European studies blog

13 posts from October 2013

31 October 2013

The Noonday Witch

 ‘Hey-how for Hallowe'en!
A' the witches tae be seen,
Some are black, an' some green,
Hey-how for Hallowe'en!’

This is a traditional Scottish song for October 31st, where the custom of children dressing up as ‘guisers’ and going from house to house to sing, ending with cries of ‘Gi’e us our Hallowe’en!’ before being rewarded with cakes and ‘dooking’ for apples long pre-dated the American practice of Trick or Treating. Readers of Robert Burns’s ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ will be familiar with the grisly gathering at Kirk Alloway which the hapless Tam encounters on his way home, late one stormy night, from drinking too long with Kirkton Jean and other cronies. Every country has its tradition of witches – and not all are nocturnal.

Among the Slavonic peoples a mysterious figure can be found who reveals herself not at night but in broad daylight – at the very mid-point of noon itself. Known as Południca in Polish, Полудница (Poludnica) in Serbian, Polednice in Czech, Poludnica in Slovak, Полудница (Poludnitsa) in Bulgarian and Russian, Полудниця (Poludnytsya) in Ukrainian, she sometimes appears as a young woman in white, shimmering in the heat-haze on summer days, but also as a sinister old crone, like a farmer’s wife bent and gnarled from years of work in the fields, leaning with a stick and wearing a kerchief on her head. She had the power to afflict those who met her with sunstroke or even madness, but was also invoked by mothers to deter their children from running out in the midday sun or wandering into crops ripe for harvest and trampling them.


When Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870; portrait above from Wikimedia Commons)  was working with the Czech historian František Palacký, travelling through small Bohemian towns in search of historical archive material, he used his free time to collect folk-songs and stories which he later published in several collections, e.g. Prostonárodní české pisně a říkadla [National songs and riddles] (Prague, 1896-1897; British Library shelfmark 011586.m.17). Later, in 1853, he produced a collection of twelve original poems inspired by folk motifs under the title Kytice [A Bouquet], adding a thirteenth poem, ‘Lilie’, for the 1861 edition (BL shelfmark 1607/2791). One of the shortest of these, all the more dramatic for its compression and tension, is Polednice [The Noonday Witch], which Antonín Dvořák made the subject of a symphonic ballad in 1896.

Writing the music, Dvořák inserted quotations from the poem in the margins to help him evoke the mysterious atmosphere of the strange figure’s appearance in a Czech peasant home where the harassed mother threatens her child that the witch will come and take him if he does not stop grizzling – with terrible consequences. Although he did not set the text directly, its rhythms and intrinsic music are reproduced in his composition, and I hope that the following version, part of a complete translation of Kytice to be published soon by Jantar Publishing  preserves something of this and will chill our readers appropriately. Happy Hallowe’en!

The Noonday Witch, by  Karel Jaromír Erben

By the bench there stood an infant,
Screaming, screaming, loud and wild;
‘Can’t you just be quiet an instant?
Hush, you nasty gipsy-child!

Now it’s noon, or just about,
Daddy’s coming home for dinner:
while I cook, the fire’s gone out—
all your fault, you little sinner!

Hush! Your cart’s here, your hussar—
look, your cockerel!—Go on, play!’
Crash, bang! Soldier, cock and cart
To the corner fly away.

Once again that fearful bellow—
‘May a hornet come and sting you!
Hush, you naughty little fellow,
Or the Noonday Witch I’ll bring you!

Come for him, you Noonday Witch, then!
Come and take this pest for me!’—
In the door into the kitchen,
Someone softly turns the key.

Little, brown-skinned, strange of feature,
On her head a kerchief pinned;
With a stick – crook-legged creature,
Voice that booms like roaring wind!

‘Give that child here!’ ‘Lord, forgive
this sinner’s sins, my Saviour dear!’
It’s a wonder she still lives,
For see—the Noonday Witch is here!

Silent as a shadow wreathes,
The witch towards the table’s slipping:
Mother, fearful, scarcely breathes,
 In her lap the child she’s gripping.

Twisting round, she looks behind her—
Poor, poor child—ah, what a fate!
Closer creeps the witch to find her,
Closer—now she’s there—too late!.
Now for him her hand is grasping—
Tighter squeeze the mother’s arms:
‘For Christ’s precious torments!’ gasping,
She sinks senseless with alarm.

Listen—one, two, three and more:
The noonday bell is ringing clear;
The handle clicks, and as the door
Flies wide open, father’s here.

Child clasped to her breast, he found,
Lying in a faint, the mother;
He could hardly bring her round,
But the little one was – smothered.

This translation © Susan Reynolds

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak Collections

30 October 2013

In search of the lost palace in Białowieża National Park

We are all so switched on to social media these days that we sometimes forget how recent a development this has been. Every so often, when I go into Facebook, I am confronted by wonderful photographs posted by the Białowieża National Park, a nature reserve in the primeval forest straddling the Polish-Belarusian border. Known for being the last place in Europe that bison still live, the reserve hosts scientific conferences and is a popular resort for walkers and cyclists, as well as for people who simply come to look at the animals and enjoy the enveloping quiet of the forest all around.

But just a decade ago, Białowieża was all but unknown outside Poland and certain scientific circles, and its web presence was negligible. At that time, I was involved in researching the history of the place – originally for a friend’s book (Greg King, Court of the Last Tsar, BL shelfmarks YC.2006.a.13165 and m06/.22031); but we also gathered enough information for a long magazine article.

Białowieża Park started life as a hunting ground for the Lithuanian and Polish kings, and the forest’s (few) inhabitants enjoyed a tax-free status on condition they looked after it. In due course, following the partitions of Poland, it fell into the hands of the Romanovs, who set about restocking a forest now much damaged and depleted by invasions. Tsar Alexander III, a particularly enthusiastic huntsman with solidly bourgeois tastes, built himself a massive lodge there in the 1890s, transforming the simple estate into an imperial park, complete with outbuildings and landscaped grounds. Polish presidents and Nazi viceroys used it later, but the palace was damaged in World War Two and subsequently torn down. Today, the scientific study centre stands in its place.

Photograph of the Hofmarschal’s House

The Hofmarschal’s House, one of the remaining outbuildings (©J.Ashton/C.Martyn)

The estate gets odd mentions in memoirs and histories of the late imperial period – particularly of Nicholas II’s reign – but practically nothing was written about it in detail. It took Greg and me some time to even work out where it actually was, but both of us have a particular interest in architecture, and were fascinated by the first picture we saw of the turreted behemoth that had been Alexander’s palace.

Getting to Białowieża  in 2004 proved a reasonable challenge. There was no direct route by public transport from Warsaw, and the resulting car trip took many hours longer than anticipated, mainly due to farm vehicles passing very slowly along the little roads. On the other hand, it was very peaceful and relaxing! The town of Białowieża, two uneven roads lined with wooden houses, has probably not changed greatly since Tsarist days, save for the addition of two modern hotels. The park opens from the end of one street, and in its gatehouse – one of the few remaining traces of Alexander’s gothic fantasy – was an exhibition on the history of the palace. In Polish, of course.

Photograph of the palace The Palace in its heyday

These days, there are plentiful photos of the whole estate on the net, and a boutique hotel cashing in on the Tsarist connection has opened in the disused imperial station. There is a direct bus from Warsaw and lots of websites in English. 

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

Some more BL resources on Białowieża Palace:

Białowieża, carska rezydencja, by Swietlana Czestnych, Karen Kettering (LF.31.a.3514)

Saga Puszczy Białowieskiej, by Simona Kossak (YA.2003.a.20990)

Białowieża : zarys dziejów do 1950 roku, by Piotr Bajko (YF.2004.a.2209)


28 October 2013

A country made out of 'bits and bobs’

In Janet Hitchman’s autobiography The King of the Barbareens (London, 1960: British Library shelfmark X.990/17333) she recalls how, as a young girl in 1920s Norfolk, she encountered Czechoslovakia for the first time. ‘There isn’t such a place,’ her foster-mother retorted, only to learn from a policeman that it was ‘a new country they made after the war out of bits and bobs that used to be Austria, only you say it Scheckoslovakia’. ‘And now [she continues]  it was a pleasure to look at the rampant lion stamped on [the lamp glass], with its four broad-spread toes on each foot, its curly tongue and lace-patterned tail, and to know that it came from Czechoslovakia, a country made out of “bits and bobs”.’

Shortly before his death in January 1806 the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger is said to have remarked ‘Roll up that map of Europe; it will not be wanted these ten years,’ reflecting on the consequences of Napoleon’s recent victory over the Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz. Today the site of the battlefield lies within the Czech Republic, about ten kilometres from Brno, and is known as Slavkov u Brna. Had Pitt given the timescale as 110 years, he would not have been surprised to find that the map of Europe as it then existed would have been of even less use in 1915 than in 1815.

The map of Europe at the end of the First World War was a tattered object bearing the marks of congresses, partitions, Bismarck’s wars of expansion, treaties and rising nationalist movements. Ever since the annexation of the Crown Lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia by the Habsburgs, this area of central Europe had been particularly contentious. Ruled by the imperial house of Austria since 1526, the inhabitants of the region had seen their hopes of independence crushed at the battle of White Mountain in 1620, when the Bohemian Protestant nobles had suffered a conclusive defeat by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor. There followed the Czech ‘Dark Ages’ (tma) when the survival not only of Bohemian identity but of the Czech language seemed in jeopardy.

But with the National Revival of the late 18th-early 19th centuries, the tide turned, and after the Ausgleich of 1867 which granted Hungary a measure of autonomy, it seemed that the Czechs might be accorded similar privileges. If Crown Prince Rudolf had not committed suicide at Mayerling in 1889, a compromise might have allowed him to reign as King of Bohemia; he had served as an officer in Prague, and had strong sympathies with its people. However, when the map was being redrawn in 1918, the solution was a very different one.

Simon Winder in Danubia: a personal history of Habsburg Europe (London, 2013) declares, ‘Most academic of all were probably the Czechs’. He describes with glee the ‘apogee of absurdity’ which was reached in October 1918 when Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) and his colleagues posed in front of the Liberty Bell to proclaim an independent Czechoslovak republic in Pennsylvania (his italics). The delegation had been in Philadelphia to negotiate with some American Slovaks, and the photograph was intended to symbolize a shared democratic inheritance. Winder, while disparaging the ‘imagined set of shared Slav values’ which formed the basis of the new Czechoslovakia, overlooks the objective and far from chauvinistic position from which Masaryk proceeded.

Tomáš  Masaryk (picture above from Wikimedia Commons)

Masaryk  was born in Moravia of mixed Czech and Slovak parentage, and studied in Vienna before being appointed in 1882 to the chair of philosophy in the Czech part of Prague University. Interestingly, he spoke out decisively against those who believed in the authenticity of the Královédvorské and Zelenohorské manuscripts, two collections of allegedly mediaeval Czech poetry which proved to be forgeries. He believed that nationalism which was based on a fabrication was blighted from the start, and was prepared to suffer the personal obloquy which this invited.

He served in the Reichsrat (Austrian Parliament) from 1891 to 1893 in the Young Czech Party and again from 1907 to 1914 in the Realist Party, which he founded in 1900, but did not campaign for the independence of Czechs and Slovaks from Austria-Hungary. In 1915 he became a professor at the newly-formed School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and during the war visited France and Russia to urge the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before its imminent collapse.

In 1918 he was recognized by the Allies as the head of the provisional Czech government, and was elected President in November that year. He had already convinced Woodrow Wilson of the justice of his cause, and in October 1918, from the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he called for the independence of the Czechoslovaks and other oppressed peoples of Central Europe. (There had been suggestions that the second city of the new Czechoslovakia should be called Wilsonovo, but this was rejected in favour of Bratislava, a more resonantly Slavonic name than Pressburg or Pozsony, leaving the President of the United States to be commemorated in the name of one of Prague’s railway stations.)

During the post-1968 era the national holiday on 28 October commemorating the proclamation of the first Czechoslovak Republic was played down, and 74 years after its establishment the Czechs and Slovaks parted company in the ‘Velvet Divorce’. The Slovaks, on the whole, have quietly forgotten the date, but the Czechs still mark it enthusiastically. While the state itself may no longer exist, the values summed up by its Hussite-inspired motto ‘Pravda vítězí’ (Truth shall prevail) are still worthy of celebration.

Susan Halstead, Curator of Czech and Slovak.

25 October 2013

Geometry has two sides

Don Juan Manuel, an aristocratic Spanish writer of the fourteenth century, was acutely aware of his social status and the sort of learning that was appropriate to it.

In El conde Lucanor he says he will write about how men may benefit their souls and bodies:

et commo quier que estas cosas que non son muy sotiles en si, assi, commo si yo fablasse de la sciencia de theologia, o metafisica, o filosofia natural, o aun moral, o otras sciencias muy sotiles, tengo que me cae mas et es mas aprovechoso segund el mio estado

[and although these things are not very intellectual in themselves, as if I were to speak of the science of theology, or metaphysics, or natural or even moral philosophy, or other hard knowledge, I hold that it is more fitting and beneficial for me according to my estate]

(In the nineteenth century, tiologías in the Spanish of the streets meant something abstruse.)
A sixteenth-century manuscript has the variant:

de la theologia u jumetria o fisica o philosophia [of theology or geometry or physics or philosophy]

We can understand why Don Juan might want to keep off subjects such as theology, but what was his objection to geometry?

In the Middle Ages the lower level of studies, the trivium, consisted of grammar, rhetoric and logic; the higher-level quadrivium covered arithmetic, astronomy, music and geometry.  (You can still insult someone by calling them trivial, but you can’t praise them by calling them quadrivial.)

Don Juan Manuel wasn’t alone: Nicolau Quilis (1420s) writes:

Lo qual vici és apellat curiositat, ço es ... gran ànsia de saber ... aixi com qui llexada la filosofia moral, se donave a hoir estrologia, geometria e altres sciències impertinents

[Which vice is called curiosity, that is, great anxiety for knowledge, like one who,  abandoning moral philosophy, gave himself over to learning astrology, geometry or other impertinent sciences] (Rubió, I, 219).

In 1547, in an oration in praise of learning delivered to the nascent University of Coimbra, Arnoldus Fabricius praised the usefulness of geometry as it is the foundation of architecture, and where would be we be without houses?

According to Vitruvius, On Architecture, 6.1.-2, when the philosopher-scientist  Aristippus was shipwrecked, he was naturally disoriented and distressed.  Perhaps he’d fallen among savages, cannibals or worse.  Until he saw that the natives had drawn geometrical figures in the sand.  ‘We are among civilised people,’ he proclaimed.  This is depicted in the elaborate frontispiece to an edition of Euclid’s Works shown here:

Εὐκλειδου τα σωζομενα = Euclidis quæ supersunt omnia. Ex recensione D. Gregorii. (Oxford, 1703) British Library Shelfmark G.8180.

Geometry is still useful.  Space aliens don’t speak English, or indeed any earthman language.  It’s generally assumed that the way to communicate with our distant neighbours is via geometrical figures.

Perhaps Mission Control have been studying their Vitruivius.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Don Juan Manuel,  Obras completas, ed. J. M. Blecua (Madrid, 1982-83), II, 440. X.0800/1790

Luís de Matos, Quatro orações latinas proferidas na Universidade e Colégio das Artes (Coimbra, 1937)

Jordi Rubio i Balaguer, Història de la literatura catalana, I (Barcelona, 1984) ZA.9.a.286

J. L. Heilbron, Geometry Civilized: History, Culture and Technique (Oxford, 1998) YC.1999.b.6123

Evgeny A. Zaitsev, ‘The Meaning of Early Medieval Geometry: From Euclid and Surveyors’ Manuals to Christian Philosophy’, Isis, 90 (1999), 522-53.

Florence D. Fasanelli and V. Frederick Rickey, ‘Why have a Frontispiece?  Examples from the Michalowicz Collection at American University’, Revista Brasileira de  História da Matemática, especial no. 1, Festschrift Ubiratan D’Ambrosio (2007), 81-96:

23 October 2013

Picturing Heidi

The exhibition “Picture This” in the British Library’s Folio Society Gallery showed illustrated versions of 20th-century British children’s classics.

An earlier children’s book in which illustrations have played a key role – and one of the few translated children’s books to attain classic status in Britain – is Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. First published in German in 1880-1881, Heidi became an international success and has come to define Switzerland for many people.

The first edition of the book had no illustrations other than its decorative cover, but the temptation to draw the vivacious Heidi, her adventures and her alpine home – as well as goats galore – was too great to resist, and practically every edition since has included pictures. There are also many simplified adaptations or retellings where pictures are given almost equal weight with the text.

Decorative cover of the second volume of 'Heidi', 1881
Heidi kann brauchen, was es gelernt hat
(Gotha, 1881) - the second part of the original edition. (British Library shelfmark

The first illustrator of Heidi, Friedrich Wilhelm Pfeiffer, set the pattern for the characters: Heidi’s grandfather with a long beard, pipe and traditional peasant costume (although Pfeiffer actually portrayed him in Bavarian rather than Bernese dress), and Heidi in a simple dirndl, barefooted and with dark, curly hair. Peter the goatherd is often distinguished by a rather battered hat, and the invalid Clara usually has straight blonde hair, in contrast to Heidi’s dark curls. Heidi herself has sometimes been given a blonde makeover, but most illustrators follow Spyri’s description and keep her dark haired.

Illustration of Heidi and her grandfather
A typical depiction of Heidi and her grandfather from an undated late 19th/early 20th-century edition published in Gotha (W23/2113)

The surroundings are as important as the characters in Heidi. The mountains become central to Heidi’s life – she is both psychologically and physically ill when taken away – and play a vital role in Clara’s healing. Many illustrators created an imaginary ideal of an alpine landscape, but some had travelled in the Swiss Alps and based their pictures on sketches made there. An attractive example of this approach is seen in the pen-and-ink illustrations by Marguerite Davis for a 1927 American edition.

Illustration of Heidi against a backdrop of meadows and mountains
Heidi in the mountains, illustration by Marguerite Davis from Heidi, translated by Helen B. Dole (Boston, 1927).

Also characters in their own right are the goats which Heidi and Peter take to the mountain pastures every day, and no illustrated edition is complete without at least one picture of Heidi embracing, leading or standing beside a goat or two.

Title-page and frontispiece from the first English edition, showing Heidi, Peter and goats
Frontispiece and titlepage of the first English edition (London, [1882]). C.194.1225.

While the characters’ hairstyles and clothes might change slightly to reflect the fashions of the artists’ own times, illustrations to Heidi have tended to remain fairly traditional. The current Puffin Classics edition, despite having gone through various changes of cover design, still has inside the illustrations made by Cecil Leslie for its 1956 printing.

However, some artists such as the French cartoonist Tomi Ungerer have brought a more modern sensibility to the book. The most recent Ladybird picture book edition is an example of this shift, although its spare and stylised look is perhaps surprising in a version for very young readers.

Vignette of Heidi with a goatBut whether modern or old-fashioned, unsentimental or kitschy, artists  continue to reimagine Heidi and to shape the way in which readers picture not only the story but the very landscape of the Swiss Alps.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

Further reading:
Heidi - Karrieren einer Figur, herausgegeben von Ernst Halter (Zürich, 2001). YA.2002.a.29456




 Vignette from the cover of BL W23/2113


21 October 2013

Unicorn versus Rhinoceros

The planned Ark Encounter theme park (Williamstown KY) will allegedly show unicorns boarding the Ark. The Bible does indeed refer to unicorns, and while for some this is the end of the matter for others it’s only the beginning.

Father Benito Feijoo OSB (1676-1764) reader (in Latin, of course) of Bacon, was a major figure of the Spanish Enlightenment.  (Only the Spanish would have taken a Benedictine as their Voltaire.)  His Teatro crítico (1726–1739) was a collection of essays on various questions, many of them on nature.

Portrait of Feijoo y Montenegro by Juan Bernabé Palomino (image from Wikimedia Commons)

He often cast himself in the role of debunker of myths and vulgar errors: Ovid was not inspired by the Bible, he said (see Trousson), and there was no such thing as a unicorn.

He was a controversial writer in an age of controversialists, and the Teatro crítico gave rise to a whole corpus of counterblasts and counter-counterblasts (bibliographised by Cameron).

In 1728 Feijoo (Teatro critico, II, discourse II) decided that the unicorn was a myth, and that what the Bible calls the unicorn was Rupicapra orientalis, the Oryx.   The unicorn horns found in royal collections were the tooth of the narwhal:  Feijoo cites ‘Francisco Willugbeyo’ (Francis Willughby), Historia piscium (London, 1686) [BL shelfmark 41.i.1.]
Salvador José Mañer (1676-1751) weighed in in six years later with his  Crisol critico, theologico, historico, politico, physico, y mathematico, e que se quilatan las materias, y puntos que se le han impugnado al Theatro critico, y pretendido defender en la Demonstracion critica el M. R. P, Lector Fr. Martin Sarmiento, benedictino. (Madrid, 1734) [RB.23.a.34204]

This work is “a crucible in which the principal objections to the Teatro crítico are assayed”.  On pp. 235-49 he reports that Fr Martín Sarmiento, Feijoo’s staunchest defender,  identified the biblical unicorn with the rhinoceros.

In 1743 Feijoo received a letter from an anonymous correspondent, who said that his aide de chambre had seen a unicorn at Brussels. Feijoo had the last word  (Cartas eruditas y curiosas (1745), III, letter III): he is adamant that the unicorn and the rhinoceros were quite different, and that this was a rhino.

In a final note, Feijoo says “I will not hide from the reader that I fear that the Brussels rhinoceros is the fiction of some idle person”.  Here for once the great man was wrong: this was Clara, the celebrated rhinoceros, who made a European tour from 1741 to 1758, passing through Brussels in 1743, and was celebrated in painting by Longhi (in the National Gallery, London) and in Meissen porcelain.

A contemporary rhinoceros, from James Parsons, Die natürliche Historie des Nashorns ... (Nuremberg, 1747). B.342.(2)

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


R. Trousson, “Feijoo, crítico de la exégesis mitológica”, Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, 18 (1965-66), 453-61 [Ac.2693.ce]

William J.Cameron, A bibliography in short-title catalog form of Feijoniana, 2nd ed. (London (Ont.), 1987) [2725.g.1188]

Biblioteca Feijoniana:

17 October 2013

Georg Büchner - German literature's great "what if...?"

What is it about years ending in 13? They must be lucky for some, because 2013 has seen the anniversaries of many major cultural figures and events. Today we can add another to the list: Georg Büchner, born on 17 October 1813 and considered one of the most innovative, influential and brilliant figures in German literature. Germany’s most prestigious literary prize bears his name and the German film director Werner Herzog  described Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck as “the best thing ever written in our language”.

His posthumous reputation is all the more amazing considering that Büchner died at the age of only 23, none of his plays were performed in his own lifetime, and his only work of prose fiction also remained unfinished. Indeed, only one of his works was published without alteration or censorship before his death: his doctoral dissertation on the nervous system of fish.

Büchner dissertation 2
Büchner’s (uncontroversial) dissertation, in  Mémoires de la Société d'histoire naturelle de Strasbourg, tom. 2 (Strasbourg, [1836]), British Library shelfmark Ac.2858.

Büchner was involved in both literature and radical politics from his student days. In 1834 he wrote the pamphlet Der Hessische Landbote, a call for revolution with the slogan “Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Palästen” (Peace to the huts! War to the palaces!). The pamphlet was revised and published by Friedrich Ludwig Weidig and, although Büchner apparently repudiated Weidig’s revised text, he was forced into exile as a result of its publication.

Büchner Landbote
The (very controversial) pamphlet Der hessische Landbote. Image from Wikimedia commons; the British Library holds a facsimile edition (Marburg, 1973) at X.909/30246.

His plays also have a radical social edge. Dantons Tod, set during the French Revolution, depicts the conflict between Danton and Robespierre. The comedy Leonce und Lena satirises the small, absolutist German states of the time: its hero and heroine, prince and princess of the states of Popo and Pipi, each run away to avoid their arranged marriage only to meet, fall in love, and eventually end up married and resigned to the meaningless court life they had sought to flee.

The unfinished novella Lenz, based on a real episode in the life of the 18th-century playwright J.M.R. Lenz, is more concerned with human psychology as Lenz seeks refuge in a small mountain village from the mental illness that increasingly torments him.

Social and psychological themes come together in Woyzeck, the story of a poor soldier trying to support his common-law wife Marie and their child. Overwork, exploitation and poverty are destroying him physically and mentally, and he is haunted by apocalyptic visions. When Marie is seduced by another man, Woyzeck kills her in an act of desperate violence.

Woyzeck was first published in 1870 and its unsparing depiction of poverty and cast of mainly working-class characters, unique in Büchner’s own day, immediately appealed to the Naturalist writers of the time. A generation later its fragmentary form and hallucinatory images made it equally attractive to the Expressionists. 

It is perhaps Woyzeck above all which has gained Büchner the reputation of a writer ahead of his time, but all his works demonstrate the formal, linguistic and intellectual boldness which make him seem so modern. His early death deprived German literature of a major talent, and makes him the country’s greatest literary “what if…?”

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

Georg Büchner

The best-known image of Büchner, used as the frontispiece to the first complete edition of his works, Georg Büchner's sämmtliche Werke und handschriftlicher Nachlass ... herausgegeben von Karl Emil Franzos (Frankfurt am Main, 1879). BL shelfmark 12252.b.4.










14 October 2013

Verdi and Wagner: two composers, two bicentenaries, four portraits

The bicentenaries of the births of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) are being magnificently commemorated in various countries, though not without the occasional controversy. Last December, La Scala’s  decision to open its season  not with a Verdi opera but with Wagner’s  Lohengrin  was seen  as ‘a blow for national pride in a moment of crisis’; this summer’s Proms were also widely criticised for programming seven Wagner operas (including a complete Ring Cycle) and none by Verdi, who was represented only by a concert of choral music and half a concert of tenor arias. It has to be said, though, that during this anniversary year the BBC is broadcasting the complete works of both composers and that Verdi is more in evidence this autumn in the weeks around the exact anniversary of his birth on 10 October. Finally, the inauguration of La Scala’s new season with La traviata will hopefully restore national pride (even though it will have a German Violetta)! 

The anniversary has also engendered innumerable discussions about the relative merits of these two towering figures, embodiments of the cultures of their respective nations. Verdi’s status as the symbol of the Risorgimento, has recently been  been questioned.  Even  more unexpected is the revelation that at times during the Third Reich Verdi’s operas were more performed in Germany than Wagner’s.

I would like commemorate this bicentenary year with a brief, and uncontroversial, look at portraits of the two composers in old age, painted in the 1880s and 1890s, Verdi  by Giovanni Boldini, and Wagner by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) was an immensely successful society portrait painter. He was one of the ‘Italians in Paris’ who worked in the orbit of Degas and his two portraits of Verdi were painted  in the spring of 1886, during the composer’s brief visit to Paris to hear the baritone Victor Maurel, who went on to create the roles of  Iago and Falstaff, in the composer’s last two operas. The first portrait was the larger, more official and sober oil painting which Verdi later presented to the Rest Home for Musicians, which he himself had founded.

Verdi Boldoni 2 (CM)
Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi seated.  1886. Milan, Oil on canvas. 

Boldini, who was dissatisfied with that first portrait, invited Verdi to a second sitting in which the pastel portrait in a top hat and  a scarf knotted at his neck, was finished in just  three hours.

Verdi Boldoni_PH
Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi in a Top Hat.  1886. Rome, Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna.  Pastel on board.

It is a more delicate, informal and lively work, and Boldini liked it so much that he kept it in his studio, refusing to sell it to eager buyers (including the Prince of Wales). He lent it, however, to various important exhibitions and its fame spread, especially after Verdi’s publisher Giulio Ricordi  commissioned an etching after it. In 1918 Boldini finally presented it to the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna in Rome. It is now one of the most reproduced portraits of Verdi.

Renoir’s portrait of Wagner (now in the Musée d’Orsay) was painted just one year before the composer’s death

Wagner Renoir 1 (CM)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir  Portrait of Richard Wagner. 15 January 1882 Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

The artist, whose circle of friends included numerous Wagner enthusiasts at a time of considerable anti-German feeling in France after the Franco-Prussian War, was in Naples when he received a commission from a French music lover, the magistrate Antoine Lascoux, to paint a portrait of the composer. After several misadventures on his journey to Palermo, amusingly recounted in a letter to a friend, he was finally received by Wagner, who was staying at the Grand Hotel et des Palmes.

The portrait was painted in just 35 minutes, on 15 January 1882, two days after Wagner had completed the orchestral score of Parsifal. The session, also documented in Cosima Wagner’s diary [British Library X:439/4604], was by all accounts a jovial occasion, though Renoir was very nervous and was shocked by Wagner’s comments about painting and his anti-Semitic remarks. Wagner was amused by Renoir’s nervousness and grimacing while painting, and commented that the portrait made him look like ‘a protestant pastor’ (in Renoir’s account) or ‘the embryo of an angel, an oyster swallowed by an epicure’ (in Cosima’s).

A copy of the 1882 portrait was commissioned by another French Wagner enthusiast, Paul-Alfred Chéramy. This version (now in the Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra National de Paris) is smaller and sketchier than the original.

Wagner Renoir 2 (CM)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir  Portrait of Richard Wagner. 1893. Paris, Musée del’Opéra.

Renoir visited Bayreuth in 1896 but was bored by the length of the operas. Moreover, he detested the new development of performances taking place in a darkened auditorium that deprived him the pleasure of observing the activities of other spectators.

This celebration of these two great composers will, however, have to end on a sad note – the recent death of Patrice Chéreau. Chéreau’s 1976 centenary production of the Ring cycle in Bayreuth is now,  like Giorgio Strehler’s  productions of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth, the stuff of operatic legend.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek studies

Barbara Ehrlich White, Renoir, his life, art, and letters. (New York, 2010) LC.31.b.8596

Jean Renoir,  Renoir, my father  (London, 1962)  7852.s.52.

Boldini / a cura di Francesca Dini, Fernando Mazzocca, Carlo Sisi.  (Venice, 2005) YF.2006.b.182

11 October 2013

To Kolomea with love

I dare say that many of us can talk with enthusiasm about the “dream cities” of our childhood and present a long list of names. Something in the name itself, or even the way it was pronounced for the first time we heard it, catches our imagination and makes us dream about visiting them. The usual “list of suspects” includes Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, Barcelona...

Well, they all were on my own list. Yet there was another town, much closer to my native Ivano-Frankivsk  in Ukraine. It was even in the same region of Western Ukraine, known also as Eastern Galicia. It could be that the humorous aphoristic songs, called “kolomyiky”, which my dear father Vasyl liked to sing on many joyful occasions, are “guilty” of my particular attraction to this town.


Type “kolomyiky” in our electronic catalogue Explore the British Library  and you will find some interesting material. These cheerful Ukrainian folk songs (only two lines, with fourteen syllables each), as well as the folk dance with the same name, have rightfully merited their own Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH). Polish-Armenian  painter Teodor Axentowicz painted his vivid Kolomeyka in 1895 (picture from Wikimedia Commons).

392px-Leopold_von_Sacher-Masoch%2C_portraitYes, my other dream city bears the name of Kolomea, Kolomyia  in Ukrainian. The English–language Wikipedia presents a yet incomplete list of famous people (Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian) who were born there or spent a good part of their life there. The   town itself has its rightful place on the European literary map too with the Austrian writer’s  Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s  (picture right from Wikimedia Commons) erotic novel Don Juan von Kolomea (Don Juan of Kolomea), published in German in 1866. English-language readers are familiar with his Venus in Furs   but  the story of the Ukrainian Don Juan from Galicia has only recently became available (as an e-Book only) in an English translation by Richard Hacken  as “Don Juan from Colomea”.

Jewish, Ukrainian and Polish publishers have flourished in Kolomea  for many centuries. The famous publisher Yakiv Orenshtain (1875-1944), a native of Kolomea,    established in 1903 the “Halyts’ka Nakladnia”, which published books in many languages and also specialised in postcards, capturing the beauty of the town and scenes from colourful multi-ethnic Galician life (see one of Orenshtain's postcards below). Our Ukrainian Collection recently acquired some lovely books about old postcards from Kolomea (shelf marks: YF.2006.b.2068 and YF. 2006.b.2080)


My long-standing dream  of visiting Kolomea (after Paris, London, Vienna, Barcelona etc.) is finally going to become a reality. I am going there to  a conference to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first journal of Ukrainian Esperantists, called Ukraina Stelo (The Star of Ukraine). It was published in 1913-1914 and revived after the horrors of the First World War in 1922 in what was then the Polish Republic. The Austrian National Library  has digitised this rare publication and now it is available to all. Yes, Kolomea was also an important centre of teaching and publishing in Esperanto. The memorial plaque to the editor of Ukraina Stelo, Orest Kuzma (1892-1968), another famous citizen of Kolomea, will be solemnly unveiled.

Hope to send to my colleagues in European Studies a modern multilingual postcard from Kolomea - with  lots of love.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian and Esperanto Studies

09 October 2013

The British Library & British Museum Singers celebrate Verdi’s Birthday

Join the British Library and British Museum Singers for this performance on 10 October to mark the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth on 10 October  1813. 

When: 13.00-13.40, Thursday 10 October 2013
Where: Entrance Hall, British Library, St Pancras

Giuseppe Verdi
Portrait of  Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini, 1886, from Wikimedia Commons

This free event will be conducted by Peter Hellyer and accompanied by Giles Ridley.

The programme will include these choruses and arias from Verdi operas:
Chorus of Hebrew slaves (Nabucco)
Brindisi (La traviata) - solos: Andrew Bale, Hidemi Hatada                             
Chorus of Scottish refugees (Macbeth)
Matadors’ chorus (La traviata)
Soldiers’ chorus (Il trovatore)
Rataplan (La forza del destino)- solo Kirsten Johnson
Triumphal scene (Aida)

Please come and join in the repeat of Va, pensiero (Chorus of Hebrew slaves) from Nabucco at the end of the concert.

The British Library & British Museum Singers perform four concerts a year in the British Library, the British Museum or St Pancras Church.  Wherever possible it links its programmes to current exhibitions and features items held by the British Library or the British Museum. This year it has given concerts celebrating the anniversaries of Benjamin Britten (Britten and Purcell) and Verdi (Verdi and Monteverdi). On 10  October in the British Library Entrance Hall we will be repeating some of Verdi’s best-known choruses on the actual day of his birth. Our next concert entitled “A French Connection” will mark the 50th anniversary of Francis Poulenc’s death and will include his Gloria and songs set to words by Apollinaire. This concert will take place on Thursday 21 November  in St Pancras Church at 1.15.

The operas of Verdi were all the rage in Russia in the 1860s. La forza del destino which features in our celebration was in fact first performed in the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia on 22nd November 1862. After further revisions it was performed in Rome, Madrid, New York and London and elsewhere. It was the version after further revisions, with additions by Antonio Ghislanzoni which premiered in La Scala in 1869 that became the standard performance version.  One of the notable celebrations of Verdi’s anniversary in Russia this year has been at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

Peter Hellyer, Musical Director British Library & British Museum Singers and Curator Russian Studies