This is mostly catch up…I’m spending my free time getting ready for a talk on the 15th…
A History of the Vikings
Oxford University Press
If it wasn’t for the unfortunate early death of King Knut, a Viking, who, in 1033, briefly ruled over all of England, Denmark, and Norway, and created an Anglo-Scandinavian empire, we might gather round the fire each winter solstice to sing Here we go a viking. Instead, Knut’s death contributed to the success of the Norman invasion and we gather around the yule log at Christmas and go a wassailing. To a medieval Scandinavian, to go viking was to sail off in the hopes of adventure, plunder, and treasure in foreign lands. In time, the name of the practice of ruthless privateering stuck as the label for the men doing the invading.
As a sidelight, it turns out that wassailing, as it originated, is a weaker form of viking: it’s still festive mayhem, but usually without the thought of conquest attached to it.
Jones does a magnificent job of running through Viking history by sorting through the contradictory source material. The northmen, or norsemen, started as small communities in Scandinavia, prospered and needed more space to put their people. So a viking they went. They tamed and colonized Ireland, England, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, and even tried in North America and Wales but were chased out by the locals. They had a wonderful religion with Odin, Thor, Vallhala, the Valkyries, and so on.
But time passed and they slowly assimilated with the rest of the Continent, were Christianized, made repeated attempts to form an Anglo-Norman-Scandinavian alliance, and then, after the death of Knut who nearly realized these dreams but failed to secure a legacy, pulled back into the North and became good little Europeans.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson History
A succinct account of this famous battle. In 1413 Henry V was crowned King of England. He quickly decided that God had told him that France rightly belonged to him so he raised and bankrolled an army and sailed to Normandy in 1415, surprising the French who thought he’d land at Calais (which is the same mistake the Germans would make 529 years later).
Incidentally, the French king was insane (this statement, I agree, is probably a tautology) and believed that he was made of glass and that if anybody should touch him he would break.
The English took one fortress, established a base, and then marched across France to meet an army at least four times their size at Agincourt. The immense French army was pinched between two woods and could never bring more than a fraction of their force to bare. I won’t spoil the fun by telling you how the English won except to say that it was a gruesome display of medieval warfare. Find this book if you can (it’s back in print).
This book promises to reveal the “idea that solved music’s greatest riddle.” Technically, and in a minor way, it does, but I’d say less than half the book was actually about music; the rest is just filler (biographies, tangential history, etc.). Worse, the slim sections devoted to music where not terribly informative.
The central problem is this: how many and at what steps do you divide the interval between octaves, where an octave is a doubling (or halving) of a frequency (or tone). In other words, how do you create notes.
Isacoff provides a brief history of the skirmish between mathematical purists (those who wanted the divisions to be based on ratios of whole numbers) and musical pragmatists (those who wanted to divide the interval between an octave into even increments). The pragmatists won because it turns out you can prove it’s impossible to divide up octaves using rational fractions. End of story.
But not really, because he leaves too many questions unanswered. He must have been worried that his readers would be frightened by mathematics so he leaves out the major descriptive resource at his disposal. The problem is, after all, mathematical. A few simple equations with accompanying graphs would doubled the value of this book.
Again, it’s worse, because at the very end of the book, when we think we have temperament all figured out, he dangles the line, “Non-Western music did not have these difficulties.” Really? Why not? How is non-Western music different? We do not even get a hint! Give this book a pass.
Categories: Book review