30 August 2014

Royal Albert Hall or The Proms - which came first?

Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, was delighted with the success of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, and envisaged a lengthier list of facilities that would uplift the Great British Public via the arts and sciences. The South Kensington estate was in fact developed on land purchased with the profits of the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Alas Prince Albert died in 1861 and in her grief, Queen Victoria asked for large projects that would fulfil Albert’s dream and mem­or­ialise his contribut­ions to British society. Although I am not a huge fan of C19th Gothic, the queen loved the Albert Memorial in Ken­sington Gardens. This statue-monument, designed by Sir George Scott in a Gothic Revival style, was opened in July 1872 by Queen Victoria.

Albert Memorial in the foreground
Royal Albert Hall in the background.
Both in Kensington
Photo credit: Daily Mail

Directly opposite the monument is Royal Albert Hall, also in South Kensington. It was Henry Cole, Prince Albert’s collaborator on the Great Exhibition and a champion of the arts and sciences, who pushed the building of the great hall along. Said to be inspired by Cole's visits to ruined Roman amphitheatres, the design and solidity of the Hall were in actually simpler than originally intended, given that much of the money earmarked for the construction had been diverted to the building of the Albert Memorial. How unfortunate.

Nonetheless the auditorium inside is huge, covered by a domed skylight of painted glass, wrought iron girders, fluted aluminium panels and large fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs. The centre can seat 6,000 guests while another 2,000 can be added at the top of the hall, in the space taken up by the surrounding gallery. And the exterior, presumably inspired by the red brick and terracotta architecture of Northern Italy, is impressive. Queen Victoria loved the long terracotta frieze composed of allegorical groups of figures, all involved in artistic, scien­t­ific or cultural activities. The figures reminded her of Albert at the height of his powers.

Royal Albert Hall interior
Note the modern fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs hanging from the dome

At the opening of this concert hall by Queen Victoria in 1871, she naturally selected a name for the building that would hon­our her adored late husband. Thus by 1872, both parts of the national memorial to Prince Albert were in place.

I knew all about the much loved British institution called The Proms, a series of concerts held every year from mid July. But I had no idea when The Proms started. Perhaps the Proms started at a site other than the Royal Albert Hall, and only moved there after 1871.

No! There seem to have been two men responsible for The Proms, accord­ing to the BBCHenry Wood had quality musical training and was succ­ess­ful as a pianist & conductor. Impressario Robert Newman was manager of the newly built Queen's Hall who had already organised symphony orchestra concerts at the hall. Newman wanted to reach a wider audience by offering more popular musical programmes, adopting a less formal promenade arrangement, and keeping ticket prices low. And in 1895 they got together to launch the first Proms season, with Henry Wood given the conductor's baton of a permanent orchestra at Queen's Hall. So The Proms started in 1895, 24 years AFTER Royal Albert Hall opened.

Last Night of The Proms
at the Royal Albert Hall
Photo credit: London Hotels

I am not sure why the BBC took The Proms over, perhaps for financial reasons, but we can definitely say that the BBC Promenade Concerts were founded in 1930. Tragedy struck in May 1941 when the Luftwaffe bombed Queen's Hall. The only other hall available in London for orchestral concerts was the Royal Albert Hall, opened as we noted in 1871. Thus The Proms took place in Royal Albert Hall in 1941 and have run continuously ever since.

Today The Proms Season includes 70 concerts, a different concert for each night; the greatest excitement is probably reserved for Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circ­um­stance March, to which Land of Hope and Glory is sung. The Last Night of The Proms is the biggest night, including for us in Australia. On Saturday 13th September 2014 there will be flag flying and nationalist sentiment. complemented by the final song, Hubert Parry's Jerusalem. All the audience will pelting it out in good voice.

26 August 2014

Danubia: a personal history of Habsburg Europe

Every reviewer should declare his/her interests in a topic before typ­ing the first word of the review. So here we go. Firstly my husband and his entire family were Czech. Secondly I regularly lecture on both “Habsburg Art and Architecture” and “Vienna’s Jewish History”. It is my working hypothesis is that there will never be a more scholarly, more art­ist­ic, more literate or more musical community than there was in Vienna between 1880-1933. 

So I was a bit concerned to read Simon Winder saying that the Empire was “the plural, ar­ch­aic, polyglot Europe once supervised in a dizzying blend of inept­itude, viciousness and occasional benignity by the Habsburg family”. The only ruler that Winder showed respect for was Emperor Rudolf II, my long time favourite among the Habsburgs. Rudolf II moved his court from Vienna to Prague on becoming emperor in 1583, and made it a great centre of research and alchemy.  He maintained scientists (especially astronomers and alchemists), goldsmiths, antiquarians, historians, artists and exotic beasts on the royal payroll.

The rest of the Habsburg rulers were unhealthy (probably as a result of ruling males marrying their nieces to keep the blood line pure), constantly involved in military campaigns, constantly worrying about rivals within the family, brutal to animals and probably to humans as well, obsessed with religion and concerned with magic.

Emperor Franz Josef 1879

Yet from their rise from C13th obscurity, they became one of the st­rongest and most long lasting of dynasties, dominating nations across central and southern Europe. The dynastic chart of Habsburgs down the wall looks impressive. Starting with Rudolf I of Germany, King of the Romans, we move on to Frederick III, who titled himself Holy Roman Emperor in 1452. His family inherited this title and later added other titles of their own.

The empire that had started in lands along the Danube expanded ambit­iously across Germany, Central Europe and points east. Strategically locating Vienna as the centre of the empire, the faithfully Christian Habsburgs had many enemies. Their biggest ongoing worry were the Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. And the Russ­ians. And the French under Napoleon. But even within the Habsburg Empire, the Catholics clashed violently with their Protestant citiz­ens during the 17th century Thirty Years War. It was all horrific.

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe is a big book. Happily once we get to 1848, the year of revolutions all over Europe, the book becomes much more balanced and, I think, more interest­ing. The 53 million people under Habsburg rule spoke German, Hung­arian, Moravian, Polish, Yiddish, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Slovakian, Romanian, Serbian, Ukrainian and some Italian. They were Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox and Muslims. And yes, I am certain they all disliked the Habsburgs.

Map of nationalities with the Habsburg Empire (undated)

But I am not sure if Winder explained how the later Habsburgs came to be regarded as the liberals who had successfully managed many nation­alities, with cultural tolerance and support. After 1848 schools and univer­sit­ies thrived, theatres and concert halls opened, musicians and painters became internationally famous, quality newspapers and books were published, coffee culture blossomed, architecture became gorgeous and decorative artists created masterpieces. For decades citizens believed that Emperor Franz Joseph was the most principled, liberal and culturally supportive leader anywhere.

Of course empires come and empires go. And we can say that by the early 20th century, the once-indomitable Habsburg Empire was already fading. But when Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s met with Mr Princip in 1914, the unexpected death that launched WW1 did not, by itself, predict the Habsburgs’ imminent end.

It was only in 1916 that three events happened: a] World War I raged on catastrop­hic­ally, b] the national independence movements within the Habsburg Empire were succeeding and c] Emperor Franz Joseph died, after a reign of almost 70 years. By 1918 the new Emperor Karl abdicated and new nation states were established in the former Habsburg territories. Few people seem to have bemoaned its passing.


What does a personal history mean? A focus on the author’s an­ces­tors? A record of the author’s travels throughout the lands of the old empire? A less rigorous documentation of proper historical sources? Winder’s book is a mixture of formal history, travelogue and informal personal comments. I do not like chatty history and would not ask students to buy Danubia as their formal text book. But Winder covers the subject so comprehensively that I hope students cherry-pick chapters for colourful background material.

Simon Winder's book, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, was published by Picador in 2013

23 August 2014

Hotel Ritz in Paris: German occupation, sex, spies and great food

Tilar Mazzeo traced the history of the Hotel Ritz, a cultural landmark that opened its doors in fin de siècle Paris (1898). I found the hotel's story fascinating since Cesar Ritz, Auguste Escoffier, Capt Dreyfus and Marcel Proust already appeared in this blog. This hotel was soon full of mod­ern artists and intellectuals, and wealthy or well connected ex-pats who seemed to live in central Paris full time.

1898 was a big year! Paris was split by the Dreyfus Affair, dividing the aristocracy and traditionalists from the new Belle-Epoque artists and intellectuals. The author used Marcel Proust as an example of one of the supporters of Captain Dreyfus, supporters who claimed the Ritz as their home.

Undoubtedly the Hôtel Ritz was always the affluent, sexy centre of Paris. And no era in this book was more fascinating than the 1930s, a time when the avant-garde of the arts mingled with nobility and their entourage.

Hotel Ritz in Paris

So it seems extraordinary to me that the hotel would decide to remain open, at the very moment that 300,000 German occupiers were taking over Paris in June 1940 and two million Parisians were fleeing south­wards. Madame Ritz knew that if she left, she may never get her hotel back; she decided to take advice to stay open, with the help of her Swiss Director, Claude Aurcello. Thus the Ritz remained "A Switzerland in Paris" throughout the war.

At least Madame Ritz managed the hotel well, and she did provide luxuries and distractions to Nazi officers. The Nazis indicated they were guests of the French people, and having obtained a 90% reduction in the hotel tariff, sent their bills to the puppet government in Vichy. Very comfortable guests, at that! Occupying the hotel’s fabulously opulent Imperial Suite was Luftwaffe chief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

Were French citizens anxious about collaboration with the occupiers back in 1940? Are they now? Did they mind that 850,000 French civilians and soldiers died for France, while German officers were nibbling caviar in the heart of Paris?

German Occupation of Paris started in June 1940

Of the decades covered by this book, I was most interested in the Nazi occupation era. The hotel seemed to function peacefully because there were separate buildings conn­ected by a long corridor. This provided a natural partition between the German officers on one hand, and the smaller building which remained open to the public on the other. Mazzeo made it clear that there were no uniforms or weapons in the public spaces, enabling the French and Germans to mix amicably. She also made it clear that neutrality could often cross the line into collaboration.

Readers have been fascinated by the guests’ dangerous liais­ons, espionage, defiance and treachery. Note that the book’s sub-title is “Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris”. How could it have been otherwise when the one hotel was both headquarters to the highest-ranking German officers AND home to exclusive, cashed up French patrons. And British royals, like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Plus it was a base for spies from both sides who could be hidden among the Ritz’s military or civilian residents.

I do not pretend to understand France’s relationship with the German occupiers in WW2, so it is difficult to know what to make of the Happy Collab­orationist Theory. Were the collaborators truly pro-Nazi or just trying to live decently as best they could? Did the old witnesses who spoke to Tilar Mazzeo not remember the war years clearly enough or did they lie to the author? How many well estab­lished, financially independent Frenchmen actually helped the Resistance? This era provided a rich, messy history, “a breathless exposé of French horizontal collaboration”. Nothing could be taken for granted.

Some people had a very comfortable war at the Ritz
photo credit: Vanity Fair

In mid 1944, just before the liberation of Paris, well-known French citizens were very an­xious about their wartime love affairs becoming public knowledge eg actress Arletty had loved her Nazi lieutenant Hans-Jürgen Soehring; Coco Chanel had her German lover Baron Hans von Dincklage. Americans were more excited than anxious. Imagine Ernest Hemingway macho man’s race to secure the Ritz stories first. And imagine the many female reporters like Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway’s sometime wife) and Lee Miller, who had their own stories to tell.

The book is strongest after the German Occupation ended in August 1944. For example the book has amazing and presumably secret information about the Duke of Windsor’s plan to wait for his brother King George VI to die and for Edward to grab his throne back.

Justice was swift for French women accused of collaborating with the Germans. And for those living throughout the war in extravagant luxury. It is the only opportunity for the modern reader to discover how Parisians felt about those who lived in war time luxury, while the rest of Paris was starving.

Of course Paris in the Belle Epoque and inter-war era had always been full of messy scandal, and the Hotel Ritz even more so. So inevitably this war-time story jumped around. Other reviewers have seen the book as just a gossipy history of Nazis, writers, artists, spies, war corres­pondents and fashion designers. They wanted a stronger sense of order to the seemingly endless material. I would like the early chapters published in a separate volume, leaving more space for the 1940-44 era. Of the 292 pages in the book, only 11 pages were solely dedicated to the vital Occupation years.

Tilar Mazzeo's book, The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, was published by Harper in 2014.