Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I Am Not Alone

I am often asked: “How can a mercenary also be such an opera zealot?” My answer is always the same: “Passion is everything.”

Admittedly, there are few in my (former) profession who enjoy a good Ring cycle or cry during Madame Butterfly, but that doesn’t make me unique. In fact, I come from a long line of song-loving soldiers for hire. Well, not exactly a long line. Ok, a line of one.

Meet Tobias Hume. Captain Hume was a bit before my time (from around 1569 to 1645); he was an Englishman, composer, viol player (like a cello), professional soldier, and a mercenary. His most famous client was the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War, a wonderful time for private soldiers.

The viol de gamba.

Back in those days, Sweden was not the innocuous nation of Ikea, social welfare, and blondes. Ha! Sweden was the scourge of Europe! Its armies swept through the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy nor roman nor an empire) like a halberd through Jell-O. All resistors were defenestrated, a favorite method of winning hearts and minds for centuries.

Defenestration in action.

When I was stationed at a small provincial German town as a young US Army Officer, the school children would sing songs, generations old, of Swedish Terror. Beer swilling Bavarians would sober up at the mention of the Swedish horde, and speak in subdued tones of how the occupiers went house to house, stripping each one of its valuables and virgins, right down to the lead holding the stained glass windows together, in order to make musket balls.

The Swedes themselves still remember their glory days. Recently, my wife and I hosted a large cocktail party at our house for a delegation of senior-ranking Swedes from their Ministry of Defense. After one too many rounds of enforced Aquavit, I turned to the nearest Swedish General, who clearly looked like his ancestors drove long boats onto the shores of Ireland, and commented how sad it was that the world has forgotten the Terror that was Sweden. He turned to me, cracking a Cheshire-cat smile, and quietly replied, “But we do not.”

The lesson is: don’t mess with the Swedes! Vikings, Renaissance superpower, and the Saab fighter-jet. They’ve done it before and they can do it again.

A Mercenary’s Music

Captain Hume was no fool, and drew his wages from the winning side (see Peace of Prague, 1635). Not much remains of his music, which comprises two collections: “The First Part of Ayres” (or Musicall Humors, 1605) and “Captain Humes Poeticall Musicke” (1607).

His music is mostly for the viol, which ticked off John Dowland, the lute-playing Pete Townshend of his era, who cast aspersions upon Hume. This was during the famous Lute v. Viol battles of the early 17th Century. As there are no electric cellos in rock bands today, we know who won the war.

Despite his day job, his music is soft, soothing, and subtle. It stars mostly the solo viol and often includes voice. I would not choose to attack the Danes with this music as my personal soundtrack, but would rather reflect on the day's glory over the evening campfire with this music.

Hume’s hit parade includes: the stately yet frisky “Captaine Humes Pavin;” the upbeat “My Hope Is Decayed;” a quick-stepped “A Souldiers Galliard;” the wistful “Touch Me Lightly;” of course something on “Death,” and “Life,” leading inevitably towards “A Question,” and sanguinely followed by “An Answer,” which I personally don’t find terribly informative.

For a taste of something lively, try Hume's "Hunting Song," played by Les Voix Humaines with Julien Boland:

I am particularly fond of “A New Cut” (ouch!), “A Souldiers Resolution,” and the timeless soldier mantra “Good Againe.” “A Souldiers Resolution” starts with strident bowing, reminding me of reveille, AKA “the wake up bugle,” for those who have had the pleasure of Boot Camp. It is followed by what sounds like – expressed via viol - soldiers running around garrison, changing of guards, cleaning weapons, marching in formation, stacking munitions, digging ditches, peeling potatoes – all those timeless things soldiers do. None of them are fun, but you do them because all your buddies are doing also them, and you don’t want to let them down.

Listen to Jordi Savall jam "A Souldiers Resolution":

Hume understand this and invokes his “Souldiers Resolution” like an oath, as he proclaims “to the understanding reader”:

“I Doe not studie Eloquence, or profess Musicke, although I doe love Sence, and affect Harmony: my Profession being, as my Education hath beene, Armes, the onely effeminate part of me, hath beene Musicke; which in mee hath beene alwayes Generous, because never Mercenarie.”

Unlike the saccharine words of his contemporaries, his tone is gruff, raw, and direct. His music, however, is not. Little is known of his life, save a few letters and the portrait his music paints. Later in life, Hume finds his "Fortune is out of tune," and begs Queen Anne, to whom his second collection is dedicated, for charity. However, none is received and he dies poor and nearly insane at the Charterhouse Hospital. Old mercenaries don’t fade away so much as whither.

“To prayse Musicke, were to say, the Sunne is bright.”

Hume recordings are hard to come by. My favorite is by Jordi Savall, the Pete Townshend of the modern viol (and his daughter Arianna Savall is a rockin’ Renaissance harpist). It includes the hit parade, which Savall really digs, as evidenced by occasional and involuntary grunts as he jams.

Another recommendable collection is on one of my favorite labels, Naxos, which goes out of its way to record obscure music. Its collection is less martial but equally saucy. It includes ditties such as “My Joys are comming: The Lady of Bedford Delight,” “Musicke and Mirth: The Lady Hattons Delight,” and “Cease leaden slumber: The Queenes New-yeares gift.” I guess we know what he thought about on guard duty. Some things don’t change much over the centuries.


Anonymous said...

Just love the part of the Swedish menace. I'm sure that the swedes can pull it together once again.


Il Condottiero said...

I'm betting on it.

ParisHoya said...

Bravo! Who'd have thought the martial and musical arts had such an intertwined history. Perhaps you could start the world's first ex-merc traveling opera company? Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Nope--you're not alone. Eagerly awaiting the next tale.

Anonymous said...

You have to express more your opinion to attract more readers, because just a video or plain text without any personal approach is not that valuable. But it is just form my point of view

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :)

Anonymous said...

You have tested it and writing form your personal experience or you find some information online?