Trout Season

I know I spend most of my time on this blog writing about subjects connected to history, but I do have other interests, and every once and awhile discover something in those realms that seems worth sharing. In this case the subject is baseball, and eventually it will revolve around evidence about where a contemporary player may rank in baseball history. I would expect that my readers from outside the Americas will find this inscrutable, but given that for over a decade in my life I put in my best effort to try and understand the stories about cricket in the “Manchester Guardian,” I don’t feel I owe any serious apologies. For the rest of you, this is my ritual offering for Opening Day, 2016.

Not long ago I received as a birthday present The Bill James Handbook 2016. This is the annual statistical compilation assembled by various associates of the man in the title, the great revolutionary of how we use statistics to understand the game of baseball. James always contributes a smattering of essays introducing various sections of what is otherwise a pretty dense assembly of numbers and tables designed to help the serious baseball fan get a better grip on the past season and a clearer picture of prospects for the season that is about to begin.

As a Seattle Mariners fan I’m eager for any sign that the off-season replacement of their Manager and General Manager will get the club headed in the right direction. Sure enough, buried in the tables is evidence for some modest optimism. The old manager made some decisions that any fan had to second guess, such as giving their highly-paid closer Fernando Rodney chance after chance to give away leads after his ERA had blown sky high. This obviously had an impact on the Mariners’ bullpen ranking 25th out of 30 teams in ERA, despite pitching in one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball, and there’s a morbid fascination to looking at the table revealing that half of Fernando’s blown saves are the sort classified as “Easy” and other half “Regular.” It was the other guys who got the chance at the“Tough” saves, and they did not measure up to that harder task, being able to save just one of the seven.

More morbid dwelling on the past comes from looking at the catcher spot, where manager Lloyd McClendon finally realized, after giving him 350 at bats, that Mike Zunino, who had batted .199 the year before, was not going to turn into a major league hitter no matter how many big-league swings he got. His average ended up at .174, with 132 strikeouts. There are times managers need patience, but it helps to have someone notice that you’ve sprung a bad leak and are taking on a water before the front of the ship has broken off and your stern is rising toward the sky.

Another problem evident enough to anyone watching the games last season was clarified by the final stats. I had found myself cursing a lot because the Mariners ran into so many outs on the basepaths, but until I saw the Team Baserunning charts I did not know that only three teams in all of baseball did worse on the base paths than Seattle. Having given away a net total of 56 bases by making outs trying to advance, as well as by trying to steal with limited success, the Mariners found themselves in a group with the White Sox, who were -66 on the bases, and the Dodgers, who were -71.  All of whom could console themselves by saying “At least we’re not the Tigers”;  Detroit came in at a whopping -107. Running the bases is supposed to be one of those “little things” but when you are in the same division as the Astros (+60 on the basepaths) and the Texas Rangers (+142, best in baseball) that “little thing” can loom large. This is an obvious area where better coaching would clearly help the team.

It would also help if the team added some outfielders who could catch the ball. The Mariners were above average in fielding only at pitcher and catcher, but while the infield gave away a total of 25 runs, Mariner center fielders managed to kick away 26 on their own, and the left and right fielders combined to chip in for another 20. The guy projected to be the team’s new center fielder, Leonys Martin has been a steady plus-fifteen runs saved for the past three years (14, 16, 15 to be precise) this would suggest a defensive improvement of forty runs if the 28 year old can stay in the line-up.

Another place the Mariners were giving away runs was in defensive positioning. The new trend is toward shifting defenders more severely on batters who pull the ball. In 2010 big league teams shifted 2,464 times; in 2015 they did so 17,733 times. The number is increasing because statistics show that you save one and a half runs for every 100 times you shift. The Mariners were one of only six teams in all baseball that decided to shift less in 2015 than they had the year before. They ended up shifting less than any team in the American League, giving up 18 extra runs compared to those devilishly shifty Tampa Bay Rays, who got with the program in a big way, and 15 compared to upstart division rival Astros, who added a bit to their already high shift totals. A manager who can keep up with 21st-century trends would certainly help the team.

One more problem of the departing manager can be seen in the Managers Record which reveals McClendon’s habit of issuing intentional walks that hurt the team. Of the 41 he issued, 18 were what the book calls “No Good” and 10 of those were what they call “Bomb”: intentional walks that completely blow up on the manager. McClendon led the league in both categories: it was the third time in seven seasons as a manager that he led his league in the “Bomb” category. Fewer of these explosions would certainly be a good thing for the team.

There is also some bad news in the outlook. Far and away the most pleasant surprise of the Mariners’ 2015 season was the success of Nelson Cruz. This free agent acquisition looked dubious from any analytical standpoint. When you pay free agent money for a guy who has surprised everyone by hitting 40 home runs at the age of 34 (previous high, 27) and move him into a notoriously bad park for right-handed hitters, the analysts are going to be skeptical. Mariners fans, who saw a similar move fail in 2006, when Adrian Beltre was signed after suddenly raising his career high in homers from 23 to 48. He was only 26, theoretically in the prime of his career, but Safeco turned out to be a terrible park for him to hit in, and his .334 with 48 dingers turned into something along the lines of .265 and 25. Escaping at last to Boston and then Texas, he has put up good numbers again, but after Beltre retires, when they talk about his chances for the Hall of Fame,  that big hole in what should have been his prime will loom large. So, with that example to remember, and with the General Manager having given a 10-year deal to 31-year old Robinson Cano, this second big-money addition seemed like a bad gamble. But Cruz surprised us by hitting .302 with 44 homers. Cano had done something similar in his first year in Seattle, maintaining a high batting average despite some loss of power. He came to earth in 2015. We really have to expect the 36-year-old Cruz to decline too, even while hoping this surprising power output improved his chances to delay that inevitable slump for another year or two. But the Handbook singles out Nelson Cruz as a player who benefited from more than his share of luck last year, picking up extra home runs on the road that barely cleared the fence, a prime candidate to decline when his lucky streak ends.

This research on my own team was fun, but what really got me stirring around was a discovery about Mike Trout, the young superstar of the Mariners’ rivals the Los Angeles Angels. “Young” is an important part of why baseball analysts gush about Trout. Three decades ago my reading of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts revealed a truth then routinely denied by baseball broadcasters, and only dimly understood within the profession, that baseball players peak earlier than conventional wisdom believed, and that for position players, advanced skills at a very early stage project dependably into exceptional careers. When my Mariners came up with a couple of teenagers in a row who were ready to play major league baseball, I understood why, when their careers caught really fire in their early twenties, they were suddenly candidates to break some major records. As it turned out, Ken Griffey Junior got hurt too often to join the 700 home run club, and Alex Rodriguez’ steroid suspension has badly undercut his chances to break the career home run record and wiped out his faint hope of getting the record for career RBIs. All the same, they served very nicely to underscore the fact that the younger the player, the more his accomplishments predict future success. A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra all came up at the same time, but Jeter was a year older than Alex, and Nomar a year older than Derek. Garciaparra had some bad luck with injuries, it is true, but it was no real surprise that he would end up providing TV commentary for several years while Jeter was still playing, and that Jeter would retire while A-Rod was still hitting home runs.

My discovery about young Mr. Trout, who will still be 24 when the 2016 season starts, had to do with one of my favorite sections of the Handbook, the section that records the Win Shares earned by every active player, assuming his play actually helped his team win. (The aforementioned Mariner catcher, Mike Zunino, has no listing in this year’s book, which I suspect was a clerical error connected with his name coming last in the alphabet. I think it was a mistake, but as awful as Zunino’s season was, I have to consider the possibility that he managed to contribute no wins at all to his team even though he played 112 games). What caught my eye was that Trout’s 2015 season gave him three straight seasons of 40 or more Win Shares. My response was “That’s got to be pretty rare” so I did a little research. What I discovered was very impressive indeed.

I’m guessing that most people reading this have little or no idea what I mean by a Win Share, so I’m going to take a little time to explain it. It seems as though lately baseball comes up with a new stat every day, and I can understand a feeling of “Uh, oh” when an enthusiast gets ready to tell you all about this great new measure of baseball production. But this one really, really matters, because once you know what it is and start looking at it, it makes all sorts of fascinating comparisons possible, that just weren’t available before Bill James went into his cave and spent nine months working out the implications of a particular insight, then came out, got some help, and spent another four years of painstaking effort to refine the system and see the results into print. James’ book Win Shares goes into the details at length. The upshot is that a realization about how something called marginal runs scored and allowed will let you predict win-loss records made it possible to parcel out credit for those wins to the players on the team. This required solving some big challenges on how to figure out defensive values, which were apparently tricky enough add a couple of years to the process. But when the dust had settled, James had arrived at a method of looking at a team’s record, and the records of its players, and ascribing a number value to each player’s season.

Once you get comfortable with this system, when you have looked over the assumptions behind the formulas and convince yourself that it makes sense, having a list of Win Shares for players is a big help in simplifying what used to be laborious comparisons.Say you need to try to figure out whether the MVP award should go to a slugging first baseman, or a shortstop whose hitting numbers are very good, but not as impressive as those the slugger amassed. How much credit do you give for the shortstop playing a more demanding defensive position? How do you measure the defensive value of any shortstop or first baseman? After you’ve done what you can to estimate this value you have to remind yourself to adjust the hitting stats to account for whether these guys were hitting in parks that helped or hurt them. You’ve got to account for differences in playing time, and make all those fine adjustments for base-running, getting hit by pitches and grounding into double plays. This is a huge amount of work, and it is nice to have a reasonably thought out set of formulas that make all these calculations, make all the adjustments and give you a single number that represents the system’s best estimate of how many wins each player contributed to his team.

It’s even more helpful when you get one of those apples and oranges comparisons between a pitcher and a field player. In The Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1987  the author spent several columns trying to assess whether the American League MVP award for 1986 should have gone to Don Mattingly instead of the actual winner, Roger Clemens. After some effort, he decided that the numbers supported Clemens. James then did a shorter rundown of the 1978 award, measuring Jim Rice against Ron Guidry, and decided that the numbers left that one too close to call.

One of the small surprises in the Win Shares system turns out to be its assessment that pitchers, on the whole, aren’t quite as valuable as we tend to assume. This is because preventing runs is a combined effort between the pitcher and the other eight guys on the field, and we tend to ignore the contribution of the defense to a pitcher’s success. When you make the common sense concession that those other eight guys who have to catch the balls in play are helping you win, and that somewhere around a third of the credit for preventing runs from scoring goes to their collective effort, you end up with pitcher ratings lower than you would expect if you listen to the guys on Baseball Tonight talk about why this free agent pitcher is going to be such a great addition to the team. (I have established that there is no limit to the ignorance allowed to a professional talking head on a sports show, based on hearing a commentator say that when the Cubs acquired Jon Lester, “He instantly becomes the best pitcher in Cubs history.” This is where Win Shares become very helpful indeed, because instead of having to give you the incredible win totals and ERAs and Innings Pitched put into the record books by Ferguson Jenkins and Three-Finger Brown, I can blow this crazy claim away with a very short string of numbers:  113 and 18, 323 and 37, 296 and 36. These are the career Win Shares and the single season highs for Lester, Jenkins and Brown at the time the broadcaster made his claim. Not all the career shares were earned with the Cubs, but, then again, at the time of the claim, none of Lester’s had been earned in Chicago. His 13-share season last year did not mark significant progress. Other pitchers who rank ahead of Lester in these measures, just on the basis of their time with the Cubs include Charlie Root, Bill Hutchinson, Larry Corcoran, Clark Griffith, and Hippo Vaughan. The Cubs have a very long history, something that might perhaps cross the mind of someone making rash claims about them. Objects in this particular mirror may turn out to be much farther away than they appear. One thing these guys forget is that modern starters just don’t put in enough innings to be as valuable as their counterparts in the past who were asked to complete a game more than once in blue moon. All the guys I just listed completed more games in a single season than Lester has in an eleven year career).

Anyway, it turns out that when you start giving defensive players credit for catching the ball, pitchers Win Shares slip a little, and the numbers the system provides for the two seasons whose MVP choices James dissected in the Abstract tend to contradict the conclusions he reached all those decades ago. In 1978, it’s not quite so close as he thought: Rice earned 36 Win Shares, Guidry 31. It’s a similar gap for the hitter in 1986, where Mattingly is credited with 34 Win Shares to Clemens’ 29. Actually the numbers suggest that the whole debate left out the guy who should have been MVP that year, at least based on this measure, Clemens’ teammate Wade Boggs, who had 37 Win Shares.

I realize that I have eased into the process of showing how Win Shares are used without providing a basic description of what they represent. A Win Share is essentially one-third of a win. James chose to use a bigger number than simple wins so that distinctions wouldn’t blur, but not so much bigger that we would impute real meaning into minute variations. Translated directly into wins, the system says that Jim Rice put contributed 12 wins to his team’s column in 1978, while Guidry that same year and Clemens in ‘86 added something around ten wins to their teams.

What’s nice about the scale James chose, three shares per win, is that the numbers break down into easy-to -summarize categories. If you score in single digits, you’re a bit player, a guy who lost his job during the season, a star who suffered a devastating injury early on, a pinch-hitter who sometimes platoons, a backup catcher, or maybe one of the non-stars in the bullpen. Regulars will score in the range between 10 and 20, and regulars who make the All-Star team tend to score in the 20s, except for most of the starting pitchers, who usually earn about as many win shares as they do official pitching wins. If you cross the line and earn 30-plus Win Shares you’re in the range where you probably pick up some MVP votes, and might even win the award. This is what Bill James calls (in his Historical Baseball Abstract)  a “Great Season” because getting into the thirty-point range with some regularity is what sets great players apart from those who are merely very good. Albert Pujols did it nine times in a row before injury dragged him down, which is one reason James’ Hall of Fame monitor gives Albert 163 points, when the scale is set so that 100 will usually get you in.

If earning 30 Win Shares is what we think of as a Great Season, what do we call a season where you cross the next divide and get into the 40s? Well, in the same article where he called 30-share seasons “great” (his section on the 42nd-best left-fielder of all time, Augie Galan) he says this: “A season of 40 Win Shares is still rare enough to be described as a “Historic” season. With a few exceptions, only Hall of Famers ever have a season of 40 Win Shares, and most Hall of Famers don’t approach 40 Win Shares, even in their best seasons.” James says “still rare enough” because he introduced this particular discussion with a short paragraph talking about seasons of 50 Win Shares, a paragraph sure to be revised in a new edition, because refinements to the Win Shares system knocked his only example of a 50-Share season for a left fielder, Ted Williams in 1946, down to a mere 49, while Barry Bonds 73-home-run outburst in 2001 moved onto the list by earning 54 Win Shares.

There are so few 50-Share season in the part of baseball history that has unfolded since the pitching mound was moved back and it became necessary for teams to share pitching duties between more than a couple of pitchers, that any fan can memorize the list. I might as well take a moment to provide that list. As James called 40-Share seasons “Historic” we might as well go a step up for these and call these “Legendary.” Two of them were by pitchers. Jack Chesbro in 1904 had a “Turn-Back-the-Clock” season, where he started 51 games and finished 48 of them, and added three more in relief. He ended up throwing over 454 innings winning 41 games, and providing 53 Win Shares for his team. Walter Johnson did him one better in 1913, earning 54 by going 36-7 with 11 shutouts, adding 12 appearances as a reliever to his 36 starts, which earned him a couple of what we would call saves, and leading the league with a miniscule 1.14 ERA.

There have only been seven 50-share seasons by field players. One, Barry Bonds’ monster year, we have already mentioned. Before Bonds you have to go back to 1957, when Mickey Mantle’s On Base Average of .512 was the kicker to his .365 batting average and 36 home runs, which earned him 51 Win Shares, two points better than he earned in his 52-homer 1956 season. Two of the remaining seasons are a little surprising. In 1912 Tris Speaker stepped across a threshold his more-famous rival Ty Cobb never quite reached, despite hitting .400 three times. That same season Cobb hit .410 and led the league in hits, but he still fell 11 Shares short of Speaker who played a few more games, led the league in doubles (53) and home runs (10) and walked a bit more, which, with his .383 batting average, allowed him to lead the league in On Base Average (.464). Tris got 41 Win Shares with his bat alone, and added another 10 by playing the best defense of his stellar defensive career. Honus Wagner’s 1908 season is even odder at first glance. His season is great, but then again, Wagner’s seasons almost always were. Yes, he led the league in Doubles, Triples, Total Bases, RBI, Stolen Bases, Batting Average, On Base Average, and Slugging Percentage, but except for leading in hits, he had done all those things before, and with higher totals. What was it about hitting .354 this year that vaulted the season above the years he hit .355, .363 and .371, earning him the what the Win Shares system rates as the best season of all time, with a staggering 59 Win Shares? James explains that it was mostly a weird shift in context, that the league totals in runs scored took a dive, and Forbes Field in that season was a terrible place to hit. When Wagner did what Wagner usually did in a park and season where runs were absurdly scarce, the value of his hits went way, way up, because the runs he created resulted in more wins.

The remaining three seasons of 50 Win Shares were all produced by a single player in a four-year span. If you can’t guess what they were, you probably aren’t much of a baseball fan, or at least a fan of baseball history. Between 1920 and 1923 Babe Ruth destroyed all the old standards of what could be done by slugging the baseball. Those epic seasons earned him 51 Win Shares in 1920, 53 in 1921, and 55 in 1923. That record, putting up a three-season average of 53 win shares, will probably be harder to break than the familiar ones that have already fallen. Bonds came as close as anyone has, with his peaks of 54, 49 and 48, for an average of just over 50. With the juice being squeezed from the game, that’s probably as close as anyone will get.

Coming down from Olympus to the level of mere demigods brings us to the seasons that score in the 40s. There are still few enough of these that a fan could get them down with a little study, but let’s not go there. Let me just point out that when Mike Trout came up with a 40-point season in 2013, it was the first such season in the entire history of the California Angels. It was only the second such season for any team added to baseball in or after the 1961 expansion, although I’d bet that you can’t guess which team and player had the first. (It was Jeff Bagwell of the Astros who racked up 41 Shares in 1996). No one on the Royals, Rays, Rangers, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Marlins, Brewers, Expos/Nationals, Mets or Padres has yet to reach that milestone. Most of the older franchises have seen multiple 40-Share seasons–coming up with a megastar like Ruth, Mays, Wagner, Bonds, Musial or Williams gives you repeat business–but the Dodgers, who have been in the league since 1884 and have boasted many famous stars, have had no one cross the threshold to 40 since the pitching mound moved back to the modern distance in 1893. The Braves got a few in the 1890s when they were still in Boston, from their pitching star Kid Nichols, but since then have exactly one: Hank Aaron’s 41 in 1963. Since 1900 the Cubs have had only two, by Rogers Hornsby in 1929, and Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Sosa’s big year is one of a precious few since the dawning of the new Millennium. Bonds in his second, steroid-enhanced peak had those monster seasons I mentioned above. Albert Pujols got there in 2003. A-Rod has never quite made it, nor has Miguel Cabrera. PItchers today don’t put in enough innings even to reach 30 Shares; the last to touch 40 was Steve Carlton in 1972. We’ll have to reverse forty years of baseball “evolution” to get back to a place where someone can start 41 games, complete 30, log over 346 innings while striking out 310 and winning 27 with an ERA of 1.97. I’m not holding my breath. The only post-Millennium player besides Bonds and Pujols who put up a 40-share season before Mike Trout got there was something of a puzzler. In 2012 Andrew McCutchen reached 40 with a season that, while good, was hardly jaw-dropping. I mean a .337 average and 31 home runs, and an On Base Plus Slugging Slugging of .953 is great, but “Historic?”  When Ted Williams got an even 40 in 1949 he needed a batting average of .343, 43 homers, and an OBPS of 1.140. But to be fair, let’s just take our comparisons from other center fielders. Cobb in 1912 we talked about above–remember, he hit .410–and he reached 40 (exactly) again in 1916 when he hit .371 and stole 68 bases.  The only other exact centerfield comps I could find were all by Willie Mays, in 1954 (.345 with 41 homers) 1955 (.319 and 51) and 1958 (.347 and 29). With that last one we get a season that looks a bit more like McCutchen’s, although his OBPS of 1.002 was still a notch higher. Mays reached 40 with lower numbers in 1958 because he had moved from the Polo Grounds to Candlestick Park, which was much harder place to hit. And that’s what PIttsburgh was for McCutcheon in 2012, just as it was for Wagner in 08, a place where runs were few and far between, which meant that McCutcheon’s merely “great” numbers produced “historic” numbers of runs. By the way, another bad season for hitters in Candlestick produced the only 40 Share season of the 1980s, magnifying Will Clark’s 1989 output of .333 with 29 homers all the way up to 44 Win Shares.

Win Shares are valuable precisely because they unearth accomplishments masked by odd circumstances. We tend to think of Babe Ruth’s superstardom as a phenomenon of the 1920s. But his breakthrough in the new decade seems a bit more natural when you see that he had already reached the 40-Share level during the 1918 and 1919 seasons. We understand that there were fewer runs scored then than in the 1920s, but the adjustments for that are not easy to do on paper, and are all but impossible off the top of your head. Especially daunting is the task of estimating the value of a season as weird as Ruth’s was in 1918. That was his year of transition, from a star pitcher to a superstar everyday player. Ruth played in only 95 games that year, starting 19 of them as a pitcher, and platooning in the outfield between starts. How do you add up the value of a guy who leads the league in homers in 317 at bats, and also goes 13-7 (he made one appearance in relief) with a 2.22 ERA? The Win Shares formula popped out the surprising answer that his bat provided more than eight wins to his team, his pitching more that four, and his defense not quite one win more, and when you add in all the fractions you get 39.8 Win Shares, which rounds up to 40. His 1919 season of 43 Shares only made it to the 40 mark because he put in enough time on the mound to add almost eight win shares with his pitching.   

If one 40-Share season is rare enough to be called “Historical”, how often has a player reached 40 in three straight seasons? Again restricting the data to seasons when baseballs were thrown from modern distances, my survey of the data suggests that it has only been done by eight players. Although Barry Bonds crossed the 40-Share barrier five times, he never did it never more than twice in a row. A two-season streak was tops for the four times Willie Mays got there, as it was for Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Eddie Collins, and Walter Johnson who all made 40 or more three times. Rogers Hornsby, Cy Young, Tris  Speaker, and Nap Lajoie all got to 40 three times, but none of those seasons were consecutive. Greats such as Frank Robinson, Jimmie Foxx, and  Joe Morgan only made it to 40 twice in their careers. Only an elite group of players have put together three of these seasons in a row.

Babe Ruth, unsurprisingly, has more seasons of 40 or more than anyone else, with 9; he had a four-season streak from 1918 to 1921, as well as another three-season run from 1926 to 1928. Cobb totaled 8, with a streak of four starting in 1909, and another of three beginning in 1915. Honus Wagner had “only” six such seasons, but he bunched them into a single six-season streak that began in 1904. World War Two limited Ted Williams to a total of five 40-Win seasons, and as that condition was beyond his control it’s only fair that we consider his accomplishments from 1942 to 1947 a streak of four straight, even though there is a three-year gap right in the middle when he was unable to play. The other two players who got there managed to bunch their only 40-share seasons in a single three-year streak; they are Grover Cleveland Alexander and Mickey Mantle. That was the whole gang until Trout came along.

According to the Win Shares system, Mike Trout has been the best player in the American League every full season he has played. He has only won a single MVP award in that time, in part because the voters still haven’t learned to make all the adjustments needed for players who hit in very different run environments–Cabrera and Donaldson, who won the awards for some genuinely impressive seasons were helped by hitter-friendly ballparks while Trout was putting up numbers only a tad less impressive in the league’s second-toughest place to hit–and because it is traditional for players who dominate their leagues to win fewer MVP awards than they should. The voters don’t like to give it to the same player every year, and guys like Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds all ended up with fewer trophies than they deserved.

The question is not whether Trout will make the Hall of Fame–the Hall of Fame monitor already has him with 41 points of the necessary 100–but whether the next few years will demonstrate without a doubt that Trout belongs in the elite company that his streak of 40-Share games suggests. The key question I asked myself as soon as I saw that Trout had managed the three-in-a-row feat was “Is he the youngest player ever to do that?” The answer is “Yes.” The oldest of the lot to start this sort of streak was Honus Wagner who was just over 30 when he began the season that would mark the start of his 40-Share string. Next oldest was Alexander, just over 28 years old. Ruth and Mantle were both a few months past their 23rd birthdays when they started shifting into this high gear. Cobb and Williams were 3 and 7 months past their 22nd birthdays when they got it going. And Mike Trout, at the start of the season that began his ascent into the “Historic Season” club, was 21 years, nine months old.

Trout’s precocity goes far to offset the “yes, buts” that first come to mind, the ones that bubble up when you notice that a string of 40, 40, and 42 is not exactly the same as one that goes 44, 45, 47 (Cobb), or 41, 49, 51 (Mantle). The prime years for a ballplayer, Honus Wagner, excepted, are predominantly in the ages 26-28. Yes Honus had his best season, that 59-share miracle, when he was 34 and Alexander had his peak of 44 at age 31. But the odds suggest that Trout, like most players, will be declining by the time he enters his thirties. Mantle had his best season at age 25, Ruth and Cobb had their best (55, 48) at 28, and Ted Williams came back from the marine corps after three years of service, and  at age 27 had the best season–49 shares–of his career. As I said before, Mike Trout will be 24 when he enters his next season. It’s always possible that he will suffer an injury that would derail his progress, but barring that, you have to expect that the best Trout seasons are still to come.

I can’t say I will entirely enjoy Mike Trout’s climb toward Olympus. I’m already very tired of watching Mariner pitchers hit the bottom of the strike zone with a breaking ball to no avail, as Trout reaches down and hammers the baseball over the fence. It’s possible that he’ll slip back a bit from the high level he has reached–almost any significant injury could do it–and with a gun to my head I might well bet that his streak ends this year, that he drops back for a season or even two from “Historic” to merely great. But if you look back at those numbers in the previous paragraph, you’ll see what his upside is. In another three to six years it could well be obvious to everyone that Trout is not just the best player of our time, but a serious contender for a place among the top ten players of all time.

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More Middle-Aged Television


The Fall TV season brought two new series set in the Middle Ages. Because both of them were on cable, which tends to offer “seasons” half the size of the broadcast networks, both came and went pretty quickly, and I just realized the other day that I had let several months to go by without offering an opinion about them. So for those fans of medieval action who missed them, here is my overview of The Bastard Executioner and The Last Kingdom. The first is the creation of Kurt Sutter, best known for the biker-gang drama Sons of Anarchy, and aired on the FX network. The second is the work of Stephen Butchard, who has nothing especially noteworthy on his resume of work for TV, who adapted the series of novels by Bernard Cornwell; the series aired in the United States on BBC America. Both series have their virtues, but neither is up to the level of The History Channel’s Vikings, which is now midway through a fourth season.

The Bastard Executioner is set in Wales, the first season taking place in the years 1311 and 1312. Its protagonist is Wilkin Brattle (played by Lee Jones), a former soldier under Edward I, left for dead after a battle, and as the series begins, an active rebel against the English who had driven the Welsh into an unwilling submission some thirty years earlier. After his village is destroyed by a vengeful local earl, and his wife is murdered during the attack, Wilkin arranges an ambush that kills the earl, and in the aftermath seeks safety by taking the identity of a travelling “punisher,” a brutal torturer and executioner. This lands him in the earl’s own castle where the slain lord’s widow and her ambitious chancellor soon embroil him in their own affairs. While the survival of Wilkin and the earldom where he has landed loom large, there are deeper plots concerning a secret Christian sect harboring truths the church is eager to eradicate. Central to this is a mysterious woman, played by Katie Segal, a healer and perhaps seer, whose tattooed back holds crucial revelations. The series offers a full share of violent action, brutal betrayal and multiple layers of deception, along with a regular dose of basic-cable nudity, which means an assortment of bare backsides.

The role of the scheming chamberlain is played by Stephen Moyer, known to fans of True Blood as vampire Bill. Apparently Moyer was looking for something darker to play than a guilt-ridden vampire; his character Milus Corbett is the survivor of some intense childhood sexual abuse, which has warped his psyche more than a little, and he passes on the damage to his bedmates of either sex, and various others who meet horrid fates when they are caught up in his schemes. Another amusing bit of casting involves the brother of the widow, a rebellious Welsh lord named Gruffudd, played by Matthew Rhys, who also stars on another FX series, The Amerikans, where he is a deep-cover Russian agent in the 1980s. Those shorter cable seasons have some benefits for actors who like to keep busy and display their range.

The Bastard Executioner only rarely intersects with the history of the time, most notably in Season One with a series of brushes with the “favorite” of King Edward II, Piers Gaveston. He is played as a slithery Frenchman a good deal too enamored of himself and his powerful position. His downfall is integrated into the series with reasonable fidelity to the historical record, and despite the character’s unpleasant personality, the writers invest his death with some genuine poignancy, with a heartfelt expression of his love for the king.

The series’ depiction of daily life in the Middle Ages is not too bad, but my ability to suspend disbelief was tested more than once. The creators make the same mistake as The Pillars of the Earth in creating an “Earldom” that is on the scale of an ordinary barony, rather than the large agglomeration of such domains that belonged to the real earls of the time. They also misrepresent the main features of life in the nobility of the period, providing scene after scene in rooms empty of everyone except the two characters having an urgent conversation. In truth, these people would have had servants on hand in almost every situation, most notably in the bedchamber, where their “familiars” would routinely share, not only the room, but the bed as well. In the 14th-century the kind of privacy we take for granted was very rare indeed. But that particular reality would have been inconvenient for a story as dependent as this one is on secrets, lies, surreptitious schemes. It’s an entertaining enough show, but it does very little to enhance the viewer’s knowledge of the era it depicts.

The link to real history is much stronger in The Last Kingdom. The setting this time is one of the most crucial eras in all English history, the age of King Alfred the Great, when Danish assaults came very close to sweeping away all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, when Alfred’s dogged battle to preserve Wessex finally resulted, in the reign of his son Edward, in that crucial new thing, a united English nation. The series of novels by Bernard Cornwell upon which the series is based, The Saxon Tales has now reached nine novels, and all indications are that if the author lives long enough it will continue for many more. The series takes the name of the first book, but the first season actually covers events in the first two novels.

I have reviewed those novels on this site, so you can check out what I say about them here, and the series pretty much follows the books. The decision to cover two volumes of the series in one short season means that some episodes are dropped, and the storyline is streamlined. It is still the tale of a Northumbrian youth named Uhtred, betrayed by his uncle and raised by Danes, who finds himself fighting on behalf of the embattled kingdom of Wessex and its intelligent, though hardly-lovable King Alfred. Uhtred’s upbringing is cut a bit shorter than I’d have like, and his involvement in the Great Invasion of the Danes is much curtailed, but after he ends up in Alfred’s camp the story runs closer to the source. One unfortunate exception is the producer’s decision to omit an entire sub-plot regarding Uhtred’s work to build Alfred a fleet. When the novels send him off on an unauthorized Viking raid into Wales, the series takes him off his longship and puts him on a horse. These changes, presumably dictated by budget considerations–has the Vikings series cornered the market on replica longships?–weaken those episodes. The scaled-down action when Uhtred is waging a guerrilla war from Alfred’s swampy hideout is not nearly as detailed and ingenious as in the novels. If you’ve enjoyed the series, you really need to read the books, which tell the same story better.

The heart of Cornwell’s historical novels is always the field of battle, and the producers of The Last Kingdom do a decent enough job. They do make a strange decision to treat the formation known in the books as the Shield Wall, the name it was given in Old Norse kennings and Anglo-saxon poetry alike, as something fancier than the reality, which was just the organized fighting of men with hand weapons and shields in a line of battle. In the series this turns into a very specialized shield arrangement that looks more like the old Roman testudo, a tight formation that includes a roof of shields that the legionaries used to protect themselves in the face of intense missile fire. (Oddly enough, the current season of Vikings has taken up this same interpretation). Battlefield tactics in the series inevitably lack the detail provided in the novels, but they make up for it with lots of noise and action.

The Last Kingdom is neither as convincing in texture nor as well-provided with powerful characters as Vikings, but it is almost inevitable that fans of the older and better one will seek out the other, because it is, to all intents and purposes, its sequel. In Vikings many of the men who will battle for Britain in The Lost Kingdom have already made their appearance as children, and it seems very likely that the televised story of Ragnar Lodbrok will wind up as his Saga does, with his vengeance-seeking sons leading the Great Invasion that sets in motion the events of Cornwell’s drama. We can only hope that the writers and producers of The Lost Kingdom grow into their task and that future seasons will come closer to matching its illustrious competition. That’s a daunting challenge–the most recent episode of Vikings featured the best conceived and directed battle sequences to date–but the utterly crucial tale of how England survived the Danish Wars deserves the very best.

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The White Queen and the French Poet

Last month I endured a trying flurry of deceit and insult by my cable TV company. It is annoying to be told repeatedly that a stated price will include “everything you have now” and later discover that $25 in fees were not included in the stated price, and maddening to be told by a “customer retention” specialist that as an experienced subscriber I should have understood that a plain and clear statement like “everything” didn’t really mean everything. But despite my first angry impulse to cancel my subscription I finally realized that I had no realistic recourse but to swallow the deceit and accept a subscription for more money than I planned to pay. The only advantage of the contract I grudgingly accepted was that I was now able to enjoy the offerings on the Starz network. This addition came just in time for me to begin watching Patrick Stewart in Blunt Talk which was nice, because watching an excellent actor play a comically messed-up public figure turns out to be a lot of fun. This still seemed like a scanty pay-off for the stress of succumbing to a Comcast bait-and-switch scam, so I have been trying to get my money’s worth from the new channel at my disposal by catching up on some of their other series that I missed during their run.

My current project is The White Queen, a series based on novels by Philippa Gregory which tell the story of the latter stages of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of the women who were crucial figures in those events. I haven’t read the books, although I suspect that I’ll get around to them sooner or later, but six episodes into the series I’m enjoying its take on the story. I spent several years trying to write a personally-slanted history of how medieval women changed history, spurred by my discovery that despite the well-known constraints on women’s rights, the political power wielded by upper class medieval women was far more real than most people realize. The White Queen seems fairly faithful to those realities, although it does rather foolishly extend the historical liberty pioneered in The Tudors which pretends that people in those early centuries went without hats most of the time. Having characters charge off into battle without helmets makes them look really, really silly to anyone who knows much about 15-century warfare. Meanwhile the plotlines make very clear the importance of the more active women, and offers a sympathetic look at those less fortunate who are brusquely forced into marriage with men they despise in order to cement political alliances.

The series begins in the household of a nobly-born woman, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who was one of the few women of the time to choose–for her second husband–a man she loved, even though he was far below her in social standing. (Although the series hasn’t touched on it yet, Jacquetta’s first marriage was to Prince John, brother of the second Lancastrian king, Henry V). The action heats up when her daughter Elizabeth likewise follows her passion, but this time it is the husband who is too well-born for the marriage to be greeted with any pleasure by the English nobility. He is King Edward IV, who has just won the throne for the House of York, after years of bloody warfare against followers of the Lancastrian king Henry VI. One powerful nobleman in particular has reason for dismay at the king’s impetuous choice: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick , first-cousin of the King, sometimes nicknamed “The Kingmaker” because of his key role in raising Edward to the Throne.

I own a board game on the Wars of the Roses called “Kingmaker,” and the game is constructed so that all the royals history sees as free agents striving to fulfil their destinies are passive pawns on the map board, controlled, crowned or discarded by the factions of noblemen who are the real parties in the conflict. That model obviously overstates the reality. It is true that Henry VI was often non-compos-mentis, a figurehead for whatever faction controlled him, but Edward was a decisive military leader, almost the only figure of the day who seemed to understand the importance speed in warfare, bringing his forces to the battlefield far more quickly than his dawdling opponents thought possible. But The White Queen shows the Kingmaker as a man who would really prefer his king to be a little cardboard counter that he could move around at will. Much of the action in the early episodes of the series spins off from Warwick’s discovery that he can no longer bend Edward to his will.

So far I’m pleased with the way the series moves back and forth between the various households, tracing with admirable clarity the ebb and flow of their fortunes as loyalties shift and exiles suddenly rise to power. But the most delightful moment for me came in the very first episode, when Edward and Elizabeth consummated their marriage. The scene included the routine nudity viewers have come to expect from premium cable offerings, but without meaning to disparage the breasts of Rebecca Ferguson, the actress who plays Elizabeth–they have a nice natural hang to them, and her perky nipples often seem the cameraman’s favorite focal point–what made me laugh with delight during the couple’s blissful coupling was the music that played in the background. It was a tune I know pretty well, as I own three different recordings of it, each by different performers and each in a different format: LP, CD, and cassette tape. The tune that played out during Elizabeth’s deflowering was “Quant je suis mis” one of my favorite tunes by the greatest of all 14th-century composers, Guillaume de Machaut. I suppose it might have been a bit more apt to choose a melody that wasn’t a century old at the time of the events shown onscreen–something by Dufay or Binchois might have been more appropriate–but it’s such a rare treat to hear authentic medieval music on TV or in the movies (aside from a few dance tunes that show up again and again) that I’m perfectly happy with the choice. In the scene Machaut’s fine melody is played very slowly and romantically by modern strings, and the tune recurs in later scenes, where it functions as a love motif for Edward and Elizabeth.

I suspect that the composer, John Lunn, credited with The White Queen’s soundtrack and erroneously credited on YouTube extracts with authorship of the Machaut tune, probably encountered the melody in “The Art of Courtly Love” a classic collection by the Early Music Consort of London directed by David Munrow. I say that because that version begins with a slow solo on bass rebec played by Oliver Brookes which is much closer to Lunn’s arrangement than any other I know. (My own favorite is that on another old recording, under the direction of Thomas Binkley, which is livelier and employs a children’s chorus for the refrain)

The text of the song is translated as follows in the Munrow set, where it is unclear who made the translation: Stanza One “When I return from seeing my lady I haven’t a single care in the world.” Stanza Two “The memory of her gentle beauty makes me glow, night and day, with the flame of love.” and Stanza Three “The very thought of her sweet perfection so melts my tender heart that my one wish is to serve her constantly and selflessly.” After each of these stanzas comes the refrain: “Dear God, how I love her so, with a pure and faithful love.” It’s not exactly unique in verbal style or sentiment–in fact it’s just a bit more than pure fin amor boilerplate–but the words are certainly fitting for a 15th-century love theme. You might assume that the original author would have been offended by the use of his music in an explicit sex scene, but the more I learn about Guillaume de Machaut the more I conclude that his reputation is already so distorted by false assumptions and lazy oversimplifications, that any snap judgment about him is likely to be wrong.

Guillaume de Machaut is regarded as a major figure in musical history, and as a literary figure of the second rank. When pushed, literary scholars will grudgingly admit that he was probably the best French poet of his age. He wrote narrative poems and lyrical poems, and creatively intermingled the two forms, by sprinkling his lyric pieces through his longer creations.  Literature was then commonly enjoyed, not in private, but by being read aloud in company, so it seems likely that the songs were sung in the course of the performances, an addition to the resources of the narrative poem that prefigures the much later musical comedy. A number of Machaut’s most important poems are allegories in the dream-vision genre, descended from the great bestseller of the 13th century Le Roman de la Rose, a work whose long shadow extended a solid two centuries after its two-stage composition. That allegorical poem was begun by a young man called Guillaume de Lorris who died in 1237 before completing it, and was extended into a work of very different style and attitude by one Jean de Meun. Machaut wrote well-crafted narrative poems in the tradition these poets established.

But writers of literary history are, by their nature, attracted to artists who create new forms, and are less interested in those who deploy their talents in established genres. Dante and Petrarch earn attention, not merely because of their very great literary merits, but because they were among the first to craft masterpieces in the Italian language. Boccaccio likewise earns pioneer points, but his narrative poems, which were in the mainstream of 14th century art, tend to be neglected because the stories he collected in the Decameron influenced writers for many generations to come. Among those who built on Boccaccio was Geoffrey Chaucer, whose most important works gave an English twist to models provided by the Italian. As the first writer to achieve immortality for a body of work in the English language, Chaucer has earned his place among the 14th-century greats, a place he richly deserves despite the fact that originality was by no means one of his strengths, any more than it was for Shakespeare; both men deployed their genius upon old stories in familiar genres.

None of those factors help Machaut’s reputation. There was already a rich tradition of French literature by the time he arrived, so the great poet-musician was not eligible to earn extra credit for writing in the language. His poetical works are most often studied as an appendage to Chaucer studies, because while the Englishman’s greatest works The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida were modeled on Boccaccio, some of his minor works imitate Machaut, and there are a surprising number of lines in Chaucer translated directly from the Frenchman’s poems. The way Chaucer scatters these borrowed lines convinces me that they were taken from more complete translations of Machaut, now lost, that the English poet produced during his literary apprenticeship. So although Machaut may well be the best French poet of his age, his main literary legacy is regarded as his influence on a greater foreign poet’s less important poems. Medievalists will continue to read and enjoy his major works, but it would take a major shake-up for his work to break through and join his those of his Italian and English contemporaries in the literary mainstream.

In music history the situation is reversed. Machaut was far and away the most commanding figure of the century. He composed motets on sacred texts, took the use of polyphony in secular song a crucial step forward, and also wrote a large body of monophonic songs, settings of his own poems which set the words to a melody. “Quant je suis mis” is one of several of these single-tune settings that have such an infectious lilt that they stick in memory with the same persistence as any pop hit. But while these great tunes are popular with groups that perform medieval music–hence the multiple versions in my collection–historians tend to give them short shrift. If you see a short reference to Machaut’s compositions, nine times out of ten it will be something along these lines “He was the first composer to put his name to a complete setting of the Mass.” “Complete” in this context means the fixed elements of the service, Gloria, Sanctus, Credo etc. which in the context of worship setting were separated by other elements which changed according to the liturgical calendar.

In the century after Machaut’s death the Mass became a major genre for composers, as rich princes built up the musical establishments of their courts and created a market for new musical settings. Machaut’s place at the beginning of this tradition, which reached a peak in the 16th-century with the works of composers such as Palestrina (who composed over 100 masses) ensured that any student of how the choral art evolved would start with the Frenchman’s pioneering work. The Mass was an uncharacteristic piece that Machaut wrote for regular commemorative performance after his death, part of the medieval tradition of afterlife insurance in which money was endowed to have the living pray for your soul. We cannot judge how effective the piece might have been in reducing his time in Purgatory, but the composition of his Mass was the single most important factor in providing him with musical immortality.

In the old parable of the blind men and the elephant, each man feels a different part of the animal and concludes that he is a different sort of thing than the others: a spear, a snake, a pillar, a wall or a rope, depending on whether they encountered his tusk, trunk, leg, side or tail. Those of us who have sampled the full range of Machaut’s creativity tend to be frustrated because the usual focus on those of his accomplishments that fit into a narrative of progress ends up ignoring so much that the elephant is reduced to a rope; the Mass produced to keep his memory alive, the tail at the end of his career, has come to stand in for his multi-faceted creativity.

That explains a good deal of my delight at encountering one of Machaut’s best monophonic tunes transformed into a slow, lyrical love theme used as the porn score for a royal sex act. It’s nice to see that someone in a creative field has noticed the potential of a song you have long admired and put it to good use, and it’s doubly nice for that use to be so at odds with the usual foolish pigeonholing that narrows and distorts our view of this towering creative figure, who ends up being seen, on the basis of the Mass, as an essentially religious figure.

He wasn’t, although it’s hard to doubt his religious ardor when one hears a good performance of his exquisite paean to the Virgin Mary, Le Lay de la Fontaine. Machaut lived through one of the most tumultuous ages in human history, including the early stages of the Hundred Years War, where his early patron, John of Luxembourg, the blind “King of Bohemia” sought out death tied to his fellow mounted knights, riding with them up the hill through the arrow-storm at Crecy so he might strike one last blow in battle; their bodies were found still tied together. Machaut is not exactly in tune with modern moral sensibilities. He wrote a poem of consolation for one of the most villainous figures of his age, Charles the Second of Navarre, more commonly known as Charles the Bad, a family connection of his patroness, the blind king’s daughter Bonne. More jarring still is his poetic celebration of one of the final Crusades supposedly aimed at the liberation of Jerusalem, the brutal sack of Alexandria, a victory, as Runciman notes in his History of the Crusades, “celebrated with unparalleled savagery” which resulted in no permanent gain for the Christian side because the victors mostly just took their loot and went home. Again, it was a matter of patronage, this time from the king of Cyprus who put together the expedition; today’s corporate sponsors are the descendents of those wealthy aristocrats whose largesse supported the arts of the day.

But deference to patrons is not Machaut’s only vice. He shares most of the common prejudices of the day, and takes suffering for granted in a way that clashes with our values Both these traits show up in Le Jugement du Roy de Navarre. As Boccaccio did in The Decameron, Machaut in this narrative poem made literary use of the terrible plague we know as the Black Death which he was lucky enough to survive. Like Boccaccio, Machaut uses the horrors of the plague as an introduction to a work that will then shift to more lighthearted endeavors. Unfortunately, Machaut’s shift of gears from horror to diversion is more jarring than that of the Italian writer, moving abruptly from his account of the plague to a carefree excursion into the countryside where a party of riders meets an assortment  of the allegorical personalities–Faith, Reason, Knowledge, Charity etc.– who so often populate his narrative poems. Less palatable still is that fact that his long list of contradictory “causes” for the epidemic includes the ridiculous and hateful claim that the plague was caused by Jews who poisoned wells.

Machaut did write one long poem with a sophisticated modern ambiguity, Le voir dit, (“A True Story”) in which the exchange of poems between lovers provides one more device that allows him to sprinkle throughout his story an assortment of his lyrical poems, many with music. Unfortunately, his framing narrative turns out to be a tad too familiar. It is the story of a much older artist who draws into a relationship a much younger woman who wants to learn about the poetic art from his experience. Need I say that the path leads to another sort of experience? It is the only medieval narrative I know that is tailor-made to become a Woody Allen film.

Machaut was a complicated and not always likeable man, but his work survives in large part because he took great pains to ensure that his legacy lived afterwards. He carefully collected his poems and music, leaving behind lovely illuminated manuscripts for his patrons in the French nobility. This regard for posterity makes him one of the first artists in the Western tradition who seems to think of himself as writing, not just for the occasion, or to fill a commission, but with an eye to his posthumous reputation. Those of us who enjoy his creations may chafe because that reputation is distorted by the biases of those who insist on placing the art of past centuries in a narrative dominated by the theme of progress. Songs like “Quant je suis mis”are the culmination of a tradition that began with the troubadours over two hundred years earlier, but bringing a long tradition to a glorious culmination is apparently not as interesting to some people as getting in on the ground floor of a new genre.

Machaut’s Mass deserves attention, though I’m not sure it merits the thirty-two different recordings listed in one very thorough online discography:  I also enjoy a great deal of his other polyphonic music, even though its virtues are sometimes more akin to those of avant-garde modern compositions, with occasionally jangling harmonic clashes and esoteric relations between meter and tone shape. Some of his pieces seem designed for purely instrumental performance, another great novelty at the time he was writing, and the cleverness of a piece such as “Ma fin est mon commencement,” where the title is really a cryptic instruction on how to perform a short score that is to be repeated and reversed, is especially attractive to people who like their music to be instructive when it is dissected in the classroom.

But my favorite Machaut genre, the vein of his creativity that tips the balance and puts him in the Top Twenty on my favorite composers list, remains that of his monophonic songs. Whenever I return to my collection of his music I am quickly reminded that I have forgotten some of his catchiest melodies. It’s not quite correct to say that this part of his art is neglected. “Quant je suis mis” had been recorded  at least 25 times before it showed up in the White Queen soundtrack. But the very nice Lay de Bonne Esperance which I’m listening to as I write this has apparently been recorded only five times, and one of my very favorite pieces, “J’aim le flour, ravishingly sung by Esther Lamandier on her album Domna, shows up otherwise only on an obscure LP, and on CD in an instrumental version. On the other hand, the discography shows Machaut’s most popular monophonic piece, “Douce dame jolie” on sixty-one different recordings.

Tracking down the composer’s less-popular, though sometimes exquisite works is complicated by the fact that more often than not his music is found on anthologies or concept albums that feature the work of other composers and may include only a few of Guillaume’s compositions. For example, the outstanding vocal group Gothic Voices did make one recording “The Mirror of Narcissus,”  devoted entirely to Machaut, and a wonderful introduction to his music it is, but to hear all the composer’s music they’ve recorded you will have to chase it down in various anthology recordings with different themes. There are four on their “Lancaster and Valois,” five more on “The Study of Love,” three scattered through “The Medieval Romantics” and one even wanders onto their collection of 15th century music “The Spirits of England and France III; Binchois and his Contemporaries” which otherwise offers the kind of music that was actually being composed and performed within a few decades of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the collections are such classics that one can recommend them apart from the role they play in furthering knowledge of Machaut. It’s just a pleasant bonus that four Machaut pieces show up the final disc of “Music of the Gothic Era” the wonderful pioneering collection of early polyphony by David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London, but the composer’s music dominates the first LP of the same ensemble’s “The Art of Courtly Love.” The Machaut pieces in the indispensable Munrow collections only twice duplicate the selections in “The Mirror of Narcissus,” making those recordings a convenient starting point, but duplications do inevitably grow the more one explores the composer’s full body of work. There are far worse fates than the acquiring multiple versions of Machaut’s greatest hits while hunting down and coming to grips with his more demanding creations, whether they are long, lovely lays that repeat the same melody for verse after verse or wacky little exercises in the arcane art of “hocketting.”

Living as we do in the age of internet sales, online streaming and YouTube sharing, this process is not as demanding as it was during the decades I spent building my own collection. But some classic recordings remain hard to find or prohibitively expensive, as is the case, especially for the first volume devoted to monophonic songs, of the Machaut recordings by the Studio der Fruhen Musik under the direction of Thomas Binkley. I am grateful for my own aged cassette tapes recorded long ago from library LPs. I am likewise lucky to have been alerted at the time to the ensemble Music for a While, a late assembly of some former members of the pioneering New York Pro Musica which produced among their small selection of offerings on the short-lived 1750 Arch label “La Fontaine Amoureuse”  a record which intersperses Machaut’s poetry and music to provide a unique overview of his life and art. The LP has apparently never been reissued on CD.

The creative life of Guillaume de Machaut was a unique phase in the history of art. Never before had an artist taken such pains to produce a lasting body of work for posterity. Never again would one man combine musical and poetic talents so as to rank him among greatest poets of his age while towering above his contemporaries as a composer. And never again would a major composer produce a substantial body of work consisting of a single unaccompanied melodic line. His immediate successors took his polyphonic experiments into an artistic cul de sac–the second part of the Munrow “Courtly Love” collection aptly calls this phase “The 14th-Centry Avante Garde”–and the next generation to match his lyrical lilt in songs of courtly love was that of the mid-15th century, when Guillaume Dufay and Giles Binchois absorbed the crucial discovery of Englishman John Dunstable that the use of triads could happily sweeten polyphony. They continued his tradition of writing texts and music to celebrate the bittersweet joys of worshipping from a respectful distance a high-born woman a mere musician could never expect to wed. This genre of medieval torch song did not die until more than a century after Machaut’s death, but die it did, and its end made this major part of his legacy seem quaint and artificial at best, and at worst, hopelessly old-fashioned.  

The Early Music revival that came to a crescendo in the second half of the twentieth century has made it possible for Machaut to win fans more than 600 years after his death in 1370. We grouse because a few of his creations have drawn undo attention at the expense of our relatively neglected favorites. But the fact that his legacy is distorted by selective memory is hardly unique to Machaut. Who, after all, besides the most ardent fans and scholars remembers that Babe Ruth was a great pitcher, or understands the impact of his high walk totals on his rank as the greatest player of all time? And who can be surprised that being the Babe Ruth of the 14th-century still doesn’t translate into much name recognition in the Third Millennium? For those of us who still care about Machaut’s art, it’s a good time to be alive. That online discography includes a complete list of his songs, each with its own link to the text and list of recordings. One click of a Wikipedia link takes me to a source that offers the three-volume collection of his complete works, another click and I can thumb through the pages until I reach his description of the weather on November 9th, 1349, when he stood contemplating the sad state of a world ravaged by evil-doing, war and pestilence. Granted,  if I decide that I need the aid of an English translation and commentary I’ll have to go downtown to the library of my local university, and in a worst-case scenario, might even need to resort to Interlibrary Loan.

All in all, it’s easier to explore Machaut’s world than it has ever been. The use of his music in the soundtrack of a medieval drama is unlikely to have much of an impact on the number of people who know his name, but there will probably be a few people whose interest is piqued by the recent flurry of TV productions set in medieval times: Vikings, The White Queen and The Last Kingdom, which debuted a few weeks ago. Some may even decide that after the vicarious thrill of medieval sex and violence it might be worthwhile to sample some real medieval artistry. When they do, Machaut will be there, once again, to offer the charm of elegant artifice, the melancholy of unrequited love, and the delight of an entrancing song.


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Vikings’ Trip to Paris

When I last weighed in on the History Channel series Vikings I was pretty happy with how the first season went, and was interested in where story would go next. The first season offered a sometimes fanciful background for the beginning of Scandinavian raids on western Europe, but it seemingly anchored itself in time by including the raid on Lindisfarne Abbey in Northumbria, which took place in 793 and is indeed considered the first in the series of assaults that would continue for the next two centuries. The series had dealt fairly realistically with Scandinavian culture of the time, and had constructed its story lines around one of the most famous families in Nordic legend, the hero of The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and his wives and children. There was an agreeable tension between the historical and legendary elements woven together by creator Michael Hirst, but it was obvious that the two would eventually come into conflict. For example, the first season included King Aelle of Northumbria, and offered a glimpse of his snake pit. There was indeed an historical King Aelle, and his snake pit plays a crucial role in Ragnar’s legend. But the historical Aelle fit poorly with the whole plotline about the raid on LIndisfarne during which the king made his appearance in Vikings because the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that records that the Northumbrians “had overthrown their king Osbriht, and had taken an unnatural king, Aelle.” and goes on to describe the death of both kings at the hands of the viking invaders is for the year 867.

But until the series was forced to confront this chronological conundrum I was hoping it would follow the historical pattern of the Viking raids, which for some three decades after the Lindisfarne raid were focused on Ireland. That hope was frustrated by the events of Season Two, which mostly dealt with Ragnar’s continued rise back home and chose the southern English kingdom of Wessex for his main overseas excursions. The king with whom he clashed there was Egbert, or as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle spells it, Ecgbryht, founder of the royal line that survived until just before the Norman Conquest. He began his rule in 802, which fit reasonably well with the show’s apparent timeline, which had required a change of actors for Ragnar’s son Bjorn. When the character appeared at the beginning of the first season he seemed to have just reached puberty, but in Season Two the new actor playing Bjorn was a strapping young man, more than full-grown.

I was sorry Hirst had sidestepped the Irish scene, but I could understand the decision. The history of Viking Age Ireland does not sit very comfortably with the myths of modern Ireland. An accepted narrative that stresses the destruction of native Irish culture by the harsh rule of the colonizing English may not be subtle enough to deal with the reality that for more than three centuries before those Anglo-Norman invaders arrived, foreign bases had been established by Norse settlers whose outposts grew to provide the nation with its first taste of urban life. Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Dublin were all built by Norsemen who had exploited the great weakness of the clan-based culture, its fatal resistant to political unity, to carve out their own spheres of influence and take their own part in the island’s unending cycles of internecine conflict. Another drawback was that, unlike Hirst’s series The Tudors which aired on a premium channel where a bit of nudity is considered a plus, this series aired on The History Channel, which still mostly hews to old-time TV prudery. An absence of nudity would have prevented any accurate depiction of Irish domestic life, because the Irish, once inside their smokey homes, tended to shuck all clothing except a loose robe worn over the shoulders, which was left open at the front. This easy-going approach to nudity, which scandalized outsiders for centuries, would no doubt still upset the modern inheritors of Anglo-Saxon body taboos.

Season Three of Vikings just came to its conclusion, with the expected share of treachery and bloodshed, and a number of pleasant surprises. For this fan of the old sagas, much of the pleasure came when I realized that a famous Icelandic anecdote was about to drop into the action. When the long-haired warrior about to be beheaded by his captors asks that his hair be held back by one of his executioners, those of us who know our Snorri Sturlasson began chuckling, because we knew the rude practical joke that was coming. And when a dying Viking leader asks that his body be taken into a cathedral–he has previously taken pains to be baptised–we again recognize a classic Viking ploy recorded by Snorri and later recounted by by various writers over the years, including sci-fi and bdsm fantasy writer John Norman, who dropped it into events on his fictional planet of Gor.

As the latest season of Vikings came to a climax with a fiercely-fought siege of Paris I realized that Hirst had abandoned any attempt to fit his story into known historical timeline, but was instead building his narrative from pieces snatched from two centuries of Viking lore. You could go crazy if you tried to date the events of the last half-dozen episodes. Let’s see, King Egbert is still alive, so it must be before he died in 839. But his grandson Alfred was just born, and his generally-accepted birth year is 849. But we’re also doing Ragnar’s assault on Paris, and the monkish chronicles tell us that the Viking leader Ragnar’s raid on Paris took place in 845, a year when Egbert was dead and Alfred wasn’t yet born. Setting aside the problems of the English timeline, there are further oddities in Paris itself. The Frankish ruler is Charles, and he talks about his grandfather Charlemagne. That last name wouldn’t be used for a while to come, but never mind, it helps us place the episode. Charlemagne’s grandson Charles was indeed the western Frankish king in 845, though he wouldn’t get the title “Emperor” for another thirty years. However his nickname, which was contemporary, was Charles the Bald, and “Emperor” Charles in Hirst’s teleplay has a full head of hair. He’s also nothing like the aggressive, sometimes impetuous historical king who in 845 was in the middle of some serious negotiations over Aquitaine with his nephew Pippin, and found it prudent to buy off the historical Ragnar with a payment of 7000 pounds of silver. It’s true that the historical King Charles probably hadn’t lost his hair by March of 845, because he was still only a few months short of his 22nd birthday, but that was another detail ignored by the Vikings team, who cast for the role of the “Emperor” Charles an actor born in 1957.

The treatment of the king raises a few alarm bells, but that’s not the only oddity.The defense of Paris is led by Count Odo, and it involves lots of exciting action including boiling oil and flaming pitch that is used to destroy the wooden structures the Vikings are using to attack the walls. And it turns out that all this comes from recorded history, a long poem by Abbo “in the vilest Latin” but “very detailed” according to Sir Charles Oman. There’s some compression of the timeline, more ordinary crossbows and fewer ballistas, and a distinct exaggeration in the scale of the Parisian fortifications, but the dramatization in Vikings isn’t too far from that “very detailed” account in a contemporary poem. Unfortunately, all this stirring action under the leadership of Count Odo occurred in the attack on Paris of 886. The Viking leaders then were Siegfried, who was bought off fairly cheaply, and Sinric, who continued the siege until the emperor Charles bribed him to take his raiders off to besiege another town. This was not the same Charles as in 845–Charles the Bald had died in 877–but his nephew, known in later years as Charles the Fat. The actor who plays Emperor Charles in Vikings isn’t fat, but there’s no particular reason to think this king was either; the nickname arrived long after his death. The Emperor Charles of 886 was actually plagued by severe, incapacitating headaches, which were a factor in his overthrow and early demise.

But the attack on Paris in Vikings isn’t just a mash-up of the raids of 845 and 886. From the beginning of the series I had been struck by the oddity that Ragnar has a brother named Rollo. Because the name is really a westernized form of the Scandinavian name “Rolf” you don’t run into it in Norse literature. It shows up only in the western chronicles, which tell how King Charles dealt with a viking incursion by granting land to the viking leader “Rollo.” This was yet another King Charles, a grandson of Charles the Bald, who goes by the nickname Charles the Simple. The deed of land to Rollo was the beginning of what was eventually known as the Duchy of Normandy, and an 11th-century “historian” of the Norman dynasty later claimed that the deal was sealed by Rollo’s marriage to the King’s daughter Gisla. No contemporary sources seem to have heard of her, but she’s there in Vikings expressing all the distaste you’d expect in a princess forced to wed a barbarian. By the way, all these historical and quasi-legendary events took place in 911. Rollo has aged remarkably little since the 793 raid on Lindisfarne.

There are actually events from much later than 911 that show up in the third season of Vikings. In one episode a mysterious wanderer tells about a fleeing princess named Astrid who hides on an island and gives birth to an infant named Olaf who will one day become king. That  is another borrowing from Snorri’s Heimskringla, his collection of sagas about early Norwegian kings, and my edition of the book places that birth in 968. The beheading anecdote shows up in what should be sometime in the early 990s, and the story about the viking lord’s “body” being brought into a cathedral comes from “The History of Harald Hardrade” and would have happened, if we really believed for a minute that this was a true story about Harald’s career, sometime between 1030 and 1040.

In Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy novel “The Thief of Time” we spend a lot of time with the history monks, whose job it is to make sure history happens “correctly.” But sometimes accidents happen, and on at least one occasion history was shattered and had to be reassembled from the whatever fragments could be gathered up. Among the oddities humans remarkably fail to notice about the reconstructed history are people “still in the middle of wars that happened centuries ago.” The Viking Age narrative of Michael Hirst is assembled from fragments taken from all over that rich and varied period. In the original, long version of history, Viking raiders kept coming back to Paris at intervals measured in decades, and each time they met a new king Charles, each with his own unflattering nickname. It has been said that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” and Hirst has laid down those rhymes over some classic samples to create something new.

The average college-educated American might have read a few paragraphs summing up Western history between the fall of Rome and the discovery of America, and might just remember a sentence or so in there about the centuries when men in longboats arrived to raid and pillage. Those of us who have spent some real time reading about the days of yore when the years of the Lord had only reached three digits, can amuse ourselves picking apart the bits and pieces of history and legend Hirst has assembled for our entertainment. But even chopped up and squeezed into in a sausage casing, there’s some real Viking lore in there, and a chance that the ripe taste of history in a bun may inspire a few viewers to to find out how much more fun there is when you go whole hog.


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Remembering Winton Dean

It was not quite a month after the fact that I became aware of the death of Winton Dean. He did not show up on the usual Web news headlines that usually alert me to celebrity departures. It was just an odd hunch when I realized that I might want to write about Dean that made me Google him and discover via Wikipedia that he had died on December 19 of last year. It was not exactly an early, tragic demise; he was already past the standard retirement age in 1985 when I heard him lecture in Portland as part of that year’s commemoration of the 300th anniversary of composer Georg Friderich Handel’s birth. The short online biography provided more detail: Dean was born during World War I while the British Third Army was taking up its position on the Somme in preparation for the coming summer’s offensive. He died just three months short of what would have been his ninety-eighth birthday.

At the time of Dean’s death I was nearing the home stretch in my first passage through his final major work, Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, which I had found at the my local library and had already renewed a second time. My progress had been slowed by the fact that I was reading the later chapters while listening to the operas they described, looking up his comments on each aria as it arose. Not long after I finished that first reading I discovered the Multnomah County Library’s new music-streaming service, which offered me the chance to explore several more operas treated in Dean’s book. I’m sure there will come a time when I will no longer need to refer to Dean’s books on a daily basis, but that day is still some distance in the future. I have, I think, never before been as immersed in a writer’s words and thoughts at the time of his death as I was when this great music scholar and critic took his final bow.

At the time I heard him speak, he was already the most recognizable and esteemed Handel scholar in the world, even though the two volumes that crowned his career had not yet been published. I still cherish my memories of his talk. His subject was the composer’s operas. At one point I offered a question on borrowings in Rodelinda from Giulio Cesare and he discussed the general process by which Handel reused material before kindly correcting my error by noting that he “was unaware of any such borrowings in Rodelinda.” His discussion of advances in performance style included a subtle barb directed at Beverly Sills’ Cleopatra, “where her vibrato was so wide I wasn’t sure whether she was trying to trill.” What made the comment amusing was the reality that although Sills’ vibrato was hardly exceptional for a singer of her era, she was challenged when it came to trills, at least compared to such contemporaries as Sutherland and Caballe. All in all it felt like a great honor to hear the musings of such an intelligent, witty man, who just happened to know more about his subject than anyone else on the planet.

Winton Dean’s life work was bound up in a transformation in the repertoire available for enjoyment by fans of classical music that gained momentum during the course of his lifetime, aided in no small part by his research and advocacy. Dean was born during the first outpouring of the new popular music that would eventually relegate composition in the classical tradition to the margins of modern life, hanging on in academia where it would become increasingly detached from the values of any large-scale audience. Around the same time that this once-great stream of music began to dry up, intrepid musicians began to explore the great mass of music written before 1800. In the face of a modern idiom that raced ahead of the audience taste, concert halls and opera houses were becoming increasingly dominated by works of the 19th century. One solution to combat monotony for those who had come to appreciate classical music was to mine the vast reserves of earlier music that had fallen out of fashion, in part because the institutions and performance traditions that evolved during the Romantic era were not well suited for music from very much earlier.

Those who could read the scores knew that there were treasures aplenty to be found in the works of older composers, and several generations of musicians labored mightily to bring back the forgotten masterpieces of earlier centuries. They began to revive obsolete instruments such as the recorder and harpsichord, and engaged in a deep study of the performance practices of past centuries. In the 1960s this work had paid off in a revival of Baroque music. This was most evident to the casual fan in the sudden availability of Vivaldi concertos on classical radio, but more dramatic developments were taking place in the opera house. In 1959 an Australian singer named Joan Sutherland dazzled on stage and over the radio in performances of Handel’s Alcina—she made a commercial recording of the work in 1962—and in 1966 a brilliant American named Beverly Sills achieved a long-overdue breakthrough to international stardom in the New York City Opera production of Handel’s Julius Caesar.

In the same year that Sutherland showed her mastery of Handel’s brilliant torrents of melody, Winton Dean made his first major contribution to the revival of that composer’s music. In Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques he made the case that the English oratorio that composer had more or less invented during the 1730s and 1740s, was not the stilted exercises in piety that bloated performances of his famous Messiah had become, but were in fact great works of musical theater, suitable for fully-staged revival, and every bit as powerful as those mainstays of the opera house, the works of Giuseppe Verdi. His book included an extensive survey of the historical context in which Handel’s works were created, and because the chief existing edition of the scores was deeply flawed, he took a deep look at the manuscript sources in order to discover as nearly as possible what version the composer had offered for its first performance and what changes he made during revivals. He concluded that the most powerful and artistically unified version of the oratorios was almost always that of their first performance, and that in later revivals the expediency of the theatrical entrepreneur took over, the works distorted by alterations for new singers, and insertions made for the sake of offering his audience something new. His detailed notes on the sources would prove of great help as the next generation worked to revive such neglected masterpieces as Semele, Belshazzar, Hercules, Saul, and Athalia.

Dean’s advocacy of the oratorios was triggered by an early epiphany during his participation in a staged performance of Handel’s Saul in the mid-1930s. His book on the oratorios quickly became an indispensable reference point, not only for scholars and musicians, but for music lovers seeking a guide to these neglected works. Thanks in part to his pioneering work that neglect has given way to a much wider appreciation. Although I live in what is by no means regarded as one of the world’s great musical centers– the Pacific Northwest–I have nevertheless been able to enjoy live performances of Israel in Egypt, Alexander’s Feast, Acis and Galatea, Semele, Saul, Jephtha, Theodora, Hercules and a series of brilliantly mounted Messiahs. But none of the six on this list that count as dramatic works was performed fully-staged, with sets and costumes, which Dean argued eloquently argued was the ideal way to enjoy these masterpieces. But while major opera houses continue to ignore almost all of these works, they have slowly begun to add Handel’s operas to their repertoires.

In his book on the oratorios Dean also briefly discusses the merits of the operas. He had studied the scores enough to know that they were full of breathtaking music, but his hasty conclusion was that the conventions with which the composer worked were too dramatically stifling for Handel’s Italian operas to win their way back from obscurity. One amusing piece of foreshadowing visible in Dean’s 1959 assessment is that he offers several of examples of the composer’s genius on display in his opera Alessandro, a work which his later work would suggest is nevertheless not among Handel top dozen operatic creations.  Dean’s frustration with the obvious constraints of baroque opera conventions, in particular the da capo aria, led him to pronounce that “Under these conditions opera as a developed art becomes impossible…” but a closer look soon suggested that he had sold the operas short. By the late 1960s he had teamed up with a slightly-older scholar, John Merrill Knapp, and had begun a systematic study of Handel’s operas. After more than twenty years of work they released Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. It was a monumental achievement, offering detailed research into the origins of each libretto, a careful description of the autograph score and various copies, employed as an essential background for conclusions about the composer’s intentions and artistic process. The book was copiously provided with appendices recording his instrumentation, Handel’s borrowings from himself and other composers, performances in the composer’s lifetime and another of modern stage performances, plus capsule biographies of his singers, and a comprehensive index of Italian first lines to the hundreds of individual numbers.

This exhaustive scholarship was put to the service of assessing the musical and dramatic accomplishments of each opera. Each chapter began with a detailed summary of the plotline of the opera in question, including stage actions described in the libretti, and moved on to a discussion of the sources and Handel’s process of choosing a text for performance, including astute comments on how dramatic the choice and arrangement of text turned out to be. Then followed a discussion of each character, moving from an overview to a number-by-number survey of the arias and other musical movements in which each took part. The chapters traced Handel’s development as a composer, from his apprenticeship in Germany, where he wrote his first operas, to his crucial sojourn in Italy, where he absorbed the latest developments of the art and produced his first masterpiece, and then to his career as an entrepreneur who brought this continental art to a London audience. The task of writing up the results of the two men’s labors was Dean’s and the opening chapter on “Handel as Opera Composer” begins with a claim that the composer ranks “among the supreme masters of opera” and later asserts that ‘he created about a dozen major masterpieces capable of holding their own with those of any age.” Dean’s discussion of the conventions of the age and Handel’s use of the means at his disposal demonstrates how this might be true.

Even though this imposing tome covered more than twenty years of the composer’s life and the seventeen operas that survive from those years, Handel’s Opera 1704-1726, came to an end roughly halfway through the composer’s operatic career. Knapp’s illness removed him from the partnership, and Winton Dean was left to soldier on another 19 years before completing the job in Handel’s Operas 1726-1741. A little short of the finish line, the writer lost his wife of 61 years. Although Dean published other musical studies before he devoted himself to the great task of sorting out Handel’s legacy, that great labor will surely stand as his life’s work, a monument to his dedication and uncommon musical discernment.

As my own exploration of Handel moves onward, Winton Dean is my ever-present guide and companion. Close reading of his chapter on Imeneo tells me the tortuous textual history that explains where the pieces were assembled for the score used in my recording of that late opera, which of the composer’s revivals were harvested in order to build up the title character’s part far beyond his original conception, which opera was raided to add a lovely duet. As I work my way through other obscure works that come my way, it is Dean’s work that helps me notice when arias are omitted from recordings of Atalanta, Arminio and Sosarme. Dean’s discussion of the textual history of Handel’s Radamisto makes it possible for me to tell which recording uses the composer’s original scheme, and which uses the revisions he made for an early revival. When I revisit the Sutherland’s 1959 performance of Alcina on German radio, it is Dean’s work that saves me from the false conclusion that it was the diva’s greediness that led her to sing a brilliant aria actually intended for a different character; his chapter on the opera reveals that the then-standard score edited by Chrysander was actually to blame.

But the late scholar’s greatest contribution to my steadily-mounting appreciation of Handel’s music is not in these arcane details, helpful as they sometimes are, but in the way he has carried out the chief goal of his labors. In order to make his argument that the Saxon composer ranks among the world’s great musical dramatists Dean must show the reader where the operas fail and how they succeed. To read and absorb his careful observations of how in the greatest operas music mirrors text and reveals character is to undergo an education in the higher values of artistic creation. His explication of the musical numbers shows a keen sensibility, and helps direct the ear to those details by which the composer spins out his often-ravishing effects. Dean’s evaluations prove indispensable for the fan who wants to seek out more treasures and wonders where among Handel’s sixty-odd dramatic works he should next turn.

The world from which the great scholar and critic took his departure is one in which those treasures are more readily available than ever before. I you want to see a filmed performance of Handel’s great Giulio Cesare you can pick and choose from half-a-dozen versions, and just as many audio recordings that offer further alternatives. When Dean completed his first volume on the operas, all the available recordings presented the work with florid male roles originally written for castrati transposed down to a lower register, which “suggest a man gargling to exorcise a sore throat or a bumble-bee trapped in a jam jar” but today only a few such historical curiosities still linger in the catalogue, and the vast majority now sensibly employ counter-tenors or female singers in those roles. Dean’s fierce advocacy of singing the roles as the composer wrote them has been vindicated and has almost completely vanquished the old notion that the scores require “fixing.”

By making it possible for musicians to access and understand the forgotten mass of Handel’s dramatic work Winton Dean’s work played a crucial role in bringing me and more than a few others to the point where we can confidently rank the Saxon among the five greatest composers who have ever lived. (My personal list has Mozart and Bach in contention for the top spot, Beethoven sitting third and Handel and Haydn flitting back and forth between fourth and fifth place, depending mostly on which one I am listening to at the time). While writing this small tribute to Dean’s accomplishment my headphones have kept Handel streaming into my ears, from the breathtaking beauties of his Milton setting L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, to an overly sedate version of Alexander’s Feast, temporarily abandoned today for the first act of an authentic but somewhat tepid Giulio Cesare, recorded live in Italy.

I have a deep affection for those writers whose guidance has enriched my life by leading me to works of art I might otherwise have missed. “Here,” they say, “is this brilliant play, this groundbreaking musical, this masterful book that transcends its genre.” The wealth of human creativity is so wide and deep that we urgently need the services of those who can show us the way to the creations that lend joy to our lives. I’ll be writing more about music as the weeks go by, and from time to time will be sharing thoughts raised by my immersion in Handel’s manifold delights. But little of this recent bliss, whose nature and quality I will try my best to share, would have been possible without the astonishing life’s work of Winton Dean.

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Novels of the Viking Age: Conclusion

The 11th-Century Clash of Nations, Part Two

King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

The Last Viking: A trilogy by Poul Anderson

The Golden Horn

The Road of the Sea Horse

The Sign of the Raven

              The fifty years before the invasions of 1066 changed everything provided some of the most striking personalities of the Viking Age. Earl Thorfinn of Orkney earned the nickname “the Mighty” while king Harald of Norway became known as the “Hardruler.” Dorothy Dunnett’s novel about Thorfinn is roughly as long as Poul Anderson’s complete trilogy on Harald’s life. Between them they provide an excellent overview of the final stage of this great historical drama. 

                 Dorothy Dunnett’s rich and complex novel King Hereafter is based on the idea that the somewhat shadowy historical King Macbeth of Scotland was really the same man as Earl Thorfinn the Mighty of Orkney and Caithness. If your response to that second name is “Who?” you may become frustrated before the novel reaches one of the most heartbreaking conclusions of any book of any kind that I have ever read. I’ve spent the last decade immersed in the assorted chronicles, sagas, biographies and histories that tell what we know about these same middle decades of the 11th-century. Durning that time I’ve spent long hours plugging into my genealogy database people including Finn Arnason, his wife Bergljot and daughter Ingibjorg, Queen Emma of Normandy, Earls Uhtred and Siward of Northumbria, Godiva and Leofric of Mercia and their son Alfgar, and many, many more of the huge cast of characters that sail across the pages of this novel, their deeds weaving a complex pattern of events. I was dumbfounded by Dunnett’s accomplishment. She brings these diverse characters to life, but her greatest achievment is the rich portrait of her hero, Thorfinn-Macbeth. In an age when men swooped down to burn one another in their halls, and an unsuspected shift in allegiance could turn victory to disaster, a successful leader needed the instincts of a great poker player if he hoped to stay alive. Her brilliant protagonist displays all those talents while winning our deepest sympathies.

                King Hereafter offers other challenges besides the task of following its huge cast. Dunnett’s writing is allusive rather than direct, and readers who like the thoughts and actions to be clearly spelled out, rather than hinted and left to be deciphered, may find the effort too great. For me it’s simply a masterpiece, with rich description, brilliant, subtle characterization, and all the high drama I could wish. After I had come to cherish the slow-growing love of Macbeth and his lady, I found that the approach of his inevitable end moved me as deeply as the downfall of any hero ever has. 


                The Golden Horn, the first volume in Poul Anderson’s trilogy The Last Viking, begins with a Prologue that offers a glimpse of its hero Harald Sigurdharson as a precocious three-year old. By its end Harald has survived his first blooding on the battlefield at age 17– where he witnessed the death of his older half brother Olaf the Stout—and has gone on to exile in Sweden , then to Novgorad, Kiev, and at last Constantinople. It is in that great city, known to the Norse as Miklagardh where he grows to manhood as a member of the Varangian Guard, the corps of foreign mercenaries who guard the Byzantine emperor when they are not off on campaign against his enemies. Along the way Harald grows to an astonishing height of seven feet, becomes a successful war-leader, and falls in love with a woman from a prominent Byzantine family. He soon finds himself entangled in complex maneuvers for power that have given the word “Byzantine” a continuing life as an adjective long after that empire came to an end. Harald is witness to much of the folly that started the empire on its downward path, but his thoughts are always on a return to Norway, to press his claim to the Norwegian throne. It’s not giving much away to say that by the end of this volume he has done just that, for this is the man who would eventually be known as Harald Hardrede (more commonly spelled Hardrada), one of the three great contestants in the great events of 1066 that would transform English history.

                The heart of the action in The Golden Horn takes place on the peninsula that gives the novel its name, and in the nearby Mediterranean lands where Harald wages war. It is a swift-moving novel that spares just enough time on character to make understandable this eventful early phase of one of history’s most amazing life stories.


                The Road of the Sea Horse dramatizes the middle years of Harald Hardrede, the hero of Poul Anderson’s trilogy The Last Viking. Having returned to Norway after years serving emperors in Constantinople Harald meets frustration when he tries to apply the lessons learned during his exile. He has come to believe that only those realms held by a powerful monarch will survive the coming clash of nations, is eager to impose just that sort of strong rule, and hopes to forge a northern empire that can match Europe’s rival powers. But even after he becomes sole king, Harald finds himself frustrated by constraints he cannot escape. The inhabitants of the great northern Throndheim fjord have a tradition of independence and a history of deposing kings who threaten it, and they are not alone in clinging to Norwegian traditions that assert the king’s subservience to the law. His reliance on citizen levies undercuts his hopes to add the throne of Denmark to his titles, for that realm has a king it prefers, and he proves a resilient adversary, willing to retreat and return as long as it takes to outlast his opponent.

                In the course of the novel themes emerge that are just as relevant today as they were a millennium ago. How long will a people who pride themselves on freedom endure a war on foreign soil that drags on and on without real prospect of victory? Are rulers who claim that there are good reasons of state for their wars abroad and usurpation of rights at home really driven by a private need for supreme power? There are other occasions where the needs of the state and private desire mesh better, as when Harald’s lust for a spirited woman, fulfilled at a cost to his domestic tranquility, provides the sons his dynasty requires.  The Road of the Sea Horse offers a keen portrait of king who wins fame with the sword but whose building projects at home will prove more a lasting legacy.  


                In The Sign of the Raven Poul Anderson brings his Last Viking saga to a moving end. King Harald Hardrede has secured the throne of Norway, but his rule of Denmark still proves elusive, and in the aftermath of another hard-won victory he discovers that it has once more slipped from his grasp. This leads to a breach with his key ally from the North, and the king lives up to his nickname when he harshly punishes those who support his foe. Meanwhile he must deal with the disappointment of his wife Elizabeth and the anger of his mistress Thora, and puzzle over the strangely different personalities of his teenaged sons Magnus and Olaf. He is, in short, mired in the frustrations of middle age, forced to accept the abandonment of his grandest dreams, and doubtful of his legacy. But one final opportunity beckons, a chance to make a bid for the English throne, and Harald sails away to play his crucial part in the world-changing drama of 1066. His September Song will blend sadness and a fierce joy.

                Anderson’s artistry is at its peak in this novel, his descriptive writing tinged with a beauty that casts an autumnal light over the final months of the hero’s life. Through the eyes of those who love him we share the loss and frustration felt by a man whose drive to bend the world to his will is thwarted by the nature of those changing times. As the final reckoning approaches, so too does grief at the loss of old friends and a strange swell of love for his enemies. Harald is the final great figure of an age about to end, and we might expect to rejoice at the passing of a brutal time when life was shaped by the fear of dragon-headed ships that spewed out ax-wielding warriors. But The Sign of the Raven makes us feel the final blaze of glory that a setting sun casts, and shed tears at its passing from the world.

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Novels of the Viking Age, The 11th Century Clash of Nations, Part One



                After two centuries of Scandinavian assaults Western Europe greeted the approach of the 11th century with hope that it had weathered the worst. England had enjoyed decades of stability, and Ireland was coming to terms with its Norse colonies and even groping toward greater unity. But the 990s saw a renewal of raids on England, and by that decade’s end Denmark was united, its neighbors all neutralized, and was ready for a great new venture across the North Sea. Scotland’s history continued to be complicated by its vulnerability to raids by Danes and Norsemen, and by the presence of a power in the Orkneys that also controlled the northern mainland. That same northern power found reason to intervene in the Irish wars. With remarkable events and memorable personalities in all these theaters, this sunset of the Viking Age offered some of the most striking scenes of the entire era. The first three novels on my list deal with Scotland and Ireland. The next three offer different views of the Danish conquest of England, the next offers a fascinating view of events in Scotland and the Orkneys, and the final trilogy tells of the wide-ranging life of the last great hero of the Viking Age.  Today you can read my reviews of the first six novels; the final four will follow shortly.

High Kings and Vikings by Nigel Tranter

The Kings in Winter by Cecelia Holland

The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaell


Shieldwall by Justin Hill

The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick

Kings of the North by Cecelia Holland


                Strife stalks Scotland in High Kings and Vikings. As the end of the first millennium approaches, a High King falls at the hand of a murderess and Viking raiders ravage the coast. The novel’s young hero, Cormac mac Farquhar has just succeeded his father as Thane of Glamis, and must quickly learn his duties as a leader of men, then sort through some sharp conflicts of loyalty. Along the way he meets an appealing young woman named Fenella, who in typical Tranter fashion feels free of any need for chaperones when she accompanies him on various forays across the Scottish landscape. She teaches him flounder fishing and the joys of sea bathing, and is an able helpmate in the task of raising and training crews for some long-ships he has captured while in service to the newly-crowned king. Along the way they win the friendship of another young man finding his place in the world, a son and heir of the Mormaor of Moray who has the odd name of Macbeth. They even play a hand in his marriage to the lovely young woman named Gruoch who would, in distant centuries, be transformed into an infamous “Lady.”

                But the events that make the Macbeth name live on in brilliant, unhistorical drama, lie decades after this tale of Scotland’s struggles when the potential instability of the nation’s antique system of elected governance—seven Mormaors who choose a king from a handful of eligible candidates—is tested by the challenge of invasion from abroad and ambition from within. High Kings and Vikings is one of Nigel Tranter’s later novels, and while his charmingly-old-fashioned style takes us on an assortment of minutely-described journeys across his beloved Scottish landscapes, a few odd errors of chronology —Macleans holding Duart more than two centuries before the birth of that clan’s namesake, a raid by King Olaf of Norway in a year when there was no such king, Thorfinn of Orkney grown to manhood when the sagas would have him still unborn–suggest a slackening attention to historical detail by the prolific 89-year-old author.  

                The setting of The Kings in Winter is Ireland during the years 1013-1014, which is to say, during the months of build-up to the great clash at Clontarf that became one of the most famous battles in Irish history. Cecelia Holland’s chief focus is not directly on the assortment of kings drawn into the coming conflict, but on a minor clan chief, bowman and harper named Muirtagh, who spends the early stages of the novel trying to prevent a new outbreak of an inter-clan feud. A massacre in Muirtagh’s youth that claimed his father and drove the severely-weakened clan from their homeland has long gone un-avenged, thanks in part to an oath by the leader, and in part to his understanding that another bout of violence would lead to his people’s destruction. But Muirtagh’s younger brother Cearball has grown into a renowned warrior, called “Dane-killer” for his prowess against the warriors from Ireland’s various Scandinavian colonies. The rival clan suspects that the chief will be unable to control his martial sibling, and after Muirtagh reminds them during a performance at his harp that their butchery has not been forgotten, it soon becomes clear that without intervention from on high, another massacre will follow. His cause is just, worthy of the High King’s support, but political realities suggest that with war looming, his more powerful enemies will have more sway. Muirtagh’s quest to preserve his people while finding some semblance of justice will at last take him to the fateful field where the High King and his Irish allies meet the rebellious Irish of Maelmordha of Leinster and their allies from the Norse of Dublin and the Isles.

                Holland’s great gift for making a distant time come to life is on display in The Kings in Winter and Muirtagh’s tale is a deeply moving one. Once or twice she repeats suspect details from the literary sources on which we draw our knowledge of the great battle, but this was, after all, her third novel, and her advanced mastery as a storyteller easily outweighs these brief flashes of historical naiveté.  


                A useful complement to Holland’s novel, treating in greater detail and with a deeper background the same clash of arms at Clontarf, is The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, a work of literature in the guise of history.  It was written in the early 12th century, a hundred years after the events it describes, and is a work of propaganda designed to glorify the progenitor of the O’Brians, the High King of Ireland, Brian Boruma. The tale presents Brian in the context of the long history of Scandinavian invasions, and begins with a dense, name-clogged overview of those invasions, heavily slanted toward the Irish. All this serves as prelude to the story of the hero’s youth, his family, his brother’s murder, his rise to become High King, and the culminating battle of Clontarf which sealed his fame. As the narrative approaches its great climax on the battlefield, it offers well-crafted scenes that bring to life the various characters, with an especially lively sequence showing how the Irish regional king Maelmordha was goaded into rebellion. The scenes of battle are intense and enjoyable too, with skillful shifts of perspective, from the forefront of the battle, where Brian’s son Murchadh mows down his adversaries like a Hong Kong action hero, to the battlements of Dublin, where a Norse king and his Irish wife trade barbed remarks about the battle’s ebb and flow.

                The 19th century editor and translator of the The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill calls it “inflated and bombastic” and the over-the-top style is silly enough to provide entertainment. The unknown author was way too fond of alliteration—mostly lost in translation—and obsessively spins out strings of synonymous words. But this biased account of the battle between “the bright, fresh, never-weary, terrible, valiant, victorious heroes” and their “untamable, inexorable, unsteady, cruel, barbarous” foes remains one of the most vivid fictional treatments of the great collision between the Norse and Irish worlds.


                 The Danish conquest of England, accomplished during the second decade of the 11th century, is less famous than that kingdom’s conquest by the Normans some half-century later. It is, however, a fascinating tale, well worthy of being turned into fiction by two accomplished authors, who have chosen distinctly different viewpoints. Helen Hollick shows us the war from the view of a queen whose personal reign embraced both English and Danish kings. Justin Hill offers a more concentrated look at the crucial years of conflict from the viewpoint of one of the most important non-regal figures in history, Godwin Wulfnothson, close colleague of one brave, short-lived king, and afterwards of a longer-lasting queen.

                In Hill’s Shieldwall, the first of a projected series on those crucial pre-Norman decades, the tale begins with Godwin’s father Wulfnoth, who is driven into exile by Eadric Streona, the scheming counselor of Ethelred who is here shown as responsible that king’s later reputation as “Unready” or, to translate the old word-play better, “un-counseled.” But at a moment when Godwin is in dire peril he is saved by the young prince Edmund. Together they will wage the hard fights that earn Edmund the nickname “Ironside” almost a millennium before Raymond Burr would appropriate the name.

                Those of us who have dealt with the historical sources of this tumultuous age will appreciate the hard choices a writer of fiction must make, and it is perhaps understandable that Hill has embraced the traditions that offered a ready-made villain in the treacherous Eadric; readers should balance his picture with Hollick’s somewhat more selective view of the villainies attributed to that character. But Hill’s finely-etched portraits of the very young men who found themselves at the center of a key clash of nations is the great accomplishment that makes Shieldwall essential reading for any fan of this period.              


                The Forever Queen of Helen Hollick’s title is one of the most remarkable women of the 11th century, Emma of Normandy, the queen first of King Ǽthelred of England and after his death of Cnut of Denmark, who won the thrones of England and Denmark, and for a while also ruled over Norway. Hollick tells the story of Emma life, from her arrival in England as frightened thirteen-year-old bride, from an unhappy marriage to her English husband to her happy one to his Danish successor, and through the next two reigns after Cnut’s death, those of her step-son Harold and her son Harthacnut, ending with the succession of her son Edward, whose piety earned him the sobriquet “the Confessor.” The tale of Emma’s trials and joys is intermingled inextricably with the incredible story of how her first husband’s ineptitude brought about England’s conquest by the Danes, and the twists and turns that eventually placed the crown in the capable hands of her second husband Cnut, and after that, of two short-lived sons.

                Hollick’s novel is a splendid recreation of this pivotal phase in English history, bringing to life the key personalities of the age including, in addition to the assorted royal figures already mentioned, Emma’s supporter Godwin Wulfnothsson, her rival Ǽlfgifu of Northhampton, and the era’s great villain, Eadric Streona, not to mention a judicious sampling of Eadric’s purported victims. The drama of The Forever Queen unfolds in a sequence of very short chapters–157 for 616 pages–so the whole amazing journey can be completed in easy stages. (Do you remember what Jeff Goldblum’s character said about “People” magazine articles in The Big Chill? The chapters of this novel meet the same toilet-friendly criterion). Hollick’s scholarly background serves her well, and her choices of how to interpret the people and events of a poorly-recorded age show such keen understanding I’ve suspended judgment on those passing details that clashed with my own understanding. All in all, this is a masterful retelling of a life and age that deserves to be much better known.    


                A pendant to the solid work on the era of Danish conquest by Justin Hill and Helen Hollick is Kings of the North, which brings to a conclusion the series of six novels Cecelia Holland’s commenced with The Soul Thief.  In it she returns to the supernatural conflict at the center of that first book, and this novel ends up weaving history into a fantasy plot, offering a magic-based conspiracy theory alternative to the story of those crucial years. In Kings of the North Raef, known as Corbansson, but actually the son of Corban’s sister Mav and the Norse king who raped her, is near the conclusion of a long journey back from Constantinople. His aim to trace the parentage of a young woman he rescued from the great eastern capitol, but after that quest ends in sad anti-climax he discovers that the unfinished business of his family is luring him back to England. There the dangerous supernatural creature his mother and uncle battled in the first novel has found a new host in Emma, the young Norman queen of England. Her goal is to harvest souls, and her powers are steering England and king Ethelred toward war with Sweyn of Denmark. While Raef struggles to understand his adversary’s power and the means of defeating her, the fate-lines begin to spin around two royal princes, Edmund and Knut, teenagers who must grow up fast, and who will ultimately find themselves at the center of the struggle for control of England.

                The magical elements of these novels, which receded in the third through fifth volumes, are here more important than ever, and fans who want their historical fiction un-touched by fantasy may shy away. There are others who have made fiction of the Anglo-Danish war that ushered in the 11th-century, and Holland simplifies the ebb and flow of that struggle for the sake of her own tale of a greedy devourer of souls. But her sympathetic portrayal in Kings of the North of the difficult coming to manhood of Edmund and Knut is a valuable contribution to our understanding of those crucial figures in history. Holland’s uncanny ability to bring to life rounded, believable characters from the scant evidence of thousand-year-old annals shows that her power to sculpt character can still match that of any competitor.

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