It is quite tongue in cheek that I coin such a notion about a period of time that contained so much in the way of spiritual, musical and cultural activity, the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first fourteen years of the twentieth. These were the years of the Arts & Crafts movement at its most mature and the musical renaissance of Stanford, Parry, Elgar, Delius and their composition pupils like Herbert Howells (1893-1983) and Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Then came World War I. Those who were not killed in action lost their minds, like Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) and Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine 1894-1930), or who lost their faith in God, like Vaughan Williams, Delius and Elgar. It is almost as if the world died in the trenches under the shells and mustard gas. Howells was fortunate because he suffered from a health condition as a young man and was not drafted into the army.
One of his earliest works is his Mass in the Dorian Mode, which is absolutely beautiful.
I see in this brief period something like what blossomed a hundred years before in the hearts and souls of the Romantics, which was nothing less than a shift of consciousness from the end of a century to the beginning of the next. That being said, I don’t think this happened every century or the 1990 to 2014 I lived through a short time ago.
That brief period from about 1890 to 1914 was not only musical but also the Arts & Crafts movement. There was also a considerable amount of literature and poetry.
The house shown in this photo is Blackwell above the shores of Windermere. It meant a lot to me as a child, because Blackwell was a girls’ school where my mother taught dance, sport and physical education. When I was not myself at school just up the road in Ambleside, I would be with my mother and operate the tape recorder for the girls’ dancing lessons. My eyes were particularly attracted to the peacock frieze of which you can see a part on the right of the photo. This house exudes this moment of consciousness with which I so closely identify.
The 1900’s were also a time of reaction against the Church, bishops and priests, a period of fierce anti-clericalism and hatred in countries like France, Italy and Germany. Science was still too hyper-rational, materialist and positivist, and atheism began to become the religion of the day. Many men of music and art were taken in as they are today. Instead of seeing Nietzsche as a force for a new kind of belief and search for the transcendent, we often see those men as infidels and big bad atheists. On the contrary, I see the Church’s failure to see grace in these mystics of modern times who found God in the mountains, forests and the sea rather than in churches. If we want to be Christian priests, then we have to look beyond our own prison bars!
What is this consciousness of which I speak? Jung wrote of it extensively. It illuminated each moment of renaissance between the times of humanity at its worst (wars, revolutions, reformations and religious fanaticism). I see this consciousness as a mark of God’s image in humanity, both collectively and individually. Enhanced states of consciousness exist in persons. One such phenomenon is a person in a state of advanced Alzheimers shortly before death waking up and becoming lucid. Doctors and nurses in nursing homes will each have their stories to tell. I believe that this happened at a collective level before civilisation died in the trenches and descended into the darkness in the 1920’s and 30’s.
All the same, something survived or was re-born like the Pheonix. In myself, I feel a part of this new “incarnation” of something that by far transcends any conventional label like Romanticism. Jakob Böhme sheds a ray of light:
There is a certain Greatness and Latitude of Heart in Love, which is inexpressible; for it enlarges the Soul as wide as the whole Creation of God. And this shall be truly experienced by thee, beyond all Words, when the Throne of Love shall be set up in thy Heart.
I think these things of which we talk and to which we yearn cannot be described by mere words. I have tried with Romanticism, but the word is usually misunderstood and even cheapened. In the end, all labels and words are vastly inadequate to describe these things that can happen to humanity as a whole and to individual persons.
In these dark winter days, I recommend lifting our hearts with Delius’ Mass of Life.