May 27, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
C.M. Mayo's The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a historical novel as well-written and researched as it is educational and entertaining. I knew little of Mexico's history before picking up this book, but Mayo has a gift for bringing historical figures to life in a brilliant combination of fiction and biography.
Bookslut wrote of the book:
"The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a very compelling story with a ton of juicy history to savor. Mayo has an elegant style that weaves in and out of fact and fiction as she reaches into the minds of the major players and then deviates to introduce supporting characters (nearly all of them real as well)."
Herewith an odd grab-bag of international works. How could it be otherwise with a novel--based on the true story, by the way--about a half-American Mexican prince, who, by means of a secret contract, was brought into the household of Maximilian von Habsburg, the Austrian-born Emperor of Mexico and his consort, Carlota (daughter of the King of the Belgians and first cousin of Queen Victoria), who had been installed upon the "cactus throne" by a clique of Mexican conservatives, backed by the French Imperial Army (augmented by Austrian and Belgian volunteers) and, by the way, blessed by His Holiness the Pope of Rome? Um, got that?
The novel opens in antebellum Washington D.C., where the prince's parents, Miss Alice Green and Mr Angel de Iturbide, second son of Mexico's first Emperor, then serving as secretary of the Mexican Legation, met in the 1850s. A typical date in those days would have been to go hear the Marine Band play. Read about "Hail Columbia" over at the Library of Congress. Read an excerpt from the novel, about Alice and Angel's courtship, and why she agreed to go to Mexico.
"Se fueran los Yankis al Guaridame"
This Mexican lullaby, probably from the 1850s and still in use in the 1890s, is--- what else?--- a playful take on a blood-soaked episode, the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846-48. Read the lyrics in Fanny Chambers Gooch's Face to Face with the Mexicans, the classic and elephantine compendium of late 19th century Mexican mores and manners, on-line. There are three different nannies in the novel; any one of them might have sung this lullaby to the baby. He was born in Mexico City in 1863. Here's his carte-de-visite, made circa 1865 when he was two years old.
A military song composed in 1863 for the French Foreign Legion, which fought in Mexico. Listen here. The French considered themselves, bien sûr, pretty tough stuff, which was why their defeat by the Mexicans at the city of Puebla --- a battle celebrated today as "Cinco de Mayo"--- was such a resounding humiliation. That didn't stop them, though. A year later, with reinforcements, the French took Puebla, then Mexico City, and brought over Maximilian.
"Tritch-Tratch Polka" by Johann Strauss
This popular Viennese polka might have been played at one of the balls in Mexico City's Imperial Palace. Here's a link to an article by one of the guests, Overland Monthly correspondent William Wells, "A Court Ball in the Palace of Mexico." Few could resist the powerful glamor of the Imperial Court at its apogee. An invitation to an Imperial Ball was coveted, relished. Poor star-struck Alice.
“Las Campanitas” (The Little Bells)
A mazurka, by J.D.R. Sawerthal, a Czech composer and band-leader who came to Mexico with Maximilian. Along with waltzes by Strauss, Sawerthal often conducted his own compositions at Imperial entertainments.
"La Paloma" and "Adiós Mamá Carlota"
"La Paloma," a habanera by Spanish composer Sebastián Iradier is the most famous song associated with the Emperor Maximilian--- supposedly his favorite. There's a German documentary film about it, which you can read about here.
For the lyrics to "Adiós Mamá Carlota," the Mexican protest song sung to the tune of "La Paloma," click here.
"Impromptu in G Flat Major"
Franz Schubert's piano music might have been just the thing to soothe jangled nerves as the French begin to evacuate and Maximilian's empire totters. In the penultimate chapter, after a tense tea-party (with terribly weak tea and not enough raisin cake) Mrs. Yorke, an American resident in Mexico City, asks her young daughter Sara to play some Schubert. That same Sara is the author--- as Sara Yorke Stevenson-- of Maximilian in Mexico: A Woman's Reminiscences of the French Intervention 1862-1867, published in 1897. The first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania, she enjoyed some fame in her lifetime as a leading Egyptologist, newspaper columnist, and suffragette. Read her bio.
"Hieremaie Phophetae Lamentationes" by Manuel de Zumaya
This beautiful work of baroque Mexican sacred music is on Chanticleer's Mexican Baroque: Music from New Spain, an album I often played while writing the novel. Zumaya, a mestizo born in Mexico around 1678, became Chapel Master to the Mexico City Cathedral, and composed the first opera in the Americas. The Mexico City Cathedral plays a recurring role in the novel. Its nave is ringed by cage-like barred chapels, one of which--- dedicated to the first Mexican saint, Felipe de Jesus, whose martyrdom in Nagasaki is illustrated in gruesome detail--- holds both the golden throne and mortal remains of "The Liberator," the Emperor Iturbide, who was executed by firing squad in 1824.
"Lucia di Lammermoor" by Gaetano Donizetti
Oh, the lusciousness of Italian opera! Plácido Domingo was not the first Mexican opera star; back then, the Mexican "nightingale," soprano Angela Peralta, made her debut in Milan's La Scala and shortly thereafter, in 1865, returned to Mexico to perform before Maximilian and Carlota. A contemporary of Adelina Patti, Peralta became an instant favorite with the Court, though she was, according to one of Maximilian's senior officers, Count von Khevenhuller, "obese to the point of deformity." After the fall of the empire, Peralta's career suffered a steep decline. Along with most of her troupe, she died of the dreaded yellow fever in Guaymas, a port on the Sea of Cortez, in 1883. She was only 40 years of age. Read her New York Times obituary.
The "mad scene" from this opera, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott, would make the perfect soundtrack for the novel's chapter "Night in the Eternal City," about the Empress Carlota's pychotic breakdown in the Vatican.
"Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe" by Ignacio de Jerusalem
Born in Italy at the beginning of the 18th century, Jerusalem went to New Spain when he was about thirty years old. A virtuoso violinist and composer, he served as Chapel Master to the Mexico City Cathedral for twenty years. This work is on another gorgeous Chanticleer album, Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe.
C.M. Mayo and The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire links:
Caribou's Mom review
Curled Up with a Good Book review
The Cutting Edge News review
Drey's Library review
Medieval Bookworm review
Publishers Weekly review
The Tome Traveller's Weblog review
We Be Reading review
Ask Wendy - The Query Queen interview with the author
Library of Congress interview with the author
The Retriever Weekly interview with the author
Savvy Verse & Wit interview with the author
Whereabouts Press Blog interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy: