1816 – The Year Without a Summer
Kings Place - 17 & 18 June 2016
On 17 and 18 June, a two-day programme of concerts and talks, with leading musicians and expert speakers, was presented at Kings Place. This offered an original and enlightening framework for exploring the full context and consequences of extraordinary natural events which occurred exactly 200 years ago. The music, literature and other creations of the time were appreciated in a new light – enriched by history and science, they can tell us much that is of interest and importance to today’s society. There is further information about the background, concerts and study day below, with quick links to the programmes and presentations.
Concert 1: Beethoven and Schubert in Vienna
James Gilchrist tenor
Anna Tilbrook piano
Further details of talks:
Atmospheric Effects of the Tambora Eruption by Prof. Giles Harrison
Frankenstein's Weather! by Prof. Gillen D'Arcy Wood
'Not Yet Saved': Europe After the Fall of Napoleon by Prof. Robert Tombs
Lightness, Darkness and the Creative Brain by Prof. Michael Trimble
Concert 2: Byron in Switzerland
Louis Schwizgebel piano
Di Sherlock & Ian Ritchie narrators
Alberto Venzago photography
The following was expanded into an article I wrote for The Guardian on ‘The Year Without a Summer’, which presented the topic in the round and was published online in June 2016. You can read it here.
1816, known as The Year Without a Summer, was extraordinary and extreme in many ways. Our story really begins in 1815, with the eruption of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia, the world’s biggest volcanic incident for at least 1300 years. The northern hemisphere became covered by an ash cloud and lack of sunlight was responsible for depressing darkness and extremely low temperatures during the ‘volcanic winter’ which displaced summer: globally, 1816 was the second coldest year on record since the middle ages and the 1810s were the coldest decade ever. The change in climate also gave rise to exceptional rains and the crops failed throughout North America, northern Europe and even as far afield as China. Illness and poverty ensued, with many social and political consequences.
The fire and smoke of that volcanic eruption may be a metaphor for the outburst of scientific and artistic creativity which accompanied the dusk of the Enlightenment and the dawn of the Romantic era: the resulting cold and darkness called for the invention of new heat and light.
If Napoleon, finally toppled in 1815, had been 19th century Europe’s favourite real-life hero, Prometheus was its favourite fictional one. The missing ‘summer’ of 1816 saw the birth of Frankenstein’s monster, on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the Shelleys and Lord Byron were shut indoors by the bad weather and spent their time playing ghoulish games and writing scary stories in the darkness. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the modern Prometheus reflected some of the current medical and scientific experiments, using electricity to treat damaged brains and reactivate corpses, and she created an uncontrollable monster. The new Prometheans included these creative artists and also ground-breaking scientists, inventors and radical thinkers: they were all playing with fire.
In Vienna, meanwhile, Beethoven and his younger contemporary, Schubert, were affected in different ways. We know that life was not easy for either of them in 1816 but, listening to the opening concert on Friday 17th June, we were able to judge for ourselves whether the darkness and the cold weather may have influenced their moods and therefore their music. Beethoven was having a relatively fallow creative period, but that summer he produced the first great song cycle in western music, the sublimely romantic An die ferne Geliebte. That year the 19-year-old Schubert composed around one hundred Lieder – the German art songs of which he became and remained the greatest master – almost all reflecting the yearning, soul-searching and passionate romanticism of this mysteriously dark period. Neither the intellectuals nor the public at large understood what was going on and many people, including Byron, feared a Biblical and apocalyptic end of the world. Nature called on artists – the poets, painters and composers – to interpret their environment and reflect the climate as well as the spirit of the age.
The two concerts provided contrasting poetic and musical bookends for a study day which considered the whole context of 1816 and how its impact is still felt and matters exactly 200 years later, with contributions by leading experts in the fields of neuroscience, meteorology, social history and culture.
Artistic Director and Curator of The Year Without a Summer
Articles & essays
Documentaries, talks & interviews
Festivals & conferences