Sunday, February 26, 2017

Unsung Heroes?

This will be one of my "finessed openings" where I sort of back into my topic from somewhere else. A while ago, on a whim, I asked a friend who it was exactly that was most responsible for defeating Adolf Hitler in WWII. She was puzzled to come up with the answer--I was rather expecting her to name someone like Winston Churchill. In actuality, from what I know of that history, it was the Red Army of the Soviet Union that did the lion's share of defeating Nazi Germany, though the Allied D-Day landings were crucial in landing the final blow.

Sticking with WWII, it is an interesting intellectual exercise to dig down a bit and see if we can come up with the names of two individuals that were key to the way the Second World War ended. Who are they? Mikhail Koshkin and Frank Jack Fletcher. Huh?, I hear you expostulating! Who the heck are these guys? Of course the war was an immense struggle between tens if not hundreds of millions of individuals, but if you look closely at the details, these two men emerge as being at the core of the events. The Red Army was successful in resisting and finally defeating the enormous forces launched against them largely because they had the best tank in the first years of the war, the T-34. This had a powerful main gun and brilliantly designed armor that could not be penetrated by the Wehrmacht's standard anti-tank weapons. This came as a huge shock to the Germans who had become used to their Panzers simply rolling over everyone. The T-34 medium tank was designed by one Mikhail Koshkin (whose Wikipedia article is probably the smallest possible given his historic importance). The Russians built around 80,000 of the T-34 and that was pretty much what defeated the Nazis on the Eastern Front.

Frank Jack Fletcher is much better known. As Vice Admiral Fletcher he was in tactical command at both the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, the crucial turning points in the Pacific war. Since these battles the US has been the dominant military power, not only in the Pacific, but globally. Sure, he had a lot of help, from Navy cryptologists who decoded the Japanese transmissions, and from the Navy Yard workers at Pearl Harbor that repaired the USS Yorktown in an astonishing 72 hours from damage suffered during the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese estimated it would take three months and were very surprised to find her at Midway. But it was the decisions made by Fletcher during the battle that enabled the Americans to sink all four of the Japanese large aircraft carriers which pretty much meant that the war was lost in a mere two days, the 4th and 5th of June, 1942.

So we can see that it is often figures who are less or little known that are the most crucial in shaping events behind the scenes. Because I think that something similar is at work in music history. The two figures who are most responsible for creating or discovering the basic principles of the musical structures that have given us most of the great music of the last three centuries, while certainly not unknown, are actually less known than their importance warrants. Who are these people? Claudio Monteverdi and Joseph Haydn.

I devoted a large number of posts to Joseph Haydn from October 2013, largely focusing on his symphonies--over a hundred simply remarkable works. I have also written quite a lot about his string quartets. But the other important figure, Claudio Monteverdi, has been overlooked here at the Music Salon and my intention, over the next couple of months, is to devote enough posts to him to rectify this fault. I won't start immediately because I have to do some background research first, but I thought that today we might listen to the most formidable piece of religious music written before the great Passions (and Mass) of J. S. Bach. This is Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine dating from 1610. Taking an hour and a half to perform it is an astonishing work of compositional virtuosity with sections in nearly every style and genre available: there are even elements from Monteverdi's opera Orfeo appearing in the beginning.

John Eliot Gardiner directed a brilliant and creative performance of this filmed at Versailles with the English Concert, the Monteverdi choir and soloists. I love the three theorboes in the center.


Anonymous said...

That is one long segway. But you've really whet my appetite for your upcoming Monteverdi posts! Fwiw, my favourite 1610 Vespers recording is by L'Arpeggiata. They do some of the most energetic and interesting Monteverdi performances I've heard. Plus, they're flamboyantly non-HIP, no doubt to the irritation of people like Jiggy

Bryan Townsend said...

I think my interest in the Nazi-Soviet front of the Second World War came from my interest in both Shostakovich and Prokofiev who had to live through it.

I will have a listen to L'Arpeggiata with great anticipation, thanks!

Will Wilkin said...

The Monteverdi Vespers was one of my entrees into "classical" music, back when I was a teenager in the 1980s I bought a Musical Heritage Society 2-LP set and it really opened my ears into the possibilities for beauty in baroque sacred music --though I didn't know what baroque meant back then. Now I also love Monteverdi for his operas, though I've read that, 1 of the 3, "L'Incoronozione di Poppaea" in its surviving forms seems to be an amalgamation from several operas by several composers, with virtually nothing indisputably traceable to Monteverdi himself, who may or may not have had a hand in the opera as it survives today. "Il ritorno d'Ulisse" and "Orpheo" at least have clear attribution to Monteverdi. This information comes to me from the notes in my Monteverdi Complete Operas" box set from Brilliant Classics.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, welcome to the Music Salon. Your comments are much appreciated.

I'm still in the early stages of my research into Monteverdi, but I will be putting up several posts in the near future.

Yes, those bargain-priced boxes by Brilliant are really a great deal. I have all the Beethoven sonatas in one, Schubert in another.