Shadowbox: A Song For Europe

Today we tend to think of music as a pervasive influence on our culture.Beethoven

Every advertisement must have a tune, every numpty on a bicycle has headphones clamped to their ears as they whizz between traffic, every train journey comes with a seat where you can plug into four or more entertainment channels.

You can’t get away from it.

Even out in the garden or in a public park, Other People’s Music intrudes, filtering from open windows or blaring out from passing cars.

But before the rise of mass radio transmissions, more people knew music. Every home above the poverty level had a piano in the corner. Even working-class children learned an instrument.

Family gatherings and community events were all opportunities to join in the entertainment. If you couldn’t play, you could sing along, because everyone knew what the songs were.

Couldn’t sing?

You’d clap your hands (when you weren’t up dancing).

Back in 1832, the year of the events that take place in SHADOWBOX, access to music was almost endemic. Hymns for the church-going (which meant almost everyone Christian). Lullabies for baby. Travelling fairs and penny-whistle men. And, of course, the great composers.

Beethoven, departed this life barely five years earlier, left a body of work that proves as popular today as it was back in 1832. Wealthy patrons expected to hear renditions of popular favourites by Mozart, Haydn or Strauss, produced using harpsichords and string quartets, with larger ensembles at the Royal Court (try the Swedish Royal Kungliga Hovkapellet on for size).

Opera was popular amongst the well-to-do. (I recommend Anne Rice’s marvellous CRY TO HEAVEN for a gripping tale of the castrati amongst Europe’s opera houses).

The Opera de Paris building in 1864.

Théâtre de l’Académie royale de musique – Grande salle, (1864) by August Lauré

Musical entertainment also accompanied the magic lantern shows which travelled from village to village, town to town, spreading stories as well as news, much as the newsreels of the silent cinema era barely a hundred years later.

Music was not a luxury item.

Most people would be involved in music one way or another.

What we now call folk music thrived.

Irish, Scottish, Breton, Northumbrian – European folk music was transported to the USA by migrants, where it joined the disparate musical traditions of slaves in the southern States, or in the mountains of Appalachia, to produce unique hybrids.

You can find examples of British folk music online at places such as Folk Radio UK. English folk music differs from Irish and Scottish folk music – different rhythms, the songs less plangent, perhaps because the dances were different and the diaspora less painful. (To my regret, I don’t know enough about music to explain the different rhythms and time signatures.)

French folk music, too, is a rich and varied palette.

With more linguistic diversity amongst its people, French traditional folk music has more variety. If your French is up to it, have a go at WikiTrad.

The wonderful Songs From The Auvergne by Victoria de Los Angeles has a different cadence than that of anything found on this side of the channel. Mediterranean influence vies with the chilly Breton coast and the coalfields of Alsace.

Les Centres des musiques traditionnelles en France éditent et publient un fond en mouvement, des sources écrites du 19e siècle jusqu’aux collectes récentes. – (sorry!)

Frere Jacques is probably the best known French folk song, but there are others. Il etait un petit navire is gloriously macabre. Le bon roi Dagobert is deliberately rude. (And if anyone has a clue what’s the ditty Lagardère sings in 1997’s Le Bossu, I’d love to know.)

Musical instruments from two hundred years ago are still around. Stradivarius violins command high prices at auction, while penny whistles are still made to the 1843 design by The Clarke Tin Whistle Company,(warning: music starts on that link) as are percussive instruments like cymbals and drums and the hurdy-gurdy.

A hurdy-gurdy.Regimental band museums are one place to see how little some instruments have changed. As a child in Scotland it seemed like every school trip to a castle – Stirling, Edinburgh, Culzean – involved gazing into glass display cases with blood-stained battle standards from the Napoleonic Wars, alongside stuffed regimental mascots and the drum of poor Billy Bones.

Our ability as a species to make music out of almost anything – including the rock formations of an underground cavern at The Great Stalacpipe Organ, or a bundle of pipes such as Luke Jerram’s Aeolian Harp – is one of the defining features of humanity.

And in the 1830s that ability converted the ingenious steam engines of the Industrial Revolution into musical machines.


Calliope music wagon for the European Zoological Association, 1872.


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Men of Steam.

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Published in: on June 26, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: A Song For Europe  
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