Life is far more fun when you have a really good book on the go, and the only thing wrong with mine just now is that it weighs too much to be lugged about comfortably on my pedestrian journeyings around London. It is The Lives & Times of the Great Composers by Michael Steen. For me, this book is perfect. I know what most of the music that the great composers composed sounds like. But I am enjoying hugely learning more about the circumstances in which this wonderful music was composed and first listened to.
After an Italian prelude, the first big name composer Steen deals with is Handel, the German who ended up living in London for most of his life.
Handel’s London was an exciting place (p. 39 of my unwieldy paperback):
The year before Handel arrived, Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral had been completed at a cost of £1,167,474 paid for largely by the import duty on coal. Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist was still at work. London, with its sounds of wheels rumbling on cobbles and cries from the street vendors, was well into a century of commercial and cultural prosperity: the country’s population grew by 71 per cent over the century; its merchant fleet more than doubled in tonnage between 1702 and 1776.
London, in other words, then as now, was making lots of progress. Perhaps because music itself can be such an otherworldy thing, even when composed by such a worldly figure as the energetically entrepreneurial Handel, Steen chooses in this book to emphasise the material aspect of things when describing the world in which this music was created.
The kind of people who enjoy the fruits of material progress, but who enjoy them more than they think about how they were first devised and are now cultivated, often dismiss progress as a small thing, perhaps because they dislike the kind of people who are needed to make it, and the methods they must be allowed to use. (Basically: commerce. And insofar as “public spending” is involved, someone has to make that money first before it can be spent.) Such people should ponder pieces of writing such as what Michael Steen says next about Handel’s London:
Behind its superficial prosperity and elegance, London was overcrowded, squalid and full of beggars. People had fleas, lice and few teeth. Most people defecated in nooks and crannies, or used public lavatories built over rivers such as the Fleet. For the more refined, with a small fee, the ‘human lavatory’ would provide a pail and extend its large cape as a screen. Lavatory paper did not exist, the alternatives ranged from a sponge on a stick in a container of salt water, to stones, shells and bunches of herbs.
But the most chilling observation Steen makes about the trials and tribulations of material life in the early eighteenth century – instead of the early twenty-first, say – is this, a couple of paragraphs later:
The political outlook was uncertain.
So? When was it not? But now, hear the reason:
Queen Anne, who was in her late 40s, had borne seventeen children; mostly still-born, none had survived.
Let an anti-progress person of now read that, and then try telling us that material progress of is no great importance, or of no “spiritual” significance, that it is merely a matter of brute, animal comfort. The Queen of England, no less – who presumably enjoyed, if that is the word, the very best medical attention then available – scored zero out of seventeen in the deadly game of childbirth and child-rearing; which meant that there was no obvious royal heir, which meant that the political outlook was uncertain. Poor, poor woman.
Later (p. 54), Michael Steen throws light on another kind of material progress, of a sort that is far more widely and deliberately scorned than progress in things like plumbing or medicine (which is often merely forgotten about), namely cosmetics. Steen has this to tell us about the way that the sort of women Handel often had dealings with – such as the highly paid and outrageously indulged and pampered opera singers whom he supplied tunes for, the crazy rock stars of their day – tried to beautify themselves:
Their faces were painted with compounds of white lead, rice and flour, with washes of quicksilver boiled in water with bismuth.
Suddenly, the progress made in female adornment, which has put incomparably more convenient and healthy – to say nothing of far more visually appealing – methods of adornment into the hands of any modern woman with a few quid to spare who wants them, appears almost as impressive as progress in plumbing, medicine, nutrition, travel, civil engineering, electronic entertainment, or even the wondrous progress that was about to be made in the two centuries after Handel, in music.