Just War Theory

The Just war theory is incredibly interesting.  Its origins date from ancient history and has helped us view warfare in the 21st century.  It was by this theory that George Bell criticised and attacked Bomber Command in WW2.  I will be using Bell as an example when explaining the theory.  Mainly because I have studied this more and it will be easier for me to explain!  Yes I know, very lazy of me, but come on, it’s still a great example!  I will attempt to briefly explain what it is and what it means as well as explain the other theories around it.  Hopefully by reading this, you will get an understanding on how some people see warfare, or at least how they validate it.  So sit back, wrap up warm, just as I am right this minute, and enjoy!

The Theory that is used today comes from Augustine (C4) followed by Aquinas (C13), who were Christians.  The problem was that the New Testament taught a way of peace and love, not war and violence.  In fact before Augustine wrote down the theory (which he unlikely made himself) all fighting was seen as wrong, and soldiers were not baptised until they retired.  Therefore the Just war theory allowed war to be allowed in certain conditions.  There were

  • The Authority is Just
  • The Cause is Just
  • The Intention is Just

Now to George Bell, Bomber Command met all these conditions, however since the advent of gunpowder, a new condition had to be met, and this was.

  • The means are just: this indicates that the war must not involve civilian populations, and it must be proportionate, and only what is necessary to meet the cause.

Three more conditions were added afterwards throughout the centuries, these included

  • war is just only if it is the last resort after all else has failed
  • if the good to be achieved outweighs the evil done
  • if there is a reasonable hope that justice will be achieved by the war

Bomber Command according to Bell failed to meet the acquirement that the means were just, that as it involved civilian populations, that the strategy of area bombing was not just.

There are also variants of Just War theory, Just War with teeth and Just War without teeth.  In Without Teeth, categories are used to a point, for justification, but they are abandoned due to necessity.  With Teeth, is the classic view which I have explained above.  The classical approach is one which most theologians hold to, but it is hard to see it put to practice.  George Bell did, and so have bishops after him, perhaps it took one to stand up for others to follow.


Just War theory is the most commonly known and is once that many Christian preachers such as Bell use.  There are however, many more types of theories, and justifications, these include

  • Holy War,-although contested, and sometimes mixed with the Just War theory, The holy war concept according to Yoder ignores the JW restraining criteria of probable success and last resort, and indeed may downgrade the rights of the “infidel” enemy. And that it can be found in Marxist and Fascist ideology that one may call for a war of martyrdom that disregards the criterion of probable success, and overrules the human dignity of the adversary
  • Realism: explicitly denies that other parties’ rights can be fully respected. That the nation comes first before all things.
  • Rambo: Is accepting of violence, and is based off honour or manhood. Yoder explains that the focus of this honour position can be going against the odds and going down in flames as a hero or is can be the function that bloodshed can have in the liberation of former slaves. Yoder however states that. Value is located in the dignity of the heroic self; violence validates itself, and there is little care for moral standing.


These explanations are used by historians and/or theologians to try and justify warfare.  There is of course the pacifist’s approach, one in which links more with the Just War theory than any of the others.  However, Just War is the most popular theory, and is one that is commonly used and accepted.  Im sorry that this isn’t a particular long or thrilling blog post, I would be surprised if you have lasted till now, if you have then well done!  It’s an interesting theory that has played a big part in European and even World history.  Of course the question can be asked, Is any war Just?  Now that can start a whole new debate!




Yoder. J., How Many Ways Are There to Think Morally about War?, Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1994 – 1995), pp. 83-107


Moriarty. R., George Bell: a Bishop to remember, (Chichester Cathedral, 2008)


Swedish Empire-18th century Decline

Welcome to my post of the fall of the Swedish Empire.  This is a rather large subject, so I will focus on one particular aspect; the battle of Poltava and the death of Charles XII.  You may be aware that I have already posted about the rise of this magnificent empire.  Now I give a simple introduction into its fall.  We know (if you read my last post) that Sweden has risen from the 17th century.  Particularly the Thirty Years War, in which Sweden had crushed most European armies and had under the guidance of King Gustav II faced armies double, triple its size and still won.  The Swedes dominated Europe, they were the strongest and they were the most feared.  However by the early 18th century, Sweden hits a period of decline.  The main reason was that King Charles XII was killed whilst fighting in Denmark.  So by the middle of the 18th century, Sweden was declining, and Russia has risen.

So why was Charles such an important figure?  Well he was the last great leader Sweden had.  After he died, the country had to sue for peace with a variety of nations as it had no one to continue the fight.  Charles had defeated the armies of each of the nations with relatively ease, at the age of 17, he had defeated the Russians.  He was extremely smart, however his decision to invade Russia, was probably not one of his best ones!  At least he did not have the example or Napoleon and Hitler to follow, so I think we can grant him some more slack!  His army would have made it to Moscow, however, so some stupid reason, he changed direction and headed towards the Ukraine, believing there was to be an uprising in which they could help.  This uprising failed, and it left the Swedes very vulnerable, and at Poltava they met their defeat.  20,000 men died, whilst Charles had fled.  Remember that 20,000 men is a huge number and something that as time goes on, the loss seems unimportant.  Sweden was not a huge country with a massive population, therefore 20,000 men gone, would have been felt.  This huge defeat ensured that Sweden was left weak and its faith shaken.  After all, the Carolean troops believed God was on their side and that their king was a messenger from God, how could they lose?  A good song to listen to that covers the battle of Poltava is Sabaton’s Poltava.  The song shows the hopelessness of the battle.

Well Charles XII managed to return to Sweden, after a lengthy spell in the Ottoman Empire, meaning that Sweden was left without a King.  This was not too much of a problem as Sweden had a strong government and was not an absolute monarch.  Nonetheless, Charles retuned and soon decided that he would invade Denmark; it is here where he was killed.  Either by a friendly bullet, or by an enemy, no one really knows.  Waiting for a cool Archaeologist to figure that one out still!  I think it will be one of things that will always be contested.  Still what matters is that his death leads Sweden to crumble.  The invasion fails, and Sweden has to give up land.  Russia also takes land off Sweden after its victories.  The gains made by Gustav Adolphus were suddenly gone in 100 years.  Was it king Charles fault?  Yes and no.  He was a great tactician and won many victories, but going so far into Russia wasn’t the smartest of ideas.  If he had gone straight for Moscow, then maybe it would be different, and Sweden would still be a great power! His lust for war caused his death and after he fell at a young age, Sweden crumbled.  So he is partly to blame, but other countries were getting stronger and were far richer than Sweden.  It would not have been able to compete with countries like Britain.  Sweden has never really fallen since its break from Denmark and Norway, but it never recovered from the death of Charles XII in the 18th century.

Sweden was on its own, both Norway and Denmark were both anti-Swedish, they were seen as lesser people, particularly as they were seen as worse sailors.  The rivalry in the Scandinavian region would lead to constant warring.  Sweden was also against Poland, whom it had been at war with a century beforehand.  Sweden was also fighting Russia, again this was due to territorial gains, both Finland and Estonia were fought over.  Now when looking at whom Sweden was fighting against, it can be seen that they are fighting a war on many different fronts.  It different have the manpower to ensure victory.  Nonetheless, I reckon, from Charles XII personality, he would have continued fighting, if he had lived.  Who knows, if he had lived and continued his wars, maybe Sweden would be in a different situation now, maybe it would not have remained neutral in WW2, as its history would have been different.  I’m not a fan of what if history.  But still, it shows you how important Charles was to Sweden.  A matter of war or peace!

Sweden made its mark on Europe quickly and swiftly, but it soon fell, with a bang.  It is safe to say that it was at war on all sides, and victory in such a war would have been impressive.  Nonetheless, Sweden was never conquered by anyone (It is very, very hard to get to Stockholm!).  It keeps its independence, but what it does do is loose the fear it once held, it loses its land, its pride.  Sweden has fallen, Russia has risen.  Peter the Great had successfully beaten Sweden; he had made his own mark on Europe.  The 18th century leads the way for new great powers such as Austria, Russia and Britain to make their mark.  The old powers, of Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands were going, fallen from grace.

American Vampire: 19th Century reality transcribed to comic

2010 saw the release of what, in my personal opinion, was one of the coolest comics of that year. American Vampire, created by Scott Snyder, draw by Rafael Albuquerque- and scripted for 5 volumes by Stephen King- tells an old tale in a new fashion. The comic series explores a new breed of vampires and their evolution in the United States from the 1880s up to current times. Under the label of Vertigo, which is the mature/adult section of DC Comic, the blood and violence feast is guaranteed, yet alongside a wonderful storyline, some fantastic art work- and a great historical setting through the modern history of North America. The premise is simple, like Pearl Jam’s famous song: “It’s Evolution, babe”, and vampires, as all things on this planet, “do the evolution”. Here is the first born of this breed, Skinner Sweet, a gunslinger outlaw who wakes up after being transform in this better un-dead who is immune to sunlight. The rest of the story follows him through the pass of time, in his fight with the European vampires of old.

American Vampire presents in a nutshell, the struggle of a country with a history of around 300 years, new but yet owing much to the different features that created this pastiche, all combined with the fascination of all times for these mythological creatures. American Vampire is 21st century Americas young generations in paper and colour. But, what if I told you this story is actually related to real life events, prominent in the area of New England at the end of the 19th Century? Well, then let me tell you a little story about a man called Edwin Brown and his family from Exeter (Rhode Island).

The year is 1892, and a brutal outbreak of tuberculosis affects New England. Young Edwin died in march that year as a result of this diseased, commonly known back then as “consumption”. His family had been affected by this malady for quite some time. Since 1883, consumption had taken the lives of his mother and his 2 sisters. Mercy Brown, his younger sibling had only died earlier on January that same year. However, back then this illness, as many others, was still very poorly understood by both practitioners and victims. The doctors were unable to provide the answers the populace was requesting of them, so in an act of what can only be presumed to be good faith, the Edwin’s community decided to exhumate the bodies of his deceased relatives. Why? Because they were under the assumption that the young man may have being leached by the undead!

His elderly father, George Brown, reluctantly allowed this otherwise disrespectful even to happen. Anxiety came around when the corpses of Edwin’s mother and older sister were found in their caskets as it would have been expect, but young Mercy would turn the tables. Her body was still in good state of conservation, as her death had only been recent, and reminiscences of blood could be found in her arteries and heart. Superstition then took over science; her heart and lungs were cremated and used for a remedy which was meant to heal Edwin…Nevertheless, he joined his sister only a few weeks later…

Academic Diana Ross Mclain has actually reported in her research at least 18 other instances similar to the tragedy suffered by the Brown family in other towns and villages of New England, between the 18th and 19th century…Perhaps there is more to Snyder’s comic than new media creative ideas and social context. Perhaps American Vampire is a reflection of the never ending paranoia of a nation that, for only having a few centuries of history, has burnt and persecuted witches, werewolves, Big Foot and even vampires. A nation of outsiders made anew and where outsiders are equally disliked…Just like Skinner Sweet…

Geoffroi de Charny – a brief biography

If anyone has studied the concept of Chivalry, then they have probably heard of Geoffroi de Charny, but for those who haven’t, or for those who want to know more about him, here is a brief biography of the once famous French knight.

Geoffroi de Charny was born around 1300 (AD) born into a small family, loosely connected to the Burgundian nobility, the Charny family’s largest claim-to-fame was Geoffroi’s maternal grandfather, Jean de Joinville, was a close friend of King Louis IX, and was also his biographer. Geoffroi started fighting at a young age, a promising soldier for the French army. He was in the public eye from 1337 after a campaign to Gascony under the Constable of France, who may also have been his patron. This relationship would explain how Charny became a knight, as it was an expensive process, the Constable would have paid (at least in part) to put Charny through his training, possibly aiding him with his equipment as well. Charny was knighted after 19 years as a common soldier. Charny wished to be a knight due to his extreme sense of loyalty, not only to his liege-lord but also to God. Charny was a very religious man, even going so far to found a religious house on his one and only crusade to Anatolia in 1345.

Geoffroi de Charny took part in several battles during the Hundred Years War, most notably the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 (where he was among the hundreds of the French dead soldiers). Charny played an important role at the Battle of Poitiers as the carrier of the Oriflamme, the standard of the French Crown. This task may have made Charny a target on the battlefield, by taking down the Oriflamme the English could impact the French soldiers’ morale.

Geoffroi de Charny was perceived as an ‘ideal knight’ by his contemporaries, including Froissart, a well-known medieval author. Charny considered his duties as a knight to be the most important aspect of his life, eventually going on to write several books concerning life as a knight. These books include Livre Charny, Demandes pour la joute, les tournois et la guerre (Questions concerning the joust, tournament, and war), and Livre de chevalerie (Book of Chivalry). The last book is the most well-known of his works and reads as a guide for young knights, telling them how the best way to live as a knight is, including some remarks on those who were already knights but were failing Charny’s expectations.

The way that Geoffroi de Charny lived his life is quite interesting, a man of religion and war, holding both faith and prowess in the highest esteem. He managed to find a balance between serving his king and serving his god, this balance made him the ideal knight in his contemporaries’ eyes, making him an important person in the study of chivalry.

GOJIRA! 60 Yeas Since Godzilla

In case you were not aware of this, 2014 saw the 60th anniversary of the original Godzilla movie! It was only last year  that our screens saw the new interpretation of this film, which is an icon of 20th century cinema. But there is much more to Godzilla than just photo-grams. Therefore, here is a little insight for you into Japanese culture, cinema and social anxieties.

The first Godzilla movie was directed by Ishiro Honda, who had worked for many years as the assistant of the renown director Akira Kurosawa. He served his time under the Japanese army during the Second World War, and in fact was imprisoned in China and made a war hostage. This had a huge impact in the production of his movies, and of course is reflected in Godzilla, but this was a shared memory and feeling, which makes the message only coherent for those who experienced Japan during the War. As anything in film and reception studies, the audience conditions the encrypted message of the product. Only his fellow Japanese could truly understand that Godzilla is in fact not a film about a monster, but about a revolution in warfare: the atomic bomb.

But before we move on, lest get some details about this creature. To this date, Godzilla has appeared in at least 28 movies. Its original name, Gojira, comes from 2 words, one English, the other Japanese. Thus, Gojira is the combination of gorilla- inspired by the movie King Kong which had featured the screens 1933 and had somewhat set the standard frame for a monster movie- and ‘kujira’, which means whale in Japanese. Godzilla, is nothing but a Western translation of this conceptual gigantic monster like creature from the sea. However, in the whole series of movies, this creature is not always presented as an evil force, but sometimes as a hero, for the sake of plot/character development. Shogo Tomiyama, who was the producer for some of the Godzilla movies, made an interesting comparison between Godzilla and the Shinto god of Destruction, explaining that it was creature beyond moral agency, therefore able to act for what we could perceived as good or bad in equal terms.

With this in mind the concept of Godzilla’s origins may seem strange, or perhaps revealing to you. As I mentioned earlier, Godzilla is meant to be a metaphor for nuclear power. Godzilla is meant to be an undersea ancient creature who was empowered by radiation. But in Honda’s mind the creature could only be the reflection of one thing: the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, it has been suggested that the incident of Daigo Fukuryu Maru- or Lucky Dragon- a Japanese tuna fishing boat which has been exposed to radiation in the United States after a nuclear fallout at Castlebravo thermonuclear (1954) may have contributed to this fear in the subconscious of Japanese collective memory…1954 was the same year Gojira was released…

We have to remember that this was a society that, after the war, had seen a huge change to their politics and culture as their island nation was occupied and taken over by the United States. Japan only regain back its freedom in 1952. So the Japanese generation of the 50s and 60s fought to find their identity in this orientally westernised environment they found themselves living in. A lot of their art and creative efforts were put to show dissatisfaction and used for the sake of protest…Thus, underwater King Kong tormented by the Japanese terror of bombing was created.

It has been estimated that 9.6 million Japanese people went to see the movie when it was released. It’s popularity was also a reflection of the 1950’s Japanese golden age of cinema, and Gojira played its part by promoting Japan to the international scene and the reinterpretation of this quasi-legendary creature by the American blockbusters, under the name of Godzilla. 60 years later, it still drags people to the cinemas, creating this scary nostalgia of the atomic dinosaur who still haunts Japan.

An object of cultural significance

Some objects achieve an exceptional status as cultural and historical landmarks both in an international, national and local context. Some of these achieve such a status that tourists cannot visit their homeland without trying to visit the artifacts. Different countries have different types of artifacts that have become their cultural landmark, for China it is the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors, Norway have its Viking Ships, UK have Big Ben and Stonehenge, and Greece have the Acropolis and the Elgin Marbles, although these are now found in the British Museum. In this update I will explore what I believe is the reason these objects, artifacts and places have come to mean so much for the people and the states.
There are a set of factors that in my eyes created the circumstances in which these objects developed their status and symbolic position. The first one is the reformation and the raise of the printing press in Europe, for this created a set of channels through which ideas and meaning could be shared with a greater audience than the medieval literate ecclesiastical elite. This combined with the rising number of Universities and humanist ideas created a foundation for philosophical developments of the early modern age. Out of these foundations did the ideas of nationalism and cultural identity developed as a set of ideas which shape the world today. I believe that it is within the sense of a shared identity and imagined community that we best can understand these objects, for through the 18th and 19th century ideas of nationalism and romanticism the notion of one unified and homogeneous nation emerged. And to many thinkers a nation was a natural unit or ethnic group which existed statically surviving throughout the ages. And even if the name or the culture of the previous generations did not match the 19th century members of these nations, these earlier generations were seen as the origins of the nation, their forefathers. It is within this notion of ‘Our’ forefathers, that these objects: the Viking ships of Norway, the Elgin Marbles of Greece and the Terracotta Warriors of China achieved symbolic importance as a remnant of the past surviving among the modern nation.
It is one thing that the educated elites developed a sentiment for a national community that survived through the ages and had its roots in the ancient times, but for these sentiments to spread into the minds of the rest of the population education and the displaying of these objects were needed. Education was needed so that the nation could recognize the importance of the context of these objects in the National development. The display of these objects was needed so that they would be able to recognize the objects themselves and create a link with them in their mind as a symbol of the history of their nation and community. I believed that this is one of the mechanisms that have developed the sentimental interpretation of some objects to have more cultural significance than others, especially within the setting of nationalism and the nation-states of the 19th and 20th century. This sentiment and idea that the objects have a link to the current nation is one of the many reasons why for example Greece want the Elgin Marbles returned to Athens, or Egypt want objects of similar importance returned. I believe that the combination of public schooling and museums with the academic developments of the 18th and 19th century created the framework for these objects to achieve such status. A status which today is promoted through tourism and marketing as well as UNESCO’s world heritage work.

Portraits of Native Americans by George Catlin

In this week’s blog post I am going to look at the work of George Catlin, a nineteenth century artist and writer who painted and interacted with Native Americans along the advancing American frontier. I want to establish how easy or difficult the task was, how events and opinions forming in the background affected the response and overall meaning of the Native American portraits and what legacy he left to contemporary Native Americans and historians. Firstly though I will provide some context as to who George Catlin was and investigate his aims and personal feelings in his travels.

George Catlin (1796-1872) was an American-born artist from Pennsylvania. He had originally begun training to become a lawyer in 1817 but soon became interested in being an artist through meeting Thomas Sully, a prominent American portraitist during this period. During the 1830s, Catlin undertook five trips beyond the western frontier in land that was influenced by American/European culture but had yet to become American territory. The aim of George Catlin’s work, and the later touring exhibitions, was to record the daily lives, rituals, and social dynamics of the various Native American groups across central and western North America. Catlin wanted to do this by painting the portraits of Native American individuals and groups, by collecting different artefacts and by publishing his writing on his interaction with those individuals he observed. Catlin assembled his collection for his “Indian Gallery” exhibition that toured in the eastern states from 1833 to 1839. The exhibition contained over 500 portraits of cultural activity and items used in daily life and ritual.

Painting and collecting was no easy task and from the beginning there were issues that had to be taken into account. Firstly, whilst the Native Americans that Catlin met were not in American territory, they would have more than likely had met Christian missionaries and traders as well as land speculators. As Stephanie Pratt and Joan Carpenter Troccoli suggest; ‘It is important that we remember the context, for Catlin’s desire to record Native American culture before it was contaminated or destroyed was inevitably too ambitious.’ [1] By collecting and presenting these portraits and artefacts, Catlin would have also had made a name for himself. However, his fame and career did not always pick up, as what began as a success slowly turned in debt and bankruptcy. Catlin’s time touring in Europe from 1840 to 1855 and then 1860 to 1871 did bring a measure of success and his work was shown to various important figures of the time such as Queen Victoria in 1843 and King Louis-Philippe in 1845. It is also worth noting that during his European tours, a group of Ojibwa Indians also joined Catlin’ tour and performed for audiences across England, France and Belgium. It would seem therefore that it was very difficult venture to pursue though Catlin appears to have made a good attempt at it.

This is not to say that the Native American people who Catlin painted and observed did not want to be recorded, it is just that many historians and Native Americans do not like the way and the reasons that it occurred. One of the main reasons for Catlin going on the trips was to record what he thought was the vanishing culture of North America. The cliché of the ‘Dying Indian’ was prominent during this period and Catlin appears to have been part of this opinion but rather than accept it, he in some sense wanted to save what he saw as a vanishing peoples. Literary works such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is a good example of the idea of disappearing Indians from North America as seen in popular literature. Catlin’s work also had a place in the wider colonial narrative of the Euro-American world. As American colonists and Native Americans increasingly came into conflict with one another across the Great Plains, it could be said that many Americans only saw the warlike side of the Native Americans and nothing else.

So what was George Catlin’s legacy? After investigating his life and art work there seems to be various conclusions that we can make. On the one hand, the portraits and images created by Catlin produced many of the images and stereotypes that persist today about the vanishing native peoples of North America. By portraying the Native Americans as a lost culture, Catlin and many others were pushing the Indians from historical knowledge which put them in the past as opposed to the United States push west and into the future. On the other hand, Catlin’s desire to record what he saw before it vanished was a worthy goal, even if it was to a degree career and fame orientated. Catlin also looked past the popular stereotypes and saw a culture being destroyed by American contact, which he felt needed recording before it disappeared. Indeed, many of the portraits and paintings have also been useful to contemporary Native American tribes who use his work to further their understanding of their ancestors if it is needed. Therefore, whilst the portraits and writings of George Catlin have contributed to the image of a vanishing people, they also helped produce a visual history of the Native Americans that might not had existed without Catlin.

[1] S, Pratt and J, Troccoli., George Catlin, American Indian Portraits (London, 2013), 25.

Link below to the Smithsonian American Art Museum which holds the collection:


Ghost from war past

A man with a strong personality is that one who, commissioned in a time of war to make a musical portrait of a fellow countryman decides that he wants to depict Wal Whitman, a famous peacemonger. That the man ended up working on a portrait of Abraham Lincoln reflects not only the seriousness of times but also the awareness and tactfulness of the same man, being able to let down his own pet idea for what was considered a better option for that particular moment in time, an inspiring piece of art in time of need. The fact that the piece itself is a black swan in classical music, and a moving mix of folklore, History, voice and music, a true avant-la-lettre multimedia artwork speaks of the genius that man was. The name of the man was Aaron Copland.

Now, you probably do not know the name. Never heard of it, don’t you? That is the problem with classical music: take a good central-European name and everyone would think “yes, I kind of know that one”. But US nationals are far more related in the public’s imagination with rock (and pop) than classical when it comes to music. Nevertheless, Aaron Copland is considered one of the (if not “the”) best US composers, and was even called “the Dean of American composers”, and his works, specially those of the 1930’s and 40’s, are fundamental in defining a true “American” style of composition, distinctive in its openness and accessibility. The use of popular tunes is another trademark, as in A Lincoln portrait and, as is the case with the use of spoken recitations of the depicted’s own words, while it was not original, Copland took it to new heights.

The Portrait was commissioned by conductor (ironically of Russian origin) André Kostelanetz, along with some other “patriotic” works in the eve and first stages of WWII, hence the need for some patriotic and quite warlike theme and the inconsistency of Whitman as a choice. By the time Copland finished the score, in April 1942, the USA had suffered the bitter attack on Pearl Harbour, Japan Army was steamrolling the allied Armies and General MacArthur had been compelled to leave the Philippines. Moral was low, and a boost was needed. And who do you resort to when it comes to moral boost and bitter wars in the USA? Yes, sir, Honest Abe is the answer. A larger than life figure, an anchor to which the desolate American population could feel themselves tied, and thence gain some moral strength.

So Copland set to work, and he decided to use this awkward composite of music and wording, recreating some of the most brilliant moments of Lincoln as Head of the State and, in particular, the all-famous Gettysburg Address.

This is considered one of the finest pieces of public oratory ever, although it was not meant to be the centerpiece of the ceremony of dedication of the National Cemetery at the place of the battle. In fact it lasts no more than ten sentences and Lincoln could read it in just few minutes. In the other hand lies the not so memorable Oration, by Edward Everett, which extended for at least two hours and is now long forgotten. In the address Lincoln was able to summarise the then new concept of Civil War as a fight for freedom (mainly that of the slaves) and the preservation of Democracy as a form of Government. The words “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” should ring a bell here. Now that the US were fighting abject tyrannies in the likes of Hitler and Tojo, the struggle was not only for freedom but also for the preservation of Democracy as a form of Government, as it had been, according to Lincoln, during the Civil War. So fitting was the election of Lincoln given the momentum of war, so important was the inclusion of words from the Gettysburg Address in the piece. History was to be taken from the past and thrown into the future to have an impact, at least at theoretical, moral levels in the developing of this new war.

The fact is that the piece is still been staged in a variety of National occasions, including 4th of July, Memorial Day, and even Lincoln’s own Bicentennial Celebration; occasions that are prone to show national pride in the exact same values that Lincoln was trying to convey in his short, almost humble, speech that cold Thursday back in 1863.

From the musical point of view, again, the piece is an exquisite oddity. The work opens with what seems to be a call to Lincoln’s youth in the frontier, struggling in a log cabin, surrounded by wilderness. After that some popular tunes get into the score, seemingly even quotes for the once very popular “Camptown Races” and “Springfield mountain”, the latter believed to be a wink to Lincoln’s links with Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln was, after all, a people’s man. Then the music reach new heights of solemnity while Lincoln’s own words are spoken, and some biographical notes add context to the man: inspiring calls to save the country and raise with the occasion, appeals to responsibility, indictments against tyranny…the music emphasizes the words, giving the protagonism to the speaker’s voice, with brass and percussion taking the lead in what sometimes sounds like a call to arms, then giving way to strings and subtle chords to mark the coming of his Gettysburg Address. This is underlined by the use of a single trumpet, calmly supported by the orchestra, in a somewhat military, extremely fitting way, and leads to a grand final with all the brass explosion that one expects.

This was not to be considered as the best of Copland’s works, though, as some of his orchestral works based on folk tunes are best regarded. But it is, in fact, the one that conveys most sympathies. The war went on, and it was eventually won by the (I would like to think) Lincoln’s inspired Allied Armies. And Copland kept on working. He never composed the intended Whitman’s portrait, though, which comes as a setback, possibly being the best other side to war in general and the US Civil War in particular. His best known works could be the perfect introduction to what is considered “American” music: Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man. Even the titles are truly “American”.

Copland wrote also scores for movies. Correspondingly, some very well-known actors and actresses have been speakers for Lincoln’s words in many a stage: K. Hepburn, Paul Newman, James Earl Jones…as well as some leading political figures, even President Barack Obama. We have chosen for you to see this version, in which the reading is done by Julius “Dr.J” Erving, famous former basketball player and Afro-American community leader and activist. Seems quite right that Lincoln should be impersonated by a representative of a race that he helped to free and dignify, somewhat grudgingly but raising with the occasion, as he would have said. So did Copland, raising to the occasion as well, creating a fascinating piece of Art and showing us how can History be brought back to help us coping with our own hardships. In his capacity as an improbable Historian, Copland’s work is deeper and sounder, yet brief, than many written pages.

“We cannot scape History”. Abraham Lincoln.

A Tsar and a musician come into a bar…

So, what about an opera about a Tsar, written by a serf’s grandson and which was rejected by the Maryinsky Theatre just because (allegedly) it lacked a leading female character, then turning into a massive success (but not with the Imperial family) only to be adapted, shortened, reconstructed and who knows what else after its alcoholic composer died in the exact day of his 42nd birthday? That could be worth a little more reading…

Modest Mussorgsky’s father was the son of a serf. He, eventually, was recognised as a noble and owned a vast estate which contained eighteen villages at Karevo not that far from nowadays Russian frontier with Belarus and a rough 250 miles from Saint Petersburg, then the capital. Granny was still alive when Modest was a small boy and we can only imagine the strange thing that a noble man son to a serf woman was at the time. Yet they were not part of the very affluent. Serfs and nobles would be important in the future of Modest; but before that, see him learning to play piano, taking lessons from Mum, listening to the folk tunes his nurse would sing. Then at the age of thirteen, he was sent to Saint Petersburg’s cadet school, joining in the event the Preobrazhensky Guards. Not exactly the same than at home.

There he spent the next years, getting in contact with some of the leading members of Russian musical society, as Balakirev or Borodin. But in 1861, the serfs would force him back home at the age of 21. Well, to be honest, it was the Tsar, not the serfs, who forced him back. Being not a really brilliant nor decisive leader, Alexander II was somewhat convinced, possibly because of the pressure enacted by his resourceful aunt Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, that serfs needed some sort of emancipation. That, in a huge autocracy where education and alphabetization levels were appalling and, as we have seen, lesser nobles owned almost twenty villages and all in them, people inclusive.

In a slow, conservative way, legislation was almost secretly developed through the years, until, in March 1861, it was signed by the Tsar amidst great security measures and the quartering of troops in the villages to prevent bouts of violence which were, at least, expected. And there were lots of them. The legislation was a maze of dispositions in which the illiterate serfs would got lost, and the scheme was so noble-proned that in fact it deteriorated the condition of many a serf. Now they were, more or less, free. But they have to somehow buy their freedom from their former masters, taking government loans during a transition period of two years to buy the lands they were living in from the landowners (that the serfs should be owners of their own land was considered an indispensable requisite for the emancipation). But, this way, they were indebted so they ended up working for the same landowners and earning misery wages just to repay the loans. Moreover, they were dependent on the same landowners for pasture, water supply. Increasing population add pressure to rents and harvest failures lead to famine, overwhelming poverty and a crowd of sullen peasants with dreams of revenge. And that will come, in time.

But for the moment, we have young Guard Modest back at home, helping older brother Filaret to recover from the blow, much impoverished, and with a strong feeling of sympathy with the peasants and their truly Russian traditions. There he was to spent two long years, away from the cultural life of the capital and, probably, increasing a penchant for alcohol that had surely began at the Guards, strong drinkers almost by definition. But it came to an end and after the transition period he was sent back to Saint Petersburg to earn a living for himself working in the Administration, in the Central Engineering Authority. There, he went back to his music (some early pieces had been played in meetings of the Balakirev circle in his Preobrazhensky years) and started a line of work trying to get music to represent human speech in the most exact way possible, an intention which he will pursue for all his life and was not always well understood (if any) by critics and public alike.

Soon music was the main aim in his life…when alcohol wasn’t (he had his first bouts of dipsomania after his mother’s death in 1865). But not to the liking of everyone: allegedly, either Balakirev or Rimsky-Korsakov, members, as Mussorgsky, of the “Mighty Five” (a group pf musicians including the afore-mentioned plus Cui and Borodin, all of them intent in a “russification of music” against the western influences then dominating the Russian scene) scribbled in the original score that the today popular “Night on the Bare Mountain” was “a load of rubbish”. He was very keen on experimenting with sounds and harmony, and to add distinctive “Russian” tunes to the score. That to add to the already mentioned work with music and human speech.

Anyway, he kept on composing, particularly after being downsized from the Ministry of State Property in 1867. He turned to opera and, after some sketching based in Gogol’s works that was judged too experimental even by himself, he took to write about Tsar Boris Godunov, the Romanovs not allowing any of their dynasty to be shown on the stage. Using a dramatic work from Pushkin as a draft, he adapted scenes and wrote the vocal score in nine months or so, and the full score some months later, by the end of 1869. Then he submitted the score to the Imperial Theatres, but was rejected in a clear call of 6 to 1 seemingly for not having a female role of any weight in it (but probably because, again, of the amount of experimentation Mussorgsky had thrown in the score). Difficult was then the task, if he had to find a woman of importance in the world of XVI/XVII Russia that was Tsar Boris age.

Boris Godunov (1551-1605) was regent during the reign of Ivan the Terrible’s son Fedor, having got into the Imperial family by his sister’s marriage with Ivan’s son. Raising from the ranks, he seemed to have started as an archer in the guard, then to the Oprichnina (Ivan’s most feared personal guard and secret police). A shrewd politician from the start, before getting into the Imperial family he had secured recognition marrying the Oprichnina head’s daughter. Master of war, secrets and political marriage, he was appointed for the Regency Council together with Vasili Shuiski and some Romanovs in 1584. In 1586, the Tsar’s uncle Nikita Romanovich, until then the head of the Council died, opening a space for Boris to play his cards at the steering wheel of the Empire. After suppressing a plot which tried to divorce the tsar from his sister, he became Tsar in all but name from 1591 to 1598 when, on the event of the Tsar’s death he sized the throne, in part as a mean of self-protection against the Romanovs.

His government was prudent, keen on diplomacy but firm with sword when needed: he signed an extended truce with Poland in 1587, peace with Sweden in 1595, built a chain of fortifications along the Volga and Don rivers to prevent attacks from the Tatars. Expanded colonization of Siberia, gave support to the fur trade and encouraged trading relations with England. All sound movements. But he did something which will have consequences even as far as Mussorgsky’s own life: in 1597 he issued a decree forbidding the transfer of peasants from one landowner to other. Aimed to secure revenue, in fact it tied serfs to the soil in the most oppressive way. No wonder, then, that after some crop failures in the early 1600s, peasants and serfs revolted (probably helped by the Romanovs, who had staged a coup against Godunov two years before), only to be defeated in a pitched battle near the capital by the Tsar’s Army. Anyway, they resorted to support Dmitri, the pretender, an alleged son of Ivan (the real Dmitri had died some years before; the were no less than twenty Dmitris in a decade).

Harvest failure and famine were shown to the masses as proof of Boris lack of divine support, being “just” and elected tsar (and even that was quite controversial) and not a member of the Rurikid family who had ruled the country foe the last seven hundred years and, for the impoverished, illiterate peasants and serfs, were close to God and was almighty. So every new Dmitri got some support somewhere (plus Romanovs’ aid), so giving Boris a lot of trouble in his last years. Probably the strain of the fight took on his health and, finally, he died of a stroke in April 1605, a good ruler with a bad reputation which will cost dearly to his wife and son when the supporters of Dmitri take the capital some months after his death.

That was the story but Mussorgsky, always focused on precision and accuracy, had to choose between historical accuracy or precision on taken the Theatre assessment if he wanted the opera to be staged. Always going a step too far, as in musical experimentation, he opted for delivering a radical transformation: not only did he created a main female character but he added three scenes, cut one, reworked another one, added a prima donna role and song for the existing female roles and even give more way for the Dmitri role. If they were not happy with the first version, they had to be with this one.

In the end the work was accepted and premiered on January 1874, with phenomenal success and general acclamation, with the composer taking twenty curtain calls. Not surprisingly, though, there was someone in the crowd not very happy with the show. Some accounts tell us of Gran Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, a member of the Romanov family enraged and even “foaming at the mouth” because of the music, it seemed, because of some political implications in the plot, some assumed. He allegedly said that it was “a shame to all Russia”.

Was it because of that, because of censorship or, most probably because of financial issues, the fact is that Boris Godunov was cut, revised, and deformed from the very beginning, even with Mussorgsky’s acknowledgment. To this we must add that Boris was probably a still immature work: the music is crude, there seems to be not a link between scenes (which may come from the fact that it was modeled from Pushkin’s drama scenes). The music is quite experimental, the tunes sometimes get out of hand, brass and percussion have more significant roles than was (and is) expected. But, in line with the composer’s aim of uniting music and human speech, dramatic choruses are superb, vocal parts of a rare quality and dramatization amazing in an era when, usually, operas were so dependant on the flashy brilliance of singers, regardless of dramatic coherence or psychological studies. Had Mussorgsky continued writing operas he could have become a master of vocal composition; regrettably he was already on his way down.

Every setback, every death of a relation put Modest again in the trail to tears and in the search for alcohol. Bouts of dipsomania were ever increasingly strong and frequent and he had to resort to touring the country as some old contralto pianist for a living. He couldn’t finish his commissions: just a piano score for pictures at an exhibition, Khovanschina was left unfinished, so it was Sorochintsy fair. He was trough hardships for the best part of his last years despite the help of his friends that sometimes felt impossible to keep on giving for a man who spent everything in drinking.

In February 1881 he had some musical success, again and for the last time, with a concert in which his Destruction of Senacherib was conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov. After that, like his character Boris, his health declined rapidly, suffering some alcoholic epilepsy fits. He was interned in the Military Hospital and got some relief. Even some improvements were shown. But to avail. After seemingly spending hist last coins in cognac, he died in 28th Match 1881.

What it is worse, he suffered a second death when his work was despised even by his friends and colleagues. Rimsky-Korsakov reworked Boris Godunov, altering the score, the harmonies, even the order of the scenes. Shostakovich followed suit in the XX century. He was accused of poor technique, lack of polishness. Khovanschina was also “completed” by Rimsky-Korsakov in the same lines. But recent approach to Boris Godunov in the original score shows new appreciation for the awkward orchestration, the russification in the score, the rough and unrefined vocal lines that soft singers would not accept, used as they were to Rimsky-Korsakov’s ones. So general consideration of Mussorgsky as it happens with Tsar Boris is improving with time. Fine for a man who once stated that “Art is a mean towards communication with human beings, not and end in itself”. That he felt the impulse to communicate through the bottom of a bottle rather than through his music is a loss for all those human begins willing to communicate.

Alfred the Great’s campaign in Alfred by Dvorak

Hello, and welcome to my post for Music Month. My post is going to be on an opera by the famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, about the famous Anglo-Saxon King, Alfred the Great.

So first of all, who was Dvorak, and why did he chose to write about Alfred the Great?

Antonin Dvorak lived from 1841 to 1904. The opera Alfred was his opera, written in 1870. He would later be invited to conduct in Great Britain and later the United States. His compositions were extremely well received, and his sixtieth birthday in 1901 became a national event, when the Emperor of Austria-Hungary made him a member of the Upper House of the Imperial Council. He died in 1904, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest Czech composers who ever lived.

So why did he chose Alfred the Great as the subject for his first opera?

There are a number of possible reasons for choosing him. First of all, Alfred the Great as an opera choice was not unprecedented. The libretto of Alfred the Great by Karl Theodor Körner had been used for opera several times before, and it had the benefit of essentially being in the public domain by the time Dvorak came to write his opera. It is possible that the subject was chosen due to the situation of the time, with the Franco-Prussian War going on, the themes of nationalism, foreign occupation would have been highly relevant. It is also possible that since many of the themes of the opera itself, such as the heroic struggle between Danes and Saxons was modelled off the themes of Richard Wagner, since it was well known that Dvorak was fond of Wagner, and at this period of his life, his work was frequently inspired by Wagner’s.

The opera is divided into three Acts. The opera is set in 878 AD, the year when Alfred the Great, having been driven out of his kingdom by invading Danish armies returned from hiding in the Somerset Marshes to lead the English forces in winning a decisive battle at Edington.

The first act begins with the Danish soldiers, having defeated Alfred’s army and conquered England enjoying a feast in Alfred’s former castle. One of the older Danish leaders Gothron is not participating in the revelries, due to a dream he had, when Alfred stood before him in an unearthly glow.

A younger Danish commander, Harald, enters triumphantly, having just executed several English prisoners. Gothron, concerned about the younger man’s overconfidence, advises him against underestimating Alfred. Harald ignores these warnings, and Gothron and his troops leave to search for Alfred who has gone into hiding in the forests.

One of the prisoners taken during the Danish victory was Alfred’s betrothed Alvina. While Harald offers her the chance to become his wife, Alvina refuses, and Harald has her imprisoned in one of the towers.

Act 2 [ edit | edit source ]

The second act begins with King Alfred resolving to continue the fight against the Danes, despite his recent defeat. He then meets his servant Sivard, who informs him of his fiancée’s imprisonment. Alfred resolves to rescue her, by infiltrating his castle disguised as a harpist.

Alfred (disguised) and Sivard manage to avoid Gothron’s forces and enter the castle. They hear Alvina singing from her tower and promise to rescue her. Gothron returns and becomes suspicious of the Alfred and Sivard. He tells them that Alfred can play for the Danes and Sivard must leave.



Gothron and Alfred enter the great hall, and Gothron is mocked by Harald for failing to capture Alfred. They then learn that Alvina has escaped from her tower, and Gothron orders Alfred to sing a celebration of the Danish victory. Alfred does so, but his song gradually becomes a celebration of Alfred and English. The furious Danes prepare to execute Alfred, and he reveals himself to them in full splendour. Alvina, who has sneaked into the room takes advantage of the surprise to blow out the only remaining torch. In the resulting chaos caused by the sudden darkness, Alfred and Alvina escape. The soldiers attempt to recapture them, but fail to do so. Gothron is forced to remember his dream.

In the third act, Alfred’s soldiers have assembled in the forests. Alvina tells them that Alfred has gone to recruit more troops, and tells them to go and help their King. They leave her, and she is recaptured by Harald. Once again he offers her the chance to convert to paganism. She refuses and is imprisoned with the other English soldiers.

Meanwhile, Alfred has gathered reinforcements, and meets with his forces. Alfred prays for God to grant them courage and victory.

Alvina is imprisoned with other the other English prisoners. She inspires them not to give up hope, and Harald informs them that Alfred and his forces have attacked. Alfred then enters, having won the battle and killed Gothron. He offers Harald a guarantee of safe return to Denmark, be he chooses death. Alfred and Alvina reunite, and the opera ends celebrating Alfred’s victory.

The opera’s historical accuracy is debatable, as it involves the death of the Danish leader Guthtrum, (called Gothron in the opera), when he is not recorded to have died in battle, but in bed. Furthermore there is no record of Alfred’s wife being taken prisoner by the Danish forces, however there is a popular story that Alfred disguised himself as a harpist to infiltrate the Danish camp, so the plot of the opera is not entirely without basis in the stories told about Alfred. Given that my much of the history of Alfred the Great has been argued to be more folklore than fact, perhaps the opera should not be criticised for it, especially given that the opera itself has some lovely music, which is available below.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,023 other followers