Thursday, December 30, 2010

Medieval Burgundy and Imperial Vienna in Dallas

After an extra-long Thanksgiving/Christmas break I've been happy to return to the Dallas Symphony, which is preparing a traditional Viennese gala for New Year's Eve guaranteed to warm any Habsburg nostalgist's heart. One piece, the "Seufzer-Galopp" (Sighing Galop) by Johann Strauss Sr (1804-1849), requires the musicians to sigh audibly at various moments. I will be sighing for the Austro-Hungarian Empire!

In between rehearsals today I luckily ran into two colleagues who reminded me that the Dallas Museum of Art's exhibit The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy, which I had not yet seen, would be closing Sunday and so the three of us hurried over to view it. The exhibit features forty remarkable sculptures from the tomb of John "the Fearless" Duke of Burgundy (1371-1419), normally housed in Dijon but currently appearing on loan in the US. The somber figures are so real, one can easily imagine them crying or their robes blowing in the wind as they move in their Duke's funeral procession. Reading the explanatory texts, which mentioned how tombs like John's were vandalised during the French Revolution, I could not help but be overcome with anger at how much was lost during that terrible time. We are fortunate however to be able to still witness as much of the glorious cultural patrimony of monarchical Europe, of which these statues are an eloquent example, as we can.

For this monarchist it was moving and thought-provoking to juxtapose the seemingly disparate experiences of rehearsing 19th-century Viennese orchestral music and examining 15th-century Burgundian sculpture. After all, the Habsburgs whose capital resounded with the sounds of Strauss waltzes and polkas were descended from the Dukes of Burgundy, whose last heiress Maria (1457-1482) paved the way for the great Habsburg Empire with her marriage to Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) in 1477. The cheerful music of Johann Strauss and the tragic sculptures that surrounded the tomb of John the Fearless may project opposite moods, but they both reflect the incomparable richness of true European civilisation, too often today obscured by modernity and republicanism but still accessible when one looks for it.

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