Archive for Music

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Divine Geometry

 

The Counter-Reformation, initiated by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in response to the Protestant Reformation, promoted art as a way for believers to become emotionally involved in the Church. While Protestants were whitewashing church walls and destroying sculptures, Catholics produced the masterpieces of Baroque Art. For the Protestant, nothing should come between man and God; for the Catholic, the majesty of art could bring man to the mystery of God.

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Hammershøi

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has recently acquired a 1905 painting by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), the first by this artist in a Canadian public collection: Interior with Four Etchings:

hammershoi 4 etchings BThe etchings are arranged on the wall above an elegant side-table, upon which stand three pieces of Royal Copenhagen porcelain. The details of the etchings cannot be seen, but the upper two appear to be portraits. Light comes in from the window on the left, giving a subtle violet tinge to the grey walls and emphasizing their white trim. To the left of the table stands Hammershøi’s wife Ida. She faces away from us, and we cannot see what she is doing. Perhaps she has just placed the plate on the table and has turned to look out of the window; perhaps she has taken something to the window to look at. The sunlight on her neck is vaguely erotic. Everything is balanced: the shadows share the space with the light; the blue-white porcelain complements the red-brown frames; the human figure suggests movement in a room that is otherwise completely still.

To celebrate this acquisition, the gallery is exhibiting this picture alongside 25 other Hammershøi paintings, all except one coming from the National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst). The exhibition runs from April 16 to June 26, 2016. This is one of the most impressive exhibitions I have seen in recent years. I apologize that my enthusiasm has led to another long post. However, it contains more to see than to read.

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Folia and Sarabande

Listening to variations on a theme is one of my great musical pleasures. I remember the original notes and am fascinated by how they change. The comfort of the old plays with the excitement of the new. Sometimes I am amazed by how much more can be said about something I already know. Sometimes I am more impressed by the many different aspects of one message.

This posting is about two of the most popular themes in Classical music and their variations. Be forewarned: such catchy tunes may stay in your head for a while.

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Christmas

“On Earth Peace, Good Will toward Men” – the announcement of the angels to the shepherds – is the main message of Christmas.1 Its meaning persists even without the attendant theology.

Winter is a time for rest. Midwinter celebrations such as Christmas are marked by both conviviality and quietness. In the cold it is better to gather together than to fight each other. And nothing takes the mind away from the present more than starry night over snowy ground.

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Shostakovich: Music and Meaning

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the greatest of the Soviet composers. Unlike Prokofiev, who spent many years abroad, Shostakovich lived all of his adult life in the Soviet Union (1922-1991). His relations with the state were difficult. Artists do not work easily in a dictatorship.

Shostakovich talked very little about his music. His work evokes powerful emotions, but what Shostakovich means often remains unclear. Although much of his music appeared to glorify Soviet Communism, recent writers such as Volkov (1979) and MacDonald (1990) have suggested that many of his works carried subversive meanings. His life, like his music, has had many interpretations.

This posting considers some of the issues of interpretation. In a society wherein one is afraid to say what one thinks or feels, history becomes uncertain. And music is often ambiguous.

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Remembrance

The onset of World War I brought into question the very idea of European civilization. Mankind’s ongoing progress to a better world appeared no longer pre-ordained. Promises of future peace and plenty were forever broken. Henry James wrote in a letter to Howard Sturgis on August 5, the day after Britain declared war of Germany.

The plunge of civilization into the abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton fiat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we had supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for my words. (James, 1920, p 398)

(The “autocrats” were Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Franz Josef I of Austria.) The complex sentence is typical of James, the master of convoluted qualification. Rudyard Kipling later said the same in fewer words in his Common Form for the Epitaphs of the War:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

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Camille Claudel

cesar camille xb

 

The photograph is striking. A young woman stares defiantly at the camera. One feels her passion and her sensuality. Her unkempt hair is tied back from her eyes. She is in working clothes but for the camera she has wrapped a scarf around her neck and fixed it with a pin. The photographer went by the name of César, but nothing else is known about him. The photograph was taken in 1883 or 1884. The Rodin Museum in Paris has an albumen print. The photograph was published in 1913 in the Parisian journal L’Art Décoratif (Claudel, 1913b).

 

 

 

 

The subject was Camille Claudel (1864-1943). Her younger brother remembered her:

this superb young woman, in the full brilliance of her beauty and genius … a splendid forehead surmounting magnificent eyes of that rare deep blue so rarely seen except in novels, a nose that reflected her heritage in Champagne, a prominent mouth more proud than sensual, a mighty tuft of chestnut hair, a true chestnut that the English call auburn, falling to her hips. An impressive air of courage, frankness, superiority, gaiety. (Paul Claudel, introduction to the 1951 exhibit of Camille’s sculpture, quoted in Claudel, 2008, p. 359).

At the time of the photograph, Camille was twenty. For two years, she had been learning to sculpt, sharing a studio with the English student Jessie Lipscombe, and studying with the sculptor Alfred Boucher, one of the few art teachers in Paris willing to tutor women. When Boucher left Paris for a year in Florence in 1882, he recommended his student to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Camille Claudel became Rodin’s student, his model, his lover, his muse and his colleague.

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Wine-Cup Immortal

li bai portrait tokyoLi Bai (701-762 CE), also known as Li Po, was one of the famous Tang dynasty poets who called themselves the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup (an irreverent allusion to the Eight Immortals of Taoism). Li Bai wrote prolifically, and over 1000 of his poems survive. Much of his life is mythical, the stuff of novels rather than of history (Elegant, 1997). He was a devotee of Taoism, a fine swordsman, and a great lover of wine. In his youth he served the emperor. After becoming involved in one of the rebellions, however, he was exiled from the court. He then spent much of his later life wandering “beyond the gorges” in the hinterland of Imperial China. Legend has it that he died drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the Yangtze River, but his death was perhaps a suicide. The illustrated portrait (from the Tokyo National Museum) was painted by Liang Kai in the early 13th century. The seal in the upper right corner signals that the painting was owned by Anigo, an important official in the Imperial court of the Yuan dynasty.

Appreciating Chinese poetry requires seeing as well as hearing. The beauty of the calligraphy is as important to the poetry as the music of the words. The poems are therefore difficult to assess without some feeling for the characters in which they are written, since these allude to meanings beyond those directly expressed by the spoken words. This post therefore begins with a few notes on Chinese characters.

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Versions of History

On August 22, 1938, the Nazi government revoked the permits allowing Polish Jews to live in Germany. Between September 27 and 29, 12,000 Jews were deprived of their possessions, transported to the Polish border, and left there without food or shelter. Polish officials allowed them across the border, even though many no longer possessed Polish papers. The Jews were housed in makeshift accommodation in the town of Zbaszyn. They were hungry and desperate.

Among the expelled Jews was the Grynszpan family from Hannover. Esther Grynszpan sent a postcard asking for help to her 17-year-old brother Herschel, who was staying illegally with relatives in Paris. Herschel received his sister’s postcard on November 3. On November 6 he tried to convince his uncle to send money to Poland to help his family. A violent argument developed, and Herschel stormed out into the night.

The next morning Herschel bought a revolver, and went to the German Embassy. He claimed to have important documents to submit to an embassy official, and was ushered into the office of Ernst vom Rath, a 29-year-old diplomat. A few minutes later, Herschel shot vom Rath in the stomach. Herschel was taken into custody by the French police. (The photograph shows him at the time of his arrest.) Vom Rath was taken to hospital where he died two days later on November 9.

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