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Storming the Bastille (a reflection on revolution)

May 9, 2019

 

 

In 1934 the American theologian Karl Reinhold Niebuhr, began to end his sermons with a short prayer:

 

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference

 

'The Serenity Prayer' was taken up in particular by Alcoholics Anonymous but as far back as the 1stc. AD, the Greek stoic, Epictitus was advocating the necessity for acceptance, for an acknowledgement that we will be far happier working with what is, than trying to bend and mould this 'what is' to what we think would be best for us. The Roman poet Horace's injunction'Carpe Diem' could be better translated as 'Pluck the Day', for it was intended to advise people to seize what the day offers, to accept and make the best of each day.

 

But as the Serenity Prayer makes clear, there are times when things need to change and when it requires courage to make those necessary changes. And change suggests resistance. In preparing a concert which happens to fall on the 14th of July, Bastille Day, I have been pondering the idea of Revolution. Interestingly, the word has as its root, the Latin verb, revolvere – roll again or revolve. It was first used in the 14thc to describe precisely that, the revolution of, in this case, celestial bodies. In the mid 15thc. it began to be used to mean a 'great change in affairs' and in the 17thc. to be applied to political upheavals, in particular the expulsion of the Roman Catholic James II and the coronation of the Protestant William and Mary. Since the reign of Henry the VIII more than 100 years previously, successive monarchs had been reversing and re-reversing Britain's tie to Rome; so the word used to signify upheaval and change had, quite appropriately been taken from a word that denotes a coming again. As the French would have it: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

 

Or in the words of the poet WB Yeats:

 

HURRAH for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

 

It seemed appropriate to include French music on our Bastille Day programme and Debussy's wonderful Op. 10 Quartet immediately suggested itself. Debussy, in finding his own compositional path, had focussed on the very notion of change and repetition. It was in the early 1890's having at last outgrown his student days and the expectations of his professors, that he began to embrace the new. Of course every artist must embrace the new in the sense that having nothing original to say obviates the necessity to say it. Musical structure or form had been, in the previous 300 years, based on repetition. In fact the tradition of string quartet writing which Debussy was tapping into had arisen in the later 18thc using the form of the day which, rather like a good essay, introduced its themes, developed them and then recapped them. Debussy demurred:

 

'Do you think that in composition the same emotion can be expressed twice? In that case, one has either not reflected, or it is simply an effect of laziness... I should like to see the creation – I, myself, shall achieve it – of a kind of music free from themes and motives, or formed on a single continuous theme, which nothing interrupts and which never returns upon itself.' 

 

A very grand aim given that without pattern, which is a result of repetition, we can make no sense of what we hear. Debussy does in fact repeat himself, but in a less controlled and formatted way than the composers who preceded him. But had he created something entirely new?

 

 

On a more personal level, we are confronted by quandaries requiring a decision to change or to accept what is, every step of the way: a violinist friend of mine is suffering with ongoing tendinitis. Should she struggle on or find a new path? A couple I know is having trouble conceiving a baby. Should they have yet another IVF treatment or accept the situation? A colleague has been made redundant over a seemingly innocuous reply he made to his boss. Should he dispute it or leave the job and find another? Will a new job lead him into a similar dispute or will the very act of making the change help him with the personal insight that will mitigate against that? And then there are the changes we are called on to consider in the same way that we add salt and pepper to food: change adds piquancy to life. Should I get on the bus to come home from work or walk along the river even if it takes longer? Should I do some extra practising this evening or see a film? We live in a time when few of us are embraced by a structure which gives us the answer to those questions. And yet at times when that structure was provided, it became so tight and restrictive that it necessitated an overthrow, a revolution.

 

So who or what can I answer to in making a decision? Perhaps the answer can be found by consulting our deeper values. After all, the French national motto of Liberty, Fraternity and Equalityis a direct result of the storming of the Bastille. And Debussy came to express his belief that:

 

Music begins where words are powerless to express. Music is made for the inexpressible. I want music to seem to rise from the shadows and indeed sometimes to return to them.

 

A 1937 Christian student publication quoted Karl Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer in the following form: 

 

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, 

Serenity to accept what cannot be helped, 

And the insight to know the one from the other.

 

There is a significant difference between seeking change in what I canchange as opposed to seeking change in whatmustbe altered. And the word insightis particularly helpful for while it has come to mean a penetrating into thoughts and situations, in its original meaning it indicated a looking within. To think deeply about first causes is surely the place to start in understanding acceptance and change. And that in itself might be a kind of revolution.

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