Thursday, August 27, 2009

Some Historical Events

Felix Mendelssohn was a composer of classical music born 200 years ago.

That seems like a long time ago and very old-fashioned. After all, when Mendelssohn traveled, he rode in a coach drawn by horses over dirt roads and it took days to go cross-country.

When Mendelssohn was 9, the first steamship (see photo: model of The Savanah) crossed the Atlantic in 29 days.

When he was 31, railroads began connecting some of the major cities in Germany. Today, we have highways and trains and, more importantly, planes to get us across the world in a matter of hours. Not to mention space travel, even though it hasn't taken us back to the moon since 40 years ago.

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When Mendelssohn was 23, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. You might wonder how people talked to each other so long ago if they didn't have cell-phones or the internet. Well, people wrote letters to each other – and fairly long ones, too and since they didn't have cameras to include photographs, some people sent along drawings done with pen-and-ink to describe where they were vacationing. But it was the invention of the telegraph in 1832 that helped make the telephone possible, and eventually things like iPhones and e-mails possible, today.

Two centuries is a long time ago, but a lot of what was happening then – the new things, inventions and technology – was very important when you consider what we're doing and how we're living today.

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Mendelssohn spent a great deal of time, visiting England. He was personal friends with Queen Victoria, then a young woman (not the frompy old woman we think of when people talk about “Victorian England” with its conservative moral attitudes). Consider the impact these events in England had on future lives in the rest of the world – especially like the United States.

In 1825 (the year the 16-year-old Mendelssohn composed his Octet for Strings which we'll hear on Sept. 16th), Britain passed legislation like the Child Labor Law: those aged 9-13 could work only eight hours; 14-18 year olds, only 12 hours. (Children under 9 were required to attend school.) They also passed laws that restricted the work day to only a 12-hour day. Before that, it could have been a 12-16 hour work day for many factory workers. By 1847, the year Mendelssohn died, it had become a 10-hour day for women and children.

In the United States, strikers in Philadelphia demanded a 10-hour day in 1835. Federal legislation wasn't passed until 1868 limiting the work-day to 10 hours.

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Another historical event to consider was the British abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, something Mendelssohn could have read in the newspapers when he was 25. Slavery didn't end in the United States until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 and, officially, with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, following the Civil War.

Even the serfs in Russia – not quite like slaves but still one human owned by another – were emancipated in 1861 by order of the Russian Emperor, Tsar Alexander II.

As one argues about the pros and cons of Health Care Reform today, several comments are made about how the United States' system compares to similar systems in other countries where such reforms had been enacted years ago. It is not necessarily something that happens universally all at the same time.

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What are some other important historical events that happened during Mendelssohn's lifetime?

In 1831, the year Mendelssohn had traveled to Rome, an English scientist named Charles Darwin sailed to places like the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean on a ship named “The Beagle.” On this voyage, he collected a great deal of scientific material that helped him form his Theory of Natural Selection in 1838 and then his Theory of Evolution which he published in 1859 in the book, Origin of Species. This is still a “hot topic” today in the on-going argument it inspired between Science and Religion.

Incidentally, Charles Darwin was born in England only 9 days after Felix Mendelssohn was born. This year also marks the Bicentennial Year of Darwin's birth!

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In 1815, a Scotsman named John Macadam invented a substance that could be used to pave dirt roads and improve transportation. We call this material “macadam,” after the inventor's name. What were city streets like before they were paved, when they were just dirt? Not to mention the horses... We talk about pollution from cars, today.

Trains started connecting German cities (in the area we now call Germany) in 1840 (see map). This not only improved transportation but also improved commerce and communication. In ten years, most of the major cities of Central Europe could be reached by rail.

Since “Germany” was really a collection of small city states and little countries rather than one big country, held together by a common language and culture, people now started advocating the unification of these German states into a nation.

In the 1850s, a German political activist who'd lived in the United States and studied our economic growth in the 1840s began to advocate a United States of Europe.

The European Union didn't become a reality until 1993, even though it's not technically a “country,” more of an economic than a unified political entity.

Though Germany as a “concept” existed in Roman times (it was German barbarians that destroyed the Roman Empire by 476 AD), it did not become a modern nation until 1871 when the loose Federation of Mendelssohn's day became the North German Federation in 1866 before it became absorbed as part of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1871. On the other hand, France had been a nation in the modern sense since at least the 13th Century.

The next post will be about Napoleon and his influence on the Europe Felix Mendelssohn grew up in.

- Dr. Dick