Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Strings That Bind
The Takacs Quartet
I am perhaps too taken with accidental cultural congruences, and too eager to impose a nonexistent meaning upon them. But I pass on the following anecdote for what it is worth. The Princeton University Concerts, which under the leadership of a dynamic young woman named Marna Seltzer have in recent years reached a new level of imaginative excellence, has this season sponsored an extraordinary treat for local music lovers. The Concert Committee brought to our community the superb Takacs String Quartet, who gave public performances of all of the Beethoven quartets. I had to miss a few, but I was at the final two sessions last week to hear five of them—an extraordinary experience.
About the same time I quite accidentally re-encountered in my reading an old acquaintance, Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841), author of a poem now hardly known but highly praised in its day. Coleridge is supposed to have said that it was the finest sonnet in our tongue.
Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in man's view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst fly and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?
Joseph Blanco White
Now this man Blanco White was quite remarkable. He had been born in Seville in 1775 and raised in a Hiberno-Spanish enclave of persecuted Irish Roman Catholic exiles. His mercantile father, whose surname was White, added the Castilian doublet. The brilliant son Joseph, or José Maria, was raised as a Spaniard. The Church offered the best chance to pursue education, and he became a priest. However, he inwardly revolted against the stultifying neo-Scholasticism and ignorant authoritarianism of Iberian Catholicism as typified by the Inquisition. Along with a few free-thinking clerical friends, he had gained access to some forbidden books by French Enlightenment writers. When opportunity arose (in the chaos of the Napoleonic invasions and Peninsular War) he fled to England in 1810.
In England Blanco White became an object of sympathetic fascination, a man whose exotic background, intellectual abilities, and personal amiability alike won him influential friends and patrons. He slowly came to embrace Anglicanism in a minimalist, nearly Unitarian form, and he was invited into the conclaves of the learned. In particular, he was taken into the senior common room of Oriel College, Oxford, where he never felt at home but became friends with several of the intellectual movers and shakers of the age. Most importantly, perhaps, he became intimate with Richard Whately, the logician. Whately eventually became the (Anglican) archbishop of Dublin, meaning that Blanco White could return to the homeland of his Romanist forebears as a Protestant chaplain! He eventually lapsed, or perhaps relapsed, into effective agnosticism, and repented of whatever mild claims for “Transcendence” might be lurking in his famous sonnet “To Night”.
Now Oriel College, in the 1830s, was the chief seedbed of the Oxford Movement (sometimes called the Catholic Revival) in the Church of England. The Established Church of the eighteenth century has been characterized as “the Tory Party at prayer” and “an admirable extension of the Police Force”. The Oxford Movement effectively shifted the Church’s center of gravity in the direction of a recovered pre-Reformation sacramentalism and liturgical seriousness and away from evangelicalism on the one hand and mere civil religion on the other.
Blanco White met Whately at Oriel, but his greatest friend there (for a while) was the young John Henry Newman, later (1879) “Cardinal” Newman, and later still (2010) the “Blessed” J. H. Newman. Another close associate was Thomas Mozley, Newman’s one-time student and intimate friend, who late in his life published Reminiscences, Chiefly of Oriel, and the Oxford Movement (1882), wherein I discovered the following fascinating information. Blanco White was a keen violinist and an enthusiast for Beethoven, who had died only in 1827. Newman had played the violin since he was a boy. According to Mozley “Blanco White would seem to have thoroughly initiated Mr. Newman into the mysteries of Beethoven.” Before Newman converted to Rome, he converted to Bonn.
John Henry Cardinal Newman (portrait by Millais)
Mozley continues: “…but one person, I remember, played Beethoven as no one else, Blanco White. I don't know how he learned the violin, but he would seem to have inherited a tradition as to the method of playing him [Beethoven]….Night after night anyone walking in the silence of Merton Lane might hear his continual attempts to surmount some little difficulty, returning to it again and again like Philomel to her vain regrets….” With Reinagle, an Oxford musician, “Newman and Blanco White had frequent trios at the latter's lodgings, where I was all the audience.... Most interesting was it to contrast Blanco White's excited and indeed agitated countenance with Newman's sphinx-like immobility, as the latter drew long rich notes with a steady hand." Thus for a season Beethoven joined in concert the most famous Roman Catholic convert in England with its most celebrated apostate.