European Diary

Riding the Minotaur

The townhouse at 18 Belgrave Square consisted of 74 living rooms, salons, corridors, servants’ pantries, stair­­cases, anterooms, and closets, and in 1866 it was deemed suitable to become the new London residence of the Austrian ambassador.  The commodious townhouse had gone up early in the century as part of Thomas Cubitt’s development of Belgrave Square, and it was thus an eyewitness to the most crucial period in the development of a refined form of entertainment that we know as classical music.

When the Austrian embassy was moving to its new address, Johannes Brahms, who had migrated to Vienna from his native Hamburg, was at work on A German Requiem, a composition that would bring him world fame.  A few years after its Bremen premiere, Cambridge University proffered the composer an honorary doctorate of music, which he unaccountably declined.  There were no airports, but Bremen was closer to Cambridge in those days, and Vienna to London, than they are today.  There was no television, no telephone, and no internet, but in the Belgravia of the intellect news of genius traveled more quickly.

The endless Victorian century dividing the modern denizen of Britain from the cultural climate that prevailed here until well after World War II may be viewed, as a furtive reflection in miniature, through the windows of the grand townhouses of Belgravia.  Walking its streets nowadays, one almost never...

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