1816: The Year Without A Summer – Introductory Talk – King’s Place

Kings Place is an arts and conference venue just north of King’s Cross. It only opened a few years ago, but has already gained a reputation for hosting high quality music, spoken word and arts events. Recently, a weekend of events took place entitled 1816: The Year Without A Summer. It consisted of two concerts and a study day exploring the events of this momentous year, the result of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

Before the Friday evening concert Beethoven and Schubert in Vienna, which I reviewed on my theatre blog Loitering in the Theatre, I attended the introductory talk, delivered by curator of the programme Ian Ritchie. He summarised the exceptional climatic, cultural and historical contexts in which Beethoven and Schubert were living in 1816 and explored how their work might have been affected.

Ritchie explained that all of the music in the evening’s concert had been composed in 1816 by either Beethoven or Schubert, both of whom were living in Vienna at the time. The period was already a time of great change, with the growth of Romanticism after the Enlightenment and the recent defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Prometheus, inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, was a popular cultural figure: Beethoven wrote a piece of music on the subject, initially dedicating it to Napoleon, but after becoming disillusioned with the French leader he crossed out the dedication (Byron was another figure who wrote in praise of Napoleon – composing an Ode to Napoleon – but who later became disillusioned). Inventors, such as George Stephenson, Humphrey Davy, and Michael Faraday, were making new scientific discoveries, and Luigi Galvani was attempting to reanimate corpses using electricity (from whence we get the term “galvanise”.

The Mount Tambora eruption of April 1815 was the biggest volcanic eruption for hundreds of years. It caused a shifting ash cloud leading to crop failures from Ireland to the east coast of the USA, the coldest winter since medieval times, and the development of a new strain of cholera in India. When Byron decided to go into exile from the UK, he arrived in Switzerland to find a country suffering from crop failure and famine. Along with Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) and Doctor Polidori, he spent the summer in the Villa Diodati, experiencing terrible weather instead of the glorious summer he had hoped for. Byron wrote a poem about the experience, called Darkness:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream,
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless; and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air
To be continued…

As meterological science was in its infancy, people didn’t know why the weather was so bad: some predicted the end of the world. In such circumstances Beethoven and Schubert wrote music in Vienna.

Schubert was only 19 at the time, compelled to write even though he had only one paid commission this year (a cantata, now lost, coincidentally also called Prometheus), composing over 100 lieder in 1816. Unable to marry his fiancée as he couldn’t support her, he was also rejected by his hero Goethe, so it is understandable that his work from this period sounded rather melancholy. His lieder from this period rarely use poems relating to summer, and his music is often sad and reflective.

Beethoven also faced disappointment at this time, partly owing to the death of his brother. Though this was a fallow period for him, he did produce the first recognised song cycle. Did the pair of composers ever meet? Possibly not – Beethoven was an established composer at this time,  and moved in higher circles, while Schubert was still a student and relatively unknown at this stage.

The short talk was really enlightening, and whetted my appetite for the evening concert and the next day’s events… on which more in the next post.

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