A Tale of Two History Lessons

Frédérik SisaA&E, General Art

Reviews of French Revolutions for Beginners and The History of Classical Music for Beginners

[img]2968|right|||no_popup[/img]The closest Americans come to revolution these days is through bumper stickers bearing Thomas Jefferson’s bromide about watering a certain tree with blood. It’s a lazy form of political cussing for unproductively upset American voters, who can’t otherwise be bothered to lace their votes with radical sentiment (e.g. by empowering third parties to break the two-party partisan gridlock) let alone consider direct action. Whatever revolutionary impulses might lurk in the mind of contemporary America’s body politic have, with the exception of a few flare-ups here and there, been effectively muddled, diffused, and ultimately deflected.

French Revolutions for Beginners by attorney and professor Michael J. Lamonica isn’t a dissection of American politics, past or present, but it does offer insight – a tonic for complacency, perhaps? – into the revolutionary spirit via France’s dramatic shedding of the old monarchic regime. “Enlightenment concepts of popular sovereignty, equality before the law, public property, and inalienable civil rights replaced those of royal, aristocratic, and clerical privilege in Europe’s richest and most populous county, permanently upsetting the old order,” he writes, adding that “few events have had such a profound and lasting impact on Western, and indeed world, civilization as the French Revolutions.” From setting up the tinderbox prior to World War I to ideological developments such as public education, the abolition of slavery, and more, Lamonica is entirely persuasive in his assessment of the French Revolutions’ legacy.

With witty illustrations by T. Motley, Lamonica explains the politicial, ideological, and physical turmoil of the French Revolutions in a riveting book that reads like a political thriller rather than an esoteric history lesson. There are colourful characters, and plenty of twists and turns, beginning with the fact that the book is titled in the plural and not the singular. As Lamonica notes, France experienced several revolutions and counter-revolutions over the period between 1789 and 1871, all oriented around the preservation or destruction of the aristocratic order amidst the rise of republicanism. He summarizes everything from the Reign of Terror that claimed thousands of victims for the guillotine to the astonishing rise and fall of Napoleon, along with the coming and going of numerous empires and republics. He effortlessly introduces and contextualizes key figures, popularly known or otherwise obscure. Throughout it all, there is the excitement of learning about a society’s progress — tempered by indignation over atrocities committed in the name of a greater good (whether for conservative or liberal purposes). Riveting!

[img]2969|left|||no_popup[/img]Less compelling, despite a topic with greater surface appeal, is The History of Classical Music for Beginners. Author R. Ryan Endris, musician and Assistant Professor of Music at Colgate University, takes on a challenge that can be described as Hercules’ 13th labor: Summarize, in the pages of a slim book, a musical genre spanning 1,500 years of history, technical and artistic innovations, and composers. And that’s not including the evolutionary history of opera, which Endris understandably sets aside as a topic requiring its own book.

Far from being a monolith, what we call “classical” music encompasses a variety of musical movements such as baroque, romantic, minimalism, atonal, and others – the book doesn’t even cover opera, which as Endris points out, would require its own book. Yet while Endris technically hits the high notes in his overview, as well as the low note, and notes in the middle as space allows, he doesn’t quite succeed in fashioning a melodic narrative. The book never quite escapes the sheer density of its topic. This isn’t helped by Endris poking at the space/time continuum here and there by trying to force two ideas to occupy the same sentence at the same time. In part, the book’s organization as an illustrated text (veteran For Beginners illustrator Joe Lee returns in fine, witty form) makes the narrative feel like a run through a catalog rather than an exhilarating roller coaster ride through a major musical edifice. (Question: What result would a comic book approach have yielded?) Which is to express that the book just isn’t all that fun to read (to me, in any case), even if it is very informative and the product of an obviously knowledgeable author.

For more information about the For Beginners book series, including where to buy, visit www.forbeginnersbooks.com.

Frédérik Sisa is the Page's assistant editor and resident art critic. He can be reached via eMail at fsisa@thefrontpageonline.com, and invites you to connect with him via social media:

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