Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I am not certain when I became a fan of the Napoleonic Wars. I think that it all began when I started reading C.S. Forester's "Hornblower" novels. From there I went to Patrick O'Brian's novels and from thence to Alexander Kent's take on the same time period. I love the sea and the travels with these great fictional mariners turned out to be informative and entertaining. I ended up obtaining a series of books printed especially for sorts like me called the "Heart of Oak" novels. I was surprised how many otherwise reputable authors at some point in their careers opted to write a novel about the sea, and especially about the maritime wars between England and France. Eventually, however, the supply ran out and I went looking for something else in the same time frame. This is when I discovered Bernard Cornwall.

I had watched a couple of episodes on PBS, dramatizations of Cornwall's "Sharp" series. I think that I actually saw the pilot, "Sharp's Rifles", long before I discovered the books. The series traces the life of a commoner who, as a recruit in the British army in India, saved the life of an officer who would become Lord Wellington. Richard Sharp follows Wellington to Portugal, at the beginning of the battles against the French and Spanish that would eventually terminate in the great Battle of Waterloo wherein Napoleon would be defeated and exiled. Cornwall, a gifted writer, made each advancing step in the series a vibrant picture of early nineteenth century warfare, extraordinarily graphic, not intended for the faint of heart. As each advance through Portugal, Spain, and France transpires, Richard Sharp rises to the occasion and rises in rank until he serves as a field officer in Wellington's staff. It is a gripping and compelling history of a violent time.

In conjunction with the books I was reading, I was constantly reminded of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture", a piece that also evokes the same period of time. For whatever reason, I had always thought of the piece in conjunction with Waterloo, but of course, it was not written with that battle in mind. Tchaikovsky was celebrating the Battle of Borodino when the Russians defeated Napoleon's Grande Armee in the winter of 1812. The combined losses of the French and the Russians were in excess of 100,000, neither side obtaining complete success. With the onset of winter, however, what was left of the French army was literally decimated; only one tenth of the forces that invaded Russia survived to reach Poland on their return to France. The Overture was written in October and November of 1880, the premiere performance taking place
in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior (a church built to commemorate the battle) on 20 August 1882. Oddly enough, Tchaikovsky denigrated his own work by saying that it was "very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love". Ironically, it is one of the most performed and recorded of his works.

At this New Year's Eve, another connection with the Napoleonic Wars is possible. Years ago Dan Fogelberg wrote a song called "The Same Auld Lang Syne" a song that has currency to this day, even though a score of years have passed since he wrote it. Ostensibly, the lyrics are autobiographical. In Fogelberg's own words: "In 1975 or 76 I was home in Peoria, Illinois visiting my family for Christmas. I went to a convenience store to pick up some whipping cream to make Irish coffees with, and quite unexpectedly ran into an old high school girlfriend. The rest of the song tells the story." The girl was Jill Greulich with whom Dan Fogelberg had gone to high school. While the story line has some tenderness to it, the melody line was taken from the main theme of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture". I remember hearing Fogelberg confess that on that level, the song was a bit of a joke, a sentiment much like Tchaikovsky's. Again, ironically, there is probably no one song more frequently and consistently played on the air than "The Same Auld Lang Syne".

Same Old Lang Syne

Met my old lover in the grocery store,
The snow was falling Christmas Eve.
I stole behind her in the frozen foods,
And I touched her on the sleeve.

She didn't recognize the face at first,
But then her eyes flew open wide.
She went to hug me and she spilled her purse,
And we laughed until we cried.

We took her groceries to the checkout stand,
The food was totalled up and bagged.
We stood there lost in our embarrassment,
As the conversation dragged.

We went to have ourselves a drink or two,
But couldn't find an open bar.
We bought a six-pack at the liquor store,
And we drank it in her car.

We drank a toast to innocence,
We drank a toast to now.
And tried to reach beyond the emptiness,
But neither one knew how.

She said she'd married her an architect,
Who kept her warm and safe and dry,
She would have liked to say she loved the man,
But she didn't like to lie.

I said the years had been a friend to her,
And that her eyes were still as blue.
But in those eyes I wasn't sure if I saw,
Doubt or gratitude.

She said she saw me in the record stores,
And that I must be doing well.
I said the audience was heavenly,
But the traveling was hell.

We drank a toast to innocence,
We drank a toast to now.
And tried to reach beyond the emptiness,
But neither one knew how.

We drank a toast to innocence,
We drank a toast to time.
Reliving in our eloquence,
Another 'auld lang syne'......

The beer was empty and our tongues were tired,
And running out of things to say.
She gave a kiss to me as I got out,
And I watched her drive away.

Just for a moment I was back at school,
And felt that old familiar pain .........
And as I turned to make my way back home,
The snow turned into rain ..............

You can never go home, Dan; all you can do is become entangled in the history of the world.

Dan Fogelberg died on 16 December 2007 of prostate cancer. He was 56.


Bliss said...

Sentimental. Just like you.

Anonymous said...

You should write a nautical book, dad. Your own take on the nepolianic wars. :D

Jen said...

That's sad about Dan. How's your prostate?

Zaphod said...

When I lay down, it is prostrate.