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BBC Catches Up

On December 21, in a post called Disney (Allegedly) Making Money off Other People's Ideas?, I scooped most English-language news sources by reporting a story on a comicbook artist in France suing Disney for stealing his idea in their film Finding Nemo. (No, I don't think I should get a Pulitzer for doing nothing but translating from an article in a French newspaper.) Four days later, BBC News ran the story (Disney sued in France over Nemo, December 24), and now articles have been published in The Financial Times (Jo Johnson, French author claims to have found something fishy in Walt Disney film, December 29) and by Reuters (Shiraz Sidhva, French author: 'Finding Nemo' plagiarism, December 30).

You can also read Valérie Lejeune et Gwenaelle Des Cognets-Trillat, Pierrot contre Nemo, in Le Figaro Magazine, on December 27.


Memories of '03 — by Mark Barry

Ionarts is happy to welcome a new guest contributor, artist Mark Barry, who will be writing about art from an artist's point of view. Mark weighs in today with a quick review of favorite exhibits in 2003.

One last remembrance for 2003: first of all, I still can't get used to the idea of 2000, let alone 2003. As an artist I have felt for some time that the new century would have significance in our lives, more than just an array of numbers or y2k. It would be a time to take stock, sum up, stretch limits. Then came 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, turmoil in Africa, the World Bank, fires, floods. There is precious little time to take stock of any one particular event. It was several years before Picasso painted Guernica, and it will be several more before we can adequately commemorate what transpired on September 11th.

Picasso loomed large again this year along with Matisse, at their fabulous painting-fest (Matisse Picasso) at MoMA Queens, one incredible work after another: matching each other, one large juicy painting for painting to the very end. Another painter of large canvases who never shied away from pushing the limits, in this case to the heavens, was Velázquez, at the Met. After paying my 5 cents to get in (artist's benefit), I found that it was a members-only preview, so I had to slip in through the gift shop and view the show in reverse. Just as well: what a bold painter he was; how can you not be a believer?

There was Romare Bearden and Édouard Vuillard at the National Gallery, both building on wonderful complex patterns of color, which reminded me of the Bonnard exhibit at the Phillips earlier this year. Those baths of Mr. Bonnard, to see a room full of them was a highlight of my year. George Inness reminded me again of the simple beauty of landscape painting in a really nice, small exhibit, at the National Academy of Design. A few blocks down, at the Guggenheim, the Rosenquist retrospective was over the top and all over the building, an amazing amount of work and still going. The press was rolling for the John Currin retrospective at the Whitney. He's a good painter, with lots of imagination and humor; no one can live up to so much hype, nor should they. One of my favorite places, the American Visionary Art Museum, ends the year with an opening, a new exhibit called Golden Blessings of Old Age. There is art after 50!

I haven't even mentioned all the gallery shows of this year, mine included, or the fate of the Barnes Foundation (see it while you can), but there is a lot to celebrate; amazing art is being made all around the country. There will be a fitting response to 9/11 at some point; it's happening in small ways right now. Here's to great art to be made and seen in 2004.


Proust and Homosexuality

This is one of the main themes of Marcel Proust's vast novel À la recherche du temps perdu, a book written by a homosexual, writing in the person of a heterosexual narrator, who passes judgment on homosexual behavior. In a sense, the narrator's eyes are gradually opened to an understanding of a sort of shadow world of homosexuality, and he seeks to understand more completely the motivations and lifestyle of those involved in it. Given the complicated background of the author and his book, two passages dealing with antihomosexual violence, what is called in our time "gay bashing," present difficulties in interpretation. The first occurs in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (in English, Within a Budding Grove) where the narrator's friend Saint-Loup describes the youthful sexual activities of his uncle Palamède, also known as the Baron de Charlus (see my previous post on the model for this character, Evocation of a Royalist Past, December 23):

Saint-Loup told me about his uncle's early life, now a long time ago. Every day he used to take women to a bachelor establishment which he shared with two of his friends, as good-looking as himself, on account of which they were known as 'The Three Graces'.

"One day, a man who just now is very much in the eye, as Balzac would say, of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, but who at a rather awkward period of his early life displayed odd tastes, asked my uncle to let him come to this place. But no sooner had he arrived than it was not to the ladies but to my uncle Palamède that he began to make overtures. My uncle pretended not to understand, made an excuse to send for his two friends; they appeared on the scene, seized the offender, stripped him, thrashed him till he bled, and then with twenty degrees of frost outside kicked him into the street where he was found more dead than alive; so much so that the police started an inquiry which the poor devil had the greatest difficulty in getting them to abandon. My uncle would never go in for such drastic methods now, in fact you can't conceive the number of men of humble position that he, who is so haughty with people in society, has shewn his affection, taken under his wing, even if he is paid for it with ingratitude. It may be a servant who has looked after him in a hotel, for whom he will find a place in Paris, or a farm-labourer whom he will pay to have taught a trade. That is really the rather nice side of his character, in contrast to his social side."
The second passage involves Saint-Loup himself in the third volume, The Guermantes Way (in French, Le Côté de Guermantes). After Saint-Loup has already had a fight with a journalist at the theater, he has another fight in the street while walking with Marcel, who has fallen slightly behind him:
I tried for a few seconds to recall those distant impressions, and was hurrying at a 'gymnastic' pace to overtake Saint-Loup when I saw that a gentleman, somewhat shabbily attired, appeared to be talking to him confidentially. I concluded that this was a personal friend of Robert; at the same time they seemed to be drawing even closer to one another; suddenly, as a meteor flashes through the sky, I saw a number of ovoid bodies assume with a giddy swiftness all the positions necessary for them to form, before Saint-Loup's face and body, a flickering constellation. Flung out like stones from a catapult, they seemed to me to be at the very least seven in number. They were merely, however, Saint-Loup's pair of fists, multiplied by the speed with which they were changing their places in this—to all appearance ideal and decorative—arrangement. But this elaborate display was nothing more than a pummelling which Saint-Loup was administering, the true character of which, aggressive rather than aesthetic, was first revealed to me by the aspect of the shabbily dressed gentleman who appeared to be losing at once his self-possession, his lower jaw and a quantity of blood. He gave fictitious explanations to the people who came up to question him, turned his head and, seeing that Saint-Loup had made off and was hastening to rejoin me, stood gazing after him with an offended, crushed, but by no means furious expression on his face. Saint-Loup, on the other hand, was furious, although he himself had received no blow, and his eyes were still blazing with anger when he reached me. The incident was in no way connected (as I had supposed) with the assault in the theatre. It was an impassioned loiterer who, seeing the fine-looking young soldier that Saint-Loup was, had made overtures to him. My friend could not get over the audacity of this 'clique' who no longer even waited for the shades of night to cover their operations, and spoke of the suggestion that had been made to him with the same indignation as the newspapers use in reporting an armed assault and robbery, in broad daylight, in the centre of Paris. And yet the recipient of his blow was excusable in one respect, for the trend of the downward slope brings desire so rapidly to the point of enjoyment that beauty by itself appears to imply consent. Now, that Saint-Loup was beautiful was beyond dispute. Castigation such as he had just administered has this value, for men of the type that had accosted him, that it makes them think seriously of their conduct, though never for long enough to enable them to amend their ways and thus escape correction at the hands of the law. And so, although Saint-Loup's arm had shot out instinctively, without any preliminary thought, all such punishments, even when they reinforce the law, are powerless to bring about any uniformity in morals.
The final two sentences of this passage are a clear endorsement of gay bashing as a valid way to "reinforce the law." I don't know if one is meant to interpret this as a self-deceived statement from a closeted homosexual or, if we turn that on its head, as a criticism of heterosexual morality through the person of a heterosexual narrator. What is clear is that homosexuality in Proust's novel is linked to a staggering sense of self-hatred. As Proust and his narrator peel away the onion-like layers of Charlus at the end of the third volume and especially in the fourth volume, Cities on the Plain (in French, Sodome et Gomorrhe), Marcel's scorn for Charlus becomes more and more pronounced. As I have just now begun the fourth volume, I will have to say more about that later. (The heterosexuality of Proust's narrator is questioned by Gregory Woods in his interesting article on Proust for, which is obviously written from a homosexual viewpoint.)


Opera and the Way Things Should Be

The following is just to provide some perspective about opera in the United States. Jérôme Dupuis and Axel Gyldén have published an article (Opéra de Vienne: L'or du Ring, December 25) in L'Express about the institution of the Wiener Staatsoper and its place in the hearts of the Viennese. The list of music directors at the Vienna State Opera, built by Emperor Franz Josef in 1869, includes Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Karl Böhm, and Herbert von Karajan. According to the authors, the Vienna Opera is the only company in the world that changes its program every day, selecting from an overall repertory of 120 operas, of which about 50 are performed each year.

How is this extraordinary number of performances possible? The backdrops consist of gigantic painted scenes lifted into place on hydraulic jacks, which are then able to sink back to a depth of 15 meters (49 feet), for whatever opera will be performed that evening. Trucks can be lifted by means of a gigantic hydraulic elevator to the level of the stage to take away or deposit other decoration pieces or props, which requires about 800 truckloads per month. Von Karajan, when he was director in Vienna, had his chauffeured car lifted from the parking lot on this elevator, allowing him to appear at the conductor's podium with a minimum of effort a couple minutes before curtain. The costume department is the largest in Europe and has its immense offices just across the street, which can be accessed by a tunnel from beneath the Opera. About 100 employees can work at sewing machines and then hand-deliver repaired costume pieces to singers before they go on stage.

Of course, this sort of enterprise would not be possible without a supportive public. The Vienna Opera receives some 2,000 audience members for each performance, of which about one-fourth are estimated to be foreign tourists. Most of the Viennese regulars are used to going to the Opera several times each month, and many of them have a long memory of many years of operatic performances. The present director, Ion Holender, a refugee from Ceausescu's Romania, was appointed in 1992 and has approval to remain until 2010, which will be the longest tenure of any director at the Vienna State Opera. Under his leadership, the Opera has been financially sound and mostly scandal-free.

One thing I admire about the attitude of the Vienna Opera is its range of seat prices. Some 1,700 seats are available, ranging from 40 to 178 euros ($49 to $221), which is roughly equal to the distribution of seats for the Washington Opera ($41 to $260) or the Metropolitan Opera ($25 to $250). However, an additional 567 Stehplätze (standing room places) are sold on the night of each performance, one hour before curtain, for 2 euros ($2.48) for a normal place or 3.50 euros ($4.35) for a place underneath the imperial box with an incredible view: "In other words, for the price of a coffee, you can witness one of the most sophisticated spectacles on the planet." After all, if opera is too expensive, it becomes an elitist entertainment, which it does not have to be. There should be high-end tickets for exclusive seats for those who value them, but an average person should be able to hear a good opera more than once a year and without mortgaging the house. The stories of waiting for standing room places are charming:

"Twenty years ago, I waited in line all night long, at -20° C (-4° F), to get a standing room place for Boris Godonov," recalls Peter Blaha, Chief Dramaturge and Associate Director of the Vienna State Opera. Today, the system, which many students and tourists take advantage of, has been simplified: the sale of standing room places opens one hour before the start of the show. And, as we are in a civilized country, rather than waiting in line for hours, you can leave a little slip of paper in front of the sales window, on which you have written "Two places for Falstaff," and come back just before the show. Below the Opera's lateral arcades, therefore, you can see in the late afternoon a sort of "waiting line" made up of papers on the ground, protected from the wind by little rocks. This system does much to spread opera through all levels of Viennese society, just like the performances of the "childrens' opera," a pedagogical initiative that prepares thousands of elementary school students to become fans of lyric spectacle.
The Vienna State Opera draws by itself 150,000 tourists with strong buying power each year. It employs 1,200 people and creates income indirectly, as a study established a few years ago, for hotels, restaurants, and taxi companies, to the tune of some 70,000 euros ($86,940) per year.

Keep in mind that the population of the city of Vienna is about 1.5 million people. In Paris there are three major opera houses for a little over 2 million people. It is true that the city of Washington, D.C., has a dwindling population, now about 570,000 people, but with the bloated suburbs taken into account, the entire metropolitan area has a population of between 3 and 4 million people. (These figures are taken from Thomas Brinkhoff's very useful site called City Population.) Why don't we have something like the Vienna State Opera here?


More on the Family Photograph

Dominique de Font Réaulx, the curator of a new exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay called Figures de l'intime (or for an English translation, Figures of Intimacy, through February 15), has been interviewed by Frédérique Fanchette (Bijoux de Famille, December 23) in Libération:

How did family photos come to be shown on the walls of a museum?

The Musée d'Orsay's photographic collection, which we are trying to display bit by bit, contains some 50,000 prints. Among these images, we have a rather large group of family photos, gained through donations (often by heirs) or purchase. It's a somewhat skewed group, since most are photos of artists' families, but which covers a broad scope of 19th-century society, from the aristocracy down to the middle classes. With this exhibit, we intended to show the birth of the very narrow genre of the family photo. Its purpose is to validate the family model, but it does not reveal its true intimicacy, since death and sexuality are both blurred. Of course, they took photos of loved ones on their death beds, but they kept those images hidden. They did not show them in albums.
The exhibit features about a hundred family photos from the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of famous people and others of total unknowns. (See my post on November 25, Nicéphore Niépce, for information about a similar exhibit now at the Bibliothèque nationale de France called Portraits/Visages.) Eleven photographs can be viewed on the museum's Web site, by Pierre Bonnard, Gabriel Loppé, Skomoroscky, Lewis Carroll, Achille Bonnuit, Émile Zola, and Charles Hugo.


The Passion

Mel Gibson has been and will continue to preview his upcoming movie The Passion of the Christ (if you follow that link, you can see some images and excerpts from the film, put out by Icon Distribution) to people around the world. Three thousand priests representing an international range of parishes will view the film at the meeting of the Global Pastors Network in Orlando on January 21 (see Priests to Run Eyes over Gibson Film, December 25, from The Age). Rev. Billy Graham had a private screening with Mel Gibson and said he was "moved to tears" (see the Associated Press report here, from December 2). I happened to see some clips of the movie, along with Mel Gibson himself, back in August (see my post on August 7, Mel Gibson).

Still from The Passion of the Christ, Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved
Last Supper from The Passion of the Christ, Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved
Probably the most important viewer of all, the Holy Father, saw the film recently in a private screening in the Vatican. Initial reports (see John L. Allen, Jr., Pope Gives "The Passion" Thumbs-Up, December 17, from National Catholic Reporter) claimed that the pope "watched and enjoyed the film" and said afterward, "It is as it was." However, another unnamed "senior Vatican official close to the pope" has clarified the reports about the Pope's reaction (see Cindy Wooden, Vatican Officials Say Pope Didn't Comment after Viewing "The Passion,", December 24, for Catholic News Service):
"The Holy Father saw it, but he made no comment. He watched in silence," the official told Catholic News Service Dec. 24. "The Holy Father does not comment, does not give judgments on art," the official said. "I repeat: There was no declaration, no judgment from the pope." The official was replying to a request for clarification after numerous newspapers reported that the pope had watched the film and said, "It is as it was." The purported quote was interpreted as papal praise for the movie. The official, who insisted that his name not be used, said the pope made no such comment. He also said that he, too, had seen the film and felt charges that the movie was anti-Semitic were "an exaggeration."

Another well-informed Vatican official, responding Dec. 24 to an e-mailed request for information, said, "The Holy Father saw this film, but did not express any opinion about it."
Even if the pope never actually made such a statement of endorsement, releasing it to the public has certainly caused quite an uproar (see Eric J. Greenberg, Questioning Pope's Nod to "Passion," December 26, in The Jewish Week). It is not surprising that some fence mending is being attempted by Vatican officials.

In October, the film picked up a distributor in the United States, Newmarket Films, and has just signed with Equinoxe Films, which will distribute the movie in Canada (see this announcement from BBC News). In both countries, the film will open on February 25, 2004, chosen because it is the date of Ash Wednesday this year.


In Die Natalis Domini

Correggio, Nativity (Holy Night), 1528-30, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
Correggio, Nativity (Holy Night), 1528–30, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Image from Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Kren and Daniel Marx

Merry Christmas to All!

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
Sleep in feathers at their birth:
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

John Jacob Niles (1892–1980)


Happy Birthday, Menahem — by Jens Laurson

On Tuesday, December 16th, the Library of Congress featured the 80th Birthday Concert of Menahem Pressler, founding member and pianist of the world-renowned Beaux Arts Trio. It ended up being a birthday gift to all those in attendance at the Coolidge Auditorium, which was filled to the last seat. As the Orpheus Quartett [sic] relates to us and the birthday boy in the accolades printed in the program, Menahem Pressler is "the only pianist with a bow in his hands."

I have never seen so large a crowd at any of the Library's concerts, not for the Juilliard Quartet, not for the Keller Quartet, or for any other artists I have seen this year. That it was a Tuesday evening made it even more surprising. Of course, I once again stumbled into the Library without a ticket (they have a tendency to sell out on Ticketmaster within 15 minutes of their being offered), only to find myself in a brimming full waiting room, without even a "number," the piece of paper handed to the ticketless to determine the order in which latecomers receive returned, unused, and otherwise available tickets.

Given some 5 or 6 dozen fellow octogenarians in waiting ("fellow" referring to Mr. Pressler, not myself), the prospects were rather dim. Fortunately, I made the acquaintance of some generous ladies, who not only offered insights as to the popularity of the event, but also one of their "numbers" (#3), since they had received all the tickets they needed. With such a serendipitous turn of events, I was ushered into the auditorium to a great seat, and with time to spare.

The skill and attraction of Mr. Pressler alone did not explain the unusual crowd, since many superb artists have come and gone, and for lack of star-quality name recognition have drawn less-than-filled venues. (The Chilingirian String Quartet comes to mind.) I was also not convinced that Ludwig van Beethoven's birthday—which I expected to be reflected in the program—had drawn people from their homes to the Library at 8.00 pm on a nice, if somewhat chilly, night. Instead, the extraordinary popularity of this concert was mainly because the Beaux Arts Trio used to be the Trio in Residence at the Library of Congress, and consequently there were many ardent followers and connoisseurs of Mr. Pressler's art.

Seated, finally and luckily, with the program in my hand, I sat down to await Menahem Pressler. Short, smiling, sunny, he came onto the stage, sat down, hit a wrong note, and played through the Schubert Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. Given that Mr. Pressler hit the same note that I had assumed wrong every time he repeated the opening theme of the Molto moderato, I quickly shifted blame from Mr. Pressler to Mr. Schubert. (A score at home confirmed this suspicion, though Mitsuko Uchida hits the seemingly disturbing note far more gently in her recording.)

Pressler plays the piano calmly and sits at the Steinway like other people would at the dinner table, a stark contrast to the gymnastics performed by Angela Hewitt during her Sunday performance at the National Gallery of Art (see Angela, Joy of Man's Desiring, December 18). His face, however, expresses a genuine joy in music making that delights on its own. The man is visibly in his environment, his feet barely touching the ground while playing, continuously talking to himself, his face in constant movement. The Schubert sonata is so lovely in any rendition that one just leans back and enjoys the ride. A couple of botched notes towards the end can't detract.

The delighted audience included his manager, Melvin Kaplan, a delegation from the Israeli Embassy, Washington Post reporters, and other well-wishers. After the intermission, Mr. Pressler continued the program with Chopin’s 24 Preludes, op. 28. Chopin, as the always outstanding program tells us, arranged the twenty-four preludes so that they may be played singly or as a cycle. "As the latter, there is a built-in progression from one to the next that provides a carefully designed sense of tension and release, a degree of contrast, and key choices that create appropriate transitions." Ruth Foss, from the Music Division of the Library of Congress, guides us through the preludes with a short and precise sentence on each of them. The agitation of the first prelude I fail to notice, and the second, although slow, does not seem dissonant to me.

The preludes flew by me (prelude No. 9 is a mere 12 bars long, others, too, occupy only some four staves on the score), until Prelude No. 10 (C-sharp Minor—Allegro molto) stood out and matched its description in the program notes precisely. Brief and sparkling indeed. Before one has fully enjoyed that short piece, one is already taken by the truly powerful whirlwind of Prelude No. 12 (G-sharp Major—Presto) which caused several exclamation marks in my program. No. 14 was wild and (very!) Allegro, played in the lower register of the piano. It contrasted starkly with No. 15, (D-flat Major—Sostenuto), nicknamed the Raindrop Prelude (see Waiting out Isabel, September 18), more famous than its 23 cousins, engrossing, and lasting long enough to write about while listening. Mr. Pressler hopped on the keys, moved with his entire body (which would not be much on its own, were it not for the energy he develops) into the notes, only then to return to a very mild tone that he lured out of the piano with all gentleness and the utmost emotionality.

No. 16 (B-flat Major—Presto con fuoco) is imposing, swift, racing, galloping: one is thrown into music that takes no prisoners. Maybe only one minute long, but a splendid shot of adrenaline. The more moderately paced No.17 (A-flat Major—Allegretto) flowed nicely, and the program notes describe it as a poetic song without words, a description I do not quite hear as obviously as perhaps Mme. Foss does. No. 18 (F Minor—Allegro molto) is short and flies by swiftly. Sweetly bubbling is No. 19 (E-flat Major—Vivace), talkative like your teenage niece at the family reunion. This is followed by No. 20 (C Minor—Largo), somber, like a grumpy grandfather, Bach-like, suggesting the organ. Enter the seemingly unremarkable, unmemorable No. 21 (B-flat Major—Cantabile), followed by a prelude that is still somewhat dark in character, but far livelier than its predecessor. In the end, No. 22 (G Minor—Molto agitato) employs a show-stopping last chord that has the arms of the performer spread out to the very lowest and highest register of the instrument. No. 23 (F Major—Moderato) purls off the piano like drops of water for some forty seconds before the conclusion begins, in No. 24 (D Minor—Allegro appassionato), sweeping, broad, interlaced with runs. Deep bells ring out the last three notes.

Upon the last notes' reverberations being lost in the Coolidge Auditorium, the crowd broke into enthusiastic applause and bravos such as I have not witnessed in Washington before. It took just one curtain call for Mr. Pressler to get started on the encore. As of now, I have not determined which piece he offered to us, and I doubt that my notes (yielding "ba BING, da.da.da.da.da.da.da.da / dim / dim") will lead me to the answer anytime soon.

Since the audience was not making any signs of being ready to go home, Mr. Pressler saw himself forced to delight with a second encore, and this time the message was clear: Brahms's Lullaby, received with immediate laughter by the crowd, reminded us that it was probably bedtime for an 80-year-old on a Tuesday night, even if neither he nor his playing showed any sign of exhaustion. Following the applause after the Brahms, the audience then intoned a quick "Happy Birthday" before it dispersed into the night, undoubtedly most of them extremely satisfied and grateful for a lovely night out.


Evocation of a Royalist Past

Giovanni Boldini, Portrait of Count Robert de Montesquiou, 1897, Musée d'OrsayOf all the things that might inspire nostalgia, the joys of a monarchical society would seem to me to be somewhere near the bottom of the list. However, as an American, I am perhaps incapable of understanding the sentiment of a certain sector of French society that has wanted and still wants to reinstate a king on the throne of France. In an article (Nostalgies Ancien Régime, December 23) in Le Figaro, Eric Biétry-Rivierre reviews an exhibit on some people who devoted themselves to that very cause. The Musée Lambinet, a little museum in an 18th-century house on the Boulevard de la Reine in Versailles, is showing Versailles, Vie artistique, Littéraire et Mondaine, 1889–1939, until February 29.

One of the items on display is the first edition of the collected poems of Robert de Montesquiou (portrait by Boldini shown at right), from whose Sonnets historiques comes the line that became a royalist slogan, "Un lis est toujours un lis" [A lily is always a lily, referring to the fleur-de-lis, symbol of the Bourbon family. (Here is a selection of his poems and there are several portraits of him here and here.) Montesquiou was one of the foremost arbiters of taste, notoriously arrogant and scandalously degenerate, who was the model for the character of the Baron de Charlus in Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu. (Montesquiou also inspired other literary characters, including Floressas des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans's À Rebours [1884], the Comte de Muzarett in Paul Duval [Jean Lorrain]'s Monsieur de Phocas [1901], the Vicomte de Serpigny in Henri de Régnier's Le Mariage de Minuit [1903], and Peacock in Edmond Rostand's Chanteclerc [1907].) Proust first met Montesquiou's cousin, the Comtesse Greffulhe, on a visit to Versailles when he was 23. Proust memorialized his infatuation with her beauty and social grace in the character of the Duchesse de Guermantes.


Is Research Exhumation Going Too Far?

David Nishimura at Cronaca (in a post on December 21, Medici Exhumations) drew my attention to the latest research exhumation, reported in the Telegraph. The bodies of 50 members of the Medici family, including eight grand dukes, will be removed from their family tomb in San Lorenzo in Florence by researchers from the University of Florence and University of Pisa, in order to conduct medical and scientific tests, including DNA mapping. The possible finds are tantalizing: causes of death (some of the Medici are believed to have been poisoned) and the true family tree (who was or was not actually related to whom). I admit that I am very interested to learn what they find, but I also worry that this sort of action is taking historical research one step too far.

Forensic researchers are able to do good work with identifying unidentified remains, such as those of Ugolino della Gherardesca, the 'Cannibal Count' made famous in Dante's Inferno (see this article from Zoomata). The same researcher, Francesco Mallegni, also supposedly identified the remains of Saint Ranieri, patron of Pisa, and the painter Giotto (see this article from September 2000, but also this criticism of the exhumation in November 2000). However, should we really be digging up Petrarch's bones again? Researchers from the University of Padua were the latest to do just that, on November 19. There are pictures from the exhumation in this article from Discovery News. They plan to use scanning technology to reconstruct the poet's face from his skull.

As far as I know, there is no ethical watchdog to govern these sorts of exhumations. Maybe it's time for historians and scientists to discuss this.

I should not have forgotten to mention the exhumation of Federico García Lorca, which will soon take place in Spain. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote an interesting article about this ("Looking for Lorca," not available online) in the December 22/29 issue of The New Yorker.


Disney (Allegedly) Making Money off Other People's Ideas?

I know it sounds preposterous, but there are charges that the big hit from Pixar Animation Studios this year, Finding Nemo, is actually an adaptation of someone else's work. Clarisse Fabre writes in an article (Le Nemo de Disney est-il la copie de Pierrot le poisson clown?, December 19) in Le Monde that French children's book author Franck Le Calvez has sued the Walt Disney Company and Pixar, claiming that Nemo is a shameless copy of his character Pierrot le poisson clown (Pierrot the Clown Fish), who appeared first in a book published in November 2002 by Flaven Scene, with illustrations by Robin Delpuech and Thierry Jagodzinski. Le Calvez is suing for the halt of sales showing the image of Nemo, because it infringes on his copyrighted Pierrot character, registered with the Institut national de la propriété industrielle on February 18, 2003, and protected beginning on January 4, 2004. He is also asking for damages. Judges in a civil court will hear the case in February 2004.

"Passionate" about clown fish and "worried" about their survival, Franck Le Calvez wrote a comic strip scenario, registered with the Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques (SACD) in December 1995: the little clown fish loses his father, who is eaten by a scorpion fish, and then is separated from his mother, whom he relocates at the end of the work. The student presented his work to production houses, who refused it. Having become a lawyer in maritime law, he financed the three-dimensional illustrations of his characters and registered them with the SACD in June 2002, with the idea of publishing a book. A new failure with publishers. So he created his own publishing house, Flaven Scene, and published 2,000 copies of his work—mostly distributed in Fnac stores in Paris and in the French National Aquariums.

"In Spring 2003," Mr. Le Calvez discovered Nemo, which was causing a stir in the United States. "There was a troubling resemblance between the two fish," he says. "The beginning of the story is similar, even if the scenarios are different." The second Pierrot volume appeared in October 2003, after the French opening of Nemo (Hachette). "So, Fnac Junior, which was supposed to distribute Pierrot, cancelled the order because of a marketing operation with Disney Hachette Productions," Mr. Le Calvez states. If the purchasing director of Fnac Junior, Laurent Turillon, admits to having had "two contacts, one year apart," with Flaven Scene, he responds that he "never ordered any Pierrot books or ran an operation with Disney Hachette Productions." The same denial from Disney: "The lawsuit planned in France is completely unfounded, because Finding Nemo, a work that belongs to Pixar and Disney, is the fruit of an independent creation and interferes with no copyright or author's work," explains the company's administration, which has hired five lawyers to handle the case. Mr. Le Calvez has three of his own.
Franck Le Calvez, Pierrot Le Poisson Clown, All Rights Reserved
Pierrot the Clown Fish
Still from Finding Nemo, Pixar Animation Studios, All Rights Reserved
See also this article (Un Français défend son poisson contre Disney [A Frenchman defends his fish against Disney], December 19) by Sophie Rostain in Libération.


Support for Reading Proust

Marcel ProustIf you are reading Ionarts because of Proust, here is another blog you should be reading, the journal of a Proust reader called Waggish Reads Proust. This was brought to me by way of Nathalie at Cup of Chicha (in an entry on December 15, "Whether I actually want to read it is debatable."), who says, "So, ionarts, despite finding a niche market, now has competition." Waggish (whose regular blog is on hold during the Proust reading) is in the middle of Proust's second volume right now and appears to be making a good handful of longish posts about each volume, on whatever subjects present themselves.

Reading 3,000 pages of Proust's prose is not something to be undertaken lightly. When the chips are down and you think are going to throw in the towel, when you think you can't face another sentence, you need to ask for help. Maybe reading the musings of a fellow reader online is not enough, and you need to seek assistance from a real person. A Proust reading group is just what the doctor ordered. In the San Francisco area, you need to go to the meetings sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of the Proust Society of America, featuring Dr. Mark Calkins of (either the First-Time Readers' Group or, for the heavy-hitters who carry about bags of madeleines and can fall asleep only with the light of a magic lantern, the Veteran Readers' Group). Another group meets in London. Don't feel bad if it takes you longer than you think: one online reading group took two years to finish reading the novel. Whatever you do, don't stop reading, since you never know when you will run out of time. To remind yourself of this, look at Man Ray's photograph of Marcel Proust on His Deathbed, from 1922 (from the Getty Museum). Remember that, shortly before he died, Proust was dictating final changes to the novel: keep reading, for God's sake!


Opening of La Fenice

Still from Luchino Visconti, Senso, shot in La Fenice, VeniceThe jewel of historic opera theaters, La Fenice in Venice, reopened on December 14, after being almost totally destroyed by fire in 1996. Worst of all, the fire was an act of arson, set by two electricians whose company was so far behind in its renovation work in the theater that they decided it would be better to burn the building down than pay the fines. They were sentenced to a maximum of seven years in prison, but I don't know if they made it out in time to go the gala reopening.

La Fenice was first opened in 1792 with the premiere of I Guochi d'Agrigento by Paisiello and was the site of numerous premieres, including Rossini's Tancredi (1813), Sigismondo (1814), and Semiramide (1823); Bellini's I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830) and Beatrice di Tenda (1833); Donizetti's Belisario (1836) and Maria di Rudenz (1838); Verdi's Ernani (1844), Attila (1846), Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), and Simon Boccanegra (1857); Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951, with the composer conducting), and Britten's The Turn of the Screw (1954, with the composer conducting). Marie-Aude Roux has published an excellent article (La Fenice de Venise renaît enfin de ses cendres, December 15) in Le Monde, about the rebuilding of this theater, which the Venetians claimed would be restored "as it was, where it was" (not quite, as it turns out), and how it has influenced operatic and film history, especially in Luchino Visconti's film Senso. In fact, the scenes Visconti shot inside the theater of La Fenice (see the still shown here) turned out to be very useful to the rebuilding:

"After the fire of January 29, 1996, which had destroyed the entire theater, the reconstruction of an identical theater was immediately required," declares Giampaolo Vianello, the director of La Fenice. "We realized that the historical documents, dating from the reconstruction after the first fire in 1836, were insufficient. As for the visual archives, they concerned only what was happening on stage. That's why those fifteen minutes of Visconti were very precious. Analyzed, decoded, picked over with a fine-toothed comb, the film allowed us to reconstruct in detail the objects, the materials, the decoration, and the colors."
The information about how such a monumental building project can happen in a city like Venice is also interesting:
Hard to imagine that it took nearly three months to tear down the calcified remains of the theatre, that adjoining canals were drained, that a floating platform had to be constructed on the Grand Canal, to anchor some pipes down in the water to mix the cement, because the demands of the location did not allow it to happen on the spot.
Although it has been eight years since the fire and the struggle to rebuild La Fenice often looked hopeless (work was completely halted in 1998 and again in 2001), the theater plans to produce a full season of opera next year.


Angela, Joy of Man's Desiring — by Jens Laurson

Arriving at the National Gallery on a grisly Sunday at 4:15 pm, I was the fourth person to take a place among the patently insane, who were sitting in front of the entrance to the West Garden Court. Cause and reason for this dedicated bunch (more were soon to follow) was a concert that was not to begin until 7:00 pm, featuring one of "the pre-eminent Bach pianists of our time" (as The Guardian of London has put it), Canadian Angela Hewitt.

Playing at the National Gallery of Art was something of a full circle, given that she had played here at the beginning of her career, in 1978, shortly after having won the Washington Johann Sebastian Bach International Competition three years prior. Several years later, in 1985, she went on to win the Toronto International Bach Competition, which flung her into the international limelight; almost another decade later, in 1994, she started her highly acclaimed recording project of Bach’s major works for keyboard on the Hyperion label, which is scheduled to be completed next year.

Two facts contributed to the early showing of a dedicated two dozen fans: the concerts at the National Gallery are, of course, free and first come, first serve (without the cumbersome but wholly appreciated Ticketmaster procedure of most other venues these days). In addition, the West Garden Court in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art is capitally unfit as a concert venue: trees, gigantic pillars, and a large fountain in the center of the Garden leave, depending on the setup, between 40 and 60 seats with a decent view, of which 20 are always reserved. A lucky few will have a good sightline, while most of the remaining roughly 300 concertgoers must take to their uncomfortable folding chairs, where they either see nothing at all or very little at best. Expecting a name like Mme. Hewitt's to attract a huge following, I wanted to make sure that I would not be relegated to sitting behind a pillar.

Veteran audience members had their reading materials with them and waited patiently until 6 pm when we were allowed inside the Court. The long wait paid off in that I was seated right behind Angela Hewitt, some 6 feet away from the keyboard of the Gallery’s Steinway. Three hours after my arrival, Angela Hewitt appeared, wearing a cobalt blue dress with unattached sleeves, and with a radiant smile. She sat down and went to work.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op.26 (a welcome change from the earlier program notes indicating the more famous but less satisfying op.17, #2, also known as the "Moonlight Sonata") began. Her entire body communicated musicality as she acted out the music almost as much as she played it. Beethoven went with her through the Variations of the theme of the first movement (Andante con variazioni), perhaps intended as a reminder of the highlight of the program to come. Major, minor, chopped, and rollingly fluid, the theme developed, and Angela Hewitt went along with all of it. A vivacious second movement (Scherzo: Allegro) that sounded just as it exists in my head (which would be Maurizio Pollini’s rendition) followed. Perhaps a few tiny unclean passages towards the end, but no less ravishing as she moved toward the famous Funeral March (Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe).

This movement sounded a bit broader than I am used to or would have expected: it plays with acuteness and every note gets its accentuation, its declamation. Indeed, it seems as though the melody and continuity suffered slightly at the hand of all these exclamation marks that Maestra Hewitt procured. After she lingered endlessly on the last note, she swept into the finale (Allegro) Right from the beginning she put the pedal to the metal (or, more accurately, the stone floor) and hardly took a rest until she finished this first part of the concert, which resulted in some slurred music played a tiny notch below technical perfection. All these points, however, did not detract from the joy and delight that all in attendance took from her wonderfully involved playing of a rightly popular and accessible work.

After the intermission, the real attraction came: Johann Sebastian Bach: Aria with Thirty Variations, BWV 988 ("Goldberg Variations"). The opening Aria set the tone for her interpretation of the entire work. Playing, indeed: wringing out the notes as if marked molto espressivo, she played with feeling and verve. "The piano has a pedal: well, then why not use it" may well be her attitude. The matter-of-fact nature of the music itself contrasted interestingly with her playing, in which she seemed to imbue the music with something additional, but not too much and never disturbingly so.

She enjoyed the rhythm and danced along the variations, and unlike a famous compatriot of hers, she gave a humming-free, rather conventional (given that Bach on the grand piano has long become the convention) reading of the score. A score, which she did not need, as she played from memory. Count Kayserlingk, for whom these variations were written, allegedly had them played at night as an antidote to his insomnia. With Angela Hewitt's performance, this work would have failed miserably on that account. Herr Kayserlingk would likely have enjoyed the performance, but he could not have possibly fallen asleep, given the liveliness and volume that her playing reached at numerous points. Variation 29 (Sonata) had her arms flying like a windmill, pedal and exuberance communicating an energy seldom found even in some of the best renditions of the Goldberg Variations, even if some endings were muddled under the heavy use of the pedal and the occasional additional and unplanned-for note having been struck. In the slower parts, especially in the Aria da Capo that ends the piece, she visibly enjoyed lingering on every note as though to suck it dry like kids enjoying honeysuckle. Finishing notes were held, pedal down, for long seconds.

After the very last note, which lasted long until after it had ceased to be audible, generous applause broke out—impressive enough for a Washington audience, at any rate, and good enough to call Mme. Hewitt back a fourth time, resulting in an encore. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, part of her award-winning 2001 CD of Bach arrangements, was a quaint conclusion that left few wishes unanswered and a gaggle of excited regulars lining up to thank her in person for her appearance and presentation.

The concert was also another case in point of how good the free concerts in Washington are, while the paying clientele is served a rather drab commercial fare. This is highlighted by upcoming events that will include Menahem Pressler, the Juilliard Quartet, and perhaps today's most technically skilled pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin—all within a fortnight. A fitting Christmas present for those motivated enough to get out and be delighted.


Maison Picassiette and Other Oddities

From the ever industrious Plep today, I learned of another oddity to add to my list of art sites to visit, the Maison Picassiette (a tribute page from The Joy of Shards). Raymond Isidore built a house for himself and his family near the center of the town of Chartres. From 1938 to 1964, he covered most surfaces in the house and garden with mosaics made from glass and broken crockery. (There are other pictures and more information in this feature by Linda Goddard, for Raw Vision, and on Jane's Addictions.) In 1949, Isidore was detained in a psychiatric hospital in Bonneval, and after his release he accepted what he saw as the demeaning job of cemetery sweeper. The mania of his art brought him comfort and brings to my mind all sorts of questions about the relationship between art and madness. All artists are not necessarily madmen, and all madmen are not necessarily artists, but there is in both a similar sort of energy. Perhaps the authors of The Onion captured it best with this little news capsule from August 4, 1999 (Volume 35, Issue 27), a copy of which is on my office door:

Ritalin Cures Next Picasso
WORCESTER, MA—Area 7-year-old Douglas Castellano's unbridled energy and creativity are no longer a problem thanks to Ritalin, doctors for the child announced Friday. "After years of failed attempts to stop Douglas' uncontrollable bouts of self-expression, we have finally found success with Ritalin," Dr. Irwin Schraeger said. "For the first time in his life, Douglas can actually sit down and not think about lots of things at once." Castellano's parents reported that the cured child no longer tries to draw on everything in sight, calming down enough to show an interest in television.
You can add the Maison Picassiette to the list of such strange sites, including the Palais Idéal (built from 1879 to 1912) of Ferdinand Cheval in Hautesrives (more pictures here and here and here); the sculpted rocks of Abbé Fouéré on the Brittany coast (see my post Rock Sculptures, August 4); the Maison sculptée, currently being built by Jacques Lucas in l'Essart; Watts Towers in Los Angeles; and many others (see this feature on Outsider Art). You can also see a collection of unusual art at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, brought to my attention by artist Mark Barry; and at the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne.

In and of itself, the impulse toward comprehensive decoration is as much a monastic quality as it is a sign of obsessive compulsion. Monks, out of a reverence for their everyday surroundings taught by Saint Benedict in his Rule, encourage artistic skills in the community and put them to use in carving, painting, and other types of decoration.


La Tour and Chagall

Georges de La Tour, Saint Jean-Baptiste dans le désertAn article (Quand Georges de La Tour revient au pays [When Georges de La Tour comes back home], December 15) by Marie-Douce Albert in Le Figaro informed me of two new museums opening in France. The first is named after a minor painter whose works I admire and mention for about 5 minutes in my art history classes, Georges de La Tour. The Musée départemental Georges de la Tour in Vic-sur-Seille (Moselle) was created because of one extraordinary painting by La Tour:

At the end of 1993, an authentic La Tour was uncovered between old saucepans and out-of-use household items during an estate sale in a Drouot annex. There, the large painting in which some had seen only the dark image of a youth left to seed and his sheep was almost let go for a few bucks. But some eyes, especially those of Pierre Rosenberg, director of the Louvre, were sharper. From one extreme to the other, this oil canvas, formely attributed to Georges de La Tour and known under the title of Saint John the Baptist in the Desert, was ceded by the State one year later in favor of the Moselle General Council.
Although La Tour was born in the Moselle region, in the town of Vic-sur-Seille, none of the approximately 40 paintings safely attributed to him were in public collections there. With its newly discovered La Tour painting, a museum was established in Vic-sur-Seille, which eventually acquired local collections of archeological items, as well as the donation of 82 17th- to 20th-century paintings from two anonymous collectors. The collection has been housed in a renovated 18th-century house and opened last June. See the write-up on the museum by Didier Rykner from La Tribune de l'Art from June 23.

The museum's painting is the sort of gloomy, tenebrist work for which La Tour is usually most admired, in the style often identified as an imitation of Caravaggio (which you can also see in these images of some of his religious paintings). However, he deserves to be appreciated on his own, I think, as he was by Jacques-Edouard Berger, whose observations on La Tour have been condensed into this online exhibit, An Itinerary in Light and Shadow. In spite of all the pop-up advertisements, there are also good images of almost all of the paintings at Olga's Gallery.

The second part of the article (L'histoire de Sarrebourg et de Chagall) presents the new Musée du Pays de Sarrebourg, which features a collection of local antiquities and Niderviller faïences and porcelain.
The museum also evokes the grand art history that Sarrebourg lived through with Marc Chagall. In 1976, the artist created his largest stained-glass window for this town. Even today, La Paix [Peace] illuminates the nearby old Chapel of the Cordeliers. La Paix is also the title of the immense tapestry on exhibit in the main hall of the new museum, a work created for the United Nations in New York from the prepartory sketch for the window.

For the time being, in its Chagall room, the museum is showing especially two large paintings, La Danse and The Blue Circus, on loan from the Centre Georges-Pompidou certainly until the end of next summer. The Moselle museum should nevertheless undertake a partnership with the Parisian museum to enjoy a rolling exchange of works. Thus Chagall would be permanently present a few footsteps away from his famous window.
Take a look at Chagall's immense mosaic sculpture Four Seasons (1974), which is still on display in the First National Plaza (Dearborn and Monroe Streets) in Chicago; the windows he did for the Hadassah University Hospital in Israel; and the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall in Nice.


La Juive and, once again, Proust

It was great to hear the live performance of Halévy's opera La Juive from the Met on the radio this past Saturday (see my post on November 15 and take a look at the great information on La Juive from the Met). The cast gave an excellent performance, particularly Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski (Rachel), Neil Shicoff (Eléazar), and the stupendous bass Ferruccio Furlanetto (Cardinal Brogni).

One of the things that appears necessary for modern performances of French grand opera is judicious cutting, and there is a lot missing from the Met's production of La Juive, all of which make good sense. In some cases the primary purpose of a cut is to eliminate unnecessary repetition or elaboration (some of the emotional shifts are dragged out by Scribe and Halévy for maximum dramatic effect). In others, it is to avoid the embarrassing nature of some of the opera's text, in particular, passages that would surely strike modern listeners as evoking the worst Jewish stereotypes. For example, the section cut out of the Act II trio of Eudoxie, Léopold, and Eléazar features the following lyrics for Eléazar, who clearly relishes the profits that will he will gain from the sale of a prized piece of historic jewelry to Princess Eudoxie (the translation is mine):

Je tremblais que cette femme
Ne surprit tous nos secrets
Et je maudissais dans l'âme
Tous ces chrétiens que je hais,
Mais pour moi plaisir extrême
Et quel heureux avenir,
Ces bons écus d'or que j'aime
Chez moi vont donc revenir!
Chez moi, chez moi des écus, des ducats.
Des ducats, des ducats, des florins,
quel plaisir de tromper ces chrétiens,
ah! quel plaisir, ah! quel plaisir
de tromper, tromper ces chrétiens
je les hais tous, je les hais tous,
ces ennemis, ces ennemis de mon Dieu de ma foi.
I was trembling that this woman
Would discover all our secrets
And I was cursing in my soul
All these Christians whom I hate,
But for me what great pleasure
And what a joyous future,
These good golden coins that I love
Are going to come back to me,
To me, to me, ecus, ducats,
Ducats, ducats, florins,
What pleasure to deceive these Christians,
ah! what pleasure, ah! what pleasure
to deceive, to deceive these Christians,
I hate them all, I hate them all,
these enemies, these enemies of my God and my faith.
Lest you thought you would get out of this without more Proust, listening to La Juive on Saturday made clear in my mind another of Proust's references to the opera that I hadn't really understood before. In the second book (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur in French; Within a Budding Grove in English) of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, the narrator's friend Bloch takes him for his first trip to a brothel, where he meets a prostitute to whom he gives an unusual nickname (I have altered Moncrieff's translation in some places):
It was about this period that Bloch overthrew my conception of the world and opened for me fresh possibilities of happiness (which, for that matter, were to change later on into possibilities of suffering), by assuring me that, in contradiction of what I believed at the time of my walks along the Méséglise way, women never asked for anything better than to make love. He completed this service by providing me a second, the value of which I was not to appreciate until much later; it was he who took me for the first time into a whorehouse. He had indeed told me that there were many pretty women whom one can have. But I could see them only in a vague outline for which whorehouses were to enable me to substitute actual human features.
[. . .]

The mistress of this house knew none of the women one asked her about and was always suggesting others whom one did not want. She boasted to me of one in particular, one of whom, with a smile full of promises (as though this had been a rarity and a special treat) she said: "She is a Jewess! Doesn’t that do it for you?" (That, by the way, was probably why she called her Rachel.) And with a silly and affected excitement which, she hoped, would prove contagious, and which ended in a hoarse gurgle, almost of orgasm: "Think of that, my boy, a Jewess! Wouldn’t that be lovely? Rah!" This Rachel, of whom I caught a glimpse without her seeing me, had dark hair, was not pretty, but had an air of intelligence, and not without passing the tip of her tongue over her lips, smiled with a look full of impertinence at the tricks who were introduced to her and whom I could hear making conversation with her. Her thin and narrow face was framed in short curls of black hair, irregular as though they were outlined in pen-strokes upon a wash-drawing in Indian ink. Every evening I promised the madame who offered her to me with a special insistence, boasting of her superior intelligence and her education, that I would not fail to come some day on purpose to make the acquaintance of Rachel, whom I had nicknamed "Rachel when from the Lord." But the first evening I had heard her, as she was leaving the house, say to the mistress: "That’s settled then; I shall be free to-morrow, if you have anyone you won’t forget to send for me."

And these words had prevented me from recognizing her as a person because they had made me classify her at once in a general category of women whose habit, common to all of them, was to come there in the evening to see whether there might not be a louis or two to be earned. She would simply vary her formula, saying indifferently: "If you want me" or "If you want anybody."
Marcel never manages to have a "date" with "Rachel when from the Lord," due to various circumstances, until finally he stops going to that particular house, because he donated to it some old furniture left to him by his aunt and is tortured with the guilt of having abandoned his aunt's furniture in such a place. This pathetic image of the prostitute asking if there are any tricks for her night after night is made all the more terrible when the narrator encounters "Rachel when from the Lord" next, in the third book (Le côté de chez Guermantes in French; The Guermantes Way in English). After hearing about his dear friend Saint-Loup's beloved mistress constantly from the time he first meets him on vacation in Balbec, Marcel finally meets her back in Paris and realizes with dread that she is "Rachel when from the Lord":
Suddenly Saint-Loup appeared, accompanied by his mistress, and then, in this woman who was for him all the love, every possible delight in life, whose personality, mysteriously enshrined in a body as in a tabernacle, was the object that still occupied incessantly the toiling imagination of my friend, whom he felt that he would never really know, as to whom he was perpetually asking himself what could be her secret self, behind the veil of eyes and flesh, in this woman I recognised at once "Rachel when from the Lord," her who, but a few years since—women change their position so rapidly in that world, when they do change—used to say to the procuress: "Tomorrow evening, then, if you want me for anyone, you will send round, won't you?"

And when they had "come round" for her, and she found herself alone in the room with the "anyone," she had known so well what was required of her that after locking the door, as a prudent woman's precaution or a ritual gesture, she would begin to take off all her things, as one does before the doctor who is going to sound one's chest, never stopping in the process unless the "someone," not caring for nudity, told her that she might keep on her shift, as specialists do sometimes who, having an extremely fine ear and being afraid of their patient's catching a chill, are satisfied with listening to his breathing and the beating of his heart through his shirt. On this woman whose whole life, all her thoughts, all her past, all the men who at one time or another had had her were to me so utterly unimportant that if she had begun to tell me about them I should have listened to her only out of politeness, and should barely have heard what she said, I felt that the anxiety, the torment, the love of Saint-Loup had been concentrated in such a way as to make—out of what was for me a mechanical toy, nothing more—the cause of endless suffering, the very object and reward of existence. Seeing these two elements separately (because I had known "Rachel when from the Lord" in a house of ill fame), I realized that many women for the sake of whom men live, suffer, take their lives, may be in themselves or for other people what Rachel was for me. The idea that anyone could be tormented by curiosity with regard to her life stupefied me. I could have told Robert of any number of her unchastities, which seemed to me the most uninteresting things in the world. And how they would have pained him! And what had he not given to learn them, without avail!

I realised also then all that the human imagination can put behind a little scrap of face, such as this girl's face was, if it is the imagination that was the first to know it; and conversely into what wretched elements, crudely material and utterly without value, might be decomposed what had been the inspiration of countless dreams if, on the contrary, it should be so to speak controverted by the slightest actual acquaintance. I saw that what had appeared to me to be not worth twenty francs when it had been offered to me for twenty francs in the house of ill fame, where it was then for me simply a woman desirous of earning twenty francs, might be worth more than a million, more than one's family, more than all the most coveted positions in life if one had begun by imagining her to embody a strange creature, interesting to know, difficult to seize and to hold. No doubt it was the same thin and narrow face that we saw, Robert and I. But we had arrived at it by two opposite ways, between which there was no communication, and we should never both see it from the same side. That face, with its stares, its smiles, the movements of its lips, I had known from outside as being simply that of a woman of the sort who for twenty francs would do anything that I asked. And so her stares, her smiles, the movements of her lips had seemed to me significant merely of the general actions of a class without any distinctive quality. And beneath them I should not have had the curiosity to look for a person. But what to me had in a sense been offered at the start, that consenting face, had been for Robert an ultimate goal towards which he had made his way through endless hopes and doubts, suspicions, dreams. He gave more than a million francs in order to have for himself, in order that there might not be offered to others what had been offered to me, as to all and sundry, for a score. [. . .] As for Rachel's favours, however, Saint-Loup had by mere accident succeeded in winning them all. Certainly if he had now learned that they had been offered to all the world for a louis, he would have suffered, of course, acutely, but would still have given a million francs for the right to keep them, for nothing that he might have learned could have made him emerge—since that is beyond human control and can be brought to pass only in spite of it by the action of some great natural law—from the path he was treading, from which that face could appear to him only through the web of the dreams that he had already spun. The immobility of that thin face, like that of a sheet of paper subjected to the colossal pressure of two atmospheres, seemed to me to be being maintained by two infinities which abutted on her without meeting, for she held them apart. And indeed, when Robert and I were both looking at her we did not both see her from the same side of the mystery.
What I finally realized is that "Rachel when from the Lord" is the not-so-well-translated first line of a famous aria from La Juive, "Rachel quand du Seigneur," sung by Eléazar in Act IV at what is, I think, the emotional climax of the opera:
Rachel, quand du seigneur
La grâce tutélaire
A mes tremblantes mains confia ton berceau,
J'avais à ton bonheur
Voué ma vie entière.
Et c'est moi qui te livre au bourreau.
Rachel, when the Lord's
Tutelary grace
Entrusted your cradle to my trembling hands,
To your happiness I had
Sworn my entire life.
And it is I who hand you over to the executioner.
In this slow, lilting minor-key aria, Eléazar contemplates what actions he will take in the final act: will he really be able to sacrifice his adopted daughter (Rachel) in order to punish the Christians who are persecuting him? Léopold will lose the woman he loves, and Cardinal Brogni will lose his daughter, who unbeknownst to him was saved from a fire by Eléazar years ago when she was a child, before he became a priest. On Saturday, Neil Shicoff gave an excellent and dramatically charged performance of this central piece in La Juive.


Romeiko Ensemble at Saint Matthew's Cathedral

As I announced in my post on December 12, the Romeiko Ensemble gave a concert Friday night at St. Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington. I had forgotten how bad parking can be on a Friday or Saturday night in that part of town and unwisely went to the concert by car. Needless to say, I missed the first 20 minutes of the concert while I searched for a place to park. The group, under the direction of Dr. Yiorgos Bilalis, performed a program of historical music from Byzantine and Ottoman Greece and Turkey, called From Constantinople to Istanbul: A Sacred Journey of Byzantine and Ottoman Chant. (The concert was sponsored by the Western Policy Center.)

The first part of the program featured six substantial selections of Byzantine chant from the festal period of the Nativity of Christ, sung in Greek. I like to listen to Byzantine chant, and I think good performances of it, like that of the Romeiko Ensemble, draw on an interesting and venerable tradition. However, so much of the repertory that is performed as Byzantine is from rather late sources, which makes its usefulness from a scholarly point of view more troublesome. One of Dr. Bilalis's interests for the Romeiko Ensemble, however, is the "compositions of the post-Byzantine era (15th-19th cent.)" (this is from the concert program). That was evident in the first half of this concert, on which all but two pieces were composed in the 19th century. The only truly medieval piece that was performed that night was an 11th-century chant, the Katabasiae for Christmas, CristoV gennatai, doxasate (Christ is born, you will believe). The Romeiko Ensemble performs Byzantine chant in the traditional way, that is, with an ison, or drone, performed by five singers. The remaining 14 singers, including four women, sing the extremely florid, cantillated melody together. I was disappointed not to find any printouts of the texts in the program, either in Greek or English. (Of the over 20 pages in the program, only five pages were devoted to helpful information and not advertising.) With my basic Greek, I could glean some information from the titles, which were not translated: Iwshf eipe hmin (Joseph, tell us) or Mh stugnaze Iwshf (Don't look gloomy, Joseph) or En Bhqleem gennatai (He is born in Bethlehem).

The second half of the program began with a selection of Sufi chant called "Wedding Night." These pieces were intended to be sung in Mevlevi Dervish services. They were created by followers of Celaludin Mevlana (d. 1262) and set his poems, written in Persian, to music (although I have no idea when this music was written). Since there were no texts or tranlsations and since I know absolutely no Persian, I was completely lost. Five of the six expected Turkish instrumentalists joined the Romeiko Ensemble at this point, playing the kemenche (spike fiddle), kanun (zither), ney (flute), tanbur (fretted long-necked lute), and kudum (kettle drums). (At the intermission, when there was a great movement of people, a women in front of me joked that now all the Greeks in the audience were leaving and all the Turks were just arriving, as if they could not coexist in the audience.) Both singers and instrumentalists wore long, pointed golden caps during this part of the concert, which were, I guess, some sort of fez. The program concluded with pieces that were called "Secular Music" or "Greek Carols," including three compositions by members of the instrumental ensemble.

With few exceptions, the singing was beautiful and powerful. There were some moments in which the unity of the ensemble broke down, in a couple of very high passages especially. Those singers who sang alone did well with their solos, including one section chanted by Christina Indianos, one of the women in the ensemble. The instruments made sounds that are, I'm sure, not heard too often in St. Matthew's Cathedral. The flute-like ney and the rebec-like kemenche make peculiar sounds that instantly evoke Turkey or Persia and which have an eerily human affect in their tone that is remarkable.

Calling of Saint Matthew, mural in St. Matthew's Cathedral, Washington, D.C.If you have not been to the Catholic cathedral of the nation's capital, seat of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, our archbishop, Saint Matthew's is worth a visit. This small building, designed by Grant LaFarge, is now almost lost in the sea of commerce and sin of Washington's downtown. The cornerstone was put down in 1893, and the church was dedicated in 1913 but not named cathedral until 1939. It is the site of the annual Red Mass, celebrated on behalf of the legal profession, which is usually attended by all or some of the Justices of the Supreme Court and lots of other dignitaries, and it was here that President Kennedy's funeral Mass was said in 1963. (In front of the cathedral is where UPI photographer Stan Stearns took the famous picture of John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father's casket.) After all, the church's namesake is the patron saint of civil servants (tax collectors, in particular), and the archdiocese of Washington obviously serves a large number of federal employees. (Matthew was the new name of the tax collector, Levi, shown being summoned to his new ministry so dramatically in Caravaggio's famous painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew, the scene described in the Bible in Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, and Luke 5:27. This painting was done around 1600 for the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome. The same scene is shown in the unusual closeup of a mural in the cathedral to the left.)

The cathedral has been undergoing extensive renovation and restoration since 2000, and I was quite surprised to see how good it looks now. The exterior dome has been given a new copper covering, and the mosaics and other interior artwork have been thoroughly cleaned and are much better lighted now. The new organ, installed beginning in 1995, is magnificent to behold, although I have yet to hear it played. The apse decoration, which I spent a lot of time inspecting behind the Romeiko Ensemble, is dominated by American muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield's large mosaic of St. Matthew, holding a book with a Latin inscription, from the seminal passage of Matthew 9:9: "Jesus saw a man sitting in the custom house named Matthew and He said to him 'Follow Me.' And he arose and followed Him." (Before there was a controversy about a sculpture representing the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, Blashfield painted a 12- by 32-foot mural, called The Law and depicting at its center the Ten Commandments, for Cleveland's old federal courthouse, now named for Howard Metzenbaum. See this article and this article by Bill Sloat in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) The four pillars of the crossing are decorated with portraits of the four evangelists and their symbols, with pre-Raphaelite angels whose bright colors (like the peacock feathers over St. Matthew in the apse and other bright-color motifs throughout the church) are now much more vivid. The one thing I hoped they might get rid of is the strange statue by Gordon S. Kray in Our Lady's Chapel, of Mary "reaching down to fallen humanity and pointing to her ascended Son," which I have heard some of the cathedral musicians jokingly refer to as Hang-Ten Mary, because her pose looks like that of a surfer.


Late Pearls in a String of Quartets — by Jens Laurson

As the cycle of Beethoven String Quartets of the Juilliard String Quartet nears its end at the Library of Congress, the audience came in full force to the Coolidge Auditorium on November 21. Not having a ticket for this performance (free, like all events at the Library, but requiring a ticket through Ticketmaster, nonetheless) left me in a waiting room with about 50 other enthusiasts, also hoping that some ticket holders would not show up. Most of those who waited were seated in time. For the remainder, chairs were ready after the first piece.

That piece was the Haydn String Quartet op.55, #5 ("The Razor"). Those who saw it via the TV screen in the posh waiting room (amidst historic instruments and busts of musicians) missed out on little, since the Haydn, charming a piece as it is, was played rather sloppily and quite unimaginatively. But even when the Juilliard Quartet plays sub-par and routinely, the experience is still well worth that price of admission.

Far more interesting, this time, was the modern piece that the Juilliard throws to every concertgoer. So far I've heard Milton Babbitt, and now I was subjected to Lee Hoiby. When I coyly say "subjected," I am probably being disingenuous. I somewhat liked even the truly thorny Milton Babbitt—and compared to that Lee Hoiby is a walk on a beach. Serenade for Violin and Piano (a McKim Commission) was presented to us thanks to Brent McMunn on the Steinway and Ronald Copes on the Violin. Soft piano notes, whimsically on the upper register and responded to in the lower register start the piece, followed by a surprisingly sweet melody that seems like a piece composed 200 years ago, but askew. Rhythmic blocks enter and are ended with a rough pizzicato. From there it proceeded rather tamely and conventionally, with piano first and then both instruments, from which develops a dialog and soon gentle, even sweepingly melodic sections.

As played in the Coolidge Auditorium, it was far gentler to the conservative audience than any Bartók, Shostakovich, or Schoenberg could ever be. It showed off a virtuosity and energy on part of the violin that was well matched by the rounded sounds of the piano, often leaving the impression that much greater forces were at work than only these two instruments. This music was difficult to compare to the work of any one or two composers, which puzzled me. While it never sounded unfamiliar in style, it also did not remind me of anything in particular. Perhaps its influences were too manifold to be audible. At any rate, good enough to be attested utmost originality, while not necessarily breaking new ground. Utterly delightful was the fact that Mr. Hoiby is a composer who knows—unlike many—how (and when!) to end a piece. As it had come, so it went—short and sweet. The audience went genuinely delighted into intermission—not always the case after some of the Juilliard's modern ventures.

Beethoven's last String Quartetop.135 in F major—was the main course of the evening—and rightly so. Light moments in this work cannot hide the late Beethoven in it. For all its charm, this work is also dense enough to make one better understand the quip reported from the late Rudolf Serkin—who, when asked why he did not play any contemporary music, responded: "But I do—I play late Beethoven!"

The short fugal opening movement ("Allegro con brio") is followed by the second, titled "Adagio ma non troppo." The adagio is indeed not too slow: it whizzed by me almost unnoticed. The ensuing Allegro is a joyous rush that seems rather molto vivace—and ends in a rather strange muddle of instruments for several bars—in a manner far more repetitive than harmonic. The next movement opens almost ethereally and falls quickly into what I cannot better explain than a solid block of chromatic string advancement that loses the quality of the opening bars—only to regain them towards the end. Joel Smirnoff's inhalation becomes strangely intrusive at times during which the quartet seems as much an exercise in simultaneous breathing as an act of music making.

As with all late Beethoven, this piece, too, needs to be enjoyed from the "inside of the music"—because its superficial value does not necessarily lend itself to great listening enjoyment. Part of why late Beethoven is the beginning of modern music!? Brutal, almost jarring chord-shards open the last movement (prestissimo). Violent violin-scrubbing later in the movement is an instant reminder of the opening of the movement, but inevitably the flow of the music comes back, as if Beethoven teased, only to "play nice again." Then it delights with a short pizzicato section, and the piece is over before one knew it.

The exemplary playing by the Juilliard made this String Quartet seemed far shorter than it actually is. Unlike in some of their performances I have heard so far, they were right on target. The other audience members, as well as myself, could all tell this was a piece that the Juilliard knew well and felt more comfortable with than the Haydn. It was not the kind of routine playing that results from knowing a piece intimately, but skilled and motivated execution underpinned by a profound understanding of the work.

The performance left me excited and sad at once, looking forward to the last installment of this series on December 18th where the Beethoven Cycle of String Quartets will be brought to an end with a performance of op.130 with its more conventional ending (not "Die grosse Fuge"). Even having only come across this monumental concert series this year, I have enjoyed the opportunity to follow these works immensely and can only hope to encounter similar pleasures soon.


Byzantine Chant and La Juive

There will be an interesting concert this evening at St. Matthew's Cathedral in downtown Washington (1725 Rhode Island Avenue NW). Beginning at 7:30 pm, the Romeiko Ensemble, a group directed by Dr. Yiorgos Bilalis, will perform a program of historical music from Byzantine and Ottoman Greece and Turkey. The concert, called From Constantinople to Istanbul: A Sacred Journey of Byzantine and Ottoman Chant, has been sponsored by the Western Policy Center. Entrance is free, but a suggested donation of $20 will be solicited at the door. Tonight will be the first time I hear the group perform: they are comprised of 21 singers and 6 Turkish musicians on kemenche (spike fiddle), kanun (zither), ney (flute), tanbur (fretted long-necked lute), saz (small fretted lute), and kudum (kettle drums). They will perform the same program tomorrow, December 13, at 8 pm in St. Bartholomew's Church, on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets, in New York City. I think you may be able to hear the group from the taping of when they appeared on the show Soundcheck on WNYC radio, on December 8.

Also, don't forget to do your part for opera in America and listen to the Met broadcast of Halévy's opera La Juive (see my post on November 15, La Juive at the Met) tomorrow (Saturday), December 13, at 1 pm.