Monday, December 3, 2012

Faculty Blog Post - Learn to love history (if you don’t already)

This week's blog post comes to us from James Poulsen, Instructor of Music at Simpson College.

Learn to love history (if you don’t already)

by James Poulsen, Instructor of Music, Pianist and Composer/Songwriter

     I would like to talk about something outside of making music or ‘making it’ in music, and that’s my love of history. Besides music theory, ear training, and piano, I have taught ‘Discovering Music’ for over 20 years. The class does teach some music basics, but it is essentially a survey of music history, mainly from the fall of the Roman Empire to the present. One of my favorite things about this class is not to just make non-music majors aware of the vast world of ‘classical music’, but to get more than a few students interested in history in general.
     I am always disappointed when I hear someone say they ‘don’t like history’--probably because it may involve a lot of names and dates that seem far off in time and distant and it involves a bunch of ‘old people’. It may be a bit cliché, but I think the way to get interested in history is to really put yourself in someone else’s place in the vast amount of possible circumstances, starting with daily life and basic survival. Another way to get more interested or connected is to remember that you had relatives a lot like you that found themselves in many situations ranging from day to day existence to life threatening situations including war and disease.
     It is mind-boggling to think that we each descended from an incredibly long line of ‘survivors’. Most of us mainly think of just the past two or three generations. Many people also go back at least to when their ancestor or ancestors came to America. My grandpa Poulsen came from Denmark in 1913, one year after the Titanic sank. If you think of it, your related predecessors were either some of the strongest, fastest, smartest, or even just the luckiest in countless situations. At least one of your relatives had to survive at least to child bearing years to continue that long line which led to you. We all probably had some individuals in our lines that may have only lived to be 12 or 13 years old.
     Each of us could be a descendent of survivors of countless battles, illnesses, droughts, crop failures, or even one-on-one fights. It’s hard to grasp how lucky we might be to exist and be an aware, thinking, and creative being.
     In terms of well-known historical figures, I think its very interesting to know anecdotes and stories of their daily lives and personal experiences. We are incredibly fortunate to have many letters of correspondence that involved some of history’s most interesting people like Mozart, Beethoven, and many other artists, authors, poets, musicians, and royal family members. I fear that with letter writing a thing of the past, plus easily ‘disposed-of’ email and texting, we are losing ‘tons’ of information that actually might mean something to future generations. If you don’t have a personal biographer or keep a diary, your life-story is not being preserved in letters!
    Young students might think of great individuals of history as ‘old’ or unreachable or simply, ‘we can’t relate to them and their life and times’. Once again, think about yourself in all situations as you learn more about people’s lives. Leopold Mozart took his two amazing children on tour throughout Europe in the 1760s. We have letters from Leopold, that state ‘We almost lost little Wolfgang’ (to high fever). It is very interesting to know that W. A. Mozart, the amazing child prodigy had an older sister, ‘Nannerl’ that was probably as talented as he—but as a young woman was not allowed to continue performing after a certain age. Mozart’s many childhood illnesses may have contributed to his early death at age 35, even though that was a typical life expectancy in the 18th century. One other ‘real-life’ fact is that Mozart’s wife Constanze was present when a monument was erected to his memory in Vienna some forty years after his death.
     Ludwig van Beethoven had to return home at 18 years old when his mother died and there were still younger siblings to care for as he was trying to start a performing career. Later in his life, Beethoven went through personal problems that kept him from composing almost anything for years. Plus, there is the whole story of Beethoven being able to compose some of the greatest works of all time as he became more and more deaf in his 30s. The Czech composer Bedrich Smetana was also totally deaf by his 50s, but composed the beautiful set of symphonic works including ‘The Moldau’ and many other pieces.
     Chopin probably contracted tuberculosis in his teens, something he and thousands of others in the 19th century lived with for years. It is incredible to think that he was able to compose hundreds of piano works that we are still performing and talking about 170 years later. Franz Schubert was another amazingly young genius, but also a real person! He was mainly put on earth to compose music every day until about one o’clock and then hang out at the coffee shop (Vienna Starbucks) with his friends. He rarely had a ‘real job and mainly stayed with friends. Unfortunately, he contracted syphilis in his mid-twenties and was quite ill, but continued to compose masterpieces until his death at age 31. He probably died from the treatment for syphilis in the 19th century, which was mercury! The history of medicine and medical treatments is quite fascinating and often tragic, but it makes us think what everyday people and ‘celebrities’ had to go through to survive or eventually succumb. J.S. Bach twice had operations performed on his eyes without anesthesia, probably for cataracts, by a ‘celebrity’ quack doctor in Europe. He was, of course, left blind in the last few years of life. One little known fact about Bach is that he actually tried to sell pianos late in his career—the piano was still a ‘new thing’ in the 1740s just before Bach’s death in 1750.
     Bach also fathered 20 or more children, according to baptismal records that seem to continue to be found! This may give pause to young female students as you learn that until birth control was modernized, women of child bearing years were pregnant almost every year--that could be 15-20 pregnancies and births for women before the 20th century! That leads to a discussion of child mortality. Today, we can hardly imagine what married couples and families of all stations in life had to endure as they often lost many children to disease and accidents before the age of 5. That’s another huge thing that all the people in your direct line also survived which led to you being alive today. It is morbid and fascinating to think of all fevers and infections your line survived especially before the discovery of penicillin in the 1940’s! In the 19th Century, many doctors were insulted when first told they needed to wash their hands before examining a patient or even doing surgery. George Washington succumbed from too many ‘blood-lettings’ and died with chickens tied to his feet. President Garfield would have probably survived his gunshot wound if doctors hadn’t dug around for the bullet with unsanitized instruments.
     I could go on and on with music history and other history anecdotes but I will close with one reference to Napoleon and his escapades. Napoleon thought he conquer and rule most or all of Europe. Things culminated in the 1810s when Napoleon amassed an army and mobile ‘city’ of over 600,000 soldiers, wives, families, and other support people to march across Europe to invade Russia. I just mention this because it is one of the most unimaginable occurrences in history and some of your relatives could have been involved in this giant fiasco or affected by it. One can’t even imagine the amount of support needed for all the people (and horses) involved in this operation. It wasn’t just French, but German and other nationalities who joined this huge undertaking—all instigated by one man! What’s even more amazing is that he made it all the way to an evacuated Moscow and eventually burned the entire city—everything but the Kremlin! Most everyone knows the rest of the story—Napoleon decided to return to France too late in the year and was slowed and hindered terribly by winter weather—there were numerous battles, slaughters, and desertions. Napoleon returned to France, amazingly alive himself, but with only a few thousand people out of the original 600,000 plus.
     So history is morbid, intriguing, fascinating—not just about a few boring Kings, Queens, and wars, but real people, including your ancestors and their lives—real stories to relate to and dive into plus use your imagination! Seek out and enjoy history wherever and whenever you can—you are part of it!

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