Friday, July 30, 2010

Portrait of Princess Marie-José

Anna Maria de Visscher, mother of Princess Lilian

I think she has a lovely face. Anna Maria de Visscher was the scion of respectable bourgeoisie, the daughter of a mayor and the granddaughter of a minister. Her ancestors included illustrious figures, such as the Comte Félix de Muelenaere, a member of the National Congress that founded the Kingdom of Belgium, and three times Foreign Minister between 1831 and 1841. In 1905, Anna Maria married Henri Baels, a rising young Ostende shipowner, lawyer and politician, to whom she bore eight children, six daughters and two sons. 

During the Nazi invasion of Belgium, while her husband, the Governor of West Flanders, circulated constantly to alleviate the plight of his province, Madame Baels worked for the Red Cross. The young Lilian assisted her mother in her task, transporting wounded French and Belgian soldiers by car to the St. John Hospital in Bruges, simultaneously flooded by refugees. She also helped to evacuate the elderly from the hospice of Alost, which was within the combat zone, exposed to enemy fire. 

As the military situation headed towards disaster, however, Madame Baels decided to leave for France to bring two of her daughters, then ailing, to safety. Lilian drove the family car. At a restaurant in Bernay, near Lisieux, the news of the Belgian capitulation reached the four women. At Paul Reynaud's infamous broadcast, branding the Belgian king a traitor and felon, French and Belgian officers began vilifying Léopold III, tearing apart his photograph on the front cover of a magazine. Horrified, Lilian indignantly rebuked the officers. One spitefully retaliated by seizing the Baels' car key and throwing it into a ditch. After obtaining a replacement, the ladies proceeded to the south of France, renting a villa in Anglet, near Biarritz. 

Madame Baels would have many sorrows in the years to come. Her husband and her son were unfairly accused of cowardice and treason, while her daughter Lilian was battered by gossip and slander. According to Lilian's account, as recorded in Un couple dans la tempête (2004), the news of her secret marriage with King Léopold upset and worried her mother, who foresaw that it would provoke a political storm. "My little one, you don't know what's in store for you. It will be appalling, they will all attack you, you will have a terribly hard life," she is quoted as saying (pp. 36-37). Anna Maria Baels, née de Visscher, died of heart failure in 1950, while the question of the King's return from exile was still being decided. On the grounds that her arrival, at such an emotional moment, might sway the people in Léopold's favor, Lilian was prevented from returning to Belgium to bid farewell to her dying mother. 

References:

Cleeremans, Jean. Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation. 1987. 
Jullian, Marcel and Claude Désiré. Un couple dans la tempête. 2004. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Lost Queen

August 29, 2010 will mark the 75th anniversary of the tragic death of Queen Astrid. On this occasion, King Albert II will pay tribute to his mother at her memorial in Küssnacht. (I cannot help thinking it will be a very emotional moment for him!) I will be posting an article on the cult of Astrid in Belgium and Switzerland and the symbolism of the Küssnacht memorial. People really treated the lovely young Queen almost as a saint or a martyr! 

Queen Elisabeth's Religion

In Elisabeth: A Biography (1997), Wanda Larson describes the approach to religion embraced by the consort of King Albert I. Although endowed with a genuine Catholic piety, the heritage of her staunch Braganza mother, Elisabeth was also strongly influenced by her more free-thinking Wittelsbach father:
She was a religious person in the widest sense of the word. All faiths interested her, as ways by which the human spirit attempts to approach the Divine nature, each suited to its environment. She respected the Dominicans in Jerusalem for their piety and learning, but the behavior of some of the other religious orders disgusted her by their pettiness and bigotry. Among religious conceptions, Dr. Albert Schweitzer's respect for life held a high place in her regard. This lover of men who put his precepts into practice and sacrificed a great career as a musician to live his theories at Lambarene was her personal friend and a great artist who loved God and his neighbor in a way that few had been able to achieve.
All faiths interested Elisabeth. She read and studied Lamaistic Buddhism and Hinduism. When in southern Italy, she pursued with professorial enthusiasm the traces of Mithraism in the Napolese villages. She was interested in astrology. At heart, however, she was a pious Catholic, and although all religious manifestations commanded her respect and interest, the faith into which she was born held her allegiance, which she practiced until her passing. The Benedictines of Mont César near Louvain knew her as one of their staunchest supporters (p. 117).
Elisabeth's heterodox tendencies worried her husband. (Despite my admiration for the Queen, I would be a bit concerned, too). Although a tolerant man, Albert was much more theologically conservative.  He feared that his wife's more liberal approach to religion might prove a harmful influence on their children. At times, the King would shyly reproach the Queen for being too aloof, as he saw it, from traditional Catholicism. Elisabeth, however, had a mind very much her own....

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Three Generations

Marie-Amélie of Naples (1782-1866), Duchesse d'Orléans, later Queen of the French.

Louise-Marie d'Orléans (1812-1850), Queen of the Belgians. 

Charlotte of Belgium (1840-1927), Empress of Mexico. 

Lilian As A Child

Already a lively, mischievous beauty. In Un couple dans la tempête (2004), a popular account of the romance of Leopold and Lilian, the story is told of the five-year-old Lilian playing with matches and setting fire to the curtains (pp. 36-37). Needless to say, she earned a slap and a severe scolding!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Prayer Request

Please say a prayer for my mother, who's just had rather a nasty fall.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mafalda of Savoy, Marie-José's Tragic Sister-in-Law

Here is the first of five installments of a grim, but deeply moving Italian documentary on the tragic fate of the lovely Mafalda of Savoy, Princess of Hesse. The 42-year-old mother of four met a grisly death at the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald at the end of August, 1944. The program retraces the story of her last days, drawing on the testimony of biographers and relatives of the princess, most notably her second son, Heinrich of Hesse and her niece, Maria Gabriella of Savoy, a distinguished historian of the Italian royal house.

Cheerful, cultured, brave and kind-hearted, Mafalda was the second of the four daughters of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and his Queen, Elena of Montenegro. She inherited her mother's piety, charity and love of music and the arts. She was also the favorite sister-in-law of Italy's last queen, Marie-José of Belgium, consort of Umberto II. In their youth, the Savoy princesses were considered potential brides for Marie-José's brothers, Princes Leopold and Charles of Belgium, but nothing came of these ideas. Instead, in 1925, Mafalda married Prince Philip, Landgrave of Hesse. (His father, Prince Frederick Charles, had been briefly elected King of Finland in 1918).

Unfortunately, Philip of Hesse would later become a fervent Nazi, attaining high rank in Hitler's regime. With his Italian connections, he acted as an intermediary between Hitler and Mussolini. Nonetheless, he supposedly also aided Jewish friends to escape to the Netherlands. Furthermore, during the Second World War, according to his own testimony, he conspired for peace, with his brother-in-law, Umberto of Savoy. He would eventually fall from Hitler's favor. Mafalda, for her part, too frank and open-hearted for her own good, never hid her antipathy for Hitler. The feeling was mutual; Hitler deeply mistrusted the princess, suspecting her of working against the war effort. He called her "the blackest carrion in the Italian royal house."

Her doom, however, was sealed by her father's separate peace with the Allies, which so enraged Hitler. It was also sealed by her own innocence and generosity. Braving the dangers of travel in wartime, she had insisted on leaving her Italian relatives, with whom she was staying, to comfort her sister Giovanna, Queen of Bulgaria, who had recently lost her husband, King Boris III. (Rumors have flourished that he had been poisoned at Hitler's orders, but this has never been proven). On her journey home, after Boris' funeral, she heard the news, from the Queen of Romania, of Italy's armistice with the Allies of September 8, 1943. (Her father had not, apparently, warned Mafalda of the imminence of the armistice, prior to her departure for Sofia. It is speculated that he was afraid to betray a secret of state, or that he still hoped his daughter would return in time to flee to safety with the rest of the family). Yet, again, forgetful of herself, despite the perils of arriving in Italy, an easy prey for Nazi vengeance on the Savoys, she insisted on proceeding to Rome to attend to her children, then in Vatican custody. (The rest of the royal house, meanwhile, had fled the capital). In Rome, the princess fell into the cruel, cynical trap set by the Nazi high command. Lured to the German embassy, under the pretext of an urgent appeal from her husband, she was arrested and forcibly deported to Berlin for interrogation. Some weeks later, she was transferred to Buchenwald.

Despite the horror of her surroundings, Mafalda behaved with great courage and charity, sharing her food with other prisoners and becoming a source of sad consolation for her fellow sufferers, especially the Italians. Horribly wounded in an air-raid, and treated with neglect and brutality by the camp's medical staff, she died, after several days of agony. Her final words, to two compatriots, had been this touching message: "I am dying, remember me not as a princess, but as an Italian sister."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Queen Astrid's Parents


In words, images and melody. (Very, very beautiful and haunting!)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Anna Sparre

The Swedish Countess Anna Sparre, Queen Astrid's best friend, was moved to write her memoirs of her friendship with Astrid by a touching anecdote. Fifty years after Queen Astrid's death, a young girl preparing to attend a 1920's themed party asked Anna for advice in choosing a dress. Anna told her to look through her boxes of old clothes to find something suitable. Each dress the girl pulled out evoked many memories for Anna, weddings, celebrations, images, melodies...Suddenly, her young companion seized a fine, muslin dress, patterned with flowers, so delicate it might have been woven by a spider. The girl was delighted and eagerly asked if she might wear this dress to the party. "No, not that one...it belonged to Queen Astrid," replied Anna. "Who was she?" asked the astonished girl. Anna was stunned. "You don't know who Queen Astrid was? But, my dear child, it's not even very long since she died."

Not long, perhaps, for Anna, but for her companion, only 19 years old, half a century was a long time...Anna softly brushed the dress against her face, as a swirl of memories rose before her. The last time she had seen Astrid, a week before her death, on vacation in the Alps with King Leopold, the Queen had been wearing this dress. Leopold had warmly admired her beauty: "Isn't she radiant? Like a butterfly. Ravishing." After the tragic car accident in Kussnacht, the King had given the dress to the Countess as a poignant memento of the Queen. Anna had long considered writing memoirs of Astrid, but had always hesitated to do so, finding the painful memory too close, or fearing she might not portray the Queen accurately. But now, at last, she was inspired to make the attempt, to keep Astrid's memory alive.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Belgian National Day

Today, Belgium celebrates her National Day, commemorating the swearing-in of her first king, Leopold I. Here is a video of the country's currently reigning monarch, Albert II, delivering the traditional National Day Address to his people. Topics covered included the royal couple's recent visit to the Congo, for the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence, and the Belgian presidency of the European Union.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rexism

A staunch new blog, The Exiled Belgian Royalist, gives an overview of this movement, which shook Belgian politics in the 1930's. I am no expert on Rexism, but it always strikes me as fascism masquerading under a Catholic guise. It is worthwhile to note the way even pious slogans can be manipulated for dubious ends.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Queen Astrid in Color

Here are some beautiful old chocolate cards based on photographs of Queen Astrid and her family. I am impressed not only by the lovely pastel colors but also by the facial features and expressions. Sometimes, in these kinds of images, the faces are not very individualized or true to life, but these are, unmistakably, Astrid! Since most pictures of the Queen are in black and white, it adds a whole new dimension to see her in these beautiful colors. She did, indeed, love color, as revealed by the briefest glimpse of her wardrobe. In her memoirs, Anna Sparre, Astrid's childhood friend, writes of King Leopold proudly admiring his wife's beauty and elegance one day: "Like a butterfly. Ravishing." Don't you agree?


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Massacre of the Romanovs

Send us, Lord, the patience, in this year of stormy, gloom-filled days, to suffer popular oppression, and the tortures of our hangmen. Give us strength, oh Lord of justice, Our neighbor's evil to forgive, And the Cross so heavy and bloody, with Your humility to meet, In days when enemies rob us, To bear the shame and humiliation, Christ our Savior, help us. Ruler of the world, God of the universe, Bless us with prayer and give our humble soul rest in this unbearable, dreadful hour. At the threshold of the grave, breathe into the lips of Your slaves inhuman strength — to pray meekly for our enemies.

~Grand Duchess Olga (1895-1918)

Please see Gareth Russell's moving post on this tragic anniversary. I was particularly impressed by these passages describing the heroism of the Tsar's second daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana:.
The Emperor and Empress's second daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana, was the tallest and most beautiful of the four Romanov sisters. A courtier, who knew her, said: "One never forgot she was the daughter of an Emperor." It is clear from the horrific physical wounds revealed by the examination of Tatiana's remains and the memoirs of those who helped kill her that she used herself as a sort of human shield, to protect her two younger sisters, during the first and second hail of bullets fired upon the family.
It is clear however that Tatiana died, eventually, from a single bullet wound to the head. Yakov Yurovsky, who was in charge of the execution that night, delivered the fatal gunshot and he recorded that as he marched towards her, Tatiana struggled to her feet from the corner where her eldest sister lay dead, her youngest lay unconscious and another lay in hysterical convulsions after sustaining a bullet wound to the leg. It is often assumed that Tatiana was attempting to run away from her executioner - a perfectly natural assumption, but one which Yurovsky himself did not suggest. There was, in fact, nowhere for her to run. She was backed into a corner - the bodies of her parents and eldest sister were in front of her, her two youngest sisters were cowering in a corner behind her and there were eleven men (so to speak) blocking the only exit from the cellar. Moreover, Yurovsky does not record her attempting to move, but rather pulling herself to her feet, using the blood-soaked wall for support.
The Grand Duchess chose to die standing. Death was coming and rather than weep on her knees in the corner, she hauled herself to her feet. She was relatively calm, under the circumstances, as Yurovsky fired a bullet through her head. And it is perhaps the perfect way to look at the disgusting, hideous massacre of Ekaterinburg. Those who were degraded were not the bleeding or the dying, the sobbing or the maimed, but those wielding the guns.
Not surprisingly, Albert I, King of the Belgians, then grimly struggling through some of the darkest hours of World War I, was outraged by the massacre of the Russian imperial family. He had long pitied Nicholas, but the news of the Tsar's murder roused the King to storms of indignation. According to biographer Charles d'Ydewalle, he raged: "Nothing could be held against him!" Albert was deeply troubled by the Russian Revolution, fearing the consequences for Belgium and Europe. Queen Elisabeth, for her part, while visiting King George V and Queen Mary, had the courage to reproach Great Britain, Belgium's foremost ally, for failing to save the Romanovs. By a strange coincidence, Elisabeth's grandson, the young King Baudouin I, would sadly ascend the Belgian throne, reluctantly replacing his revered father, King Leopold III, on the anniversary of the massacre, July 17, 1951.

Friday, July 16, 2010

July 16, 1951: The Abdication of King Leopold III

My dear Baudouin, it is with pride that I transmit to you the noble and heavy mission of carrying, henceforth, the Crown of a Belgium which has remained, despite the most terrible of wars and the upheavals that followed, territorially and morally intact, free, and faithful to her traditions.

This mission, you will exercise, with the will to serve your country and to continue the work of the Dynasty, conforming yourself, in this way, to the principles I have inculcated in you. These principles, I myself received from my father, King Albert; they always inspired my attitude during the hard years of a reign I leave to History the care of judging.


Today is the sad anniversary of the abdication of King Leopold III. Here is a recording of the King delivering the first few lines of the moving speech he gave on this tragic occasion. I love the King's voice, so noble, strong and purposeful, yet gentle at the same time.

Poignant Letters: Between Laeken and Hirschstein

Here is a touching letter addressed by Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians to her son, Leopold III, then imprisoned by the Gestapo and the S.S. at the fortress of Hirschstein on the Elbe. The note, dated June 9, 1944, shortly after the deportation of Princess Lilian, Princess Josephine-Charlotte, and Princes Baudouin, Albert and Alexandre, did not reach Leopold until April, 1945, after the royal prisoners had been transferred to Strobl in Austria.

My dear dear Leop.

We did EVERYTHING to prevent the departure of Lil and the children, but NOTHING worked!! Lil will tell you everything. I only want to tell you that I am thinking of you all the time and that my thoughts will continue to be with you, Lil and the children. I hope we will be able to see each other again soon! You can count on me for everything that is in my power to do. I embrace you tenderly, my heart heavy to see dear Lil and the 4 little ones depart.

Maman.
In turn, here is a letter from the King to his mother, dated June 15, 1944. Despite his reassuring tone, the period of captivity in Germany and Austria was actually a very frightening time for the Belgian royal family. Everyone was haunted by the memory of the fate of the Romanovs...

My very dear little Maman,

Above all, I want to tell you how much your little note(1) touched me and gave me pleasure. We know how far we can count on you.

You will certainly be happy to know that we are all in good health. But the circumstances are so sad! My trip was easy since there were only the three men. That of Lil and the children was much harder. One day, we will be able to tell you all about it.

Boredom will doubtless be our worst enemy. So we try to organise our days, in consequence. Each of us gives lessons to the children; Lil, French, I, history, Gierst, mathematics, du Parc, English, Weemaes, Latin and Flemish!

The garden is very small, we more or less go around in circles. Barbed wire everywhere. The most tiresome part is not having any direct news.

Our thoughts remain at Laeken close to you. Be careful, dear, dear Maman. Be optimistic and do not worry about our fate. We will all see each other again, soon, with patience...

Again, thank you for what you have done. K. who is bringing you this(?) message will tell you many things, which I cannot put to paper.

Always your Leop who embraces you tenderly and loves you.

(1) Evidently, a different note from the letter by Elisabeth quoted here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Death of the Duc d'Orléans (1842)


I have little time for posting at the moment, but I do not want to let the day pass without commemorating the tragic death of Ferdinand-Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, beloved eldest brother of Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians. Whatever one thinks of the Orléans family or Louis-Philippe, the story of the destruction of his handsome, gifted and charismatic heir, in the flower of his youth, is a horrible one.

On July 13, 1842, while en route to Neuilly to bid farewell to his parents, before departing for military duties, Ferdinand-Philippe's horses ran out of control and the prince either lept or was hurled from his carriage, cracking his skull against the pavement. Bleeding and unconscious, he was carried to a nearby inn, where he died several hours later, surrounded by his distraught family. His agony - and theirs- had only been exacerbated by the barbaric medical practices of the time.

It is said that the prince's death played an important role in contributing to Louis-Philippe's downfall. Deprived of the support of his son's popularity, and greater skill in sounding the mood of the nation, the position of the King of the French was gravely weakened. He lost the throne only six years later, amidst the tumult and tragedy of 1848.

The death of the young Duc d'Orléans (or the Duc de Chartres, as he was still known in the family, by the title he had held before his father's rise to the throne), foreshadowed political tragedies to come. More immediately, however, it was a terrible human tragedy for his family. "Chartres was the head, heart and soul of our family," wrote the Queen of the Belgians.

For his pious mother, Queen Marie-Amélie, Ferdinand-Philippe's sudden, brutal demise, in a state of total unconsciousness, without being able to prepare spiritually for death or lucidly receive the Last Rites, was a source of frenzied religious anguish, then of mysterious consolation. When she saw that her son's condition was desperate, the Queen sent at once for a priest, who did, indeed, administer extreme unction to the dying prince. Yet,  Marie-Amélie was left in an agonizing uncertainty regarding his eternal fate. She was deeply troubled by the fact that he had not had the opportunity to confess his sins. According to Mia Kerckvoorde, biographer of Queen Louise-Marie, Chartres, even more liberal and revolutionary than his father, did not share his mother's religious faith. If this is true, it might explain why Marie-Amélie was so worried about the state of his soul.

Desperate, the poor mother poured out fervent prayers at his deathbed, offering up litanies, begging God, if He wanted a victim, to take her instead of her son. After the priest had finished administering the Last Rites, the Queen placed a relic of the True Cross in the prince's hands, hoping that God might take pity on him at his passage to eternity. To the great alarm and distress of her family, she then spent 17 days prostrate before his bier, in the chapel of Neuilly, praying desperately, unable to sleep, wandering about like a ghost. Trying to console her, Louise-Marie wrote to her mother: "Weep, some tears are equivalent to prayers." On the day of the transfer of Chartres' remains to the royal chapel of Dreux, the necropolis of the Orléans family, Marie-Amélie clung frantically to the coffin, shrieking.

At the beginning of August, however, on a sorrowful pilgrimage to Dreux, to pray for the repose of her son's soul, the grieving Queen finally found peace. She had spent the entire journey silent and dejected. Entering the crypt, she had, as before, fallen prostrate, wailing and sobbing. Then, suddenly, to the great amazement of her companions, she recovered herself, rose and departed, with a calm, firm step. A few days later, to one of her ladies, she calmly remarked: "Enfin, ma chère, Dieu l'a voulu" ("After all, my dear, it was God's will.") What had happened? Suzanne d'Huart, in her edition of the Queen's journal, wonders if Marie-Amélie experienced some sort of mystical assurance of her son's salvation. She remained, however, deeply grieved by the loss of her dear Chartres, sadly reading and re-reading his letters and sighing: "Alas! I loved him so much, perhaps too much..."

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dedication

Astrid was not granted a long life; she was too good for this base world. But all her life, as wife, mother, and queen, and especially as she was short-lived, like our Nordic summer, was a rare and brilliant proof of the truth of the words her father addressed to her, as a twenty-year-old bride. For, throughout her whole life, she was the same person, with a heart that was pure, devoted, and frank, as she was during her childhood and youth; and she was truly loved as no human being had ever been loved on this earth. She was granted every happiness, until the moment when her young heart broke and she departed into eternity.

~Prince Carl of Sweden

Today, I am formally dedicating The Cross of Laeken and The Sword & The Sea to Astrid (1905-1935), Princess of Sweden, Queen of the Belgians. A kind reader, Aaron Davidson, once suggested I do so, since Astrid unites my two blogs - Belgium and Scandinavia. I thought it was a lovely idea. So, dear friends, when you visit this site, please remember this tragically lost queen and pray that she may rest in peace.

The Emperor Maximilian Diamond

A fascinating piece of history. To quote:
At an early age, Maximilian developed a keen interest in the sciences, particularly botany and he was fascinated by the New World. In 1860, he journeyed to the tropical forests of Brazil on a botanical expedition. While there, he acquired two exceptionally large diamonds which have been named after him: The Emperor Maximilian Diamond and The Maximilian Diamond. The Emperor Maximilian was a 41.94 carat antique cushion-cut diamond with a strong blue fluorescence which gives the diamond a soft luminosity in daylight. The second diamond was of a greenish-yellow tint and weighed 33 carats. After his return to Europe, Maximilian presented this smaller diamond to Charlotte, who wore it as a pendant. It is not known where either diamond was cut but it is possible that they were cut in Brazil, which has long possessed a diamond cutting industry, albeit on the smaller scale than in some other countries...
...Legend holds that Maximilian was wearing the Emperor Maximilian Diamond in a small satchel tied around his neck when he faced the firing squad. Following the execution, his remains were sent to Vienna and the Emperor Maximilian Diamond returned to Charlotte. Upon news of his death, Charlotte’s condition worsened and she shut herself off from the outside world. The diamond was subsequently sold to help pay for expenses during Charlotte’s illness and it disappeared until 1919 when it returned to America. Maximilian’s widow lived on for another sixty years, hopelessly insane, dying in January 1927 in Brussels at the age of 86. Even in her final days, some say she still believed herself to be the Empress of Mexico.
In 1919, the Emperor Maximilian Diamond was purchased by a Chicago gem dealer, Ferdinand Holtz and was displayed in the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair as the highlight of the 'Century of Progress' exhibition. Despite several offers to buy it, Mr. Holtz refused to sell the diamond and it remained in his possession until his death in 1946. It was subsequently sold to a private collector in New York.
The name of the new owner has never been revealed and the diamond remained in her possession, mounted in a ring by Cartier, until Christie’s auctioned it in New York in 1982. It was expected that diamond would fetch $330,000 but it eventually sold for $726,000 to Laurence Graff, the London jeweler, who has a vast collection of notable and historic diamonds. In January 1983, Graff sold The Emperor Maximilian, together with two other important diamonds, in a single transaction to the same buyer, Madame Imelda Marcos, wife of the President of the Philippines. Subsequently, it was sold and re-cut in the 1990’s, to its current weight of 39.55 carats, and finally it was acquired by the present owner.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Eugène Ysaÿe

HERE is a biography of the renowned Belgian virtuoso and composer. He was a close friend and violin teacher of Queen Elisabeth. "She plays badly divinely," he once remarked. Like many artists and savants, Ysaÿe found a kindred spirit in the poetic, intellectual queen and adored her. After Ysaÿe's death, Elisabeth founded her famous musical competition in his honor. Sadly, long after the fact, there have been those who have tried to distort their friendship into something sordid.

In her memoirs, Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, another member of Elisabeth's artistic circle, gives a touching account of Ysaÿe:
Ysaye was as charming a person as one could meet. He was tall and large and stout, with long straight hair, beautiful features, gray-blue eyes, and great intelligence and goodness. At this time he was in his late sixties but he appeared young and he was still handsome. He was wearing a black velvet jacket, striped trousers, pumps on his feet, and he came in exuberantly, greeted my husband with shouts of delight, whirled around to talk to me about Russia, declaring that he loved it, and exclaiming, "Caviar! O ma jeunesse!"
...His hospitality was indescribable. He had always been lavish in his generosity and had never managed to hang on to any money. His house and his purse were at his friends' disposal. Only one key he clung to and that was the key to his cellar. In the midst of his dinner, he took this key from his belt and gave it to a servant with long and careful instructions, explaining the particular wine he wanted to offer us.
I asked if he would pose for me, and he agreed at once. So the next morning I came to him. He was on the second floor, in a big room with three or four windows overlooking a little garden.
"Maître," I said, "I should like to do you with your left hand holding the violin."
"Of course."
"If you want to practice, please forget I am here while I work."
At that time, Ysaye no longer appeared in concerts, but he practiced every morning, and he was in wonderful form. He lifted his violin and began to play as only he could play. It would have been perfect if I could only have found the expression I sought for my sculpture.
Then he began to play the Mendelssohn concerto and at last I found the ecstatic expression only music can give. After that, whenever he posed for me he played the Mendelssohn. And now I cannot listen to it any more. I shall never again hear it as he played it. All the warmth and generosity of his nature was in his music. For he loved all the earthy and sensual things: good food, the sun, children, beautiful women, rain, physical love (Portraits with Backgrounds, 1947, pp. 127-129).
Here is a 1912 recording of Ysaÿe playing the Mendelssohn Concerto.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Little Nostalgia...


Here is an interview with the exiled Queen of Italy, Marie-José, at her home in Merlingue, Switzerland. Among other reminiscences, she recalls her first meeting with her husband-to-be, the future King Umberto II. The encounter took place during the First World War, while the 11-year-old Belgian princess was studying at the Poggio Imperiale near Florence. One winter day, she was taken on an outing with the Italian royal family.

The romantic young Marie-José, accustomed to the fair complexions of her family, was captivated by the black hair, the beautiful black eyes of Umberto and his sisters. She was also charmed by their engaging personalities. She was impressed, too, by the grave remarks of 13-year-old Umberto. At the Piazza San Marco in Venice, he warned Marie-José against feeding the pigeons white bread, a precious commodity amidst wartime scarcity.

In the interview, Marie-José also discusses her parents' efforts to prepare her for her future role. With her father, King Albert I, she studied, in depth, the history of Italy and the Savoys. A true daughter of Albert and Elisabeth, known for their concern with social problems, her ideal of queenship was to aid the less fortunate. At the age of eight, she wrote that, if she became Queen of Italy, she wanted to have the names of all the country's poor, in order to be able to give something to each one.

In future posts, I would like to discuss Marie-José's marriage and political role in greater detail. Sadly, in both cases, despite her best efforts, she was frustrated and disappointed. Neither her dreams of an ideal love match, nor her hopes of a great, enlightened, fruitful reign came true. Yet, I am impressed by the fact that she never comes across as a bitter or gloomy figure. Despite many tragedies, she never lost her kindness, her sense of humor, or her joie de vivre. Even here, in this brief clip, these qualities appear clearly.