From Braham to Bowie: Singers as Symbols of the Past

Yesterday morning the world awoke to the sad news that David Bowie is dead. The passing of such a prolific and influential artist has, unsurprisingly, prompted a deluge of tributes from friends and fans alike. Within these tributes I’ve noticed a recurring theme which interests me, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in relation to my own research on male singers of the nineteenth century. This is the notion of singers as historical figures and symbols of the past. I’ve been intending to write a post exploring my thoughts on this topic for a while now, but it seems fitting to expedite this as Bowie’s death has caused me to reflect on this idea yet again.

David Bowie Poster, 1973 (V&A, London)

So: singers as symbols of the past. This idea, I think, can be manifested in two ways. Firstly, this happens when an artist is imagined as encapsulating a particular moment in one’s personal past. Though I’m loath to quote David Cameron, his tweet on Bowie’s death sums up this approach. He said: “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie.” Yet another tribute to Bowie (from a slightly unexpected source) echoed this sentiment. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said: “I remember sitting listening to [Bowie’s] songs endlessly in the ‘70s particularly and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had.” Both Cameron and the Archbishop’s tributes refer nostalgically to Bowie’s association with their youth; he is remembered as both a symbol and a reminder of a specific period in their lives. This is perhaps not so unusual. I’m sure most of us have particular artists that we associate with meaningful times in our lives. Perhaps a band that helped you through difficult teenage years, or an album that reminds you of a particular love affair. What is perhaps more interesting, then, is the second way in which a singer can be appropriated as a symbol of the past. This occurs, I think, when an artist comes to be seen as a symbol of a particular historical period. The Archbishop hints at this notion by associating Bowie explicitly with the 1970s, when of course he was in his Ziggy Stardust heyday.

This concept of a singer coming to represent a particular historic moment is an idea that I’ve kept coming back to over the course of my own research. My PhD is focused on the careers of six British men who sang opera in the nineteenth century. When reading biographies and obituaries of these singers, it fascinates me to find that they were repeatedly described as symbols of a particular historic period. This tends to be the period in which they enjoyed their heyday. The tenor John Braham (c. 1774 – 1856) is a good example here. Braham had enjoyed his own heyday during the period in which Britain was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars. He performed many rousing naval anthems during this time, which were immensely popular with patriotic audiences. Most famous was his composition ‘The Death of Nelson’, written in tribute to the fallen Admiral who had been Braham’s personal friend. This Napoleonic period is one which Braham would become synonymous with. When he died, tributes repeatedly referenced his strong association with this historical moment. However, this also worked in reverse. I have found many accounts in which people are reflecting back on the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and Braham is often invoked as someone who was synonymous with the cultural landscape of this time. In the same way that we might think of David Bowie when we think of the 1970s, then, Braham came to mind when people thought of the Napoleonic period.

NPG D38664; John Braham by Thomas Woolnoth, published by  Dean & Munday, after  Thomas Charles Wageman
Print of John Braham, 1827 (Naitonal Portrait Gallery, London)

It is perhaps not overly surprising to find that a singer is associated with a period in which they enjoyed great fame and success. However, this does say something about the importance of singers as historical figures who are ascribed cultural meanings; an importance which, I feel, has largely been overlooked by scholars and historians. Unlike Bowie, Braham lived in an age that predated both photography and recording technology, so it is especially easy for his cultural importance to be forgotten. But the absence of photographs and recordings of Braham make his enduring association with the Napoleonic period even more interesting to consider. Without these permanent records, how was this association sustained to such an extent that, even long after his death, he was being remembered for his Napoleonic connection? This brings me on to the other issue that most interests me when thinking about singers as symbols of the past, and that is age.

Without exception, all of the singers I’m researching lived to an advanced age. This means that they had remarkably long careers. John Braham, Sims Reeves and Charles Santley, for example, performed for over half a century each. Braham was still performing into his late seventies, a few years before he died. I am fascinated by the ways in which these singers were described in their late careers. They were repeatedly spoken of as relics of the past, almost as though they were some sort of historical artefacts. In an age which predated recording technology, you can see how it would have been especially potent to see a singer perform songs which they had made famous almost half a century earlier; it isn’t like audiences could listen to a CD or watch a YouTube video of these performances of yesteryear. It must have been almost like watching ghosts sing.

Typical of this notion is a review of one of Braham’s final performances in 1852. A reviewer in The Morning Post described: “[Braham] stood before us, the hero of a million musical triumphs, many of which were achieved at period but indistinctly remembered by our oldest inhabitants.” Here Braham is imagined as a sort of dinosaur; a relic whose heyday was scarcely memorable by even the “oldest inhabitants.” His age itself almost becomes the spectacle, rather than his musical performance. The reviewer continues:

His once noble voice, though still, at times, miraculously powerful and sympathetic, his age considered, astonishes us less than the soul-stirring energy and freshness of feeling which his performances exhibit. Time has enfeebled his physical powers, but has not shaken the fire from his heart.

Reviewers of his late performances repeatedly described Braham’s ageing body and the erosion of his vocal power, but also continually sought some sign or indication of his past glory within these performances. It is as though audiences were looking for a little bit of history. When he died in 1856 many obituaries of Braham echoed this sense of him being a historical artefact. One report which was reprinted in dozens of papers, including the Liverpool Mercury, described Braham as “a musician who may be said to have formed a connecting link between the men of the present generation and their grandfathers”. As he left no recordings behind him, once Braham died this tangible connection with the past was permanently erased.

The idea of going to see certain singers perform in order to glimpse a little bit of history is something which I’ve done myself, several times. In recent years I have seen Tony Bennett (aged 89), Bob Dylan (aged 74), Frankie Valli (aged 81) and Placido Domingo (aged 74) perform. In each of these cases, I was at least partly motivated to buy a ticket in order to make sure that I got the chance to see these figures of cultural and historical importance; so that I could say that I’d seen them. When I was watching Tony Bennett, I was thinking “wow, this man was around with Sinatra and the Rat Pack”. I was very aware that I was watching a man perform who is the last surviving veteran of this cultural period. His obvious age somehow made the performance more moving. The same is true when I saw Bob Dylan recently; I was thinking of his importance as a social commentator in the 1960s, of all of the celebrated artists he’s worked with, of all of the iconic photographs I’ve seen of him. It was a strange feeling to see him in the flesh, and his voice, now atmospherically cracked with age, somehow made this feeling all the more potent. In all of these cases, the feeling was indeed akin to viewing a relic at a museum; similar thoughts were provoked. I was aware that I was responding to these performers in the same way that audiences responded to seeing a 78 year old Braham perform his nostalgic Napoleonic anthems.

All of these reflections lead me to consider many questions. What effect does age have on the historical importance of a singer? How important is the sense that a singer is a living, tangible link to the past? Had David Bowie died at a younger age (like Marc Bolan, for example) would we remember him differently? Are singers who die young more or less important as symbols of the past? Are they frozen in time, or does their lack of longevity diminish their cultural impact? To what extent does the personal connection we feel to singers and their music contribute to the wider historical importance which we ascribe to them? How much influence do singers themselves have on their cultural impact?

Despite these questions, one thing seems clear to me: that singers are(or can be) important cultural figures who are ascribed historical meanings. As a result, I think they are worthy of greater amounts of scholarly attention and historical research. It is now easier than ever to study the cultural impact of singers, thanks to advances in technology and the wealth of recordings, photographs and footage that singers like Bowie can now leave behind them. For proof of this, we only have to think of the V&A’s blockbuster, multimedia Bowie exhibition which has been seen by 1.3 million people and counting. Bowie is one singer whose cultural importance is in no danger of being overlooked. The music and message of this iconoclastic and hugely influential artist will surely endure.

Rest In Peace, David Bowie ★

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