12th July was an anniversary, it was the five hundred and forty-eighth anniversary of the birth of the Spanish composer Juan del Encina. Born on 12th July 1468, Encina was educated at the University of Salamanca and became renowned composer, poet and playwright before his death in Toledo in 1529. Encina pre-dated William Shakespeare by a century, yet, on Lyric FM’s Vox Nostra programme, the presenter Vlad Smishkewych was able to play Encina’s Todos Los Bienes Del Mundo, a piece written around 1500.
There was a profound sense of reassurance in listening to Encina’s work, a profound realization that beauty is the only thing that endures. In a century where arrogant bombast and a visceral xenophobia have become the norm of political life, there is a reassurance that politicians are forgotten almost as soon as they leave office, and that all that will endure are the things that some of them would most despise.
Perhaps the early part of the twenty-first century will leave behind little that will be memorable, perhaps there will be no works comparable with those that emerged in the great eras of visual art, music and literature. Perhaps there will be no painter comparable with those of the Renaissance, perhaps there will be no composer comparable with those played by Vlad Smishkewych, perhaps there will be no literature to compare with that left us by the writers of the Sixteenth Century, but if the twenty-first century does leave any legacy, then that legacy will be whatever beauty might be mustered.
The centenary commemorations of the Great War should be a lesson to those who would aspire to be remembered. The people still remembered are not the politicians or the generals, they are the poets. Brooke and Owen and Sassoon command a place in posterity; in hideous realities they found inspiration for lines that have endured for a century, and will probably endure for centuries more.
The mood of 2016 is one of anti-intellectualism; it’s a mood of contempt for those labelled as “experts,” it’s a mood expressed in a mocking of liberalism and tolerance, it’s a mood reflected in political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a mood that will be long forgotten when Juan del Encina is still being played.
In his novel The Idiot, the nineteenth-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky has a character Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin who is is mocked because he has a belief that beauty can save people from the worst:
Is it true, prince, that you once declared that “beauty would save the world”? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love!
The twentieth-century songwriter Don McLean saw the painter Vincent van Gogh as someone whose motivation was beauty, but who lived in a world without a place for such beauty.
Now, I understand, what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now
Perhaps McLean was right and Prince Myshkin was wrong. Perhaps beauty cannot save the world from xenophobia and fundamentalism, but beauty will be the only thing that outlives all the ugliness of our times.