The Little Renaissance

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.

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6 Responses to The Little Renaissance

  1. Ian Williams says:

    There are notable exceptions to the loss of faith phenomenon. Davis Jones, who of all the war poets served longest in the trenches, looked back to this time for the stirrings of his conversion to Catholicism. He had this in common with others, less well known. Soldiers were impressed by the dedication of Catholic chaplains, and this was apparently reflected in many conversions.

    • As far as I can see it, without experience of war, but with an intense feeling of empathy, I see two forces at work. One is a man’s reaction to the problem of evil: how can a good God allow such horror and evil? The other reaction is the different ways Christian and non-Christian men dealt with evil, death and pain – their own and that of others. I have known an old Camaldolese monk who had been a soldier in World War II and was deployed in Italy. He never left the country but entered a monastery. I have heard it said that the American airman who pulled the lever that released the atomic bomb over Hiroshima entered a monastery. That story might not be true, but Thomas Merton related in The Seven Storey Mountain that many ex servicemen were converted to very devout Christian lives and even entered monasteries after the war.

      So such an extreme degree of suffering goes both ways. I don’t know how I would have done – nihilism or holiness. Knowing you will be hanged in a fortnight focuses the mind, as someone in the 18th century related. A man had a 50/50 chance of survival on the Normandy beaches in 1944. Faced with death and pain, we do better to seek its meaning in the plan of God, however absurd that idea may seem at first. The best we can do is read the stories of those who did fight. Going back to the theme of this article, Elgar stopped composing after the 14-18 war and only started again in the early 30’s (he died in 1934). Vaughan Williams rejected orthodox Christianity (he was an Anglican) but sought transcendence and the spirit of men like Walt Whitman. He did not fight, but was a stretcher bearer for the medical corps to bring in the wounded. He must have had some close scrapes with enemy shells and bullets.

      This terrifying mystery humbles me and leaves me in tears and confusion.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Singing Charles Wood’s St. Mark Passion (1920) a few years ago, I was struck by congregational parts in J.M. Neale’s translation having appeared in the Salisbury Hymn-Book some half-century earlier. I wonder how much the Gregorian and other ‘early music’ revivals fed this Little Renaissance in England and other countries? Composers who variously immediately spring to my mind include Saint-Saens and Respighi, but also of Verdi (in his remarks on musical education), and Bruckner in an earlier generation. Interesting in this context, too, are the Dolmetsches as ‘spanning’ the period (and nations), and Pius Parsch as someone continuing this after the Great War. And David Jones’s poetical writings – and, if I’m not mistaken, calligraphic inscriptions – are full of Latin liturgical texts, which presumably he heard chanted.

    • It’s a fine piece. As far as I can see, the “Little Renaissance” had its roots in the Romantic movement, which in its turn was a reaction to absolutism in Europe and the excesses of the French Revolution. I would love you to come up with some book suggestions to trace this thread that transcended countries, producing a near perfect coincidence between the Oxford Movement and the Catholic revival in France (Lamennais, Guéranger, Lacordaire, etc.). There was the operatic movement in Italy and Don Lorenzo Perosi’s sacred oratorios and simpler church music. In general, I see a humanist reaction against the excesses of the Industrial Revolution and the build-up of modern capitalism. Sir Thomas Beecham and Delius were sons of rich industrialists. We need to understand the one principle underpinning the whole tendency, and see where it is still latent today.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I had never heard of it, before we sang it (in a Dutch choir, as a change from Bach and Stainer), but found and find it very moving.

        Someone must have worked on this matter – but I wonder who? I’ve just recently joined a Gregorian schola with a very knowledgeable choir master – I’ll ask him if he has any recommendations…

        (I was just listening to Perosi’s Missa Eucharistica the other day, in a performance conducted by Andre Rieu, Senior! I was impressed by how many of Perosi’s works were on YouTube.)

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    By the way, I’ve been enjoying – and learning a lot from – Massimo Scapin’s posts over the last six months (even though I have not yet listened to all the works to which he attends):

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