Saturday, 15 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 2 Manneken Pis (2)

The coming conflict threw up some irrestistible magpie moments for two of Beethoven's contemporaries. In September of 1792 William Wordsworth, an exact contemporary of Beethoven, was in Paris with Annette Vallon, pregnant with his child, on his arm. He was there when news of a great victory galloped in overnight from Valmy, a tiny village in the Champagne region: the day before the thunderous cannonade of a scratch force recruited partly from the streets of Paris had seen off a seasoned and disciplined army of Austrian and Prussian troops, invited by émigré aristocrats to restore the old order in France. The next day, coincidentally, the French Republic was declared, with its motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, as though henceforth the entire population of France was inviting itself to take its destiny into its own hands. To mark further the break with the past a new calendar was introduced, an ordering of the year of much rational beauty, starting with Year I then and there, September 22nd 1792, henceforth 1 Vendémiaire, An 1. (The calendar barely lived long enough to measure itself. It was abandoned in 1806.) Wordsworth was very excited by the ferment of ideas and the rapidity of change: 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,' he wrote some years later in French Revolution, as it Appeared to Enthusiasts, and later still in The Prelude, 'But to be young was very heaven.'

A year and more later the Austrian and Prussian armies, no match for the fury of Gallic energy that burst upon them, had withdrawn beyond the Rhine, leaving the Low Countries open to French occupation. In December 1793 a most unlikely recruit joined the swelling ranks of British volunteers, not because he wanted a crack at the French but to escape debt and an existence that had become intolerable. This fleshy, long-haired, scholarly man, compulsive talker, admirer of all things German, sufferer from chronic constipation, took the bounty of six and a half guineas and signed on as a trooper in the 15th Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. He lasted a few months before he was dismissed for dirty habits, disorderliness and inability to stay on his horse, although his discharge papers gave 'Insane' as the reason. He reverted to the identity and circumstances he'd been trying to put behand him, that of the poet from whose pen The Ancient Mariner and Khubla Khan would appear: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At least he preserved his initials in his alias. Debt and constipation dogged him all his life.

After the Napoleonic wars Belgium was made part of Holland, thus keeping the Scheldt and Antwerp out of French hands. But by 1830 the seeds of revolt against Dutch rule were germinating, in part warmed into life by a very curious factor: an obscure opera by Daniel Auber called La Muette de Portici, The Dumb Woman of Portici, better known - if it's known at all - as Masaniello in English-speaking countries. The audience transferred the plot, a tale of Neapolitan revolt against Spanish rule, to their own circumstances. Riots in Brussels quickly spread. (The painting above is a fanciful representation of this.) France looked on, licking its lips: French-speaking, Catholic Belgium might yet become French again.

(One day someone should write at least a monograph on the relations between opera and social movement. Some of Verdi's fame, to digress even further, came from the letters of his name happening to be an acrostic for Vittorio Emmanuele, Re D'Italia (Victor Emmanuel, King Of Italy), at a time when many Italians wanted to unify their fragmented country into one nation under one king. You could shout Verdi! Verdi! in the streets of Turin or Florence with impunity, ostensibly rooting for the great opera composer but in reality shouting a coded support for unification. Add in popular choruses like that of the Hebrew slaves in Nabucco or the downtrodden Scots in Macbeth and the mix was potent indeed.)

Enter Viscount Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary, an extraordinary man who improvised foreign policy as he went along, his only principle the preservation of British interests. Determined to settle the question of the Scheldt once and for all, in the winter of 1830 he summoned the London ambassadors of France, Russia, Austria, Prussia and Holland to work out a solution that would prevent the union of Belgium with France. If I didn't know that Palmerston was a bullying manipulator, I could imagine the slow, minuet-like diplomatic dance of frock-coated, silk-sashed plenipotentiaries, attended by gorgeous, liveried footmen and knee-breeched clerks of sober mien copying protocols in quilled copperplate. But Palmerston pushed and shoved remorselessly, and as a result the Conference of London took a mere month to create the state of Belgium, a sovereign nation for the first time in the history of the people who lived there. Even now it shows signs of having been cobbled together without regard to natural frontiers, religious persuasion or even language spoken.

So we trundled on in our green van towards Brussels.

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