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20.10.03

Verdi Requiem at the Kennedy Center

Giuseppe VerdiGiuseppe Verdi's Requiem Mass is a favorite piece of mine, and I leapt at the chance to hear it performed yesterday at the Kennedy Center. The concert featured The Washington Chorus and Orchestra and the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir, under the direction of Robert Shafer. The vocal soloists were Alessandra Marc (soprano), Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo soprano), and Eric Owens (bass). Tenor Steven Tharp stepped in at the last minute to replace the fourth soloist, absent due to an illness. The piece was originally performed at the funeral ceremony for Verdi's hero Alessandro Manzoni in 1873, in Milan Cathedral, but it was also performed shortly afterward in the theater of La Scala and it really belongs in the concert hall rather than a liturgical setting. (Any Mass that takes about half of the total time just for its sequence is liturgically out of proportion.)

The performances were all fine, with some intonation problems among the winds in the Confutatis movement and between the strings and the soprano soloist in the Recordare and Offertorio movements. The amassed chorus was immense in size, spilling over from its stands into the box seats above the stage in the Concert Hall. This kind of large choral work is the bread and butter of the Washington Chorus, a volunteer organization with a big reputation that is well deserved. Their performance was accurate and moving, with a well-considered range of volume and texture. (While I appreciate what this group is able to accomplish, I am philosophically opposed to the idea of volunteer choruses, only because they perpetuate the institutional bias against professional choral singers. If we can even find a paying job, it is almost always for significantly less pay than an instrumental musician can expect at the same level.) Their orchestra (which, I suspect, is a paid group) was also up to the task, with only a moment of intonation trouble in the introduction by the celli in the Offertorio. Verdi's piccolo part in the piece is quite dramatic, shrieking rabidly in the evocation of the Apocalypse in the opening of the Dies Irae (with echoes, at moments, of the music for the witches in his opera Macbeth) and bursting like the eternal fire in the Confutatis. I am sorry that the piccolo player is not listed in the program, because I would like to congratulate her here for a job well done.

The problem with going to the Kennedy Center is that it is so expensive, which is ultimately why I go so infrequently. My ticket for the Verdi Requiem cost $45, which was a gift from a friend. Parking at the garage now costs $15. This is to hear a large group of musicians that receives no pay, remember, which seems out of proportion.

19.10.03

Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Part 3 of 3)

This is the conclusion of my observations on the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004.

Paul Gauguin, Nave nave mahana, 1896, Musée des Beaux Arts, LyonThe remaining rooms of the exhibit are on the lower floor of the Grand Palais, reached by a spiral staircase. These rooms contain artwork made during Gauguin's return to France in 1893 to 1895, as well as in the final rooms his second stay back in Tahiti from 1895 to 1901 and the final years in Atuona, one of the Marquesas, from 1901 to his death in 1903. (See my comments on his years in the Marquesas in a post on September 24, The Marquesas.) The paintings in the exhibit from this period include:

Mahana no atua (God's day, 1894, Art Institute of Chicago)
Tarari maruru (Landscape with two goats, 1897, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
The Harvest (Man picking fruit from a tree, 1897, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
• Te bourao II (Large tree, 1897, from a private collection)
Vairumati (1897, Musée d'Orsay)
• Baigneuses à Tahiti (1897-1898, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham)
• Femme tahitienne I (1898, Ny Carlsberg-Glyptotek, Copenhagen)
Deux tahitiennes (1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Faa iheihe (Tahitian Pastoral, 1898, Tate Gallery of Art, London)
Rare te hiti aaruu (The idol, 1898, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
Te pape nave nave (Delicious water, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (1897-1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Te vaa (The Canoe, 1896, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
No teaha oe riri (Why are you angry?, 1896, Art Institute of Chicago)
Nave nave mahana (Delicious Day, 1896, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon)
Te rerioa (The Dream, 1897, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London)
Ea haere ia oe (Where are you going?, 1892, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart)
Le cheval blanc (1898, Musée d'Orsay)
Marquisien à la cape rouge (1902, Musée d'Art Moderne, Liège)
Et l'or de leur corps (1901, Musée d'Orsay)
Rupe rupe (Basket of fruit, 1898, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Fleurs de tournesol dans un fauteuil (Sunflowers in an armchair, 1901, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
• Wood panels for Maison du Jouir (1901-1902, Musée d'Orsay) (another set in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Contes barbares (1902, Museum Folkwang, Essen)

After gorging myself on Gauguin's Tahiti paintings, I crossed the Seine to take the RER back out to Versailles one last time. The bridge that crosses from the Grand Palais to Les Invalides is the Pont Alexandre III, a 19th-century academic confection built from 1897 to 1900 and probably representative of precisely the sort of art that Gauguin fled when he returned to Tahiti for good.

18.10.03

Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Part 2 of 3)

This is the continuation of my observations on the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004.

In the third and fourth rooms of the exhibit are many of the paintings from Gauguin's first stay in Tahiti (1891-1893):

Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary, 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Vahine note tiare (Woman with flower, 1891, Ny Carlsberg-Glypotek, Copenhagen)
Femmes de Tahiti (Sur la plage, 1891, Musée d'Orsay)
Le Repas (Les bananes, 1891, Musée d'Orsay)
Arearea (Joyeusetés I, 1892, Musée d'Orsay)
Merahi metua no Tehamana (Ancestors of Tehamana, 1893, Art Institute of Chicago)
Hina te fatou (Moon and Earth, 1893, Museum of Modern Art)
Parahi te marae (There is the Temple, 1892, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Matamua (Autrefois, 1892, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
Parau na te varua ino (Words of the Devil, 1892, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Va hine note vi (Woman with Mango, 1892, Baltimore Museum of Art)
Aha oe feii? (What? You're Jealous?, 1892, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Matamoe (Landscape with Peacocks, 1892, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Pastorales tahitiennes (1893, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

Paul Gauguin, Te nave nave fenua (Terre délicieuse), 1892, Ohara Museum of Art, Karashaki, JapanThere is also a set of photographs that Gauguin may have used as models for his paintings, with comparison to reproductions of the works. Another photograph of the reliefs from the Buddhist temple of Borobodur, which inspired the composition of Ia Orana Maria (see above), hangs next to that painting. Gauguin's Fan with Motifs of Ta matete (from a private collection, 1892) shows the use of the Egyptian mixed profile in his treatment of Tahitian figures, and it hangs next to a reproduction of a piece of Egyptian relief that may have inspired Gauguin. The Tahua Tablet, a piece of wood from Easter Island covered with writing and symbols, is next to the photograph of the Tahua Tablet that Gauguin owned. Tahitian ear ornaments are in a case across from a gourd cup carved by Gauguin with tiki images and Tahitian symbols. A cane, a dish, and some cylindrical sculptures of carved wood, all made by Gauguin in a Tahitian style, are shown together.

The effect of seeing so many of the Tahiti paintings and carvings, which have not been shown together in a long time, along with the Tahitian artifacts is remarkable. The show was put together to honor the 100th anniversary of Gauguin's death, and we are told that it took four years to put together, to receive permission to bring works of art from many continents into one show. Is Gauguin worth all of this? I don't think you can stand in front of even just one of the paintings in these rooms for a short time without feeling that it is. The Gauguin Tahiti paintings represents incarnate one of the last moments of innocent European exoticisme; he truly believed that a culture that was so different from his own had to be perfectly pure and real, even though he found in reality a culture that had already been nearly destroyed by visitors like himself. The colors, when you see the paintings in person, are often startling but ultimately beautiful and pleasing to the eye. How, working with oil paint, did he achieve a texture that is like pastel or crayon at times? I think that the evocation and intermingling of so many different myths (Christian, Oceanic, Buddhist, Egyptian) gives Gauguin's work a universal quality, even if it is Eurocentric. What does the flying lizard with red wings signify in Te nave nave fenua (Delicious Land, 1892, Ohara Museum of Art, image shown at left)? What about the hand gestures of Gauguin's Tahitian figures, or the flute-playing girls who seem to fill several of the paintings with the sounds of Tahitian music? Gauguin makes me think about these things.

17.10.03

Gauguin—Tahiti at the Grand Palais (Part 1 of 3)

In my post on September 24 (The Marquesas), I mentioned the exhibit Gauguin—Tahiti: l'atelier des tropiques at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, where it will be until January 4, 2004. From there it will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it will show from February 29 to June 20, 2004. On my trip to Paris, I had only one more morning to see the show. If you are going to Paris and you want to see this exhibit, do not do what I did and wait until the last moment to think about going to see it. It is extremely crowded: in the mornings, you can only get in if you have a reservation paid in advance, and the lines in the afternoon, when you don't need a reservation, are very long. I managed to get into the show on the morning of October 13 by using a press pass, and it was well worth the headache.

Gauguin's fascination with Tahiti and the role of the place in his later paintings are one of those things that are just assumed. I did not spend much time thinking about this whole concept beyond explaining it to students once a year and showing a few slides. This exhibit brings together an incredible number of paintings, sketches, and engravings, as well as photographs and actual artifacts from the islands where Gauguin stayed, to try to answer the question, "So what about Gauguin and Tahiti?" I don't know if this show will draw the crowds that the Impressionists or Van Gogh attract, but the crowds in the Grand Palais seem to indicate that it can. There were so many people, even in the hours restricted to reservations, that you literally had to work your way through a line of sorts to stand in front of almost every painting. (The French don't really understand the very orderly, Anglo-Saxon concept of "forming a line": in France, pretty much every situation where we would naturally form into a line in the United States becomes a shoving match where the person with the most pronounced sense of "culot" (assertiveness, pushiness) and the sharpest elbows will work his way to the front.)

The little guide to the exhibit that I purchased upon entering is Issue No. 357 (3 octobre 2003-19 janvier 2004) of Le Petit Journal des grandes expositions. On its cover is a quotation from the letter Paul Gauguin wrote to the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts in 1891, asking the Minister for help:

Dear Sir,
I desire to go to Tahiti to pursue there a series of paintings on the country, whose character and light I aim to capture. I have the honor of asking you thus to agree, as was done for Mr. Dumoulin, to entrust me with a government mission which, at no cost to you, would nevertheless facilitate my studies and travel by the advantages it would bring. Please accept the assurance of my high regards,
Paul Gauguin.
Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ, 1890-1891In the exhibit's first small room, there is only one painting, the Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1890-1891, recently acquired by the Musée d'Orsay, image shown at right). In this painting, Gauguin is seated in front of his own painting, Yellow Christ (1889, Albright-Knox Art Gallery), made in remembrance of a crucifix he saw during one of his stays in Brittany and which we see over his right shoulder. Over his left shoulder on a table we also see the Pot en forme d'une tête grotesque (Musée d'Orsay), a piece of glazed earthenware made by Gauguin around the same time. This self-portrait was completed around the time that Gauguin made his first trip to Tahiti, where he arrived on June 9, 1891, and decided to live in a small village south of Papeete. The other image of the painter at the start of the show is a photograph of Gauguin in a Breton suit (from a private collection, 1891). The languorous expression in both of these images, Gauguin with his long face and moustache, is the same one that stares out at us from most of his self-portraits. It's hard not to read his expression as a smirk. The first room also contains two wood panels by Gauguin, Soyez mystérieuses (1890, Musée d'Orsay) and Soyez amoreuses, vous serez heureuses (1889, Boston Museum of Fine Arts). These later became part of Gauguin's decoration for his home in the Marquesas, although there is no mention of it in the exhibit until later.

The second room is dedicated to an understanding of Maori art from New Zealand and Oceania as Gauguin may have understood it, even before he left France for Tahiti. As the Petit Journal puts it, "When Gauguin arrived in Papeete in June 1891, almost all remains of the ancient civilization had been wiped out. He encountered a society in transformation in which he was the only one, it seemed, to care about the island's past." Most of the artifacts displayed here are from the 19th century and are now in the collections of the Musée de l'Homme and other ethnological museums: two small wooden figures (Moai Kavakava) from Easter Island; five stone tikis with large eyes and distorted, stylized mouths; two hunting spears (tupaves) and a shield. There are also 18 photographs of Tahitian and Marquesan people and scenes, including one of a traditional Tahitian chorus (himene) from 1896 and two photographs of Atuona, where Gauguin settled in 1901 and where he died in 1903.

16.10.03

Photographs at the Musée d'Orsay

In my post on August 21 (Eugène Atget Photographs for Sale), I mentioned an exhibit called La photographie au tournant du siècle du Pictorialisme à Eugène Atget [Photography at the Turn of the Century from Pictorialism to Eugène Atget] at the Musée d'Orsay. I finally saw the exhibit on October 12, and although it is fairly modest (three rooms of sparsely arranged photographs) I was really taken in by the concept, involving as it did Eugène Atget, whose photographs I admire. (Anyone in a mood to buy Ionarts a really nice gift, Atget's photograph of the Bibliothèque nationale entrance is for sale: you can see it in my post on August 21.)

The main idea of the exhibit is to show the division in photography that occurred in the time that Atget was working. One theory of photography, behind the style called pictorialism, was to use the medium in ways parallel to other pictorial arts like painting and engraving, in the hope of making photography acceptable as art. This was in some ways the topic of Blake Gopnik's article (Pictures at an Exhibition: Do Vuillard's photographs belong on the walls of the National Gallery?, March 24, in Slate) on the photographs in the Vuillard exhibit at the National Gallery here in Washington. There are a few photographs signed by well-known artists like Édouard Vuillard (photo 1 and photo 2), Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas (see his portrait of Hortense Howland), Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz. There are also works by more obscure names, at least to me, such as Henri Rivière, Alphonse Mucha, François-Rupert Carabin, Emmanuel Bibesco (he and his brother Antoine were friends with Marcel Proust and may be in part the inspiration for the character of Saint-Loup in his novel), Henri Lemoine, Peter Henry Emerson, Adolphe de Meyer, Paul Haviland (see his photo Nude Woman Opening a Door), Robert Demachy, and George Seeley are shown in the exhibit. (For some of these photographers, it's hard to find any images available online.)Clarence Hudson White, Young Girl Lying in Her Bedroom, c. 1900

The images that most interested me included two portraits of Cézanne by Emile Bernard, one showing him in his atelier in Aix-en-Provence seated before one of his paintings of Les Baigneuses, and the other showing him seated in the countryside; some photographs by Paul Geniaux of people throwing confetti on Mardi Gras at the Place de l'Opéra in Paris around 1900; Constant Puyo's photograph showing a statue being moved through the streets of Florence; a shadowy photograph showing a young girl in her bedroom by Clarence Hudson White (shown at left); and a heavily manipulated photograph by Heinrich Kühn of a still life of fruit, made to look like an Impressionist oil painting. The most beautiful images in the rooms dedicated to pictorialism were Zolaesque landscapes of a mine at Saint-Chamond and the pollution it creates, taken by Félix Thiollier.

By comparison, the photographs of Eugène Atget, featured in one half of the third room devoted to this exhibition, are simple, clear, crisp, and documentary in design. I find his photographs of Paris interesting because I am obsessed with that city, but I also admire photography for photography's sake, that is, when a photographer does not appear to be worried about making his photographs look like another form of art. The images presented included views of the Marché des Patriarches and about 16 photographs of the 5th arrondissement, the area around Rue de la Parcheminerie, Rue Saint-Jacques, and the churches of Saint Severin and Saint Julien le Pauvre. (You can browse through images of lots of Atget's photographs here.)

15.10.03

Concerts at Versailles (Part 2 of 2)

This is the conclusion of a report (see Part 1) on the October 11 opening concerts of the Automne Musical, a series of concerts organized by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, in the Château de Versailles. The theme this year is Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII.

François Lemoyne, Apotheosis of Hercules, 1733-36The second concert of the evening was given under the title of La Chambre du Roy [The King's Bedroom]. The Ensemble Doulce Mémoire, under the direction of Denis Raisin-Dadre, performed a program of airs de cour by Pierre Guédron (c. 1575-1620) and instrumental dance pieces by Michael Praetorius and others. This concert took place in another area of the Château, the newly renovated Salon d'Hercule (part of the King's Grand Apartment), added to the palace in 1710, where the large painting Christ at Supper with Simon by Veronese covers almost the entire back wall. (This work was a gift from the Republic of Venice to Louis XIV in 1664.) Later, just as in the Opéra royal, the ceiling was adorned with an exceedingly large painting, The Apotheosis of Hercules, by François Lemoyne, completed from 1733 to 1736 (image shown at left).

At the end of the chamber opposite the Veronese painting is an enormous sculpted fireplace. A platform was set up in front of it for the performers: 5 singers, 2 lutists, Denis Raisin-Dadre on the recorder, and four players on viola da gambe. Again, the program was slightly altered to allow the group to insert a performance of the air de cour composed by Louis XIII, "Tu crois ô beau Soleil" (see previous post). The overall effect of this concert was magnificent, combining voices of great beauty with skilled players and a thorough understanding of the multimetric (i.e., nonmetric) style of the period. In particular, Axelle Bernage on the dessus (soprano) part displayed absolute purity of tone that set her apart. However, the only singer who seemed to have moments of weakness was the haute-contre, Marc Pontus. One of the encores that was demanded by the appreciative audience was a charming Italian air, with a pleasing pastoral ritornello. Each time that the instruments sounded that idyllic tune, some of the singers made noises like sheep baa-ing, to the amusement of the spectators. I would have insisted on another encore or two, but the late hour drove me to find my way back to the station to catch the RER back to Paris.

14.10.03

Concerts at Versailles (Part 1 of 2)

The Automne Musical is a series of concerts organized by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. The colloquium on which I have been reporting (L'air de cour au temps d'Henry IV et de Louis XIII) was meant to introduce the theme of this year's concerts for the Grandes Journées in the Château de Versailles, on the them of Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII. You can purchase the book-size program of the concert series (Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII, edited by Georgie Durosoir and Thomas Leconte, with contributions from a team of excellent scholars) for 10 euros. Through the generosity of the scholars of the CMBV (M. Pierre Pellerin, in particular), I was able to attend the first two concerts on the evening of October 11.

The first concert featured The Parley of Instruments, an English group directed by Peter Holman, playing a program of dance music composed for Louis XIII's instrumental group, the Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roy. This concert took place in the Opéra royal du château de Versailles, which is an unusual choice, historically, but practical. The connection betweem the music of Louis XIII's court and Versailles is tenuous, joined only by the fact that it was Louis XIII who first had the hunting lodge at Versailles enlarged to be a suitable dwelling place. Along with music and dance, this king's greatest passion was hunting, and Versailles's location gave him comfortable proximity to his game. Technically, any location in the Château would have been artificial, so the golden Baroque neoclassical surroundings of the opera theater (not even constructed until the time of Louis XV in 1770) were as appropriate as any. (The unusual ceiling space is filled with this illusionistic painting.) The theater was in its stage formation (the floor can be mechanically raised to join with the stage to create a great hall), and we were seated in the amphitheatre area, the large balcony where the king and queen were normally seated, in full view of the entire house. In a sense the spectacle of royal life was just as important as the staged spectacle.

There was a slight change in the program, because it began with an air de cour composed by Louis XIII ("Tu crois ô beau Soleil"), with an accompaniment in épinette tablature by de la Barre, which was published in Marin Mersenne's book Harmonie universelle (1636). This tune was already in our ears, since Sophie Landy had sung it unaccompanied on the radio program Cordes Sensibles earlier in the afternoon (see post on October 13), but Holman's group played an arrangement in four parts. At the end of the concert, Louis XIII's air de cour was played again as an encore. The program featured dance pieces by Pierre-Francisque Caroubel, Michael Praetorius, Jehan Henry "Le Jeune," and Étienne Nau, but the central focus of the concert was the performance of the complete suite of dance music for the Ballet de la Merlaison (1635), the composition of which is also attributed to Louis XIII.

The Ballet de la Merlaison was danced by Louis XIII and his court gentlemen on March 15, 1635, at the Château de Chantilly, and again on March 17, at the Abbey of Royaumont. An extraordinaire [supplementary report], published in the Gazette on March 22, states:

Everything about the ballet was admired, but especially the rapidity with which the King spent hardly a few hours, instead of the days normally required, to compose a Ballet (whose subject was the blackbird hunt, which His Majesty greatly enjoys in the winter), and to create the choreography, songs, and the costume designs, because all was the work of His Majesty.
The Gazette also describes each of the dances, who performed them and what they represented, which in the program from the CMBV have been connected to the piece of music in the Philidor manuscript. (A fictionalized version of this event appears in Chapter 22 of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.)

One of the highlights of the evening for the mostly French audience was the short presentation given, in French, by one of the English players. Contrary to the perception some have of French attitudes, I think it is generally true that the typical French person is quite forgiving of a foreigner's accent and mistakes of grammar. The laughter that was heard seemed to imply both amusement and the sense of charm that you can feel when a foreigner makes a worthy attempt to speak your language. The surroundings for this concert were magnificent, but I found the style of playing to be somewhat monochromatic. Perhaps this is the fault of the repertory, because the style of music was intentionally simple, with a melody worked out typically on a tiny hand violin by a dancing master with the steps in mind and then filled out by an apprentice composer. It may be that the element of excitement that seemed to be missing from the performance was the movement of magnificently costumed dancers, playing out the actions of Flemish cage-carriers, farmers, and pistol-hunters, with the King dancing the role of a net-seller's wife, as the Gazette put it, "for the pleasure of mingling with his subjects in this nice entertainment shows that the most august Majesties can be quite comfortable in something other than supercilious severity."

13.10.03

Conference on the Air de Cour at Versailles (Part 4 of 4)

This is the conclusion of my report on the international colloquium on the air de cour of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (L'air de cour au temps d'Henry IV et de Louis XIII), hosted by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. (Here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Simon Vouet, Portrait of Louis XIIIToday was the final day of the colloquium, which began with a Round Table on the use of the air de cour in royal court ballet. The organizer of the colloquium, Mme. Georgie Durosoir, led a panel of specialists, only one of whom has a background in music, Pierre-Alain Clerc. The other panelists were Christine Bayle, a choreographer and scholar of Baroque dance; Jocelyne Chaptal, a specialist in symbols of Baroque ballet; Sophie Landy, a singer of Baroque music, especially the air de cour; and Anne Surgers, a scholar of Baroque costumes and stage decoration. This mixture of research interests created an intense interchange of views and opinions, some of which I had never heard applied to the ballet de cour. Some of the questions that came up in the discussion included the problem of who sang airs de cour in these ballets; how were lutes and other instruments incorporated into the ballet; and what do the costumes mean and what are their antecedents? The purpose of a Round Table like this is not necessarily to answer such questions but to open up discussion to new ideas. Philippe Vendrix then gave a short address to conclude the colloquium before we adjourned for lunch.

In the afternoon, there was a broadcast of the radio program Cordes Sensibles (France Musiques) at the CMBV. Host Jean-Michel Damian talked with Georgie Durosoir, Thomas Leconte, and Gérard Geay from the CMBV. This introduced the major event sponsored by the CMBV this fall, the annual concert series known as the Grandes Journées, this year on the theme Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII. (The image at left is a detail from Simon Vouet's portrait of Louis XIII.) The show also featured Denis Raisin-Dadre, director of the performing group Ensemble Doulce Mémoire (see this list of their recordings), as well as performances from singer Sophie Landy and lutists Pascale Boquet and Charles-Édouard Fantin, from Ensemble Doulce Mémoire, one of the groups who inaugurated the Automne Musical du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles later in the evening.

12.10.03

Conference on the Air de Cour at Versailles (Part 3 of 4)

We continue today with a report on the second day of an international colloquium on the air de cour of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (L'air de cour au temps d'Henry IV et de Louis XIII), hosted by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. (Here are Part 1 and Part 2.)

Claude Vignon, Young Singer, c. 1623There were two morning sessions today, the first on the manuscript sources of the air de cour. Presided over by M. Gérard Geay of the CMBV, the two papers dealt with how the air de cour filtered throughout French society in other forms. François-Pierre Goy spoke about the transcriptions and arrangements of the air de cour for lute and mandolin. Laurent Guillo presented his findings concerning illustrated collections of airs de cour which were copied by hand. The second morning session was titled "Théorie que me veux-tu?" [What do you want from me, Theory?] and was presided over by the organizer of the colloquium, Mme. Georgie Durosoir. In this session, Gérard Geay spoke about counterpoint and its role in the air de cour, and Marie Demeilliez did the same for the theoretical concept of the basse continue (or figured bass) and how it was adapted to this genre. Théodora Psychoyou also presented a summary of how the air de cour was discussed in contemporary theory treatises.

The afternoon session was the most interesting for me, because it dealt with the presence of the air de cour in other social areas. Thomas Leconte of the CMBV spoke about the unusual play known as the Comédie des Chansons, from 1640. This play in five acts has no music published with its text, but the entire text is apparently taken verbatim from pre-existing airs de cour and other types of songs. If the play was indeed sung with the tunes of the corresponding source songs, which M. Leconte was not at all willing to admit was certain, the Comédie des Chansons would be the first complete French play to be put to music and sung throughout. M. Leconte has accomplished the Herculean task of identifying a large portion of the source songs, which he shared with us this afternoon. He hopes to identify all the lines of the play and thereby to confirm whether every line is indeed taken from a pre-existing song. As for why the Comédie des Chansons was created or who created it, M. Leconte would offer only theories. Although Charles de Bey has been considered as the possible author, M. Leconte states that there is no real evidence to support that claim. That it may be associated with the opera parodies of the foires or the Italian Comedians may be more plausible, since one of the characters is named Jodelet, the stage name of an actor with one of those troupes.

Barbara Nestola of the CMBV next presented her findings on airs de cour with Italian texts and the literary sources from which they were taken. One of the most fascinating social trends in 17th- and 18th-century France was the spiritual parody, the subject of Marc Desmet's paper on the collection known as La pieuse alouette. Catholic leaders, especially among the Jesuits, favored the coopting of air de cour melodies, as long as they were published with new sacred texts. The lamento model of the air de cour, in these spiritual parodies, transformed the sighs of the abandoned or unhappy lover into the cries of woe of St. Sebastian pierced with arrows, for example; the ecstasy of the lover whose love is returned into the joy of the penitent delivered from the devil; and the lustful longing of the unsatisfied lover into the yearning of the soul for union with God. This harnessed some of the power of the air de cour as social theater to create, as Desmet put it, "une machine à convertir" [a proselytization machine]. John Powell (University of Tulsa) spoke about some examples of songs that were performed as part of Latin plays presented by students in Jesuit schools in the 17th century. Prof. Powell presented them as airs de cour because of the tone of their texts, although music has not survived for most of them. Jean Duron, director of the CMBV, disagreed in no uncertain terms, and this provoked a very lively discussion to end the scholarly part of the day.

The day officially ended with an unusual performance of a play by Pierre-Alain Clerc and Lisandro Abadie, given in the same room in the Bibliothèque municipale de Versailles. It is called L'Impromptu de l'Evêché: Dialogue pour un chanteur et son claveciniste, and it cleverly weaves together scenes and songs from works by La Fontaine, Molière and Lully, Chabanceau de la Barre, and Lambert. The play tells the story of two actors who learn that the rest of their troupe will not arrive in time to present a play to their patron, an archbishop. At the last minute, they throw together scenes that the two of them along can perform.

11.10.03

Conference on the Air de Cour at Versailles (Part 2 of 4)

This is the conclusion of yesterday's posting about the first day of an international colloquium on the air de cour of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (L'air de cour au temps d'Henry IV et de Louis XIII), hosted by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. (Here is Part 1.)

The first afternoon session presented three young French scholars, none of whom are working in musicology. Tarek Barrada spoke about some of the salons and other places where music was played regularly in and around the French capital at this time. Stephane Macé discussed the literary and rhetorical notion of the style simple, in order to ask many questions about how the concept might be applied to the air de cour. Guillaume Peureux presented some lines of poetry by Pierre Motin, which appear to have intentional errors, and glossed them as a criticism of the literary theories of François de Malherbe (1555-1628). In the final session, Frank Dobbins spoke on the airs of Charles Tessier. Isabelle His, one of the best scholars on the music set to the type of poetry known as the vers mesuré à l'antique, spoke on the relationship, often confused, between that music and the air de cour. She concluded that the two repertories have enough in common that musique mesurée can be considered a historically specific subset of the air de cour and that in general the air de cour preserved those qualities of musique mesurée that made sense to present to a wider audience and lost its more theoretical abstractions. Finally, Jeanice Brooks (University of Southampton) gave a superb paper on the French embellishments that can be found as traces in the published versions of airs de cour, with a comparison of French ornaments to those known in Italy at the same time. Not surprisingly, there is great similarity between the two traditions.

Peter Paul Rubens (attrib.), Portrait of Man with Lute, 1610-1615The colloquium's first day concluded with a concert that was to be a program of airs de cour. However, because the singer, Claudine Ansermet, was ill, the lutist Paolo Cherici put together a program of solo lute pieces instead, which was quite enjoyable. The concert's first half featured Italian pieces from the 16th century, of which I especially liked pieces by Pietro Paulo Borrono da Milano, Francesco da Milano, and Pietro Paolo Raimondo. (If you want to hear these performers, you can find information on their recordings by the Web sites I have linked to above.) Playing on an archlute, Cherici also performed a second half of 17th-century French music for the lute, the best of which was by Pierre Ballard. The affectation of country songs and dances in Baroque music is amusing, one example of how many foods, music, literary styles now considered delicacies or luxuries began as imitations of simple peasant life. There were brief moments in these country pieces by Ballard (Bransle "La Cornemuse" and Bransle de Village) that sounded to me surprisingly akin to American country music. The concert concluded with a Pavana and Canario by Gasper Sanz, played upon a small Spanish Baroque guitar.

10.10.03

Conference on the Air de Cour at Versailles (Part 1 of 4)

Bibliothèque municipale de VersaillesI am here in France because I was invited to observe an international colloquium on the air de cour of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (L'air de cour au temps d'Henry IV et de Louis XIII), hosted by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. This conference was officially opened yesterday by its organizer, Mme. Georgie Durosoir. The setting was magnificent, the stacks area of the ancien fonds of the Bibliothèque municipale de Versailles, an institution created in 1803 by the revolutionaries to house the great numbers of old and valuable books seized from the collections of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Madame du Barry, and others. The building, on what is now the Rue de l'Indépendance américaine, was constructed by Jean-Baptiste Berthier under Louis XV in 1762, as the Hôtel des Affaires Etrangères (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Other rooms have been redesigned in this library for readers and the public, but normally only the librarians go into the rooms where we were, to retrieve books. It is a series of large rooms connected by archways (see photo above at right), with shelves of beautiful old books from floor to ceiling, at a height of 15 feet or so. The decoration is typically Baroque, with gold and white trim and large paintings of Louis XV and other prominent court figures.

We heard 30-minute papers (interventions or communications in French) from panels of three or four speakers each session, one each morning before enjoying a delicious and convivial lunch together. (As there were only about 40 people in attendence, this was possible.) Then there were two sessions in the afternoon, with a break for coffee, and a concert in the evening, either before or after dinner.

The air de cour (court aria or song) is a type of French song that was developed in the late Renaissance and reached its apogee in the first half of the 17th century. With the rise of French opera under Jean-Baptiste Lully in the later 17th century, the air de cour declined and eventually disappeared. (The decline of the air de cour is documented through the career of Michel Lambert in the biography by Catherine Massip, L'art de bien chanter: Michel Lambert (1610-1696), which I reviewed in Music & Letters 83 [2002]: 449-453.) The air de cour is typically sung by a solo voice to the accompaniment of a lute, that most quintessential of French court instruments. However, as it was also used in the ballet de cour, which is my area of interest, airs de cour may also be found with multiple vocal parts that could be sung by a small ensemble or a large chorus, with or without the accompaniment of lutes or other instruments. Since this is music for the royal court or for private homes, the poetry is usually secular, often about love either desired or experienced, and with the general desire to be witty and charming, even when sad. The music of the best airs de cour meets the same criteria, generally preferring grace of line and clarity of declamation to the vocal pyrotechnics more typical of Italian music of the same period. This is not to say that the singers of airs de cour were not as skilled as their Italian counterparts, because they had their own tradition of ornamentation. When used in the context of a ballet de cour, where the king and queen and their noble friends shared the stage with professional dancers, professional singers and composers had the chance to perform and compose more dramatic examples of the air de cour, at dramatic moments in the ballet's action.

At the first session, historian Jean-François Dubost presented his findings about the musical patronage of Marie de Médicis and her entourage. She had no great taste for music but kept a modest group of instrumentalists and singers in her employ, to provide music for herself at meals, Mass, and occasions like births. Interestingly, although she could have brought some musicians with her from Italy, she chose not to do so. In any given year, the queen's annual music expenditures comprised, at maximum, 2% of her annual budget. The singers were both adults and boys (known as pages), trained and educated in the royal household, a model of schooling now being imitated by the École Maîtrisienne de Versailles, associated with the CMBV. Marie did have instructors for her son, the future Louis XIII, who enjoyed playing both the lute and the épinette, an early type of keyboard instrument, for his mother in her apartments. Louis became not only an important patron of music, much greater than his parents, but also a composer.

Françoise Bayard, a historian of economics, gave a paper on the lives of financiers in the early 17th century. As men who lent on credit to just about everyone in this period, their own personal wealth meant that they could live in the style of nobility. Using information from archival documents known as inventaires après décès, inventories of a house's entire contents made room by room after the death of the head of family, Mme. Bayard gave some idea of the role music had and sometimes did not have in the lives of these men and their families. Most had several instruments, especially lutes and épinettes, in prominent rooms. If they were noted in closets, you may draw your own conclusions. Giuliano Ferretti gave an interesting paper on the use of political airs de cour against the interests of Richelieu. He played a recording of some of these songs, which I believe may soon be released on CD. The cardinal spent even less on music than Marie de Médicis, preferring to support literary work instead. It is most fitting that the political air de cour, simple enough for servants and other common workers to sing them, should be used so effectively against him.

9.10.03

Botticelli Exhibit (Part 2 of 2)

Here is the conclusion of my remarks on the Botticelli exhibit (Botticelli, de Laurent le Magnifique à Savonarole) at the Musée du Luxembourg, which I saw in Paris on October 8. (Part 1 was posted on October 8.)

The concept of framing was out there in the blogosphere a while back (for example, see Modern Art Notes on August 11), and a number of visitors around me questioned the presentation of some of these works. At the end of the first hallway is the pair of Judith paintings (Discovery of the Cadaver of Holofernes and Judith Returns to Bethulia, both from the Galleria degli Uffizi, 1470), behind glass in a case made of plain weathered wood that almost looks like it was taken from an old barn. In spite of the weird framing, these are remarkable miniature wood panels, the second of which shows the other side of that distant serenity of the Madonnas, the cold cruelty of woman. Here Judith, light as a feather, carries an olive branch in one hand and the bloody murder weapon in the other, while her lady-in-waiting bears the severed head of her enemy on her head like a trophy. Judith is a heroine, bringing peace to her people through her courageous seduction and murder of Holofernes, but her face reveals no trace of human emotion. In the first panel, the Assyrian soldiers recoil in darkened horror at the discovery of the naked body of their general, decapitated and bloody in his bed. The dark tone and tortuous composition of this panel make a striking contrast with its counterpart.

Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, c. 1482In the middle part of his career, Botticelli worked mainly on secular themes for his greatest patron, Lorenzo de Medici. This is the period of the Primavera and the Birth of Venus, neither of which is at the Luxembourg. There are three portraits in the main room of the exhibit, one of a man holding a medal of Cosimo the Elder (Uffizi, 1475) and two of young women, one quite homely (sometimes known as La bella Simonetta, from the Galleria Palatina in Florence, c. 1485) and the other elegant and pleasing (Portrait of a Young Woman, from a private collection in New York, 1481-82) which offers a plain view of one of the Florentine women who could have been a model for one of the Madonnas. It is also the period for the mythological paintings like Pallas and the Centaur (Uffizi, c. 1482, shown at right), which shows another of the cruel Botticelli women, Athena this time holding an enormous halberd and wearing dominatrix-like vines that wrap bindingly around her breasts, and the Judgment of Paris (Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice, 1485-88). A fascinating sketch of Pallas (Uffizi, 1491) shows the goddess with two different facial expressions.

In the darkened room with the drawings is one of Botticelli's illustrations of Dante's Inferno, the so-called Map of Hell on parchment (Vatican Library, 1480-90). I wanted to have a magnifying glass to examine the tiny details of each circle and bolgia of hell, depicted faithfully, including the legs of the simonists in Canto 19, protruding from the burning rock. Other high points of the show for me include the enormous and extensively restored fresco of the Annunciation (from the church of San Martino della Scala, now removed to the Uffizi, 1481) which measures about 8 feet high by 16 feet wide. I don't want to think about the dangers of having transported it to Paris from Florence, but I was blown away by the choice of colors and the daring composition. The angel and Mary do not even seem to meet each other's gaze across the empty space, but otherworldly rays sweep Gabriel through the arch at the left and connect him to the Virgin. Finally, a group of older, conservatively dressed French ladies spent a lot of time looking at the sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, The Incarnate Angel (private collection in Los Angeles, 1513-15), in which an angel's apparent delight in being given a body includes displaying his erect penis. As Daniel Arasse writes in the Guide officiel, "This is a private drawing which was never meant to be shown. It is the painter's image of the desirable androgyne, his fantasy. This disturbing image crosses a forbidden border, descending past the era's limit, the navel."

If you can get to Paris before February 22, I encourage you to see this exhibit. It brings together a number of works that create a thought-provoking assessment of Botticelli's work and includes several pieces from private collections that are almost impossible to view any other way.

8.10.03

Botticelli Exhibit (Part 1 of 2)

The Guide officiel de l'exposition for the Botticelli exhibit (Botticelli, de Laurent le Magnifique à Savonarole) at the Musée du Luxembourg, published by sponsor Paris Match, has an introduction by Christian Poncelet, President of the French Senate. When I get that exhibition installed in the U.S. Capitol (see my post on October 1, Botticelli at the Palais du Luxembourg), perhaps Bill Frist will agree to write the introduction. The Botticelli introduction presents a historical review of the Musée du Luxembourg, one of the first European museums of painting. From its establishment in 1750, the public could view great works of art, especially of the Renaissance. It may also be considered the first modern art museum, since it hosted the work of artists like David, Gros, Ingres, and Delacroix in the 19th century. This year the work to improve public access to the museum was completed, and a series of excellent exhibitions has celebrated its rebirth.

No matter how many times I go to France, I am always surprised by how cool the weather can be, even in the summer. When going to Paris in the fall, one should expect rain, which I did, but I did not pack a warm enough jacket. Many of the coats and sweaters that I left home in my closet I purchased while on trips to France because I was so cold. In spite of the chilly, rainy weather, there was a fairly long line for the Botticelli exhibit. After about a half hour in that line, I was able to enter the museum's new main exhibition hall, which is in a pavilion separate from the area of the palace used by the Senate. It is not an extremely large space, so it has been divided up into smaller areas by temporary walls.

You enter first a sort of long hallway where several of the Madonnas are displayed: Virgin with Child and Angel (Musée Fesch in Ajaccio, 1465), Virgin with Child and St. John ("Madonna of the Rosary," Louvre, 1470; on this painting, see also Botticelli's Madonna in the Louvre, a poem by Edith Wharton), Virgin with Child and Two Angels (Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples, 1468-69), and Virgin and St. John in Adoration of the Child (Musei civici di Palazzo Farnese in Piacenza, 1480-81). The woman and child figures in these paintings have a striking similarity in many cases that made me go from painting to painting to try to determine if they were in some cases based on the same models. Four later Madonnas are in the final, smaller room of the exhibit: Flight into Egypt (Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, 1495-1500), Virgin and Child Adored by St. John (private collection in New York, 1491-93), Virgin with Child and St. John (Galleria Palatina in Florence, 1495-1500), and Virgin and Child with Three Angels ("Madonna del Padiglione," Pinacotheca Ambrosiana in Milan, 1493). One sketch of the Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (Vatican Library, 1480-1490) is displayed in the third room, where the light is at a lower level.

The Botticelli Madonnas are the subject of the first essay ("Ses jeunes filles florentines rendent la Bible voluptueuse" [His young Florentine girls make the Bible sexy]) in the Guide officiel. The early examples date from the period of Botticelli's apprenticeship with Filippo Lippi, where he was a student from the age of 19. After Lippi's death in 1469, he started his own workshop in 1470, and his style became more his own. While these Madonnas are certainly beautiful, their distant serenity and, what I had never noticed until today, their sometimes shocking pallor, even in some cases nauseated complexion, give them a sense of separation. I would not apply the word voluptueuse, which has the connotation of sexual attraction in French more than curviness, to them. To conclude as the Guide does that "graceful and pained, the Botticelli Madonna keeps, behind her sublime reserve, all the sensuous melancholy of the eternal Eve" seems to me wide of the mark. In Proust's novel, Swann's connection of his despicable wife, Odette, with one of the Botticelli Madonnas (see my post on October 7, Your Weekly Proust 2) seems also to speak to this paradox. In a way Swann baptizes a real woman, who is manifestly impure, with the image of purity itself. I see the Botticelli Madonna more as Edith Wharton wrote of the example in the Louvre (see above) as the "Sad Lady," in whom we see "On thy waste brow and sadly-folded lips, / Forefeeling the Light's terrible eclipse / On Calvary, as if love made thee wise."

Botticelli, Saint Augustine, 1480The authors of the Guide officiel also point out the changes in the later Madonnas, painted in the period dominated by the zealous Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, a time when Botticelli certainly no longer had to paint Madonnas but did. They do seem weightier and darker in tone. This is also the period of Botticelli's last secular painting, Calumny (Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, 1497), done in the same year that Savonarola ordered the burning of jewelry, fine clothing, secular art and books, which hangs in the large second room of the exhibition. In this period of informants and denouncements, Botticelli himself was accused of sodomy, so he probably identified himself with the young man accused by Calumny in the painting, with the assistance of Ignorance, Suspicion, Rancor, Envy, and Deceit, while Truth and Penitence look on helpless. The exhibit also includes a painting depicting Savonarola's violent end, Execution of Savonarola, attributed to Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli (from the Museo di San Marco in Florence, 1498), showing the pyre in front of the Palazzo Vecchio where he was killed. The two portraits of Saint Augustine seem to show the two contrasting characters of the Medici and Savonarola periods. The first (a fresco removed from the Church of the Ognissanti in Florence, 1480, image at left) shows Augustine as a typical man of the Renaissance, a secular bishop surrounded by books and scientific instruments, his miter laid down on his desk. The second (a wood panel from the Uffizi, 1494) presents Augustine as a tonsured monk in an austere cell, working with a quill on a small book. This is not, I emphasize, to repeat the now discredited claim that Botticelli became one of Savonarola's followers, only to underscore the exhibition's main point, that Botticelli seems to reflect in his work the different tones of the two periods in Florence's history.

—» Go to Part 2.

7.10.03

Your Weekly Proust 2

My apologies for the long lacuna in posting. Ionarts has been in Paris and unable to get observations onto the site. I will be publishing a backlog of posts over the next couple days, corresponding to the days on which they were written.

One of the delights (and sometimes annoyances) of reading Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu is the little diversions into completely unrelated areas. In the book, the character Swann is a man immersed in the contemplation of art. He views art in a very personal way, a type of viewing that makes connections to life like no other. Proust seems to imply that one of the reasons Swann ends up marrying Odette, who is depicted basically as an aging prostitute, is her resemblance to a Botticelli painting. Daughters of Jethro, detail from Botticelli's Life of MosesHere is an excerpt from Du côté de chez Swann:

As [Odette] stood there beside him, brushing his cheek with the loosened tresses of her hair, bending one knee in what was almost a dancer’s pose, so that she could lean without tiring herself over the picture, at which she was gazing, with bended head, out of those great eyes, which seemed so weary and so sullen when there was nothing to animate her, Swann was struck by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter [see image at right—ed.], which is to be seen in one of the Sistine frescoes. He had always found a peculiar fascination in tracing in the paintings of the Old Masters, not merely the general characteristics of the people whom he encountered in his daily life, but rather what seems least susceptible of generalisation, the individual features of men and women whom he knew, as, for instance, in a bust of the Doge Loredan by Antonio Rizzo, the prominent cheekbones, the slanting eyebrows, in short, a speaking likeness to his own coachman Rémi; in the colouring of a Ghirlandaio, the nose of M. de Palancy; in a portrait by Tintoretto, the invasion of the plumpness of the cheek by an outcrop of whisker, the broken nose, the penetrating stare, the swollen eyelids of Dr. du Boulbon. . . . He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and limbs, and these he tried incessantly, afterwards, to recpature, both when he was with Odette, and when he was only thinking of her in her absence; and, albeit his admiration for the Florentine masterpiece was probably based upon his discovery that it had been reproduced in her, the similarity enhanced her beauty also, and rendered her more precious in his sight. . . . The words 'Florentine painting' were invaluable to Swann. They enabled him (gave him, as it were, a legal title) to introduce the image of Odette into a world of dreams and fancies which, until then, she had been debarred from entering, and where she assumed a new and nobler form. . . . When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed all the lovelier in contrast, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine that he was holding Odette against his heart.
And from A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur:
[Swann] still liked to recognise in his wife one of Botticelli’s figures. . . . Swann had a wonderful scarf of oriental silk, blue and pink, which he had bought because it was exactly that worn by Our Lady in the Magnificat. But Mme. Swann refused to wear it. Once only she allowed her husband to order her a dress covered all over with daisies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots and campanulas, like that of the Primavera. And sometimes in the evening, when she was tired, he would quietly draw my attention to the way in which she was giving, quite unconsciously, to her pensive hands the uncontrolled, almost distraught movement of the Virgin who dips her pen into the inkpot that the angel holds out to her, before writing upon the sacred page on which is already traced the word 'Magnificat'.

4.10.03

Exhibit at the Phillips

Ernst Kirchner, Suburb of Berlin, 1912I will be posting more about this after I actually see the exhibit, but here is a taste of the new exhibit at the Phillips Collection: eight paintings from Surrealism and Modernism: Highlights from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, which opened today and will run through January 18, 2004. The painting at the left, by Ernst Kirchner, is in the show. He is one of the artists I have been finding more and more interesting this past year, and not just because of the connection to Matisse.

Also, check out the reaction (More On The Millennium Wagner Project, October 4) to my interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millenium Wagner Opera Company, by blogger a. c. douglas. It's a carefully thought out but largely negative reaction. One of the least believable points of Ms. Berger's plan, according to a. c. douglas: the mere thought of performing Wagner "absent the full complement of instrumentalists called for by the score." Here is how my question about instrumentalists was quoted:

Do you have instrumentalists contracted for Parsifal? Will the performance be accompanied [sic!] by an orchestra?
What a. c. means by that interjection of sic and an exclamation point (one or the other would probably have sufficed to indicate incredulity at my faux pas) is this idea that the orchestra in Wagner is supposedly not an "accompaniment" but equal in importance to, if not more important than, the singers. Personally, I think this is just semantic quibbling. The piano has a lot to say in a Schumann song cycle, too (think of the end of Dichterliebe, for example), but the fact is that it is still "accompanying" a singer. There would be no opera without the singers on the stage: they are primary in importance. In his later works, Wagner has his orchestra, often quite extensive, weave a complicated web around the singers, but Verdi's late operas are just as complicated orchestrally.

3.10.03

András Schiff on the Goldberg Variations

J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations is one of those pieces that you can just keep listening to (you can listen to MIDI versions of it). I enjoy playing it, and I like listening to other people play it, as many people as care to play it, even if they make two recordings of it. That's what András Schiff has done, in imitation of Glenn Gould and others: a second recording of the Goldberg Variations, a live performance to go along with his earlier studio version. In an interview article with Martin Kettle (Bach at His Best, October 3) in The Guardian, Schiff says some very interesting things about this beloved piece. These are presumably related to the written notes on the piece, what he calls a "guided tour" of the Goldberg Variations, which he has included with the new CD. As with so much of Bach's music, the work is dizzyingly intellectual in its conception, underpinned by a flawlessly logical structure, of which one can listen in blissful ignorance, of course.

Schiff sees the variations as "10 groups of three . . . one variation represents 'the physical', one 'the emotional' and one 'the intellectual'," with that third one in every set in the form of a canon, "each at an increasing interval, starting with the canon in unison and working up to the canon in ninths." With such an exquisite structure in place, Bach has to undermine it by concluding with the Quodlibet as the 30th variation, what Schiff calls

a most human climax. . . . The ground bass is still there, of course, but the character of the movement is formed by two folk tunes that would have been easily recognisable to Bach's contemporaries. One of these songs is about cabbages and turnips. The other is about how long it is since he has been away. I feel it's all very sociable and merry, like a family get-together. I can imagine Bach and his family all sat round the table with a glass of beer.
The kernel of the whole thing, the aria played at the beginning and the end, is certainly, as Kettle puts it, "one of the most sublime statements of calm in all European music." It is remarkable to think of what complexities Bach drew from this statement of elegant simplicity. However, Schiff's focus in the aria and in the whole piece is not where you might expect, the melody, but on the bass: Florence Cathedral
I think the way to think of it is by thinking of Bach as an architect rather than as a painter. Beware of the tunes. Concentrate instead on the ground bass, which is the solid foundation of everything else. Where I live now in Florence, we have this most beautiful cathedral with its dome and cupola by Brunelleschi. But it would not be there without the foundations to hold it up. Similarly in music there is a tendency to follow the top line. I think always in music we should start with the bass.
This statement was so thought-provoking that I stood up from the computer, went to find my score of the Goldberg Variations, and played the aria to see what Schiff was talking about.

It also happens that the subject of my Humanities lecture this morning was Filippo Brunelleschi and S. Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of Florence. To continue this theme of architecture and music, I follow the class on Florence Cathedral with a lecture on the piece Guillaume Dufay wrote for the consecration of that building, an isorhythmic motet called Nuper rosarum flores, an extraordinarily complex piece of music that is structured according to mathematical numbers and ratios corresponding to the description of the Temple of Jerusalem in the Old Testament.

2.10.03

Tomb of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill

By way of Arts and Letters Daily, I learned that Tom Mueller has published a very interesting article (Inside Job, October issue) in The Atlantic Monthly on the Vatican's excavation of the tomb of St. Peter. Before the Renaissance and Baroque edifice of the modern Vatican was built, there was Old St. Peter's, built by the Emperor Constantine and altered subsequently. Below that there were monuments that marked the apostle's tomb, including a second-century ædicula. Over a long period of time, the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology has been conducting excavations underneath the Vatican, a site central to the faith and imagination of Catholics everywhere. Not surprisingly, they proceeded with great caution, but considering the secrecy of the Roman Curia, I think the Church has been remarkably open about what they found. In Rome, you have to find the Ufficio degli Scavi, Fabbrica di San Pietro, where you can arrange to make a reservation to take a guided tour with an archeologist of the excavated area (scavi) below the church.

Mueller provides a lot of history surrounding the work at the tomb, which is very interesting, and he will be publishing a historical novel based around the events he describes. (Mueller lives in Italy and has published on Rome before in Underground Rome, from the April 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.) I enjoyed reading the article, but I had an objection about the characterization of the Vatican's attitude toward the findings of Margherita Guarducci. Mueller states that the Church has tried to "cover up" her discoveries, which he bases on his experience of a tour of the scavi:

The guide's story matched the official Vatican account of Peter's martyrdom and grave. But she had never mentioned the question of Peter's bones.
Later on, he adds:
Nonetheless, Vatican guides today refrain from reading mystical meanings into the graffiti on Peter's grave, and make no comment about his bones.
I don't know how thoroughly Mueller researched this matter, but I can say that I took a tour of the scavi in May 1993, and our guide, an elderly British archeologist, did indeed refer to the discovery of the Greek epigraph ("Peter within") and other graffiti, as well as the bones wrapped in purple. The idea that there is some sort of Vatican coverup ("Beneath the finely tuned phraseology bigger things lay buried") seems to me little more than an attempt to drum up sales.

What is indisputable is that the site was venerated as the burial place of St. Peter within a very short time after the apostle's death. Furthermore, Mueller's contention that if Peter died in Rome his body would not have been recovered seems ill founded. Either because of the fear of retribution:
Even if we grant that Peter was martyred in Rome, his body is unlikely to have been recovered for burial, or his grave ever marked. The Neronian persecution made Christianity a capital crime. Under Roman law the body of such a criminal, particularly a foreigner like Peter, was often denied burial, and might be summarily dumped in the Tiber. To recover it, someone would have had to petition the Roman authorities, thereby identifying himself as a Christian—tantamount to suicide.
or the Christian focus on the arrival of the Second Coming and therefore uncaring attitude about someone's body:
What is more, few of Peter's fellow Christians would have troubled about his bones. Christians around A.D. 64 anxiously awaited the parousia, Jesus Christ's imminent Second Coming. Martyrs' relics and graves seemed of little moment in a world about to be consumed by fire. It wasn't until a century or more after Peter's death that the cult of the martyrs developed in the West.
As the apostles wanted to recover the body of Jesus, Peter's followers would probably have done for him. He was a beloved friend, after all. I doubt that fear of the authorities would have stopped them either, since the attitude of many who became martyrs was to welcome death for Christ with joy. I find the possibility that the necropolis was disturbed during the attacks on Rome after the fall of the empire and that the body was possibly desecrated, destroyed, or removed much more convincing. In terms of art history, the scavi tour is one of the most interesting things I have ever seen.

For other accounts of the excavation, see John Curran, The Bones of Saint Peter? (Classics Ireland 3, 1996) and John Evangelist Walsh's book The Bones of St. Peter: A First Full Account of the Search for the Apostle's Body (1982).

1.10.03

Botticelli at the Palais du Luxembourg

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young WomanI like the combination of government building and art: it says something about how a society values art. I teach every year on the history paintings commissioned for the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, but the legislative branch of the Federal government should definitely look into hosting a major art exhibit in the Capitol: what have they done for art lately? In Paris, the French Senate shares its building harmoniously with the Musée du Luxembourg, and a significant part of its Web site is devoted to notices on art exhibits.

Starting with a short piece on the France 2 evening news, I have been absorbing the media blitz on the new exhibit at the Luxembourg, Botticelli, de Laurent le Magnifique à  Savonarole, open from today until February 22, 2004. Newspaper coverage includes Le Nouvel Observateur (Le Luxembourg accueille l'œuvre de Botticelli, October 1, with an accompanying photo gallery), Le Monde (Exposition: l'obsession de tout peindre de Botticelli, by Philippe Dagen, October 1), and Le Parisien (Beau oui, comme Botticelli, by Sylvie Metzelard, October 1). All this for a fairly modest show of about 25 paintings and drawings, which does not include some of the most famous paintings (those that never travel, like La Primavera and The Birth of Venus). The young woman's portrait shown at left, from the 1480s, is one of them. (Has anyone ever traced the fate of the profile portrait after the Renaissance? One of my favorite cinematic images is a profile portrait, the huge photograph of Irène Jacob, shown below, central to the conclusion of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs: Rouge, from 1994. By this point, some readers may be hoping I never post another thing about Wagner ever again, but some other examples of profile portraits are found in the previous posts related to Wagner.)
Irène Jacob in Rouge
Apparently, I am not the only one to find the golden, graceful, neoplatonic vision of Botticelli intensely pleasureful, even more than the work of his contemporary Leonardo, which sometimes seems a little too analytical, or scientific, to me. I like the fantasy in Botticelli. The interesting point that the France 2 piece made was a comparison of the 21st-century image of woman and how we are fed most of our images now by advertisers. What will remain of our age that will be worth looking at in 500 years?

30.9.03

INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington (Part 6 of 6)

The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, is concluded today. These links to the earlier parts may be helpful: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Photograph of Richard WagnerIonarts:
You plan to perform Parsifal first here in Washington?

Carol Berger:
Yes, that's correct.

Ionarts:
And when will that occur?

Carol Berger:
At the earliest, in the late spring of 2004.

Ionarts:
You have a venue selected?

Carol Berger:
We have several venues for several performances. Unfortunately, we are unable to reveal them yet. You will have to read it in the Washington Post. Why? That's a good question. It is one of the great sadnesses of my life that leadership in the local Wagner Society who, for some bizarre reason and I can only think it's money, is trying to shut us down. We had several hard-won contracts rescinded for next year, through scare-mongering tactics leveraged on program directors of two concert venues. We are just starting out; but that does not mean we are amateurs. On the contrary. But people can get scared off if your title is head of the local Wagner Society and you say with that authority that the hall puts themselves at risk if they sign a contract with us because we do not exist. Our attorneys inform us that this aggressive action violates labor laws. We quietly gather statements. But, since we are new we cannot afford adversaries, just friends. Legal counsel advises us to take cease and desist action, but we don't want to begin on that foot. But we will, when their meddling in our affairs causes economic loss of future income to an intolerable level. It is already intolerable, in terms of future revenue lost and time lost rehearsing, but our singers and supporters push me not to cave and we go on to the next opportunity.

Just this past week, we had a lecture-recital program retracted in New York for this winter because I was told by a member of the sponsoring organization that the word was put out by the local Wagner Society that we don't really have a company. That is infuriating slander. We had been rehearsing for that program since last June, and since it was a lecture-performance it involved much more than just music. We were going to do it pro bono in friendship.

So, what I feel safe to tell you at this point is that we will be performing in the Washington, D.C., metro area in the late spring of 2004. We will also be performing in Chicago in March of 2004. When you see the ad in the Washington Post, you can buy your tickets. I know this sounds awful, but it shows how aggressive these people have been in scaring people once they discover our venues, to have contracts cancelled by using scare tactics about us. And again, they have never seen or heard us or expressed any interest in us. It's sad, because we would like to be able to shout it from the rooftops. Our attorneys say that is our right. This is not about our credibility. This is about how morally bankrupt and desperately afraid of something new a few in the good ol' boy network are. We can never trust them near our sponsors or collaborators. We cannot risk losing any more hard-earned opportunities we have been granted. The public, such as you, will judge for itself, and so far everyone who has witnessed our work is super excited.

I understand you received a note following the first installments of this interview from the local Wagner Society asking for a publicity review for a recent program of theirs that you never attended. I find the ethics behind that request consistent with their lack of ethics toward us. Imagine asking a critic to review something he never attended based on their input! I knew if they found someone giving Millennium any kind of forum to get out our story, they would seek that critic out under some pretence. I dare say it's pretty sickening. They try to stamp out any public notice we get from objective reporters or organizations that, like you, have observed the work of our company firsthand. That is totally scary to them; perhaps they think they can pump some info out regarding our venues along the way, which I surmise they'd like.

Ionarts:
You have been a lecturer for the D.C. Wagner Society. What made your relationship with them take a turn for the worse?

Carol Berger:
Of course, they know of my musicological and professional production credentials. On the other hand, don't forget that the same leaders in the D.C. Wagner establishment would be happy if Millennium disappeared. I lectured with the D.C. Society for a couple of years and had been a financial supporter for several years. Their president is probably the one person I will be eternally grateful to for giving me my break as a lecturer in Washington, after several years in New York. I used to meet with him and he would read my research papers. All that good will and camaraderie died when I started Millennium, and to this day it breaks my heart. A few board members have privately told me that mine were some of the best lectures they ever sponsored. I have e-mails from them to prove that right here. But, once Millennium came into existence and was on my resume there were Board-level attempts to de-legitimize the company and me. I gave a talk last March on Die Walküre. Their board PR person in coordination with leadership deleted all references to Millennium in my official press release. I was told, "we will describe you as we wish, or you can cancel your lecture." All announcements about my lecture in the newspapers were cancelled. Even when their chairman introduced me at the lecture, all reference to me being Artistic Director of Millennium was removed. I have a cassette you can listen of that intro. Imagine: with some of my singers sitting in the audience! That's why I am banned from lecturing for them any more, despite the high interest and attendance my lectures draw. They don't want to give Millennium any attention. So now there are some members who dropped them and signed with Chicago, which has treated us fairly. And we have launched our own lecture series, for which we already have had tremendous interest.

Some speculate that the leadership is afraid of competition for Wagner dollars, One insider said that they once had an interest in funding their own Wagner company, and we beat them to it. So they are fuming. But these are business and government people, many retired; not performance professionals like we all are at Millennium. This has been a tremendous sorrow for me, because these people were personally closest friends of mine. But we are going to perform here in spite of their opposition. They do not own the market.

Ionarts:
The Washington Opera is going to present one Wagner opera this season, Die Walküre, in November. Do you think there is any need or any audience for more Wagner in Washington?

Carol Berger:
There is a huge love for Wagner in Washington. I would say that the passion for Wagner in Washington is far greater than in New York, which I think of as more of an Italian bel canto town. So in answer to your question, yes, people in Washington just adore Wagner and are happy for opportunities to experience it.

Ionarts:
Do you have instrumentalists contracted for Parsifal? Will the performance be accompanied by an orchestra?

Carol Berger:
Yes, there will be an orchestra. I do not believe in performing Wagnerian music-drama with piano. We will do recitals with piano, although I am interested in a recital program in the future with a small chamber orchestra. Obviously, we cannot afford a 100-piece orchestra, but I am looking at an orchestra of between 45 and 60 players depending on the opera. We are currently working with an "orchestra-wrangler," someone who contracts orchestral players for events. We have a number of conductors who are committed to the project, but I haven't decided on one.

Incidentally, the Wagner Society recently held one of their singers-sing-for-free recitals, using a small orchestra instead of their usual piano. I got an unsolicited e-mail from a board-affiliated person saying that my concept to do this, which I had articulated in past years, was theirs to enact because they had money and we don't. As in Götterdämmerung, they are rich with money but empty of wisdom.

Ionarts:
You are confident that you will have the audience you need for your performances?

Carol Berger:
If people don't want to come to a fully staged Parsifal, that's their loss. If people can be coerced or told not to attend, that is really sad. But no one can control the spirit and love for Wagner's works of average independent-minded opera lovers. They cannot dictate what they do and what they attend. Oh please! Don't get me wrong, I expect two things totally! Number 1, they will boycott our performances, which is shooting oneself in the foot if you love Wagner, and number 2, they will organize a competing event, either a concert, dinner, or other some event scheduled exactly to occur at the time and date of our performances. Maybe they will try a last-minute effort to alarm our venue supporters. We will lose audience that way, which is their goal. But among other Wagnerians, they will gain their disrespect. They did this in New York. We held an informal get-to-know-us reception and fund raiser in New York over the summer, with a total admission cost of a potluck food dish and a free-will donation of anything they would like to help with. I had our singers fly in from as far as the West Coast, and our board members flew in to meet and greet. We received about 150 RSVPs and prepared for that. Well, the local society in New York got wind of our event a week after we announced it and immediately organized a concert to occur the same afternoon at the same exact time as our party. Press and talent agents, who had RSVP'd that they would be coming with some of their singers, suddenly didn't show, hearing that we weren't officially sanctioned. We had food for 100 and 25 guests showed up. But the impression the local society made on those who showed was not something that will be easily erased. And things turned around in Seattle. There we offered an evening of dinner, lecture, and recital in a fundraising mode. Again another society was pressured to stage a competing event. But this time, the leadership of that group ate alone. Because their members and the local Wagner attendees stormed our event, and we had super attendance and a wonderful evening. How sad. I don't think they will ever get it or wish to try something new that they don't dictate, like Wagner advised Siegfried his son. That can only spell out one thing. Obsolescence. The future of Wagner performance is waiting. We have a new vision and a solid approach. I think it's not us who has anything to be afraid of in the real scheme of things…do you?