strange man he was! He could not shut up when it was prudent to stay quiet. He angered and defied his few protectors and made himself an easy prey for his innumerable enemies. He had a certain conception of truth and personal freedom he would never betray, no matter how dear he paid for it. More than once he was imprisoned, beaten, abused, more than once he had to flee abroad. His offensive defense of freedom of speech came a century too early for Europe, but Voltaire was unable not to raise his voice. Is that obsession? It is. Is it vanity? It is. And still, I have to admire him in a way: this stubbornness, this intransigence, it reminds me of someone. Voltaire, how familiar he seems to me. Surrender is not an option.

Voltaire was a man of passion. He had the passion to write, to live, to fight for the ideas of the Enlightenment, the passion for arts, the passion for a philosopher’s life. And his passions led to a great deal of personal suffering. Voltaire quickly enriched himself, he saw his personal wealth as a guarantee for his personal independence. What a delusion! He never achieved true independence because he needed the recognition by France’s aristocracy, the Prussian and the French king and the applause of the audience – a self-chosen dependency, a self-chosen source of misery.

Et l’amour dans tout cela? Voltaire would not have been Voltaire if he had not had a passion for women too. Torn between his infatuation with his niece Marie-Louise Denis and the long friendship with the Marquise de Châtelet, mistress, soul mate, friend, confident, Voltaire’s way with women left at least three people unhappy. It made Voltaire vulnerable emotionally and in terms of social recognition. Both Voltaire and Emilie de Châtelet harboured rather liberal ideas of how an unmarried man and married woman can spend their time together. Had the word “scandal” not existed before, it would have had to be invented for them. Voltaire was looking for trouble and he found it.

This said, provocation was not a goal in itself. Not for Voltaire, he was way too intelligent for such a move. He did provoke with all his passion: the Jesuits, the Catholic clergy of France, the Calvinist clergy of Geneva, his fellow-philosopher and rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau, corrupt judges and prosecutors, witch-hunters, writers siding with the clergy and tyrannical noblemen. He carried the torch of the Enlightenment and he was not afraid to carry it into the darkest corners of France.

Voltaire was a man of extreme contradictions, just like Shostakovich and Kafka. As a young man he had embarked on a quest for Truth, yet his life was marked by falsehood, his own falsehood and the falsehood of the society he lived in. Voltaire had looked for depth of thought and sought the company of the most superficial individuals in the Kingdom of France. Passion had made Voltaire blind for reality, him an admirer of rationalism. And vanity had turned him into a slave of his own obsessions.

At the same time Voltaire had noble ideals – a liberal and free society. Towards the end of his life, he had the financial means to realize a small-scale social project, to improve people’s living conditions on his estate near the Swiss border. It wasn’t all just talk, Voltaire took action to improve society. He was ahead of his time as a Frenchman, for the French Revolution would occur only after his death. But Voltaire prepared the ground. His violent campaigns against the lack of freedom, justice and fairness softened the enemy, and when the French took to the street, the monarchy quickly fell apart. Despite his obvious personal shortcomings, Voltaire was one of the most remarkable men of the 18th century.

The discrepancies between ideal and real in Voltaire’s life reminded my of one of my favourite composers, Franz Schubert. Death, in the shape of syphilis, hang like Damocles’ sword of the life of both geniuses. What would Voltaire have thought of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death of the Maiden”? He might have shivered, incredulous.

Composing while Death is Knocking on the Door

A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice

Clara Schumann – A Look Behind the Veil

Dieter Kühn: Clara Schumann, Klavier. ISBN 978-3-596-14203-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Before I read this book, I didn’t know much about Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s wife, born as Clara Wieck. On my music blog I exclusively refer to her under her maiden name; I will proceed in the same manner here. Having been married to a famous composer tends to obscure the fact that this woman had a fascinating life before she married Robert Schumann and even more so after her husband’s tragic death in an asylum.

Dieter Kühn’s biography is an excellent book. The amount and variety of sources he has consulted is impressive. The testimonies from the 19th century he has chosen to illustrate Clara Wieck’s world, how it changed, its highlights and the uncertainties, are remarkable and often hilarious. His narrative style is a little special: He interrupts the long list of biographical facts by interjecting personal speculations and philosophical musings. This makes the rather voluminous book fairly easy to read and entertaining, but I could imagine that this us not to everybody’s taste. I enjoyed it however, so I will not dwell upon this any longer.

The most extraordinary quality of the book lies in Kühn’s talent to let himself be fascinated by Clara Wieck’s person without losing his objectivity. He makes a point of not writing a hagiography and wants tp do away with many myths that surround Clara and her husband. Myths that Clara has partly created herself. Kühn maintains a considerable distance to his subject and is very critical of Clara Wieck. For Clara Wieck was a very complex person. A duplicitous person.

Appearances greatly mattered. Clara Wieck presented herself as a loving and true wife, a loving and tender mother, as a pianist devoted to her art and the composers whose works she performed: Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann. She presented herself as a good friend of Johannes Brahms and as the guardian of Robert Schumann’s heritage. All of this was true. But there’s was a dark side to all these aspects.

Robert Schumann had contracted syphilis as a young man; this illness lead over time to mental disorder. When he gradually become more and more confused, depressed, irate, Clara told him at some point she could not deal with the situation any longer and that she would like to hand his care over to professionals i.e. to transfer him to an asylum. This triggered Schumann’s suicide attempt. During the two years her husband spent at the asylum she visit him only once, shortly before he died. Three of the Schumann’s children suffered from severe ailements: Ludwig was schizophrenic and had been “burie aluve”, as Clara put it, while Julie and Felix had tuberculosis. Clara never visited Ludwig in the asylum, and when the other two died, she was too busy to attend the funerals and to mourn. She had concerts to give.

While Clara did occasionally compose, she felt no inner voice that wanted to express itself in a piece of music. She had to be pushed, by her father, by her husband. She had an excellent pianistic technique, she exercised a lot and sometimes against medical advice, but her style did not please all. Masterful yes, but too dry, too academic – those are the judgments of experts of her time.

Clara Wieck was obsessed by her career as a pianist. She had been trained by an ambitious father, she had been held back by an ambitious husband, but once Robert Schumann was dead, Clara Wieck’s career took of. She earned fame all over Europe and quickly became a very rich woman. At the same time her excuse for devoting very little to her children was that she had to give concerts to feed the family. A blatant lie, one of many.

Here is another one. Clara Wieck and Johannes Brahms – the story of a truly legendary friendship? Brahms had fallen in love with her and courted her for years. She gladly accepted his devotion while her husband was still alive. After his death, her initial friendship to the young composer evolved into real love and a romance. It did not last however, and somehow both settled for long-lasting friendship. The details are unknown, Clara erased most traces and spread a narrative that suited her best. Appearances mattered.

Clara Wieck – since I have read Kühn’s biography, her name triggers in me ambiguous feelings. I like her compositions, I find her career as a female pianist in a reactionary Germany impressive, but I judge her tendency to run away from painful moments and truths appalling. Her many efforts to spread myths glorifying her husband and her relationship to him, her insistence that it was her duty as a mother to give hundreds of concerts over decades when it was pure vanity repulse me.

I am glad I read this book. I might have fallen for the embellished picture that Clara Wieck has spread about herself. When she was a very young girl and did not yet think of manipulating people, she wrote a wonderful work, her Piano Concerto in A minor:

Un air de Chopin signed Clara Wieck