The viola is much under-rated. The instrument is difficult to play and its sound box is not optimal for its range of notes. Violists are the butt of numerous jokes maligning their tuning and their timing. Nevertheless, in the hands of a master, the viola has a wonderfully rich sound, melancholy in its low register and silvery in the high. Of all the strings it is perhaps most similar to the normal human voice.
The modern viola
first appeared in the late 16th century (Riley, 1991). Until then
string music had been played on viols of various sizes. These had evolved from
guitar-like instruments, but were played with a bow rather than plucked. Most viols
were held between the legs (da gamba),
although the smaller ones were occasionally played on the arm (da braccio). Viols typically had 6
In the 16th
and 17th centuries, the luthiers in Cremona, Northern Italy – Andrea
Amati and his sons, Antonio Stradivari, Andrea Guarneri, and others – produced
a new kind of stringed instrument with 4 strings. They used four sizes to fit
the normal vocal ranges: violin (soprano), viola (tenor, alto), cello (baritone)
and bass (bass). Different sized violas were initially made for the tenor and
alto ranges, but as time passed one viola was used for both. Music for the
viola is written in the alto clef.
The viola is
larger than the violin, with a length that varies between 38cm and 43 cm compared to the
violin’s 35.5 cm. The viola bow is a little heavier than that of the violin. The
viola’s sound box is smaller than it should be for its range of notes. This can
be seen by comparing the sizes of violin, viola, cello and bass – the viola is
closer in size to the violin than to the cello rather than intermediate between
the two. This is necessary if the instrument is to be played on the arm:
Because it was
difficult to play and largely used to complete the middle notes of the harmony
rather than to play the melody, the viola was not popular with string players.
The viola section of the symphony orchestra often came to be filled with failed
violinists. The following is a comment from 1766:
The viola is
commonly regarded as of little importance in the musical establishment. The
reason may well be that it is often played by persons who are either still
beginners in the ensemble or have no particular gifts with which to distinguish
themselves on the violin, or that the instrument yields all too few advantages
to its players, so that able people are not easily persuaded to take it up.
(Quantz, 1766, quoted by Boyden and Woodward, 2001)
In recent years several luthiers have tried to make the viola more resonant and easier to play. An intriguing modern viola is the Viola Pellegrina of David Ravinus, which accentuates the volume of the sound box by using a novel shape and tilts the board and neck to facilitate the fingering. Rudolf Haken has recorded using a Viola Pellegrina. The following figure compares it to a Stradivari violin named after one of its first owners, the Count of Archinto:
Early Viola Music
The viola serves
to play the middle notes in the harmony. Most early string music used it simply
for this purpose. Themes were introduced and carried by the violins or the
cellos. Several pieces of classical chamber music, such as Mozart’s viola
quintets, benefit immensely form the subtle harmonizing of the viola, but for
the most part the viola is not heard separately from the ensemble. Concertos
written for the viola, e.g. by Carl Stamitz, Alessandro Rolla and Franz Anton
Hoffmeister, were few and are unfortunately now rarely played.
The most important piece of classical music for the viola is Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante forviolin and viola in E-flat major K.364/320d, composed in 1779, The following is an excerpt from the Andante movement played by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, with Zubin Mehta conducting theIsrael Philharmonic Orchestra, Huberman Festival, Tel Aviv, 1982:
Harold in Italy
In the early
1830’s the great violinist Niccolo Paganini was very impressed by the Symphonie fantastique of Hector Berlioz.
Having just acquired a Stradivari viola he commissioned Berlioz to write a
concerto for the viola. Berlioz was not familiar with the viola but included it
in his Harold en Italie, Symphonie
avec un alto principal, Op. 16, loosely based on Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Paganini admired the work but found
that the sections for the solo viola were not really sufficient to justify his
playing it (Kawabata, 2004). He was right. The work is wonderfully tuneful but
the solo viola, playing the part of Harold, makes only occasional comments on
the orchestral action. The cor anglais
plays almost as prominent a solo part in the work as the viola. The following excerpt
is the ending to the third movement (Sérénade
d’un montagnard des Abruzzes), with Harold (Gérard Caussé) meditating on
Cinderella no More
(1876-1975) was the first modern viola virtuoso (Tertis, 1953, 1974; White,
2006). Initially trained in the violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London,
he took up the viola toward the end of his studies. He quickly taught himself
techniques to enhance the sound of the viola and decided to become the
instrument’s champion, setting out to challenge the violin’s dominance in
string music. Interestingly, Pablo Casals who was to become the champion of the
cello was born in the same year as Tertis.
At the end of the 19th century, Tertis was widely heard in chamber music concerts, and by1903 he was the first viola in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. He was popular, and provided his fans with souvenir postcards signed “Yours very sincerely, Lionel Tertis” (see illustration on the right). At the Royal Academy, he taught many new viola students, among them Rebecca Clarke. At the Royal Academy he also interacted with York Bowen, Benjamin Dale and Arnold Bax, all of whom composed works for the viola. Full of enthusiasm and talent, Tertis quickly brought the viola out of obscurity and made it recognized as a solo instrument. This striking change gave him the title of his first autobiography: Cinderella no more (1953).
Tertis concertized widely in Britain. Europe and America. In Berlin in 1907, together with York Bowen he played Brahms Sonata for Viola in E-flat major Opus 120, No 2, Dale’s Suite for Viola, and York Bowen’s Viola Sonata Opus 18 to great applause(White, 2006, p 18). Brahms’ viola sonatas were initially written for clarinet but were adapted by Brahms himself for the viola. To give some sense of the Berlin program the following is an excerpts from the beginning of the third movement of the Brahms sonata (Andante con moto) as played by William Primrose with Gerald Moore on piano (a 1937 recording). Primrose was Tertis’s successor as the world’s leading violist:
The beginning of
the Bowen Sonata (Allegro moderato) as
played by Matthew Jones (viola) and Michael Hampton follows:
In Paris in 1920 Tertis
found a viola made in 1717 by Domenico Montagnana a master luthier based in
Venice. With a body that was 17 1/8 inches (43.5 cm) long, the viola was larger
than most other violas. The instrument was in pieces and without a case. Tertis
had it repaired and played it from 1920 to 1937. It is currently played by
Tertis recorded extensively for Vocalion (1919-1923), and for Columbia (1924-1933). Many of the recorded pieces were adapted by Tertis from music originally written for other instruments or for voice. Among the transcriptions was Bach’s sacred song Komm, süßer Tod, BMW 478. The words are from an unknown poet. The first verse follows; the whole poem is online.
Komm, süßer Tod, komm sel’ge Ruh! Komm führe mich in Friede, weil ich der Welt bin müde, ach komm! ich wart auf dich, komm bald und führe mich, drück mir die Augen zu. Komm, sel’ge Ruh!
Come, sweet death, come, blessed rest! Come lead me to peace because I am weary of the world, O come! I wait for you, come soon and lead me, close my eyes. Come, blessed rest!
This Bach song was
also transcribed for orchestra in 1946 by Leopold Stokowski. The full
orchestral version is powerful. Tertis’ 1925 recording is heart-breaking. We
have grown to love sad songs and the viola sings them well.
Bach Cello Suites
Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello have been transcribed many times for viola (Tatton, 2011). These transcriptions began in 1916. The music sounds quite different on the viola, but it is still as fascinating and as beautiful as on the cello. The following are some excerpts for comparison. First the beginning of the Sarabande from the 4th Suite as played by Pierre Fournier on cello and then by Maxim Rysanov on viola:
And then the first Bourrée from the same suite:
Rysanov uses the 1998 transcription of Simon Rowland-Jones. Although I originally thought that the suites were inextricably bound to the cello, I have grown very fond of the viola arrangements.
The Berkshire Festival
In 1918 Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a rich American heiress, founded the Berkshire Music Festival in the hills of western Massachusetts. Although it later evolved into the Berkshire Symphonic Festival at Tanglewood, it was initially devoted to chamber music. Part of the festival involved a competition for composers of new chamber music. In the second year of the festival the chosen instrumentation for the competition was viola and piano. Out of 73 entrants, two tied for first place: Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola. Elizabeth Coolidge herself cast the deciding vote for the Bloch suite.
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was born in Switzerland and came to the USA in 1916. The photo on the right is from 1917. After the competition he went on to a very successful career in composition and teaching. His music uses both ancient and modern harmonies, but is immediately appealing. Many of his compositions are related to Jewish traditions, such as the Suite Hebraïquefor viola and piano of 1951.
Rebecca Clarke (1889-1979) studied viola at the Royal Academy of Music with Lionel Tertis. She came to the United States in 1916 and supported herself by performing both in chamber ensembles and as a soloist. The photo at the right is from 1919. She also composed music, especially for the viola, and performed her compositions as part of her performances.
The Berkshire Festival competition was the closest that Rebecca Clarke came to appropriate recognition for her compositions. Years later she called it her “one little whiff of success.” No one was sure who Rebecca Clarke was. The general opinion was that a woman could not produce such fine music. Some even suggested that the name was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch! In 1923, Elizabeth Coolidge commissioned a Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. Thereafter she continued her career as a violist and occasionally composed music. Most of Clarke’s compositions, however, were performed by her in concerts and not published until after her death. There is an excellent website about her life and work.
excerpts provide a taste of the 1919 Berkshire competition. The first is the Allegro ironico movement of Bloch’s
suite played by Paul Neuberger, accompanied by Margo Garrett:
And the second is
the comparable Vivace movement from
Clarke’s sonata, played by Paul Coletti and Leslie Howard.
It has become
fashionable to suggest that Clarke probably would have won the competition if
she had not been a woman. Myself, I prefer the Clarke. However, I am not sure
how much of this is related to the performers rather than to the actual
The Viola and the Voice
The viola has a particular affinity for the human voice. In 1884 Brahms published Two Songs for Alto, Piano and Viola, Opus 91 (Miyake, 2018). The lyrics of the first song (Gestillte Sehnsucht – Longing soothed) are from a poem by Thomas Rückert, the first verse of which is given below (and the whole poem is available online).
In gold’nen Abendschein getauchet, Wie feierlich die Wälder stehn! In leise Stimmen der Vöglein hauchet Des Abendwindes leises Weh’n. Was lispeln die Winde, die Vögelein? Sie lispeln die Welt in Schlummer ein.
Bathed in golden evening light, How solemnly the forests stand! The soft voices of the birds breathe The wafting of the evening winds What do the winds and birds whisper? They whisper the world to sleep.
The following is the
beginning of Gestillte Sehnsucht sung
by Janet Baker with Cecil Aronowitz on viola and André Previn on piano.
The viola beautifully portrays human singing in transcriptions of folk-songs and carols. The Sussex Mummers’ Carol was originally collected in 1880 by Mrs. Lucy Broadwood and published in 1908. Percy Grainger composed a piano version of the carol in 1915, and also arranged the piece for viola and piano. The first two verses are:
When righteous Joseph
Unto a virtuous maid
A glorious angel from Heaven came
Unto that virtuous maid.
O mortal man, remember
When Christ our Lord was born;
He was crucified betwixt two thieves,
And crownèd with the thorn.
The text of the complete carol is available online. The following excerpt is the beginning of Grainger’s viola arrangement as played by Paul Coletti and Leslie Howard:
This can be
compared to the how the carol sounds in the voices of the Choir of St Paul’s
Cathedral (directed by John Scott) singing wordlessly:
In 1944 Rebecca Clarke wrote a viola transcription of an old Scottish ballad I’ll bid my heart be still. The tune is centuries old (Graham, 1849, Volume III, p. 84). The Scottish poet Thomas Pringle (1789-1834) wrote the modern words (Pringle, 1839, p 168). The song laments the death of a lover in battle. The first two verses are:
I’ll bid my heart be still, And check each struggling sigh; And there’s none e’er shall know My soul’s cherish’d woe, When the first tears of sorrow are dry.
They bid me cease to weep For glory gilds his name; But the deeper I mourn, Since he ne’er can return To enjoy the bright noon of his fame!
Again, it is
interestingto compare excerpts from
the vocal and viola versions. The raw a
capella voice is that of Sylvia Tyson from the 1965 Ian and Sylvia album Early Morning Rain, and the viola and
piano performance is by Philip Dukes and Sophia Rahman.
Williams (1872-1958) used British folk music extensively in his compositions.
The following is the beginning of the Ballade
movement from his 1934 Suite for Viola
and Orchestra performed in the composer’s own reduction for viola and piano
by Tina Cayouette and Mariane Patenaude. The piece portrays the idea of singing
rather than a specific song.
Cecil Beaton’s 1926 photograph of William Walton (1902-1983)
portrays him against a cubist background that Beaton had painted himself. The
intent was to present Walton as Britain’s modernist composer. And indeed, many
of his compositions broke with traditions putting forth new rhythms and
harmonics. Yet, at heart he was still a romantic. His music was emotional
rather than dry, lush rather than austere – “the reaction of a mind
fundamentally romantic to the events in a most unromantic world” (Avery, 1947).
for Viola and Orchestra in A minor (1929) is considered by many as his most
important composition. The concerto was written for Tertis, but he initially
found it too modern and Paul Hindemith played the premiere.
Breaking with tradition, its first movement, is an Andante comodo. Walton greatly admired
Prokofiev’s first violin concerto (1923), which had begun in this way and there
are notable similarities between the works. The following is the beginning of
the first movement as played by Helen Callus with Marc Taddei conducting the
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Against the growling of the orchestra the viola
claims its rights and interweaves its song with the flute.
At the end of the concerto’s third and final movement
the themes of the first are recalled:
Walton had written the concerto for Lionel Tertis, but
he thought the music too modern. The soloist at the premiere was Paul
Hindemith. Over the years various violists, such as William Primrose and
Frederick Riddle worked with Walton to improve the solo viola part, and Walton
reduced the size of the orchestra before the concerto came to its final form in
1962 (Dunham, 2006).
After Tertis the viola came into its own as a solo instrument. Composers such a Cecil Forsyth (1903), York Bowen (1908), Paul Hindemith, (1925), Darius Milhaud (1929, 1955), Bela Bartok (1945), and Arthur Schnittke (1985) have written important viola concertos. The sonata for viola and piano has provided composers with a form especially suited to inner feelings. One of the most powerful of these sonatas was Dimitri Shostakovich’s last composition: the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 (1975). Music for solo viola has also become important. This posting ends with the Langsam mit viel Ausdruck (slowly with much expression) movement of Paul Hindemith’s 1922 Sonata for Solo Viola Opus 25, No. 1 played by Kim Kashkashian:
Avery, K. (1947). William Walton. Music & Letters,
Boyden, D. D., & Woodward A. M. (2001). Viola (Fr. alto; Ger. Bratsche). In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Ed., Online
Kawabata, M. (2004). The
concerto that wasn’t: Paganini, Urhan and Harold in Italy. Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 1,
Miyake, J. (2018). Implications of phrase rhythm in Brahms’s
“Gestillte Sehnsucht,” Op. 91, No. 1. In Murphy, S. (Ed.). Brahms and the shaping of time.
Pp. 83-109. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Tertis, L. (1953). Cinderella no more.
London: P. Nevill.
Tertis, L. (1974). My viola and I: A
complete autobiography, with Beauty of tone in string playing, and other essays.
White, J. (2006). Lionel Tertis: The
first great virtuoso of the viola. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.
Sophocles’ play Antigone tells the story of a young woman who defies the laws of the state in order to do what she believes is right. The issues considered in the play remain as important now as they were almost two and a half millennia ago. Should one follow one’s conscience or obey the law? Does justice transcend the law? How does one determine what is right?
In the words of Hegel, Antigone is
one of the most sublime and in every respect most excellent works of art of all time. Everything in this tragedy is logical; the public law of the state is set in conflict over against inner family love and duty to a brother; the woman, Antigone, has the family interest as her ‘pathos’, Creon, the man, has the welfare of the community as his. (Hegel, 1975, p 464).
The word pathos most commonly means the quality of something that evokes pity. However, Hegel uses the word to denote “an inherently justified power over the heart, an essential content of rationality and freedom of will” (p 232). Pathos is the emotional commitment that defines a person – his or her driving passion. Sophocles’ play presents the conflict of these passions.
The Theban Myths
In order to understand Antigone we need to know what has happened before the play begins. Antigone (441 BCE) was the first of what are now known as Sophocles’ three Theban Plays, the others being Oedipus Tyrranus (429 BCE) and Oedipus at Colonus (409 BCE). The plays were not conceived as a trilogy and Antigone was written before the other two. Aeschylus had also written three plays about Thebes but the initial two of these (about Laius the father of Oedipus and his version of Oedipus) have been lost. Only the third remains: Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE), which describes the siege of Thebes by the Argives. Antigone begins just after the events described in this play.
From the extant plays we can piece together the mythic narrative that leads to Antigone. Laius, king of Thebes, married to Jocasta, is told by the Delphic Oracle that he can only keep his city safe if he dies childless. After having drunkenly fathered Oedipus, Laius has his son left on Mount Cithaeron to die. However, the boy is found by a shepherd and ultimately adopted as a son by King Polybus of Corinth.
When he comes of age Oedipus is told by the Oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. Oedipus flees Corinth to prevent this from happening. On the way to Thebes at a place where three roads meet, he comes upon another traveler. They argue and fight; Oedipus kills the man; the man was Laius.
Oedipus continues on to Thebes. The city has long been plagued by the Sphinx, a monster sent by the gods because of some ancient crime of the Thebans. The Sphinx poses a riddle to all who pass by and devours those that fail to answer correctly: “What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night.” The illustration at the right shows a representation of Oedipus and the Sphinx in a vase from around 500 BCE, now in the Vatican. (The sphinx seems much less monstrous than the legend indicated.) Oedipus solves the riddle – “man, who crawls in infancy, walks as an adult and uses a cane in old age.” This releases the city from the monster’s power. In gratitude the citizens of Thebes make Oedipus king and grant him the recently bereaved Jocasta as his wife. Oedipus and Jocasta have four children: the boys Polyneikes and Eteokles, and the girls Antigone and Ismene
The gods, displeased at the unrevenged death of Laius, bring a plague down upon Thebes. In order to stop the plague Oedipus searches for his father’s murderer. In the course of his investigations he realizes first that he was the killer, and ultimately that Laius was his father and Jocasta his mother. Jocasta hangs herself. Unable to bear the pain of his knowledge Oedipus blinds himself with Jocasta’s brooch pins. Exiled from Thebes he seeks sanctuary in the grove of the Furies at Colonus, a village near Athens. Here Theseus, king of Athens, takes pity on him.
His daughters Ismene and Antigone come to comfort their father in Colonus. In Thebes the sons of Oedipus initially decide to alternate the kingship, but Eteokles then banishes his older brother Polyneikes and becomes sole king of Thebes. Polyneikes visits Oedipus in Colonus to get his blessing for a revolt against his brother, but Oedipus curses both his sons and prophecies that they will die at each other’s hand. Oedipus dies. His daughters return to Thebes.
Polyneikes and six other generals raise an army from the rival state of Argos and attack Thebes. The Thebans ultimately defeat the besieging army. Near the end of the siege, Polyneikes and Eteokles fight and kill each other.
The deaths of Polyneikes and Eteokles became a popular motif for sculpture, the illustration below showing a relief on an Etruscan funerary urn from Chiusi (circe 200 BCE).
The following illustration from a 19th century jewel shows a more restrained view of the brothers’ deaths.
The Story of Antigone
After the deaths of Polyneikes and Eteokles, Kreon, the brother of Jocasta, becomes king of Thebes. He decrees that Eteokles be given a hero’s funeral rites but that the body of the traitor Polyneikes’ be left to rot. Anyone who disobeys this ruling will be put to death. Despite the warnings of her sister, Antigone refuses to obey Kreon’s commandment and casts earth over Polyneikes’ body. The illustration below shows Juliet Binoche in the 2015 production of Antigone at the Barbican in London.
Antigone is caught in the act. The following illustration from a Greek vase (circe 400 BCE) shows Antigone, flanked by two guards holding spears, brought before Kreon.
This is the crucial exchange between the two:
Kreon: Now tell me, not at length, but in brief space,
Knew you the order not to do it?
I knew it; what should hinder? It was plain.
Kreon: And you made free to overstep my law?
Antigone: Because it was not Zeus who ordered it,
Nor Justice, dweller with the Nether Gods,
Gave such a law to men; nor did I deem
Your ordinance of so much binding force,
As that a mortal man could overbear
The unchangeable unwritten code of Heaven;
This is not of today and yesterday,
But lives forever, having origin
Whence no man knows: whose sanctions I were loath
In Heaven’s sight to provoke, fearing the will
Of any man. I knew that I should die –
How otherwise? Even although your voice
Had never so prescribed. And that I die
Before my hour is due, that I count gain.
For one who lives in many ills, as I –
How should he fail to gain by dying? Thus
To me the pain is light, to meet this fate:
But had I borne to leave the body of him
My mother bare unburied, then, indeed,
I might feel pain; but as it is, I cannot:
And if my present actions seems to you
Foolish – ‘tis like I am found guilty of folly
At a fool’s mouth! (ll 446-470, Young translation)
This is one of the greatest speeches ever spoken on the stage. It comes in four parts. First, Antigone scorns the proclamation of Kreon. Made neither by the gods of Olympus nor by the lords of Hades, this was an “order” rather than a “law.” Second, she vaunts the eternal “unwritten code of Heaven” that guides human behavior and that must not be disobeyed. In the third section of the speech, Antigone recognizes that her defiance might bring about her death. However, this will bring relief to one who has already lost father, mother, and two brothers. Finally, she tells Kreon that she is not the one who is acting foolishly. He who does not understand the code of Heaven is far more fool than she. The following film-clip shows Irene Papas as Antigone and Manos Katrakis as Kreon (Tzavellas, 1961):
The chorus is upset by Antigone’s defiance. Kreon refuses to grant Antigone mercy and sentences her to be buried alive in a cave. Kreon’s son, Haimon, in love with Antigone, pleads with his father, but Kreon remains adamant. In his defense, he states the case for the rule of law:
Obedience is due
To the state’s officer in small and great,
Just and unjust commandments; …
There lives no greater fiend than Anarchy;
She ruins states, turns houses out of doors
Breaks up in rout the embattled soldiery;
While Discipline preserves the multitude
Of the ordered host alive. Therefore it is
We must assist the cause of order.
(ll 665-676, Young translation)
Haimon urges his father not to be so stubborn:
it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn—they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.
(ll 710-717, Fagles translation)
Kreon refuses to listen to his son.
Meanwhile, Antigone bemoans her fate. She accepts that she did what she had to do, but she regrets that she was not able to marry or have children. She does not understand why the gods have not intervened to save one who served them truly. Before she is taken to the cave she asks the Thebans to behold one who has been condemned
τὴν εὐσεβίαν σεβίσασα. (ten eusebian sebisasa) (l 943)
In an act of perfect piety (Carson translation)
For doing reverence where reverence was due. (Brown translation)
The noun eusebia means an act of reverence or piety; the verb sebizo is to worship or honor. Carson (2015, pp 5-6) remarks about this emphatic conclusion:
Both noun (eusebia) and verb (sebizo) derive from the Greek root seb-, which refers to the awe that radiates from gods to humans and is given back as worship. Everything related to this root has fear in it. But eusebia is a fear that moves as devotion – a striving out of this world into another and of another world into this.
Teiresias, the blind seer, tells Kreon that the gods are displeased: they wish Antigone to be freed and Polyneikes properly buried. Kreon orders Antigone’s release but she has already killed herself. In grief at her death, Haimon commits suicide. In grief at the death of her son, Kreon’s wife Eurydike also commits suicide. Utterly broken, Kreon is led away, his life emptied of any meaning. He is “as a dead man who can still draw breath.” (l 1167, Gibbons translation)
The Choral Odes
One of the great attractions of Sophocles’ play is the way in which the chorus of Theban elders comment on the action. The play contains six main choral odes. The first is a celebration of the Theban triumph over the besieging Argives. The most exciting recent translation of this begins
The glories of the world come sharking in all red and gold
we won the war
the streets of sevengated Thebes
(ll 100-102, Carson translation)
The choral odes were sung and danced by a chorus of about fifteen men in the area of the theatre known as the orchestra (“place for dancing”). Carl Orff wrote music for the performance of Antigonae (1949) that suggests how the chorus might have sounded. The following is Orff’s music for the introduction of the Chorus and the beginning of this first ode:
The second ode, often known as the Ode to Man, considers how wonderful is the creature called man, who can navigate the sea, cultivate the land, tame the animals, build homes for protection against the elements, and find medicine for his ailments. The following translation of the beginning of the ode attempts the rhythms of the Greek:
At many things – wonders
Terrors – we feel awe
But at nothing more
Than at man. This
Being sails the gray-
White sea running before
Winter storm-winds, he
Scuds beneath high
Waves surging over him
On each side
And Gaia, the Earth
Forever undestroyed and
Unwearying, highest of
All the gods, he
Wears away, year
After year as his plows
Back and forth, turning
Her soil with the
Offspring of horses.
(ll 332-345, Gibbons translation)
The following is Carl Orff’s 1949 setting of the opening of the Ode to Man. Orff used the words of Hölderlin: Ungeheuer ist viel. Doch nichts ungeheuerer als der Mensch (Many things are wonderful but nothing more wonderful than man). Orff’s music captures the awe at the beginning of the ode, and then gives a driving rendition of human achievements.
The Greek word used to describe man at the beginning of this famous ode – deinos – usually means “extraordinary” or “wonderful.” It also has connotations of the supernatural or uncanny, the unexpectedly clever, or even the monstrous. The word comes from a Proto-Indo-European root dwei denoting fear. An example of this root in English is “dinosaur.” Deinos has no obvious equivalent in English. The German ungeheuer (enormous, terrible, unnatural) used by Hölderlin captures many of its meanings.
The later choral odes in Antigone tell how human hopes often come to naught, describe the power of human passion, console Antigone as she is led away to her fate, and at the end of the play praise the gods who teach us wisdom. The following are three modern translations of the final words of the chorus:
Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,
and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded.
The mighty words of the proud are paid in full
with mighty blows of fate, and at long last
those blows will teach us wisdom
(ll 1347-1353, Fagles’ translation)
Wise conduct is the key to happiness
Always rule by the gods and reverence them.
Those who overbear will be brought to grief.
Fate will flail them on its winnowing floor
And in due season teach them to be wise.
There is no happiness, but there can be wisdom.
Revere the gods; revere them always.
When men get proud, they hurl hard words, then suffer for it.
Let them grow old and take no harm yet: they still get punished.
It teaches them. It teaches us.
Fagles has the gods teaching all of us, whereas Heaney has them only teaching the proud. Paulin gives both meanings. This section from Orff’s Antigonae is appropriately otherworldly: Um vieles ist das Denken mehr denn Glückseligkeit. (Thought is much greater than happiness).
The following is a clip from the ending to Tzavellas’ 1961 film with Manos Katrakis as Kreon and Thodoris Moudis as the leader of the chorus:
The heart of the play is the conflict between Kreon and Antigone. Steiner (1984, pp 231-232) notes that
It has, I believe, been given to only one literary text to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s). The conflicts which come of these five orders of confrontation are not negotiable. Men and women, old and young, the individual and the community or state, the quick and the dead, mortals and immortals, define themselves in the conflictual process of defining each other. Self-definition and the agonistic recognition of ‘otherness’ (of l’autre) across the threatened boundaries of self, are indissociable. The polarities of masculinity and of femininity, of ageing and of youth, of private autonomy and of social collectivity, of existence and mortality, of the human and the divine, can be crystallized only in adversative terms (whatever the many shades of accommodation between them). To arrive at oneself—the primordial journey—is to come up, polemically, against ‘the other’. The boundary-conditions of the human person are those set by gender, by age, by community, by the cut between life and death, and by the potentials of accepted or denied encounter between the existential and the transcendent.
In his assessment of the play, Hegel focused on the conflict between a person’s kinship-duties and the allegiance owed to the state (Reidy, 1995; Young 2013, pp 110-139). In his mind Antigone represented civilization’s necessary change from family-loyalty to state-citizenship. This fits with Hegel’s general view of history as a sequence of dialectic conflicts between different world-views. Progress occurs as the two competing ideas become reconciled. The tragedy occurs because neither Antigone nor Kreon can see the other side of the conflict. Antigone feels no duty to the state; Kreon pays no attention to his family, completely disregarding his son’s concerns.
The balance between Antigone and Kreon is what makes Antigone a tragedy. Albert Camus (1955/1968, p 301) differentiated tragedy from drama:
the forces confronting each other in tragedy are equally legitimate, equally justified. In melodramas or dramas, on the other hand, only one force is legitimate. In other words, tragedy is ambiguous and drama simple-minded. In the former, each force is at the same time both good and bad. In the latter, one is good and the other evil (which is why, in our day and age, propaganda plays are nothing but the resurrection of melodrama). Antigone is right, but Kreon is not wrong.
In the conflict Antigone and Kreon are very similar in character. Steiner (1984, pp 184-5) points out
Both Kreon and Antigone are auto-nomists, human beings who have taken the law into their own keeping. Their respective enunciations of justice are, in the given local case, irreconcilable. But in their obsession with law, they come very close to being mirror-images.
The tragedy evolves because neither Antigone nor Kreon is able to compromise. They are both bloody minded – obstinate to the point of bloodshed. However, Kreon is the more reprehensible: his edict forbidding the burial of Polyneikes is not based on either divine rule or reasoned thought.
Three conflicting forces are at play in Antigone. One is the law (nomos) of the state (polis). The second is the set of “unwritten rules” (agrapta nomima) that tell us what is right. The third is fate (moira) – the working out of what must necessarily happen. Of these only the first is easy to understand.
Antigone’s “unwritten code of Heaven” is often considered the same as the “natural law” – that which we know because it is an essential part of our being (Robinson. 1991; Burns, 2002). Natural law is understood by “conscience” – our intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. Regardless of how we are educated or how our society operates, conscience tends to work similarly: murder and incest are wrong; hospitality and compassion are right. Human history has long realized that the laws promulgated to maintain order in particular societies may come into conflict with an individual’s conscience. In these cases, the natural law should generally be paramount. This is the basis of civil disobedience. An unjust law – one that is out of harmony with the natural law – need not be obeyed:
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. (King, 1963).
However, the natural law is often difficult to determine. It is understood by intuition, and followed by inclination (Maritain, 2001, pp 32-38). So when should conscience take precedence over the law? The laws promulgated by a state should be and often are derived from the natural law. However, they sometimes also exist to entrench the status of the powerful.
The laws or commandments proclaimed in religious scriptures are also related to the natural law However, even this relationship is complex. On the one hand, the natural law can be conceived as independent of divinity. Hugo Grotius famously stated that we know what is right “even if we concede … that there is no God” (etiamsi daremus … non esse Deum). Others, such as Maritain (2001, p 46), propose that the natural law as perceived by man derives from the “eternal law” as perceived by God. Human perception of the divine law is as yet imperfect.
The relation between natural law and nature is also complex. Laws of nature (phusis) are deduced from experience of the real world. They portray what is rather than what should be. Such laws can be demonstrated, analyzed and tested. The natural laws for human behavior are understood by intuition. We know what is right but we do not understand how we know. Nor can we demonstrate or test the laws that we follow.
If the natural law is the sum of human dispositions, then we might be able to study it in terms of evolution. Since most of human existence was spent in small bands that hunted and gathered on the African Savannah, many human dispositions to behave in particular ways may have been selected to promote the survival of these small groups. Commandments against murder (other than in self-defense) clearly facilitate group-survival. Edicts against incest decrease the probability of deleterious recessive genes becoming homozygous, and by promoting exogamy (marriage outside of the group) enlarge and strengthen the group.
If natural causes such as evolution are the basis for our morality, perhaps we can determine what is right by what is considered natural. Many people consider homosexuality “unnatural.” In the Abrahamic religions, early laws expressly prohibited homosexual relations on pain of death.
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13).
Aquinas argued that homosexuality is unnatural because it does not lead to procreation, which is the natural purpose of sexual intercourse (Summa Theologica II I 94). Yet who or what defines the natural purpose of an act and why should there be only one purpose?
How does Antigone know that she is right to bury her brother, even if her act will entail her death? She is following a “custom” – the Greeks buried their dead. Other cultures cremate their dead, or leave them out to be devoured by carrion-eating birds – “sky burial.” It is difficult to see burying the dead as an absolute requirement of natural law, though some unspecified honoring of the dead seems common to all human cultures.
The Ancient Greeks attributed much that happens in life to fate. Fate was often personified as three women – the moirai. The word derives from meros, a part, share or portion. Clotho spins the thread of a life; Lachesis allots the life to a particular person; and Atropos cuts the thread at death. Neither human nor divine intervention can affect the actions of the fates. The following is a print of The Three Fates (1558) by Giorgio Ghisi.
Although Antigone has obeyed the unwritten code of heaven, the gods cannot intervene to save her from her ignominious death. That has been otherwise ordained – it is her fate. After Antigone is led away, the Chorus remarks that such apparently unjust ends have been suffered by others before her. Fate is a terrible thing:
The power of fate is a wonder,
dark, terrible wonder –
neither wealth nor armies
towered walls nor ships
black hulls lashed by the salt
can save us from that force.
(ll 951-954, Fagles’ translation)
Fate is described as deinos (terrible), the same word that the chorus used to describe man. We are both made and unmade by fate. We should follow the unwritten code of the gods, but doing so will not prevent death. The Fates operate according to some other code. Perhaps they follow necessity rather than justice. Perhaps they follow laws that operate beyond the individual life. The chorus briefly mentions such a possibility: Antigone may be paying for the sins of her father. However, it is possible that the Fates do not follow any code of justice. They may just enforce the physical laws by which the universe operates.
Justice is the human concept of what is right. Our words related to justice – law, morality, fairness, equity, right, righteousness – overlap in their meanings. The Greeks at the time of Sophocles also had many words (Steiner, 1984, pp 248-251; Nonet, 2006). Precise translations distinguishing these one from another are usually not possible, and the usage of the terms changed over the years.
The Greeks often personified their ideas in terms of gods. Themis was a Titaness who personified divine law. Zeus and Themis had three daughters: Dike, law; Eunomia, order; and Eirene, peace. Dike is customarily represented with a sword and a set of scales for weighing right and wrong (as in the illustrated statue from the Frankfurt Fountain of Justice, an 1887 bronze replacement for the original 1611 stone statue). Another Greek word dikaiosune came to mean both a system of justice and the virtue of righteousness (Havelock, 1969). Antigone appeals to Dike as the supporter of the unwritten laws which require the burial of the dead.
The Greeks differentiated nomos – the set of socially constructed laws – from phusis – the laws underlying the universe. The word nomima (laws, regulations, customs) derives from nomos but Antigone used it to distinguish the eternal and unwritten laws from human laws. Words do not clearly show us what is right. And they fail to clearly differentiate laws that are given from those that are constructed. Sophocles’ tragedy deals in part with our inability to know with certainty what is just.
The story of Antigone has been retold many times (Chancellor, 1979: Steiner, 1984). These versions stress different aspects of the story, supplement the main plot with other events, or place the story in a different time and place. For brevity I shall only consider a few recent adaptations.
During the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Anouilh wrote a version of Antigone that was set in modern times. The play was accepted by the censors and produced in Paris in 1944. Anouilh made Kreon a more sympathetic character. He removed from the play the character of Tiresias, who in Sophocles’ original play confirmed that Antigone was right. The chorus was no longer a group of Theban citizens who commented on the actions. Rather the chorus acted as a foil between the audience and the actors, describing what was going to happen and why. In this way Anouilh distanced the audience from becoming directly involved in the tragedy.
Anouilh’s Antigone is more of an existential heroine than a tragic one – she did what she did because she was seeking a reason for her life. As Kreon explains
She wanted to die! None of us was strong enough to persuade her to live. I understand now. She was born to die. She may not have known it herself, but Polynices was only an excuse.
At the end after everyone who had to die has died, Kreon goes on about his work of governing the city. The chorus explains
It’s over. Antigone’s quiet now, cured of a fever whose name we shall never know. Her work is done. A great, sad peace descends on Thebes, and on the empty palace where Creon will begin to wait for death. Only the guard are left. All that has happened is a matter of indifference to them. None of their business. They go on with their game of cards.
Anouilh’s chorus thus appears to attenuate the tragedy. However, Anouilh and his audience most certainly understood the nature of Antigone’s fever as La Résistance.
How could the German occupation authorities have allowed such a production? Steiner (1984, p. 190) notes that the evaluation of Antigone’s story in Germany between the world wars differed from that in other countries. Frightened by the communist revolts that followed the Great War, Germans saw the need for people like Kreon to maintain the safety of the state. So even if they might have felt that Antigone was right, they also knew that Kreon was not wrong. The great German philosopher Hegel had said that the state must necessarily take precedence over family and personal conscience.
Bertolt Brecht wrote and produced a theatrically stunning version of Antigone in Switzerland in 1948. The play was preceded by a prologue set in Berlin in April 1945. This tells the story of how a young deserter from the army came to his sisters’ home bringing food for his hungry family. However, he was captured by the police and hung for treason. His body was left hanging as an example to other would-be deserters. The prologue is doubly distanced from the play. As well as being set in the near present, the prologue is narrated to the audience by one of the sisters but acted out by both. The prologue ends with a police officer asking the sisters whether they knew the traitor. The first denies her brother, but the second goes out to cut down his body.
The play then reverts to Thebes. However, the situation differs from that of Sophocles’ Antigone. Thebes had not been under siege. Rather Kreon had embarked on a war against Argos to gain their iron ore. Eteokles had been brutally killed during this war. Polyneikes saw his older brother being trampled to death, deserted from the futile battle, and was then killed by his own people. The opening choral ode, rather than celebrating the survival of the city, welcomes the wagons of booty and plunder returning from the war.
When Antigone is captured and brought before Kreon, she is bound to a board. Effectively she is carrying a door upon her back. A door she cannot open. The illustration (taken from the Suhrkamp edition of Brecht’s play) is from the first production:
Brecht’s Antigone acts politically. She defies Kreon not so much because of any unwritten laws but because she considers him an evil tyrant. She tries unsuccessfully to goad the chorus to join in her defiance. The exchange between Antigone and Kreon is more extended than in Sophocles. After her initial speech of defiance (much the same as in Sophocles), Kreon praises the success of the war, and Antigone continues:
Antigone: The men in power always threaten us with the fall of The State.
It will fall by dissension, devoured by the invaders
and so we give in to you, and give you our power, and bow down;
and because of this weakness, the city falls and is devoured by the invaders.
Kreon: Are you accusing me of throwing the city away to be devoured by the enemy?
Antigone: The city threw herself away by bowing down before you,
because when a man bows down he can’t see what’s coming at him.
The story plays itself out as in the original Greek, but at the end the city falls to its enemies. The tragedy is that of the people who foolishly followed and who keep following a tyrant. The final words of the chorus are those of despair:
For time is short
and the unknown surrounds us; and it isn’t enough
just to live unthinking and happy
and patiently bear oppression
and only learn wisdom in age.
Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona created and produced a play called The Island in South Africa in 1973 as a protest against the persecutions of apartheid. The play is set in an unknown prison camp clearly modelled on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held. The play follows two cell mates, played by Kani and Ntshona, in prison for the minor offences of belonging to a banned organization and burning an identity card.
In successive scenes, the two men work at digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, rehearse a performance of Antigone that they plan to present to the camp, learn that one of them may be released but not the other, pretend to talk on the phone with friends and relatives, and finally present the dramatic confrontation between Kreon and Antigone. Below is a photograph showing Ntshona and Kani in the National Theatre revival of the play (2000):
Winston fears that his appearance as a young woman will only cause ridicule, and indeed John bursts into laughter when he first sees him in wig and costume. Yet no one laughs during the final scene when on a makeshift stage Winston tells John
You are only a man Creon. Even as there are laws made by men, so too there are others that come from God. He watches my soul for a transgression even as your spies hide in the bush at night to see who is transgressing your laws. Guilty against God I will not be for any man on this earth.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow the state. He was not released until 1990.
In 2012 Anne Carson wrote Antigonick, a version of Antigone that is more concerned with depicting the ideas and feelings of the play than rendering a literal translation. She added to the play the character of Nick, a surveyor who intermittently and mutely takes measurements of what is happening. Nick stands for the modern viewer who must somehow assess the play coming from a society many hundred years before our own.
The book is presented with a text that is handwritten by Carson in small black capitals and illustrated with desolate landscapes and surrealistic images by Bianca Stone. These illustrations do not directly relate to the text but add to the book’s sense of incomprehensible passion. Below is a representation the book’s pages at the beginning of the Ode to ManAs can be seen in the ode Carson’s choice of words is designed to bring the audience the sense of the original Greek. The word deinos becomes “terribly quiet” – a description that captures the connotations of incomprehensibility and menace.
Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than man
His footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter
The following illustration shows three other images from the book, one of a wedding cake in desolation, the second of cutlery flying apart under the influence of a thread (perhaps of fate), and the third of a horse upsetting a feast.
In addition, Carson sometimes includes commentary in the text. This brings the meaning up to date. In the original play just before Antigone exits to her death, the chorus provides a long discussion of the way in which fate has acted unfairly, quoting various stories from Greek mythology. A modern audience would not know these examples. In Antigonick Carson therefore replaces this choral ode by verse that slowly goes from mundane commentary to intense grief:
how is a Greek chorus like a lawyer
they’re both in the business of searching for a precedent
finding an analogy
locating a prior example
so as to be able to say
the terrible thing we’re witnessing now is
not unique you know it happened before
or something much like it
we’re not at a loss how to think about this
we’re not without guidance
there is a pattern
we can find an historically parallel case
and file it away under
Antigone buried alive Friday afternoon compare case histories 7, 17 and 49
now I could dig up theses case histories,
tell you about Danaos and Lykourgos and the sons of Phineas
people locked up in a room or a cave or their own dark mind
it wouldn’t help you
it didn’t help me
it’s Friday afternoon
there goes Antigone to be buried alive
we can say
this is normal
or even in the widest definition just
no not really
In 2016 Slavoj Zizek, a provocative philosopher and communist, wrote a version of Antigone that provides three different endings. This idea of multiple endings came from Tom Tykwer’s film Run Lola Run (1998). The plot of Zizek’s Antigone proceeds as in Sophocles until Kreon sentences Antigone to death and is told by Tiresias that he has offended the gods. The first ending then follows as in Sophocles and results in the death of Antigone.
In the second ending the people of Thebes enflamed by the way Kreon offended the gods, rise up and murder him. They set fire to the city. Antigone survives though she is half-mad and does not understand why her simple act of defiance has led to such devastation. The chorus tells her that divine laws are not the ultimate authority:
A society is kept together by the bond of Word,
but the domain of logos, of what can be said,
and this mysterious vortex is what all our endeavours
and struggles are about. Our true fidelity
is to what cannot be said, and the greatest wisdom
is to know when this very fidelity
compels us to break our word, even if this word
is the highest immemorial law. This is where
you went wrong, Antigone. In sacrificing everything
for your law, you lost this law itself.
In the third ending Kreon and Antigone are reconciled, but the citizens of Thebes rise up against their rulers. Kreon is brutally executed because
Much greater evil than a lack of leadership
is an unjust leader who creates chaos in his city
by the very false order he tries to impose. Such an order
is the obscene travesty of the worst anarchy.
The people feel this and resist the leader. A true order,
on the contrary, creates the space of freedom
for all citizens. A really good master
doesn’t just limit the freedom of his subjects,
he gives freedom.
Antigone claims to be on the side of the revolution. But the leader of the people has her executed:
But the excluded
don’t need sympathy and compassion from the privileged,
they don’t want others to speak for them,
they themselves should speak and articulate their plight.
So in speaking for them, you betrayed them even more
than your uncle — you deprived them of their voice.
There is no catharsis. The revolution is brutal. The chorus attempts to excuse the horror by repeating the Ode to Man
There are many strange and wonderful things
but nothing more strangely wonderful than man
But one is left with the nightmare of revolutionaries settling scores by murder. One longs for the simplicity of Sophocles’s original wherein Kreon and Antigone were both striving to do what they thought was right. In Ziztek no one is right. Violence is the only outcome. Justice is not possible. This is not my idea of Antigone. Zizek has not found a way out of the conflict at the basis of the story. Nor has he, a committed communist, portrayed the necessity of revolution as in any way attractive.
Natalie Haynes has retold the stories of Oedipus and Antigone from the point of view of Jocasta and of Ismene in her novel The Children of Jocasta (2017). In Sophocles’ play Ismene, Antigone’s younger sister, is the only member of Oedipus’ family to survive. She initially serves as a foil for her sister, proposing compromise instead of defiance. Later she stands by her sister, though Antigone refuses her support. In Haynes’ novel the plot has changed from that of Sophocles’ plays, but the story still has its necessary confrontations and reconciliations. The plague plays the role of the Fates.
In Home Fire (2018) Kamila Shamsie has reinterpreted the story of Antigone in terms of Aneeka a young Englishwoman of Pakistani background. Her brother Parvaiz is recruited to ISIS and serves with the terrorists in Syria. Parvaiz is assassinated in Turkey when he tries to leave ISIS. The English government refuses to allow his corpse to be returned to England for burial, and arranges for it to be sent to Pakistan. Aneeka goes to Pakistan to protest this ruling but ultimately the body, the sister and her fiancé are blown to pieces in a suicide bombing.
The situation envisioned by Shamsie is clearly very possible. A citizen should have the right to be buried in his homeland. This right was recently tested in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the bombers at the Boston Marathon (Mendelsohn, 2013). No funeral director or cemetery in Massachusetts would accept his body. After much dispute, a Christian woman in Virginia intervened, and the body was finally buried in an unmarked grave in a small Muslim cemetery in Virginia.
Novels are discursive. They provide us with a wealth of detail, in terms of both things and thoughts. They can discuss what might have been as well as what was. They lack the harsh simplicity of a play.
A Play for All Time
Sophocles’ Antigone remains as a stirring invocation to do what is right. The world needs its Antigones. This was particularly evident in the days of Hitler (von Klemperer, 1992). Those who resisted Nazism did not succeed in changing their government. Yet they did show their countrymen that there were other ways to live and die than slavishly to follow a leader more concerned with power than with humanity.
Sophocles’ play returns time and time again. Whenever governments repress the conscience of their people. World War II generated the Antigones of Anouilh, Brecht and Orff. The situation in South Africa brought about Fugard’s The Island. The situation in Northern Ireland led to Paulin’s The Riot Act. Judith Malina translated Brecht’s Antigone while in jail in 1963 because her Living Theatre had run afoul of the US government.
The philosophy of Sophocles combines a respect for human morality and responsibility with an acquiescence to fate (Kitto, 1961, pp 123-127). In this recognition of the role played by fate, Sophocles differs from his predecessor Aeschylus:
The Aeschylean universe is one of august moral laws, infringement of which brings certain doom; the Sophoclean is one in which wrongdoing does indeed work out its own punishment, but disaster comes, too, without justification; at the most with ‘contributory negligence.’ (p 126)
Wonderful though man is he cannot control everything. This is most obvious in the fact of death. Yet before we die we can do what we believe to be right. This will not prevent our death but it will pay reverence to whatever ideas of transcendence we have conceived, be it the gods or the good.
We do not understand fate. I have already quoted the final words of Sophocles’ chorus – their praise of wisdom. Just before this they make two comments about fate. In reply to Kreon’s desire to die the chorus states
That’s in the future. We must do what lies before us.
Those who take care of these things will take their care.
And then when Kreon says that he prayed for what he longed for, they answer
Don’t pray for anything – for from whatever good
Or ill is destined for mortals, there’s no deliverance.
(Gibbons translation, ll 1334-5, 1337-8)
Sophocles is clear. Do what you think is right. Be open to the ideas of others. Do not expect reward. You will die. Life will carry on.
Note: the lines for the quotations in this posting are those in the original Greek (Brown edition) and may not fit the lines of the translations.
The Perseus Library Antigone has the full Greek text with translation and commentary by Richard Jebb (from the early 20th century).
Brown, A. (1987). Sophocles:Antigone. Warminster, Wiltshire, England: Aris & Phillips (Greek text and English translation on facing pages; good commentary)
Griffith, M. (1999). Sophocles: Antigone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Greek texts, extensive notes and commentary, but no English translation).
Orff, C., Hölderlin, F., (1949, CD conducted by Sawallisch, W., 1958, CD 2009). Antigonae. Neuhausen: Profil.
Tzavellas, G. [dir.] (film 1961, DVD 2004). Antigone. Kino International Corporation.
Carson, A., (2015). Sophokles Antigone, London: Oberon Books. This was performed at the Barbican with Juliet Binoche. It is a subdued version of Carson’s Antigonick.
Fagles, R., & Knox, B. M. G. W. (1982). The three Theban plays. London: Allen Lane/Penguin (a fine modern translation)
Gibbons, R., & Segal, C. (2003). Sophocles: Antigone. New York: Oxford University Press (a translation paying close attention to Greek poetic forms)
Heaney, S. (2004). The burial at Thebes: Sophocles’ Antigone. London: Faber and Faber. (perhaps the most beautiful of the translations)
Hölderlin, F. (1804) Sophokles Antigone. (This served as the basis for Carl Orff’s Antigonae). A translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone is available by David Constantine (BloodAxe Books, 2001). The German original is available
Paulin, T., (1985). The riot act: A version of Sophocles’ Antigone. London: Faber and Faber. (translation in modern colloquial English).
Young, G. (1906/1912). The dramas of Sophocles rendered in English verse, dramatic & lyric. Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons. (the classical blank-verse translation). Available at archive.org
Anouilh, J. (1946/2005). Antigone. Paris: La Table ronde. (English translation by B. Bray & T. Freeman, Bloomsbury Methuen, 2000).
Brecht, B. (1948, edited by Werner Hecht, 1988). Brechts Antigone des Sophokles. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. (English translation by Malina, J., 1990, Sophocles’ Antigone. New York: Applause Theatre Books).
Carson, A., (2012). Antigonick. (illustrated by Stone, B.). New York: New Directions. Carson and her colleagues presented a reading of Antigonick in 2012 at the Louisiana gallery in Denmark. The Chorus was read by Carson, Antigone by Mara Lee and Kreon by Nielsen.
Fugard, A., Kani, J., & Ntshona, W. (1974). Statements: Sizwe Bansi is dead. The island. Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act. London: Oxford University Press.
Haynes, N. (2017). The children of Jocasta. London: Mantle Books.
Shamsie, K. (2017). Home fire. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin)
Žižek, S. (2016). Antigone. London: Bloomsbury Academic
Burns, T. (2002). Sophocles’ Antigone and the history of the concept of natural law. Political Studies, 50, 545-557.
Camus, A., (1955, translated by Kennedy, E. C. 1968). On the future of tragedy. In Thody, P. (Ed.) Lyrical and critical essays. (pp. 295-310). New York: Knopf
Chancellor, G. (1979). Hölderlin, Brecht, Anouilh: Three Versions of Antigone Orbis Litterarum, 34, 87-97
Grotius , H. (1625) De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace). Paris: Nicolaus Buon. (Preliminary Discourse XI) English translation available
Hegel, G. W. F. (1835, translated Knox, T. M., 1975) Hegel’s aesthetics: Lectures on fine art. Volume I. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Available
King, M. L. Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham jail. Available
Kitto, H. D. F. (1939/1961/2011). Greek tragedy: A literary study. London: Routledge.
von Klemperer, K. (1992). “What is the law that lies behind these words?” Antigone’s question and the German resistance against Hitler. Journal of Modern History 64, Suppi. (December 1992): S102-S111.
Maritain, J., (edited by Sweet, W., 2001). Natural law: Reflections on theory and practice. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.
Mendelsohn, D. (2013) Unburied: Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the lessons of Greek Tragedy. New Yorker(May 14, 2013)
Nonet, P. (2006). Antigone’s Law. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 2, 314-335.
Reidy, D. A. (1995). Antigone, Hegel and the law: an essay. Legal Studies Forum, 19, 239-261.
Robinson, D. N. (1991). Antigone’s defense: a critical study of “Natural law theory: contemporary essays.” Review of Metaphysics, 45, 363-392.
Steiner, G. (1984). Antigones. New York: Oxford University Press.
Young, J. (2013). The philosophy of tragedy: from Plato to Žižek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mitchell and Riopelle
From February 18 to May 6, 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is presenting an exhibition of the paintings of Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle entitled Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation. This is the first time that many of these paintings have been seen together. The paintings are stunning, the relations between them fascinating.
The abstract expressionist movement in painting began in New York in the 1940s (Anfam, 1990, Sandler, 1970). Among its major artists were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell. Each artist had his own particular style, but they all attempted to convey meaning and emotion without recourse to representation. The Americans promoted the development of abstract expressionism as their particular artistic “triumph” (Sandler, 1970), and other abstract artists working later or in other countries have lived too long without proper recognition. Among these are Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle.
Riopelle developed his technique independently of the New York artists. He had studied with Paul-Émile Borduas in Montreal, who had extended the ideas of surrealism into a movement called Les Automatistes. Finding the society of French Canada unreceptive to his new art, Riopelle moved to Paris. Mitchell had been impressed by the New York Abstract Expressionists, particularly de Kooning and Kline, but began to evolve her own particular style after visiting France.
In parallel to New York, Paris had developed a similar artistic movement called Abstraction Lyrique (Moszynska, 1990, p 120). This differed from the New York movement mainly by rejecting the geometric approaches, such as those of Barnett Newman or Josef Albers, which was considered “cold abstraction.” Mitchell and Riopelle painted most of their major works in France, and could be considered proponents of this type of abstraction. However, the term is ambiguous since “lyric abstraction” was also used to describe a group of New York artists in the 1960s.
Lives of the Artists
Mitchell and Riopelle came from vastly different backgrounds. Mitchell (1925-1992) was born into a wealthy family in Chicago. Her maternal grandfather Charles Strobel was an accomplished engineer who had designed many of the early Chicago steel-frame skyscrapers. Her mother was a poet and co-editor of Poetry, her father a very successful dermatologist and amateur painter. Riopelle (1923-2002) was from the middle class. His father was a builder and Riopelle started out with the idea of becoming an architect. For both Riopelle and Mitchell, early teachers inspired their artistic talents, and they both decided to pursue painting – Mitchell in New York with the Abstract Expressionists, and Riopelle in Montreal with the Automatistes. Mitchell visited France in 1948 but began her painting career in New York. Riopelle moved to Paris in 1948 and soon became recognized for his large abstract paintings, such as Pavane (1954) (not in the AGO exhibition) but reproduced below:
Mitchell and Riopelle met in Paris in 1955. Both were married, but Riopelle was living apart from his wife and Mitchell had divorced her husband. They were mutually attracted and spent time together, ultimately moving into a shared studio apartment in Paris in 1959. Paris was the city where art was created and love was enjoyed. Mitchell considered the beginning of their relationship in terms of Piaf’s famous La Vie en Rose. Their relationship was passionate and tumultuous, productive and persistent. Below are 1956 photographs of the artists in their Paris studios:
In 1967 Mitchell purchased an estate in Vétheuil about 65 km northwest of Paris. This was close to Giverney, where Claude Monet had painted his famous series of Water Lilies, and near a house where Monet had lived before Giverney. Riopelle initially lived at Vétheuil, but he later purchased a separate studio several miles away, and spent much of his time working there or travelling.
The paintings of Riopelle and Mitchell give the same sense of shimmering light as the impressionist works from fifty years before. This is shown in the following illustration which compares a part of a Monet Water Lilies from 1916 to Mitchell’s Mon Paysage (1967). Mitchell’s painting seems to have abstracted the feelings from a landscape of flowers. Not water lilies – but the colors and the feelings are similar.
One might perhaps consider Mitchell’s work as “abstract impressionism.” This formulation has been used to describe some of the later abstract expressionists such as Riopelle, Mitchell, Sam Francis and Patrick Heron, but it never really caught on, and Mitchell disliked the term (Michaud in Martin et al. 2017, p 118).
And as for any artist, the sources of present art have many different predecessors. Some of the late Cézanne paintings which pieced together blue and green color-fields to represent the garden at his home Les Lauves in Provence (1906) parcel out a similar experience to Mitchell’s untitled diptych form her 1975 Canada series. Mitchell uses a different palette of colors and her painting is about twice the size, but the feelings evoked and the experiences suggested are very similar:In 1974 Riopelle constructed a studio in the Laurentians in Canada and began to spend more and more time there. Mitchell visited. Some of her later monumental abstract paintings were inspired by the Canadian landscape, such as Canada I (1975) shown below.
However, the relationship between Mitchell and Riopelle was beginning to fall apart. Mitchell’s large quadriptych Chasse Interdite (1973) was initiated by an angry argument about hunting, which Mitchell deplored and Riopelle enjoyed. In 1978 Riopelle began an affair with Mitchell’s young protégé and assistant Hollis Jeffcoat. In 1979 the relationship between Mitchell and Riopelle ended. Mitchell stayed in France and Riopelle returned to Canada. After their rupture Mitchell painted another quadriptych, bitterly entitled La Vie en Rose (1979). Though not in the AGO exhibition, it is reproduced below:
All paintings convey meaning. However, representational art is far easier to understand than abstract art. The meaning is in the scene, person or object that the painting describes. The style of the painting can highlight certain aspects of this meaning, but ultimately the artist is saying something about what the painting represents.
Abstract art does not directly represent or portray the world. Moszynska (1990, p 7) suggest that abstract art comes from two different approaches. In one the artist starts from an experience of the real world but then simplifies and changes it to highlight its effect on the artist. This gives the viewer a new way of looking at the world. In the other approach the artist starts with some transcendent or mystical idea and tries to give it form. This provides the viewer with some insight into what is beyond any normal sensory experience. Mitchell and Riopelle used the first approach; Barnett Newman and Rothko the second.
Many people give up trying to understand abstract art. The artist provides little help, generally refusing to say what an abstract painting means. Sometimes the paintings are given simple titles, but these often come after the fact, and many paintings remain untitled or simply numbered. The artist insists that the painting means something that could not be expressed in words but only conveyed in paint.
The indefiniteness of abstract paintings has some similarity to music. A piece of music composed without any definite program is appreciated for its melody and rhythm, but most particularly for its emotional effect. William Pater wrote long ago that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” (Pater, 1893). Though he was discussing classical representational painting, his idea fits best with abstract art. Herbert Read proposed that all art involves a response to “harmonies” and “rhythms,” whether they be musical or not:
All art is primarily abstract. For what is aesthetic experience, deprived of its incidental trappings and associations, but a response of the body and mind of man to invented or isolated harmonies? Art is an escape from chaos. It is movement, ordained in numbers; it is mass confined in measure; it is the indetermination of matter seeking the rhythm of life. (Read, 1931, p 42)
The difficulty in understanding an abstract painting can sometimes lead to hostility. Exasperated viewers may claim that a monkey or a three-year old could paint something similarly meaningless. They fear that the artist is putting one over on them.
Perhaps the best approach is to let the paintings directly provide a new sensory experience. This is helped by the large size of many abstract paintings, which can fill the viewer’s field of vision. What emotions do the paintings trigger? Emotions are difficult to put into words. But this does not make them any less powerful, or any less meaningful. The following quotation is from the play Red which brought the art of Rothko to the stage
Wait. Stand closer. You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you: let it embrace you, filling your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist. Let the picture do its work – But work with it. (Logan, 2009)
The direct sensory and emotional experience of abstract art can be illustrated in two paintings. The first is La Forêt ardente (1955) by Riopelle. The French ardent means “burning” or “passionate.” The experience of the painting is similar to that of being in an autumn forest. The darkness, the colored leaves, and the sky above are all there. But the essence of the experience is its passion.
The second painting is Girolata (1964) by Mitchell. Girolata is an isolated village on a bay on the west coast of Corsica. The following is a photograph of the bay by Pierre Bona (2006). And below that is Mitchell’s painting. The experience of the painting is one of serenity. All is right with the world.
In relation to the idea of turning landscape into feelings, one may quote Mitchell’s own words from the introduction to her exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1974 (Tucker, 1974);
My paintings aren’t about art issues. They’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape.
I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it … I could certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.
The painting is just a surface to be covered. Paintings aren’t about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feeling, yet it’s pretentious to say they’re about feelings, too, because if you don’t get it across, it’s nothing.
When one compares the paintings, it is important to realize that the work of both painters, particularly that of Riopelle, evolved through different styles. So we must talk in terms of artistic tendencies rather than fixed techniques – dispositions rather than rules. And it will be easy to find contradictory examples.
Mitchell always used a brush, whereas Riopelle used a palette knife or trowel. Riopelle’s oil-paintings are characterized by an almost sculptural surface – impasto – whereas Mitchell’s are flat and fleeting. The paintings therefore catch the light differently: Mitchell’s reflect the light very gently and suggestively; Riopelle’s shiny irregularities glitter or coruscate. The following illustration compares their surfaces, Mitchell’s is taken from an untitled 1955 painting, Riopelle’s from La Forêt ardente (1955).
Riopelle tended toward saturated primary colors, taking them straight from the tube; whereas Mitchell mixed her paints and used a much broader spectrum. The number of different shades in a Mitchell painting is generally far higher than in a Riopelle. Riopelle’s colors are much more definite; Mitchell’s tend to be lighter, sometimes fading in and out. Riopelle tended toward the red end of the spectrum, Mitchell toward the blue.
Mitchell’s paintings almost always have a white or lightly tinted background – her shapes and lines appear briefly out of the mist. Many of Riopelle’s paintings have no background, the colors intermingling without any limits. In others the background is dark, with bright colors appearing out of some primeval chaos.
Mitchell’s paintings use two main structural elements. One is the color field – an area of color that floats in the background. The second is the free line that rides above the background and the color fields. Many of her lines are made with thin paint, and leave downward-dripping rivulets of color.
Riopelle’s most famous paintings are composed like a mosaic out of brilliantly colored tesserae. In some later paintings, lines appear over the background, as though crystalizing out of the face of the deep. In other later paintings the colored regions become much larger and one can see the shapes more clearly.
Both painters were very sensitive to symmetry. This was no mirror replication. Rather there was a balance from left to right of color, lightness and shape. Both Mitchell and Riopelle painted large diptychs and triptychs, wherein symmetry prevails. The following are two examples: Mitchell’s 1992 untitled painting (finished just before her death) and one of Riopelle’s 1977 Iceberg series (triggered by a trip to Baffin Island in the Canadian North) entitled Le Ligne d’eau.
Both artists derived their paintings from sensory experiences. Their paintings are abstracted from but not divorced from the real world. One gets a sense of the Vétheuil garden from the Mitchell’s 1992 painting, and of Baffin Island from Riopelle’s.
Sometimes the artists appear to be imitating each other styles. The exhibit pairs two untitled paintings to illustrate this. The Mitchell is from 1957 and the Riopelle from 1958; Riopelle is clearly trying out his companion’s style.
The sharing between the two artists is perhaps more evident in Riopelle’s work. His gouaches, such as the untitled 1956 example on the right, and his lithographs are composed of lines rather than shapes and have a light rather than a dark background. Nevertheless they are still in his style. His lines are short and replicate themselves. They are not Mitchell’s long, independent and free-floating lines.
Mitchell’s style was more consistent over the years. She was not as much affected by Riopelle as he by her. However, in 1963 she adopted the idea of painting triptychs from Riopelle, whose first triptych had been painted in 1953 (Brummel in Martin Brummel & Michaud, 2017, p. 74). Triptychs were used by artists in the altar-pieces of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Pollack and other Abstract Expressionists had used the form for abstract works. Yet Riopelle almost certainly triggered Mitchell’s first attempts in the early 1960s. Thereafter multi-panel works became a mainstay of Mitchell’s art.
In 1992 Joan Mitchell died in Vétheuil of cancer. Jean-Paul Riopelle retreated to a studio on the Île aux Oies (Goose Island) in the Rivière Saint Laurent just north of Quebec City. Using a completely new technique – spray-cans and cut-out figures – he composed a series of images L’Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg (1992) as his memorial to Mitchell. A portion of this work, which resides permanently in the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec and is not in the AGO exhibit, is shown below.
Riopelle’s nickname for Mitchell was Rosa Malheur, a play on the name of Rosa Bonheur, a 19th century French painter. From that it was not far to Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish communist who was murdered in Germany in 1919 for promoting revolution. The painting also makes rueful reference to Mitchell’s 1979 quadriptych La Vie en Rose. Riopelle’s painting uses the bird-forms that were common in his later lithographs. These appear to signify freedom and its loss. This was Riopelle’s last painting. He died in 2002.
Anfam, D. (1990). Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson.
Cogeval, G., & Aquin, S (2006). Riopelle. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Kertess, K. (1997). Joan Mitchell. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Livingston, J., Mitchell, J., Nochlin, L., & Lee, Y. Y. (2002). The paintings of Joan Mitchell. New York: Whitney Museum.
Martin. M., Brummel, K., & Michaud, Y. (2017). Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation. Québec: Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec.
Moszynska, A. (1990). Abstract art. London: Thames and Hudson.
Pater, W. (1893, edited by Hill, D. L., 1980). The Renaissance: Studies in art and poetry Berkeley: University of California Press.
Read, H. (1931). The meaning of art. London: Faber & Faber
Sandler, I. (1970). The triumph of American painting: A history of abstract expressionism. New York: Praeger
Tucker, M., (1974). Joan Mitchell. New York: Whitney Museum of Art. Available at archive.org.
Viau, R. (2003). Jean-Paul Riopelle. Québec: Musée du Québec.
In 1892 Georges Rodenbach published a short novel entitled Bruges-la-Morte (“Bruges, Dead City”). Although the book deals more with internal emotions than external reality, Rodenbach included in his book 35 photographs of the city of Bruges (Flemish, Brugge). The city thus plays as much a part in the novel as its human characters. This was the first time that a work of fiction had been photographically illustrated.
Georges Raymond Constantin Rodenbach (1855–1898) was born in Tournai, Belgium. His French mother and German father soon moved to Gand (Flemish Gand, English Ghent) in the Flemish northern region of Belgium, not far from Bruges. Rodenbach studied law at the University of Ghent and practiced briefly before turning to poetry and journalism. He moved to Paris in 1888, where he married a fellow journalist, wrote for the Figaro and served as a correspondent for the Journal de Bruxelles, He became friends with the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and participated in the literary salons of the day, where he met Edmond de Goncort, Auguste Rodin, the young Marcel Proust, and Odilon Redon. As the 1894 photograph by Nadar shows, Rodenbach became quite the dandy. Bruges-la-Morte was initially serialized in the Figaro and then published in book form by Flammarion.
Rodenbach died in 1898 from the complications of an appendicitis. He was buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery. His monument by sculptor Charlotte Dubray (1902) is outrageously romantic. A bronze likeness of the dead poet emerges from the shattered grave holding aloft a rose. Beauty triumphs over death! Joël Goffin suggests that the tomb alludes to various occult and gnostic ideas promoted by the Salon de la Croix+Rose (1892-1897) established by Joséphin Péladan.
Bruges was a major city in the medieval County of Flanders in the northern coastal plain of what is now Belgium. Connected to the North Sea by the estuary of the River Zwin, Bruges became an important trading center, closely associated with England through the wool trade, and with Scandinavia and the Baltics through the Hanseatic League, which maintained a major office (Kontor) in the city.
The city promoted religion as well as trade. The Church of Our Lady has one of the tallest spires in Europe. The Basilica of the Holy Blood enshrines a relic of Christ’s blood brought back from the Holy Land after the Second Crusade. The city was home to one of the larger Béguinages, communities of lay religious women. Some say that these housed women of the middle and upper classes whose fathers or husbands had died in the crusades.
Religion and trade both fostered art. Two great Flemish painters of 15th Century, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, lived in Bruges. Within the Church of Our Lady is a sculpture of The Virgin and Child by Michelangelo, bought in 1504 by two wealthy merchants from Bruges.
Flanders changed hands several times during its golden age from the 12th to 15th centuries. At various times allegiance was paid to France, Burgundy, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain. However, by the 16th century, the River Zwin had become too silted to allow the passage of merchant ships. Wars of religion and succession devastated the countryside and the city lapsed into obscurity.
In the late 19th century Bruges returned into the public eye as a center for tourism. Most of its medieval buildings remained intact. Most striking is the medieval bell tower on the main square with its carillon. The atmosphere of past glories evoked by the canals and cobblestones fit well to the melancholy sensitivity of the fin-de-siècle.
Bruges remains to this day a beautiful city. The following photograph (Emmanuel Parent, 2013, Flickr, cropped) shows the Spiegelrei canal looking toward the Jan van Eyck square and the Burghers’ Lodge (Poorterloge)
A brief summary of the plot of Bruges-la-Morte follows, with occasional quotations (from the Mosley translation) to illustrate the book’s poetic style.
Five years after the death of his beautiful young wife in Paris, Hugues Viane remains in mourning. He has moved to the city of Bruges, whose quiet melancholy suits his persisting sadness. He tries to remember all he can about his wife. He does little else. Every day he walks around the city:
In the mute atmosphere of the lifeless waters and streets Hugues felt his heartache less, and he could think more calmly about his wife. In the line of the canals, he was better able to see and hear her again, to discover her Ophelia face floating along, to listen to her voice in the high-pitched song of the carillon. (p. 18)
In a special room in his house Hugues keeps mementos of his wife: several portraits, furniture on which she had sat, cushions that she had embroidered, curtains that she had hung. The most treasured of these objects is a plait of her golden hair, displayed in a crystal case.
On one of his walks, Hugues sees a young woman who looks exactly like his dead wife. Entranced he follows her until she enters the theater. She turns out to be Jane Scott, a dancer in the opera Robert le Diable (Meyerbeer, 1831). She plays the spirit of the abbess Helena who comes back to life in the graveyard of the cloister along with her nuns. Tools of the devil, they convince Robert to steal the sacred branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie. This will give him magical but unholy powers.
Hugues meets Jane, and she soon becomes his mistress. Hugues installs her in a pleasant house on the outskirts of Bruges. The people of Bruges and Hugues’ housekeeper are scandalized by this affair. However, Hugues cares not. His sadness lessens. His memories have become a person.
When he took her head in his hands and brought it close to him it was to look into her eyes, searching them for something he had seen in others: a nuance, a reflection, pearls, even some flowers with roots in the soul. (p. 42)
After a while Jane tires of her sad and serious lover. She takes up with her old friends, though she keeps Hugues as her lover and financial support. One day she decides that she should visit his house, to assess his fortune and see what jewelry she might acquire. She cajoles him with
that tempting voice possessed by all women at certain times, a crystal voice that sings, swells into haloes, in eddies where men surrender, whirl around and let themselves go. (p. 88)
She visits Hugues on the day of the Procession of the Holy Blood through the streets of Bruges. Hugues is enthralled by the color and the music. Jane is bored, and jests about the mementos of Hugues’ wife. She pulls the golden braid out of the crystal case and plays with it, winding it around her neck like a scarf. Hugues tries to retrieve it. Jane resists. Hugues becomes incensed. He pulls the braid taut and strangles her.
She was dead – for having failed to guess the Mystery and that one thing there was not to be touched on pain of sacrilege. She had laid a hand on the revengeful hair, that hair which, as emblem for those who soul is pure and in communion with the Mystery – implied that the minute it was profaned, it would itself become the instrument of death. (p. 101)
The procession returns. The bells ring.
Hugues repeated incessantly, “Morte… morte… Bruges-la-Morte,” with a mechanical look, in a slack voice, trying to match “Morte… morte… Bruges-la-Morte,” to the cadence of the last bells: slow, small, exhausted old women who seemed languishingly – is it over the city, is it over a tomb? – to be shedding petals of flowers of iron. (p. 102)
Rodenbach considered the photographs an essential part of his book. In his foreward he states that Bruges acts as a “main character, a city associated with states of mind, one that is able to advise, dissuade, induce action.” Since Bruges was not simply a back-drop but a force in the action, Rodenbach thought is essential to have the city “reproduced visually within the text: the quays, deserted streets, old residences, canals, Béguinage, churches, belfries, cult objects.”
The illustrations for Bruges-la-Morte were chosen from the catalogue of Lévy and Neurdein, who specialized in touristic photographs used for postcards, souvenirs and stereographs. Most of the chosen images contain no people.
The photographs are loosely associated with events occurring in the text. They show the reader with what Hugues might be seeing while the text describes what he is feeling. For Hugues, Bruges had become the incarnation of his lost love. Like his wife Bruges was once but is no more alive and beautiful.
But as evening fell, he liked to wander about, looking for resemblances of his sorrow in the lonely canals and the religious quarters of the city. (p. 18)
On the right is the illustration that faces the page containing this quotation. It shows the canals and the bridge leading to the entrance to the Béguinage.
The new art of photography was a way of fixing forever the essence of a person or a place – a way of stopping time. One of the main themes of the novel is that time can neither be stopped nor reversed. The dead do not return. Bruges-la-Morte is a novel about memory and representation. Does Jane represent Hugue’s lost wife or is she simply a resemblance? Photography is intimately related to memory. Old photographs are an aid to remembering the when and where of our past. Sometimes the photographs become our memories.
The canals in Bruges are a boon to the photographer. They allow the real and the reflected to be captured simultaneously. The images suggest another world in the reflection beneath the real.
The use of photographs in novels did not catch on. Readers thought that it was the writer’s responsibility to describe in words where things occurred as well as what was thought. Rodenbach himself noted in a later discussion about the concept of an illustrated novel that “even a mildly astute reader would always prefer to imagine the characters, since a book is only a point of departure, an excuse and a canvas for dreams.” (Dossier in Flammarion edition of Bruges-la-Morte, 1998, pp. 331-332). However, I believe he is more concerned in this comment with illustrations that depict the events and characters in a novel rather than just its setting.
Recently, W. G. Sebald has used photographs in his books Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1999) and Austerlitz (2001). Like Bruges-la-Morte these writings deal mainly with states of mind. The low-resolution photographs provide a setting for the emotions.
Flammarion engaged the Belgian symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) to provide an illustration for the frontispiece of Bruges-la-Morte. Khnopff had spent his early childhood in Bruges. His etching shows Hugues’ dead wife lying upon the waters of Bruges before the bridge leading to the Béguinage.
Her pose recalls the 1852 painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. This fits with the text
In the line of the canals, he was better able to see and hear her again, to discover her Ophelia face floating along, to listen to her voice in the high-pitched song of the carillon. (p. 18)
Secret-Reflet (“Secret Reflection”), one of Khnopff’s later works (1902), is in the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. It combines two images. The upper circular picture shows Khnopff’s sister and muse Marguerite touching a mask of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. The lower shows a pastel drawing of the houses of Bruges reflected in the canals. This is similar to the illustrations in Bruges-la-Morte. The painting alludes to a secret life beyond or beneath our transient reality. The symbolists were fond of the tradition of hermeticism, deriving from the writings of the mythical Hermes Trismegistus. These brought together various strands of mysticism and Gnosticism to suggest the idea of a secret world, of which only the esthetically sensitive were aware.
Bruges-la-Morte can be read as a simple story of how a young dancer was murdered by her lover. As such it vividly depicts the mental and emotional state of the murderer. Most importantly it shows how the atmosphere of a place – the mist, bells, reflections, loneliness, and religious processions of Bruges – can accentuate the emotions of love and grief, and allow them to change into rage.
This is a prototypical symbolist novel. Literary symbolism was a reaction against the naturalism of Balzac and the realism of Zola. Rather than dealing with the external forces that control one’s life, the symbolists focused on the internal emotions and motivations that cause action. The protagonist is typically a solitary and sensitive individual, a precursor of the existential hero of the mid-20th century. And the story looks less at the events and settings and more at their effects on the mind. As Stéphane Mallarmé remarked the goal was ‘to depict not the thing but the effect it produces.’
A symbol is a way of representing the invisible. It combines concealment with revelation: an idea is reproduced only through allusion, and yet this allusion increases our understanding of the idea. The Symbolist Movement tended to spiritualism and the occult. More concerned with the ideal than with the specific, it was perhaps literature’s way of replacing the religion that science and realism had defeated.
In his introduction to The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899/1919), Arthur Symons concluded
Here, then, in this revolt against exteriority, against rhetoric, against a materialistic tradition; in this endeavour to disengage the ultimate essence, the soul, of whatever exists and can be realized by the consciousness; in this dutiful waiting upon every symbol by which the soul of things can be made visible; literature, bowed down by so many burdens, may at last attain liberty, and its authentic speech. In attaining this liberty, it accepts a heavier burden; for in speaking to us so intimately, so solemnly, as only religion had hitherto spoken to us, it becomes ltself a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual. (p. 9)
Much, then, rides below the surface in Rodenbach’s novel. The story alludes to various myths that tell of the return of loved ones after death, most importantly that of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the canonical version of the myth, Orpheus succeeds in convincing the gods to release Eurydice, but then disobeys their injunction not to look back to see that she is following him out of Hades, and she vanishes. Other versions (e.g. Plato) suggest that the returning Eurydice was only an apparition.
Rodenbach’s story is also related to the magical golden bough that mortals need to descend into Hades (e.g. Aeneid, Book VI, ll 171-203). Jane dances as one of the demonic nuns in Robert le Diable who convince the hero of that opera to take the magic branch from the tomb of the saint. The golden plait of his wife’s hair that Hugues has preserved has both magical and murderous properties. It maintains the memory of his love and acts as an instrument of death
Die Tote Stadt
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was impressed after reading a dramatic adaptation of Bruges-la-Morte that had been translated into German as Die stille Stadt (“Silent City”) or Der Trugbild (“Mirage”). In 1920 he completed an operatic version of the play – Die tote Stadt (“Dead City”). The libretto, attributed to a fictional Paul Schott, was actually written by Korngold and his father.
The operatic story differs for that of the novel. Hugues becomes Paul (P) and Jane becomes Marietta (M). Paul’s first assignation with Marietta occurs at his residence. She plays the lute and sings an old song, sounding exactly like his dead wife. The song itself is concerned with how love should persist after death. The singing becomes an ecstatic duet:
M: Glück, das mir verblieb,
rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb.
Abend sinkt im Hag
bist mir Licht und Tag.
Bange pochet Herz an Herz
Hoffnung schwingt sich himmelwärts.
P: Wie wahr, ein traurig Lied.
M: Das Lied vom treuen Lieb,
das sterben muss.
P: Ich kenne das Lied.
Ich hört es oft in jungen,
in schöneren Tagen.
Es hat noch eine Strophe—
weiß ich sie noch?
M & P: Naht auch Sorge trüb,
rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb.
Neig dein blaß Gesicht
Sterben trennt uns nicht.
Mußt du einmal von mir gehn,
glaub, es gibt ein Auferstehn
Joy, that near to me remains,
Come to me, my true love.
Night sinks into the grove
You are my light and day.
Anxiously beats heart on heart
Hope itself soars heavenward.
How true, a sad song.
The song of true love,
that must die.
I know the song.
I heard it often in younger,
in better days.
It has yet another verse—
Do I know it still?
Though sorrow becomes dark,
Come to me, my true love.
Lean (to me) your pale face
Death will not separate us.
If you must leave me one day,
Believe, there is an afterlife.
Paul falls passionately in love with Marietta. The rest of the story – the loss of love, the desecration of the golden plait, and Marietta’s ultimate murder – follow in a similar fashion to the novel. However, in the opera these events turn out to be a dream rather than reality, and Paul awakens to find that Marietta is still alive. His dream finally reconciles him to the death of his wife. He sings a new verse to the lute song, bidding her farewell until they meet again – not in this world but in the afterlife.
Harre mein in lichten Höhn –
hier gibt es kein Auferstehn
Wait for me in heaven’s plain –
here we shall not meet again.
The opera conveys the intense emotions of the original. However, the addition of music attenuates the sadness, and makes the story far more sensuous.
The following is a 1924 version of the duet Glück das mir verblieb with Richard Tauber and Lotte Lehman.
The duet is often sung as a solo concert aria. The following is a 1994 version by Anne Sofie von Otter with the accompaniment adapted for piano quintet.
In 1987, Don Boyd asked ten different directors to produce short films based on famous opera arias. These were put together to make the feature film Aria. Bruce Beresford visualized Glück das mir verblieb as an intensely erotic engagement between two young lovers (Elizabeth Hurley and Peter Birch) in the city of Bruges. The soundtrack is from the first recording (1975) of the full opera with Carol Neblett and René Kollo. Enjoy!
Rodenbach, G. (1892). Bruges-la-Morte: Roman. Paris: Flammarion.
My quotations are to the English translation by Philip Mosley, originally published in 1986, and reprinted in 2007 by University of Scranton Press. This has no photographs. Another English translation by Will Stone and Mike Mitchell, published by Dedalus Press in 2009, includes a series of photographs of present-day Bruges. Since the original illustrations were an essential part of the book, this seems inappropriate.
Joël Goffin runs an impressive website Bruges-la-Morte, which is packed with information about the book and its author, and which presents his own book (2017) about the novel: Le Secret de Bruges-la-Morte.
Edwards, P. (2000). The photograph in Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte. Journal of European Studies, 30, 71-89.
Elkins, J. Writing with Images. 3/1/ Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte. Website
Fontaine, X. (2012). La photographie non identifiée de Bruges-la-Morte. Tentative de percée d’un mystère, lui-même fonction de l’interprétation du lecteur.In V. Lavoie ; P. Edwards ; J-P. Montier (Eds.) Actes du Colloque: Photolittérature, littératie visuelle et nouvelles textualités. NYU: Paris. Available online
Long, J. J. (2003) History, narrative and photography in W. G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten. Modern Language Review, 98, 117–37.
Wilson, M. G. (2013) Sheets of past: Reading the image in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Contemporary Literature, 54, 49-76.
Dumont-Wilden, L. (1907). Fernand Khnopff. Bruxelles: G. Van Oest. Available at archive.org
The Bruges-la-Morte website has a section on Khnopff
Conway Morris, R. (2007). The elusive Symbolist movement. New York Times (March 16, 2007).
Olds, M. C. (2006). Literary Symbolism. In D. Bradshaw & K. J. H. Dettmar. A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture. (pp 155–162). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Ross, A. (2017). The occult roots of modernism: Joséphin Péladan’s mystical art exhibitions, in Paris, set the stage for everything from Kandinsky’s abstractions to Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” New Yorker (June 26, 2017).
Symons, A. (1899, revised 1919). The symbolist movement in literature. New York: E. P. Dutton. Available at archive.org.
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.
Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) was born as Francesco Castelli in Ticino in the lake district of Northern Italy, which at that time was actually part of Switzerland (Connors, 1999). The son of a stone-mason, he studied in Milan and may have been taught there by the great geometer Muzio Oddi. The young man finished his apprenticeship and came to Rome in 1619 to work for Carlo Maderno, the Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica and a fellow Ticinese. In Rome Francesco assumed the name of “Borromini” after San Carlo Borromeo (1538-84), Archbishop of Milan, leading force in the Counter-Reformation, and perhaps a distant relative of his mother.
In Rome, Borromini met a young sculptor from Naples, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Bernini was the most talented and productive of the Baroque sculptors. With his intense creativity and charming personality, he soon became the favorite of the Roman popes. In 1624, Bernini was commissioned to construct the baldacchino over the high altar at Saint Peter’s, and after the death of Carlo Maderno in 1629, he was appointed Chief Architect of Saint Peter’s.
For a brief time, Borromini acted as Bernini’s assistant. They did not get along (Morrissey , 2005). They were of opposite temperaments: Bernini was charming and enthusiastic, Borromini was obstinate and melancholic. Borromini felt exploited, and thought that Bernini was not sufficiently grounded in the science of architecture to warrant his position. He severely criticized Bernini’s proposals for the façade and bell-towers of Saint Peter’s. The criticisms were correct and the plans were revised, but Bernini never forgave him.
Bernini is the acknowledged genius of the Baroque Age (Hibbard, 1965; Beny & Gunn 1981; Wittkower, 1997; Hopkins, 2002). Recently, however, Borromini has become more widely studied (Blunt, 1970; Morrissey, 2005; Conors, 2007). His architecture is characterized by a marvelous sense of the effects of light on curving surfaces. In his geometry one may sense the divine. The Naxos String Quartet No 7 (Davies, 2007) attempts to express in music the emotional effects of his buildings. The movie La Sapienza (Green, 2015) focuses on the visual splendor of his architecture. This posting concerns two small churches in Rome.
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
Borromini’s first independent commission (1638-41) was to construct a small church, fittingly dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo. This Trinitarian church was located on a small space at the southern corner of an intersection with four fountains. Borromini’s design was based on an oval, geometrically constructed using two adjacent equilateral triangles, symbolic of the trinity. The long circular curves of the oval (red) were drawn using centers (red dots) at each end of the triangles’ adjacent sides. The short curves (blue) were drawn using centers (blue dots) located at each triangle’s centroid. The following figure shows the construction of the oval and the ground plan of the church.
The façade is shown in the following figure, together with a cutaway perspective drawing. One of the innovations of Baroque Architecture was the use of curves in the façade (discussed in Blunt, 1979, p. 76). Because of funding difficulties, the façade of San Carlo was not finally finished until 1665, but Borromini’s early sketches clearly define its subtle curves.
The oval dome of the church ascends to a cupola that contains the symbol of the trinity – a dove within a triangle within a flaming circle. Light enters the dome through lateral windows and through the cupola. A high resolution version of the following figure can be obtained in Wikipedia:
The coffered decoration of the dome is an intricate geometric mesh of octagons hexagons, and crosses. The design is based on the mosaic ceiling of the north ambulatory in the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza just outside the walls of Rome (see figure on the right). This was built in the 4th Century to house the remains Constantia, the daughter of Emperor Constantine I. Borromini not only adapted the design to a dome but also adapted it to give the dome an illusion of greater height.
Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
In 1641-1660, Borromini designed and built a church for the University of Rome dedicated to Sant’Ivo, the patron saint of jurists. This was commissioned by Urban VIII (formerly Cardinal Barberini), under whose papacy Galileo had been sentenced to house arrest in 1633. Connors (2007) has suggested that the geometrical purity of its design may have provided a way for the papacy to heal its breech with science. Galileo died in 1642 soon after the church was begun. Urban VIII died in 1644, and the funding for the church fell away. It was only completed in 1660. The breech was difficult to heal.
The church is located at one end of the arcaded courtyard of the Palazzo della Sapienza, built by Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602). The following figure shows the floor plan of the palazzo and the church, together with a photograph from Adrian Fletcher’s Paradox Place.
Borromini based his church on two equilateral triangles overlapped to form a Star of David. This was also known as the Star of Solomon and thus was a symbol of wisdom. By locating circles at the apices of the triangles or at the midpoints of their sides two basic outlines could be obtained:
These two different outlines are evident in the dome and in the floor plan:
On top of the dome, Borromini placed a lantern, and upon that he built a striking spiral staircase that leads to a flaming emblem (Connors, 1996). What this virtuosic construction means has been subject to great debate: Tower of Babel, Lighthouse of Alexandria, beehive (for the Barberini bees) or papal tiara? In essence, the spiral likely indicates the ascent toward wisdom. In the past it was one of the great climbs for the adventurous tourist in Rome.
Geometry did not bring Borromini serenity. Plagued by funding difficulties, paranoid that others might be stealing his ideas, lonely and embittered, Borromini entered old age. In 1667, he committed suicide. He wounded himself with his sword and died a day later, after having written down his own account of his death:
Last night the idea came to me of making my will and writing it out with my own hand, and I began to write it about an hour after supper and I went on writing with a pencil till about three in the morning. Messer Francesco Massari my young servant … who sleeps in the room next door to look after me and had already gone to bed, seeing that I was still writing and had not put out the light, called to me, ‘Signor Cavaliere, you ought to put out the light and go to sleep because it is late and the doctor wants you to sleep.’ I replied that I should have to light the lamp again when I woke up and he answered: ‘Put it out because I’ll light it again when you wake up’; and so I stopped writing, put away the paper on which I had written a little and the pencil with which I was writing, put out the light and went to sleep. About five or six I woke up and called to Francesco and told him to light the lamp, and he answered: ‘Signor, no’. And hearing this reply I suddenly became impatient and began to wonder how I could do myself some bodily harm, as Francesco had refused to give me a light; and I remained in that state till about half past eight, when I remembered that I had a sword in the room at the head of the bed, hanging among the consecrated candles, and, my impatience at not having a light growing greater, in despair I took the sword and pulling it out of the scabbard leant the hilt on the bed and put the point to my side and then fell on it with such force that it ran into my body, from one side to the other, and in falling on the sword I fell on to the floor with the sword run through my body and because of my wound I began to scream, and so Francesco ran in and opened the window, through which light was coming, and found me lying on the floor, and he with others whom he had called pulled the sword out of my side and put me on the bed; and this is how I came to be wounded.(Blunt, 1971, pp. 208-209.)
The violent passions of the dark gave way to an amazingly cool rationality during the light. At his request, Borromini was buried in the tomb of Carlo Maderno in San Giovanni in Laterano. The will enjoined his heir and nephew Bernardo to marry the granddaughter of his mentor Maderno.
The 17th Century was a time of great changes in how we conceived of the universe and its creator. The heavenly spheres were no longer. The planets moved around the sun and not around the earth. Geometry became a guiding principle for understanding the universe. The circular orbits of Copernicus ceded to the ellipses of Kepler. Kepler used the geometry of perfect solids to explain the different radii of the planetary orbits (Hatch, 2002). And in 1687 all was explained by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Science was explaining the universe with geometry. God was perhaps a mathematician. Baroque art, and Borromini in particular, sought for God in the geometrical interplay of curve and light.
Beny, R., & Gunn, P. (1981). The churches of Rome. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Blunt, A. (1979). Borromini. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (Belknap).
Connors, J. (1996). Borromini’s S. Ivo alla Sapienza: the spiral. The Burlington Magazine, 138, 668-82.
Connors, J. (1999). Francesco Borromini. La vita (1599–1667). In R. Bösel, C. L. Frommel. (eds.) Borromini e l’universo barocco. (pp. 7–21) Milan, Electa.
Connors, J. (2007). The cultural moment at the beginning of work on S. Ivo alla Sapienza. In L. Mochi Onori, S. Schütze & F. Solinas (Eds.) I Barberini e la cultura europea del Seicento. (pp. 581-86). Rome: De Luca.
Green, E. (2015) La Sapienza (DVD). New York, NY: Kino Lorber.
Hibbard, H. (1965/1990). Bernini. London: Penguin.
Hopkins, A. (2002). Italian architecture: From Michelangelo to Borromini. London: Thames & Hudson.
Davies, P. M., & Maggini Quartet. (2007). Naxos quartets nos. 7 and 8. (Sound recording). Hong Kong: Naxos Records.
Morrissey, J. P. (2005). The genius in the design: Bernini, Borromini, and the rivalry that transformed Rome. New York: W. Morrow.
Wittkower, R., (1997, photographs by Guidolotti, P.). Bernini: The sculptor of the Roman Baroque. London: Phaidon Press.
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:
The 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.
Hammershøi is quite different from other painters. His palette is austere. The main colors are, gray and white and black. On one of the walls in the AGO exhibition is a commemorative poem by Sophus Clausen written in 1916. The poem, at least in the English translation, is unremarkable except for occasional lines:
How sweet to know that blacks and greys
Give shelter to the light and let it stay
Gray is not grey nor is black ever black.
The greys in a Hammershøi painting are subtly tinged, often with violet, sometimes with yellow, occasionally with pink or green. On the predominantly grey background, objects are delineated in subdued browns. The most striking characteristic of the paintings is the way that they represent light. Light seems almost to move through the painted surfaces, filling out the space, defining what is present, bringing people into existence, and leaving without a sound.
The restricted palate of Hammershøi’s paintings lead his friend Karl Madsen, an artist and historian, to suggest that he was Denmark’s first “neurasthenic painter” (quoted in Vad, 1992, p. 73). The diagnosis of neurasthenia was popular at the time (Harris 2013). Its various symptoms, both physical (fatigue, dizziness) and mental (anxiety, melancholy), were attributed to a weak nervous system, unable to cope with the stress of modern urban life. The diagnosis is out of fashion nowadays, though similar symptoms occur in modern disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia. Although Hammershøi was quiet and withdrawn, he was far too productive to be considered neurasthenic. Nevertheless, his paintings have a tranquility that can provide respite from the hubbub of city life. They might represent a cure for rather than a result of neurasthenia.
In this posting, the paintings in the exhibition have been photographed within their frames; other paintings by Hammershøi and paintings by other artists are shown without frames.
Hammershøi was the son of a prosperous Danish businessman. He displayed an early talent for drawing, and his family arranged for him to have lessons from the painter Niels Christian Kierkegard, a cousin of Søren Kierkegaard. The drawing on the right (Vad, 1992, p 11), from when Vilhelm was 11 years old, illustrates his early appreciation of light and shadow.
He continued his studies both at the Royal Danish Academy of Art and in the Free Study Schools. One of his teachers, P. S. Krøyer remarked that
I have a pupil who paints most oddly. I do not understand him, but believe he is going to be important and do not try to influence him. (quoted in Vad, 1992, p 24)
His 1885 Portrait of a Young Girl (his sister Anna) was entered into competition for a prize at the Academy. Though it did not win, it was acclaimed by his fellow students, who protested the judges’ decision. It is a remarkable painting: the face and posture are sensitively portrayed; the muted palette of the background gently situates the figure; the hands suggest both rest and tension. Anna’s left hand steadies the image and allows the picture’s transition from three to two dimensions.
In the autumn of 1888, Hammershøi stayed with his friend Karl Madsen, who lived in an old house just north of Copenhagen. There he painted his first “interior” – a picture of an old stove with an open doorway leading into a brightly sunlit room. The light seems almost personified – it enters the other room, comes through the door, pauses on the floor and casts a shadow toward the stove. The painting makes the viewer long to go into the next room to see whence the light comes from. This type of painting was to become Hammershøi’s signature style. Though an accomplished painter of portraits and of architecture, Hammershøi is most famous for pictures showing the effects of light on lonely rooms.
In 1888, the dentist, writer and art-collector, Alfred Bramsen, bought his first painting by Hammershøi. Over the next quarter century, he was an unflagging promoter of Hammershøi’s work. After Hammershøi’s death in 1916, Bramsen arranged for the first catalogue of the paintings. Artist and patron were totally unlike: one introverted, reticent and solitary, the other gregarious, confident and worldly-wise.
With this patronage, Hammershøi became self-sufficient, and in 1891 he married Ida Ilsted, the sister of a fellow artist, Peter Ilsted. Following the wedding, Vilhelm and Ida went to Paris for six months. They then returned to Copenhagen, living for a while in the Hammershøi home together with Vilhelm’s mother.
Over the next few years, Hammershøi painted landscapes, portraits and architecture. In 1897 Bramsen commissioned a painting of Kronborg castle in Helsingør (Hamlet’s Elsinore). Hammershøi produced a masterpiece in terms of its striking perspective and subtle color.
In December 1898, Hammershøi rented an apartment on the second floor of an old building on Strandgade in the old dockyard district of Copenhagen called Christianshavn. The building had been constructed in 1636. Hammershøi was likely pleased that his home originated in the time of Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. The apartment was spacious and endowed with windows facing in all directions. As well as a home, it served as both studio space and subject matter for his art.
The building still exists. The following figures show its location on a google world-map, as well as a recent photograph (from Wikipedia) and the floor plan of the apartment (from Vad, 1992, p 187, with several revisions based on another published plan: the position of the window in room F corrected, the door between B and F doubled, and room D divided).
In his new apartment, Hammershøi began to paint the interior pictures that became his most recognizable images. Many of the pictures were painted in Room F facing the window and door. In some the room is empty; others include a portrait of Ida sitting or standing to the left of the window. Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor 1901 (in the AGO exhibit and illustrated on the right) shows Ida working at some task at a table. The painting is both realistic and impressionistic. The old house had shifted slightly over the years, and the painting shows clearly that the door is slightly askew. Yet it is impossible to tell the subject of the etchings or the focus of Ida’s concentration.
This view painted with the room empty is the subject of some of Hammershøi’s most famous pictures, such as Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (1900, Ordrupgaard, Denamark) and Moonlight, Strandgade 30 (1906, Metropolitan Museum)
The AGO painting Interior with 4 Etchings (1905) was painted in Room A. Over the years the arrangement of the furniture changed. An earlier painting Interior with Piano, Strandgade 30 (1901), illustrated on the right, shows the same view but with a piano and a bookcase rather than a table. Hammershøi tended to simplify his pictures as he grew older. His later paintings show less detail and a more restricted palette.
Interior with the Artist’s Easel (1910) was painted in Room B looking toward Room A. It is a variation on a theme long used painting: the artist at his easel. Yet here there is no artist other than the light coming in the window. Since we can only see the painting from its back, we have no idea of its subject. The true subject of the actual painting is the bowl on the table in the far room. The shape of the bowl and the reflections of the light upon its curves are rendered exquisitely. If this were a photograph rather than a painting, the bowl would be in focus, and the easel in the blurred foreground.
Hammershøi’s new apartment was directly across from a striking building that housed the offices of the Asiatic Company. This was the subject of several large architectural paintings. The 1902 version in the AGO exhibition shows the offices in fog. The buildings are visible but the dockyard behind them, accessed through the arch, is obscure. Masts of ships are faintly visible in the harbor-fog. Other versions of this painting show the buildings without the fog.
Hammershøi is often considered as isolated from the history of painting, as someone whose work was without either precedent or following. Yet all persons are part of the past they learn about, and all are made by the present that they experience. And everyone affects the future.
Hammershøi’s paintings ultimately derive from the great paintings of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century, when Vermeer and de Hooch depicted the effects of light coming through windows onto people. Hammershøi’s paintings study the way light plays on domestic interiors, but the interiors are minimal rather than extravagant, the light is cool rather than warm, and the people are either absent or unobtrusive.
In the late 19th Century, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) had begun to work with a restricted palette. His most famous painting is entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871). In Hammershøi’s 1886 portrait of his own mother the color is even more subdued and the background even less detailed.
Many of Hammershøi’s interiors include a representation of Ida viewed from the back. This motif derives from the Rückenfigur (“figure viewed from the back”) used in German Romantic painting, most characteristically by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Most of Friedrich’s Rückenfiguren are in landscapes, but occasionally they are in domestic interiors. The following illustration compares Friedrich’s Woman at a Window (1822) with Hammershøi’s The Tall Windows (1913). The latter was painted after Hammershøi had moved across the street to Strandgade 25.
The Rückenfigur can be used for various purposes (Koerner, 1990, pp 233-244; Prettejohn, 2005, pp 54-59). One is to provide a foil for the viewer to enjoy the same perceptions as the artist who painted the picture. The Rückenfigur
is not just a represented object in the picture, but also the embodied subject of the aesthetic experience of the picture – we look with, rather than merely at the Rückenfigur. (Prettejohn, 2005, p 56).
In some sense the Rückenfigur obscures what the painting is about. We see the man rather than the sunset. We feel that we have come late – the glories of the sunset have already been seen and we can only imagine what the experience was like (Koerner, p. 233).
The presence of Ida in Hammershøi’s paintings differs from Friedrich’s Rückenfigur. Most importantly, Ida usually stands or sits on the edge of the painting rather than in the center. She complements rather than obscures the picture’s subject. She gives the image a sense of intimacy: we are sharing her domestic space. We get a sense of her existence: the small tasks that make up the domestic day. She gives a human ground to what we see and prevents it from becoming too abstract.
Sometimes, as in the Interior with a Woman Standing, Strandgade 30 (1905) painted in Room A looking into Room D, the viewer feels uncertain. By which door has she come in? Which door is she about to go out? The woman seems “caught in the moment of deciding which door to pass through” (Alsdorf, 2016, p. 271). Although this uncertainty derives simply from the static nature of the representation, it resonates with our inability to know what is in the mind of another person.
This particular problem fascinated the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). In a recent article, Bridget Alsdorf (2016) considers Hammershøi’s interior paintings in relation to Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or (1843). The title of the book highlights the idea of uncertainty. In the section of the book entitled Shadowgraphs. Kierkegaard wrote about the difficulty in representing in art the inner state of another person, especially the state of “reflective sorrow.” Kierkegaard’s idea is that art can only represent such a state of mind indirectly. He likens the process to a “shadowgraph:”
It is this reflective sorrow I now propose to draw out and render visible, so far as that is possible, in some pictures. I call them ‘shadowgraphs’, partly to remind the reader by the very designation that I am summoning them from the dark side of life, partly because, just like shadowgraphs, they are not visible straightaway. If I take a shadowgraph in my hand, I gain no impression from it, can form no real idea of it; it is only when I hold it up to the wall and look not at the immediate image but at what appears on the wall, it is only then that I see it. Similarly the picture I want to show here is an inner picture which can also only be detected by looking through the exterior. There may be nothing striking about the exterior, it is only when I look through it that I discover the inner picture, which is what I want to show, an inner picture too refined to be visible on the outside, woven as it is of the softest moods of the soul. If I look at a sheet of paper, to outward observation there may be nothing remarkable about it; it is only when I hold it up to the light of day and see through it that I discover the delicate inner picture which is as though too insubstantial to be seen immediately. (p. 130)
Unfortunately, Kierkegaard is quite unclear about the nature of a shadowgraph. On the one hand it might be like a transparency or silhouette through which light is projected to give an image on another surface; on the other hand it might be like a watermark seen when paper is held up to the light. In either interpretation, the image is not immediately apparent but only occurs when light is passed through the artistic representation. Kierkegaard’s metaphor is as ambiguous as the title of his book.
Kierkegaard then goes on to consider the state of reflective sorrow in three characters from literature. His bravura descriptions of their invisible state of mind either subvert his claim that such states cannot be represented in art or clearly demonstrate the process of the sympathetic shadowgraph.
Alsdorf also considers what Hammershøi might be trying to represent in his interiors by relating them to another section of Either/Or entitled The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage. In this section, Kierkegaard’s character Judge William compares romantic love with married love: the one an ever-changing erotic quest, the other an unchanging relationship. Hammershøi interiors certainly suggest the timeless intimacy of the latter.
Hammershøi’s images have a mystical aura to them. They are delicately balanced between serenity and disquiet. Perhaps a little like meditation when one begins to feel an underlying eternity but still senses the sorrows of the real world.
Many critics have remarked about the lack of narrative in Hammershøi’s paintings. When the rooms are empty, we cannot know what has happened in them; when the rooms contain a solitary person, we have difficulty seeing what she is doing and we cannot know what she is thinking.
Yet there is an emotional force in the paintings that no amount of exegesis can attenuate. The emotions are like those aroused by music. Hammershøi appreciated music, and counted the English concert pianist Leonard Borwick among his friends. We do not fault music for lack of narrative or the absence of simple interpretation. Hammershøi’s paintings fit very well with quiet music. Try them with the beginning of the Allegretto from Grieg’s 1887 Violin Sonata Opus 45 (Ingolf Turban and Jean-Jacques Dünki):
Hammershøi was an accomplished and sensitive portraitist. The 1907 portrait of Ida with a teacup illustrates clearly the intimacy of their relationship. She stares off into space. We cannot know what she is thinking; perhaps even she does not know. The initial impression is of sadness although another version of the same portrait perhaps shows the hint of a smile. The portrait is very affecting. There is something timeless and classical about its serenity, but it is also quite momentary and individual. We can almost hear the clink of the spoon as she stirs her tea.
The 1901 portrait at the left is of J. F. Willumsen, a friend and fellow-artist. The strength of the gaze is clearly represented, but the portrait is otherwise unremarkable. However, this picture was a study for Hammershøi’s largest painting entitled Five Portraits, completed in 1902 and presently in the Thiel Gallery near Stockholm. This fascinating painting shows four colleagues seated around a table at night in front of the windows in Room A. Karl Madsen is on Willumsen’s right. In front of the table, Hammershøi’s brother Svend is seen in profile. The two colleagues on the edges of the painting are the architect Thorvald Bindesbøll and the painter Carl Holsøe. The latter has his feet up on a chair, and his shoes give the painting a striking three-dimensional tension. The group appears to be gathered for after-dinner drinks, following a late but not last supper. The painting’s darkness contrasts with the lightness of most of Hammershøi’s interiors (and makes it difficult to obtain a good representation – I have done my best):
The most striking aspect of this group portrait is that no one interacts with anyone else. Each person seems completely engrossed in his own thoughts. Monrad (2012, p. 29) quotes a review of the painting’s first exhibition:
The situation is more or less this; there has been profound talk about something or other that has moved everyone deeply, and they are now waiting for a conclusive word from a sixth party.
The sixth party could be the painter. This interpretation is possible, but Monrad discounts it as not in keeping with Hammershøi’s general lack of narrative.
Robert Rosenblum (in Fonsmark et al., 1998, p. 45) remarked:
The effect is like standing before a tribunal, which comes into fixed, focal focus with the hypnotic stare of Willumsen.
It is unsettling to be judged by a painting.
Despite its starkness, I find the picture comforting. Each person exists within his own intense solitude. Yet, as in the daylight pictures, the play of light on the faces and the table serves to bring them all together.
Hammershøi died of cancer in 1916. Bramsen donated his collection to the Statens Museum for Kunst in 1917. But fashions change, and in 1930 the paintings were returned to the donor. Hammershøi came to be considered only a minor artist in Denmark; in the rest of the world he was almost completely unknown. His reputation only began to change in the early 1980s when a retrospective exhibition of his paintings was mounted at Ordrupgaard, a gallery just north of Copenhagen, and other exhibitions were held in North America.
Hammershøi had little direct effect on subsequent artists. His friends Carl Holsøe and Peter Ilsted continued to paint interiors, though their pictures were more detailed and less affecting than those of Hammershøi. In France, Pierre Bonnard and Eduard Vuilliard painted domestic scenes. One might even consider the possibility of an artistic movement called “intimism’ (Hvidt, in Monrad et al., 2012, pp. 197-218). Yet their paintings lacked Hammershøi’s simplicity of color and the underlying mysticism.
The American Edward Hopper (1882-1967) painted pictures that are imbued with a similar mood to those of Hammershøi. They depict the same lonely silence, the same play of light on simple interiors, and the same existential anxiety (Rosenblum in Fonsmark et al., 1998, p. 42). Yet Hopper was likely unaware of Hammershøi’s work. Their relationship is an affinity rather than a direct connection. The following illustration compares Hammershøi’s Ida in an Interior with Piano (1901) with Hopper’s City Sunlight (1954).
To me the glowing color spaces of Hammershøi’s paintings presage the completely abstract paintings of Mark Rothko. Rosenblum (1975) has suggested that a tradition in art that is particularly “northern,” one that sees light as cool rather than warm, one that tends towards abstractions, one that goes from Friedrich to Rothko. Rosenblum does not mention Hammershøi in his book, but we could easily place him along this path.
The Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) was profoundly affected by Hammershøi’s images (Balló et al. 2006). The closing scene of his 1ast movie Gertrud (1968; Schamus, 2008) ends on an image that could easily be a Hammershøi painting. The movie, based on a 1906 play by the Swedish writer Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941), concerns the passionate life of a woman who sought the freedom to love whomever she wished to love. At the end of the movie, the elderly Gertrud, living as a recluse, is visited by her old friend Axel Nygren. She returns his letters; he burns them: they say goodbye. The final minute can perhaps serve as our farewell to Hammershøi
Balló, J., Fonsmark, A.-B., Hvidt, A. R., & Tybjerg, C. (2006). Hammershøi > Dreyer. The Magic of Images. Copenhagen: Ordrupgaard.
Dreyer, C. T. (2001). Gertrud. Criterion Collection (DVD)
Fonsmark, A.-B., Wivel, M., Loyrette, H., & Rosenblum, R. (1998). Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1864-1916: Danish painter of solitude and light. Copenhagen: Ordrupgaard.
Harris, J. C. (2013). Interior with piano and woman in black (Strandgade 30) Vilhelm Hammershøi. JAMA Psychiatry, 70, 774-775.
Kierkegaard, S. (1843, translated Hannay, A., 1992). Either/or: A fragment of life. London, England: Penguin Books.
Koerner, J. L. (1990). Caspar David Friedrich and the subject of landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Monrad, K. (2012). Hammershøi and Europe. New York: Prestel.
Prettejohn, E. (2005). Beauty and art, 1750-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rosenblum, R. (1975). Modern painting and the northern romantic tradition: Friedrich to Rothko. New York: Harper & Row.
Schamus, J. (2008). Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud: The moving word. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Vad, P. (1992). Vilhelm Hammershøi and Danish art at the turn of the century. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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.
Western music often uses a bass line to set the rhythm and to determine the chord progressions. In much of Renaissance and Baroque music the same bass line repeats throughout the piece. The melody is played (and widely varied) in the higher registers while the basso ostinato (stubborn bass) continues in the lower. The meaning is in the high notes, the rhythm in the low. The idea of the “tenor” as the voice that “holds” the melody can also describe the main line of thought in spoken or written communications.
In some ways, this type of music is very similar to the way we speak. The fundamental of the voice is determined by the vibrations of our vocal cords. These vibrations continue throughout our speech. They provide a basic pitch and their on-and-off rhythm determines the cadence of our speaking. The meaning of the speech is then determined by modulating the higher harmonics of the sounds to give consonants and vowels.
The ground bass is the underlying structure of such forms as the Chaconne, the Passacaglia, the Folia and the Sarabande (Ross, 2010). It provides a stable rhythmic and harmonic structure for the melody to play upon. Many of these musical forms came into prominence in the Iberian Penninsula in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Some likely derived from medieval folk tunes. Some may have arrived from the New World or the Canary Isles.
La Folia appears to have begun in Portugal. The word means “folly” or “madness.” Italian spells it “Follia.” Various versions finally evolved into the “late Folia” (Hudson, 1973; Gerbino & Silbiger, 2016):
Diego Ortiz (1510-1570), a composer in the Spanish court, wrote several ricercadas based on La Folia (1553). A ricercada is a form of variation, often using several melodies, and sometimes playing these together in a fugue. The following is the eighth ricercada, played by Jordi Savall and his colleagues:
The most common of the chordal progressions built on the bass line of La Folia is in D minor, as illustrated in the following example (from Campenon & Rustique, 2012) which has a very simple melody in the upper register:
The most famous piece of music to use this progression is the Violin Sonata XII of Opus 5 (1700) of Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), an Italian composer working in Rome. The following is the beginning of the sonata played by Andrew Manze (violin) and Richard Egarr (harpsichord):
Corelli’s sonata was immensely popular. One of his pupils, Fancesco Geminiani (1687-1762) arranged the sonata for a string orchestra in 1726, while he was composing and teaching in London. London was quite taken with La Follia. The following selection is the latter half of the Geminiani adaptation as played by Les Violons du Roy under the directions of Bernard Labadie.
In the years after Corelli, the theme of La Follia was widely used by many different composers in many different contexts. The internet hosts a great website on Corelli (Campenon & Rustique, 2012), and a truly magnificent website devoted to La Folia in all its manifestations.
While in London, Geminiani’s violin-performances were often accompanied by George Frideric Handel at the harpsichord. In 1733 Handel published his Suite No. 4 in D minor for Harpsichord (HWV 437). One of its movements is a Sarabande, a stately dance in three-quarter time (Hudson & Little, 2016).
Handel’s Sarabande uses a 16-bar progression similar to that of La Folia:
Though similar, it is clearly not the same. However, as the webpage on La Folia, states “this piece breathes the same atmosphere, and most likely Handel had the Folia-theme in mind when composing this Sarabande.” Indeed the movement became known as “Handel’s Folia.”
The following is the beginning of the Sarabande played by Alan Cuckston:
In 1897, The Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen wrote a lovely series of variations on Handel’s Sarabande for violin and viola. Halvorsen’s virtuosity as a violinist was only matched by the elegance of his moustache. The following is the beginning of his variations as played by Natalia Lomeiko (violin) and Yuri Zhislan (viola):
In the 20th Century the popularity of La Folia increased. In 1929 Manuel Ponce wrote a set of guitar variations for Andre Segovia. And in 1931, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote a bravura set of piano variations on La Follia. In the following clip, Mikhail Pletnev plays the theme and first seven of the twenty variations:
I shall conclude this posting with the main title theme from Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon: Handel’s Sarabande as arranged for the National Philharmonic Orchestra by Leonard Rosenman. The movie is characterized by stunning photography, with many of the indoor scenes lit by candles. (I have appended a still photograph of the opening scene.) The music is perfectly chosen to represent the time and the place. The film won Academy Awards for both Cinematography and Musical Score.
Campenon, C., & Rustique, J. (2012) Corelli – Sonate La Follia opus 5 n°12. Pdf available from webpage.
Gerbino,G., & Silbiger, A. (2016). Folia. In Oxford Music Online (Grove Music Online).
Hudson, R. (1973). The Folia Melodies. Acta Musicologica, 45, 98-119.
Hudson, R., & Little, M. E. (2016). Sarabande. In Oxford Music Online (Grove Music Online).
Ross, A. (2010). Chacona, lament, walking blues. In A. Ross, Listen to this. (pp. 22-54). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Savall, J., et al. (1998). La folia: 1490-1701. Bellaterra: Alia Vox. (Sound recording) (The liner notes contain an excellent brief history of La Folia by R. V. Nery.)
Savall, J., et al. (2005). Altre follie: 1500-1750. Bellaterra: Alia Vox. (Sound recording) (Also has notes by R. V. Nery.)
“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.
This post presents some visual and musical versions of the Christmas message. Christmas music usually makes reference to the birth of a savior and wishes everyone be merry. The following music is from the Christmas Concerto (1712) by Arcangelo Corelli, played by the McGill University Sinfonietta under Marcel Saint-Cyr. The allegro celebrates the joyfulness of Christmas and the final adagio portrays its peacefulness.
Near the town of Ipswich, where I lived as a child, is the smaller town of Bury St Edmunds, named after Edmund, King of the Angles, who died in 869 defending the land from Viking invaders. He was buried at the abbey of Beodericsworth, founded in the seventh century. As the shrine attracted pilgrims, the town and abbey flourished and renamed themselves after the martyred king. The following photograph shows the ruins of the abbey that was rebuilt in the eleventh century, and the steeple of the cathedral built in the fifteenth century.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle visited Bury St Edmunds and was impressed by its history. His world was following goals quite different from those that had governed the abbey. Man was exploiting others for gain, rather than working together for the common good. The world had forgotten its compassion:
But yet it is pity we had lost tidings of our souls: actually we shall have to go in quest of them again, or worse in all ways will befall! A certain degree of soul, as Ben Jonson reminds us, is indispensable to keep the very body from destruction of the frightfullest sort; to ‘ save us,’ says he, ‘the expense of salt.’ Ben has known men who had soul enough to keep their body and five senses from becoming carrion, and save salt: men, and also Nations. You may look in Manchester Hunger-mobs and Cornlaw Commons Houses, and various other quarters, and say whether either soul or else salt is not somewhat wanted at present! 2
Soul has lost its primacy for understanding ourselves. Yet the concept remains helpful even when freed from its religious underpinnings: that which in us looks to matters beyond the present and that which leads us to help rather than hate our fellows. Carlyle and his world are long gone, but we are still in need of soul.
The following music is England’s Carol – God rest ye, merry gentlemen – as performed by the Modern Jazz Quartet accompanied by a symphony orchestra (1960). 3 Tidings of comfort and joy in soulful variations:
The following photograph shows the ruins of the abbey in Bury St Edmunds in a more abstract manner:
Once we had a soul. We may not now need its theological trappings. But we must regain its compassion and desire for peace.
The posting ends with Percy Grainger’s setting of the Sussex Mummers’ Carol for viola (Paul Coletti) and piano (Leslie Howard). The viola is the most harmonious of the strings, bringing together the brightness of the violins and the intensity of the cello. Grainger’s music comes in many different versions. The message is the same:
God bless your house, your children too,
Your cattle and your store;
The Lord increase you day by day,
And give you more and more.
And give you more and more 4
Happy Christmas! I wish everyone peace on earth and good will toward men. You need not believe in the angels to accept their tidings of our souls.
1 The angels’ words are quoted from Luke 2:14 in the King James Version. More recent translations have followed early manuscripts, which have eudokia (goodwill, benevolence, pleasure) in the genitive form (eudokias). The message then makes the peace contingent on human goodwill “Peace on earth to men of goodwill”
2 Carlyle, T. (1843, reprinted 1897). Past and present. London: Ward, Lock & Bowden. (Book II, Chapter 2, St. Edmundsbury). Shelston (Thomas Carlyle Selected Writings, Penguin, 1971) notes that the reference is to Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass I:6:88-90 when Wittipol refers to Mistress Fitzdottrel as
To so much blasted flesh as scarce has soul
Instead of salt to keep it sweet.
A long tradition has claimed that saints were so full of soul that their bodies did not decompose after death. The unsaintly had to resort to salt to preserve their corpses.
3 John Lewis, piano; Milt Jackson, vibraphone; Percy Heath, bass; Connie Kay, drums. The orchestra is conducted by Gunther Schuller
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.
Dmitri Shostakovich entered the conservatory in St Petersburg in 1919 at the age of thirteen and studied both piano and composition. His graduation piece, Opus 1Symphony No. 1 (1926) was well received. He was granted a professorship at the Leningrad Conservatory.
However, his later compositions were not as highly regarded. Dissonance did not attract the proletariat. Russia’s new society had initially embraced modernism. However, the politicians soon decided that the new forms of art were not really revolutionary but rather were symptomatic of bourgeois decadence, and called for a return to the simple forms of the people.
After his father died in 1922, the student Shostakovich earned money to support his family by playing music for the cinema (Fay, 2000, p. 28). His Opus 35 Piano Concerto No. 1 conveys in its ending a sense of the madcap pursuits of these silent movies. The piano briefly quotes Beethoven’s Opus 129Rondo: Rage over a Lost Penny. Beethoven – ever the revolutionary – was one of the few classical composers still revered in Soviet Russia.
This signed photograph was taken in the early 1930s – at the time of the first piano concerto. A confident young man beginning to make his mark. However, his early success was not to last.
Dmitri Shostakovich first ran afoul of the Communist government for his opera Opus 29 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk which was first performed in 1934 to favorable reviews. The opera is a tale of oppression, lust and murder. Its tone veers betweeen satire and tragedy. Opera had always portrayed intense emotions. Modernism considered these high emotions in lowly people rather than aristocrats – Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is perhaps a precursor to Shostakovich’s opera.
The opera opens with Katerina Izmailova waking up from her lonely and loveless bed. The music is languid but “endowed with the lyric intonations of Russian folk song” (Taruskin, 1989):
Katerina flirts with one of the workers in her husband’s store. He later rapes her. The music of this scene is graphic:
The rape music reaches its climax with an unmistakable ejaculatio praecox, followed by a leisurely detumescence. The salacious trombone glissandos that portray the behavior of Sergei’s member achieved instant world fame when an American magazine dubbed them an exercise in “pornophony.” (Taruskin, 1989, the reference is to a review in the New York Sun).
Katerina and her lover go on to murder her father-in-law and her husband. At the end, justice is served and they are both sentenced to Siberia. Her lover rejects her and takes up with another convict. Katerina casts herself and her rival to their death in an icy river.
Stalin did not see the opera until 1936. He did not like it. Two days later an anonymous editorial in the newspaper Pravda denounced it as a “Muddle instead of Music.”
From the first minute, the listener is shocked by deliberate dissonance, by a confused stream of sound. Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible. Thus it goes, practically throughout the entire opera. The singing on the stage is replaced by shrieks. If the composer chances to come upon the path of a clear and simple melody, he throws himself back into a wilderness of musical chaos – in places becoming cacophony. The expression which the listener expects is supplanted by wild rhythm. …
The composer of Lady Macbeth was forced to borrow from jazz its nervous, convulsive, and spasmodic music in order to lend “passion” to his characters. While our critics, including music critics, swear by the name of socialist realism, the stage serves us, in Shostakovich’s creation, the coarsest kind of naturalism. …
The composer apparently never considered the problem of what the Soviet audience looks for and expects in music. As though deliberately, he scribbles down his music, confusing all the sounds in such a way that his music would reach only the effete “formalists” who had lost all their wholesome taste. He ignored the demand of Soviet culture that all coarseness and savagery be abolished from every corner of Soviet life. Some critics call the glorification of the merchants’ lust a satire. But there is no question of satire here. The composer has tried, with all the musical and dramatic means at his command, to arouse the sympathy of the spectators for the coarse and vulgar inclinations and behavior of the merchant woman Katerina Izmailova … (from translation of review)
Many believed that the review had been written or dictated by Stalin himself. Volkov (2004, pp 105-106) points out that some of the criticisms, such as “create originality by cheap originalizing,” were nonsensical and would never have got by the editors unless they had been too frightened to change them.
What Stalin and his colleagues wanted was music to inspire the masses. In a speech to the Union of Socialist Writers in 1932, Stalin had called on them to be the “engineers of human souls” (Ross, 2007, p 225). The party fostered the idea of socialist realism – art that portrayed the triumph of the people. Art should be representational, uplifting, and easily understood by the proletariat. Formalism was anathema. Art for art’s sake was a reversion to bourgeois decadence.
Shostakovich was devastated. He withdrew his Symphony No. 4 from performance for fear it would further offend the politicians, and published no other music until Symphony No. 5 late in 1937.
The Great Terror
This was the time of the Great Terror (Conquest, 1968). Society was to be purged of those that impeded the progress of Socialism. Show trials brought politicians, generals and artists to confession and abasement. Exile to the Gulag or summary executions followed. Many of his friends and family were arrested and sent to labor camps. Shostakovich was justifiably in fear for his life.
The composer Basner (quoted in Wilson, 1994, p 126) recalled that in the spring of 1937 Shostakovich was summoned to the security police, and interrogated about his relationship to Marshal Tuckhachevsky. The Marshal, a great music lover and competent violinist, had often invited Shostakovich to his house to talk about music and to play together. Shostakovich was asked if politics were discussed at these meetings. Shostakovich denied this, but the security officer then told him to return in two days: “By that day you will without fail remember everything. You must recall every detail of the plot against Stalin of which you were a witness.” Shostakovich assumed that he would be arrested, and slept on the landing of his apartment so that the police would not disturb his family. However, on his return to the ‘big house,’ he found out that the officer who had interrogated him had himself been arrested, and Shostakovich’s name was no longer listed among the suspects. Tuckhachevsky was executed on June 12, 1937.
Symphony No. 5
During this period of fear and death, Shostakovich composed his Opus 47 Symphony No. 5, first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on November 21, 1937 under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky.
The symphony was a tremendous success. The largo moved the audience to tears and the finale had them on their feet. A member of the audience described the response:
Many of the listeners started to rise automatically from their seats during the finale, one after the other. The music had a sort of electric force. A thunderous ovation shook the columns of the white Philharmonic Hall, and Evgeny Mravinsky lifted the score high above his head so as to show that it was not he, the conductor, or the orchestra who deserved this storm of applause, these shouts of ‘bravo’; the success belonged to the creator of this work. (Wilson, 1994, p 126)
What the symphony means remains unclear. The politically correct interpretation was that it represented the life of the Socialist artist, overcoming his initial tribulations and finally realizing the full power of the people. Shostakovich agreed to the subtitle “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.” Taruskin (1995) summarizes an influential review of the symphony by Alexei Tolstoy:
In the first movement the author-hero’s ‘psychological torments reach their crisis and give way to ardour’, the use of the percussion instruments suggesting mounting energy. The second movement, a sort of breather, is followed by the most profound moment, the Largo. ‘Here the stanovleniye lichnosti [formation of a personality] begins. It is like a flapping of the wings before take-off. Here the personality submerges itself in the great epoch that surrounds it, and begins to resonate with the epoch.’ The finale is the culmination, in which ‘the profundity of the composer’s conception and the orchestral sonority coincide’, producing ‘an enormous optimistic lift.’
This interpretation is impossible to fit with the actual music. The crux of the symphony is the Largo, the movement that brought the audience to tears. The movement has the solemn rhythms and mystical harmonies of the Orthodox liturgy (Taruskin, 1995; Tilson Thomas, 2005). The following clip gives the last few minutes of the movement, ending on the sublime notes of harp and celesta:
It is impossible not to hear this as a lament, a requiem for the people who had died during the Great Terror. At a time when religious services were not allowed, people found solace in music. Zoya Leybin describes the audience’s response to the Largo:
They could relate to this music. It had the Russian soul in it, had a power. And people felt connected. They couldn’t pray, so music became religion. (in Tilson Thomas, 2009).
In a poem dedicated to Shostakovich, Anna Akhmatova (quoted by Bullock, 2010) described music as the friend that would never betray or deny her:
Something miraculous burns within her
And in her eyes, lines come into sharper focus.
She is the only one to speak with me,
When others are afraid to approach.
When the final friend had averted his gaze
She was with me in my grave
And sang like the first storm,
Or as if all the flowers had begun to speak.
The last movement of the symphony begins with an enthusiastic march. However, this soon ends and echoes of the preceding movement return. Taruskin (1995) quotes Mravinsky
somewhere in the middle of the movement the quick tempo spends itself and the music seemingly leans against some sort of obstacle and then forces itself onward.
During this interlude, Shostakovich quotes some phrases from his Opus 46 setting of a Pushkin Song called Rebirth, a work that was not published or performed until much later (Ross, 2007, p 235; Bullock, 2010). One cannot tell whether the music was just in his mind, whether he wished to bring the text of the poem to mind, or whether he was relating Pushkin’s lines to Stalin’s suppression of the arts. The poem begins
A barbarian artist with a lazy brush
blackens out the painting of a genius
tracing senselessly over it
his own illegitimate drawing.
The poem then goes on to tell how over the years the paint flaked away to reveal the masterpiece. We must look below the present surface to find the original beauty.
After the interlude, the symphony goes on with a march that has led to many conflicting interpretations. According to Volkov, Shostakovich considered the exuberance of this final march as forced:
It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,’ and you rise, shakily, and go marching off, muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.’ (Volkov, 1979, p 183)
Volkov’s book has been considered by some as a fraud, a compendium of Shostakovich’s writings strung together with Volkov’s ideas (e.g. Fay, 2004. Taruskin, 1995). Nevertheless, some of the bitterness is undoubtedly true. And it is impossible not to consider this quote when listening to the finale.
Different conductors have used different tempos for this ending. In his documentary on Shostakovich, Aranovich (1981) juxtaposed without judgment the slow solemn rhythm of Mravinsy to the franticly rushed tempo of Bernstein. Slow is much more powerful:
Yet this does not mean that Volkov’s interpretation is correct. The message underlying the symphony’s ending is not triumph but it is also not despair. Other interpretations consider the coda as much more personal, repenting Shostakovich’s need to survive or his inability of to defeat evil with his art. I think that it conveys the resilience of humanity despite the current tragedy. We shall survive. This interpretation is not common (but see a review A Pillar to Help Humanity Prevailby Jeff Wall)
The wonder of music is that it resists only one interpretation. Margarita Mazo recalled:
For many of us, listening to a new piece by Shostakovich was a sacred experience. Was he a dissident or was he not? Was he a Communist or was he not? He was so much more complex than that. Besides, can you tell music with words? Can you say with words what this music is about? If so, then why do you need music? (quoted in Mitchinson, 2002, pp 318-9)
Shostakovich remained in Leningrad during first part of the war. He served in the fire brigade during the siege. A propaganda photograph shows a very uncomfortable Shostakovich in full uniform atop the roofs of Leningrad.
At that time Shostakovich composed his Opus 60 Symphony No. 7 Leningrad, which was performed in 1942 in the besieged city, with loudspeakers defiantly broadcasting the music to the Germans. The symphony illustrates how Shostakovich played with the meanings of his music. The opening movement of the Leningrad symphony provides an enthralling march that begins like the Pied Piper and ends as a “gargantuan, vulgar rant” (Ross, 2007, p. 247). The selection gives the middle of this transition:
Initially we cannot help but be swept up by this militaristic Bolero even when we know it represents the German invasion. Emotions are fickle – they can give force to bad ideas as well as good. And music is the mother of emotion.
Volkov claimed that this movement was composed before the German invasion and that the music represented Stalin rather than Hitler, but Fay has pointed out that this may have been a misinterpretation, since the dates on the initial autograph versions of the score are clearly after the invasion (Fay, 2000, note 7, p 313).
Despite the success of his wartime music, by 1948 Shostakovich had once again fallen into disrepute for his formalist tendencies. The criticism is hard to understand. Particularly in his symphonies, Shostakovich’s music is easy to appreciate. His melodies are memorable and moving, his orchestration always exciting.
The criticism of formalism can be invoked against abstract painting, but it is difficult to apply to music. Music is formal by nature. Music can be composed programmatically, but the much of music’s appeal is that it freely plays with the emotions independently of thought.
Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s second-in-command, singled out Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, and Khachaturyan as “the leading figures of the formalist trend in music, a trend which is fundamentally wrong.” Soviet classical music should convert the songs of the people into classical forms:
Any listener will tell you that the works of Soviet composers of the formalist type differ fundamentally from classical music. Classical music is marked by its truthfulness and realism, its ability to blend brilliant artistic form with profound content, and to combine the highest technical achievement with simplicity and intelligibility. Formalism and crude naturalism are alien to classical music in general and to Russian classical music in particular. …
The neglect of programme music is also a departure from progressive traditions. It is well known that Russian classical music was as a rule programme music. …
Melodiousness is beginning to disappear. A passionate emphasis on rhythm at the expense of melody is characteristic of modern music. Yet we know that music can give pleasure only if it contains the essential elements in a specific harmonic combination. (Zhdanov, 1948)
In his criticisms Zhdanov was harking back to the ideas that initially empowered 19th-Century Russian music. Revolutionary theories can be quite reactionary.
Shostakovich was dismissed from the Conservatory and required to repent his misdeeds before the General Assembly. He retreated into himself, and over the next few years composed mainly chamber music. Stalin did not listen to string quartets.
However, as the most famous of the Soviet composers, Shostakovich was selected as a member of the Soviet delegation to the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 1949 (Saunders, 2000). Shostakovich played a piano transcription of the second movement of his Symphony No 5 and read a speech written for him by the politicians. The conference was a free-for-all. Protesters, supported by the CIA, marched outside the hotel with signs demanding Shostakovich’s defenestration:
At one of the conference sessions, Shostakovich was confronted by Nicolas Nabokov, a composer and first cousin of the novelist Vladimir. Though born in Russia, Nicolas had been an American citizen since 1939, and was at the time of the conference in the pay of the CIA. He publicly asked Shostakovich whether he agreed with a recent Pravda article denouncing Hindemith, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Ashen-faced, Shostakovich murmured that he supported the Pravda statements. To do otherwise would have risked his life. For Nabokov not to have realized this was cruel. Nothing is as oblivious as righteousness.
Shostakovich composed music that mixed the emotions. He was therefore fascinated by Jewish music (Scheinberg, 1995). He was intrigued by how Jewish people built a cheerful melody on sad intonations: “Why does he sing a cheerful song? Because he is sad at heart” (Fay, 2000, p. 169). During and after the war, Shostakovich befriended the composer Moishe Vainberg (or Mieczysław Weinberg), a Jewish refugee from Poland. They enjoyed discussing each other’s compositions, and learning each other’s musical traditions
In last movement of his Opus 67 Piano Trio No. 2 (1944), Shostakovich uses a Jewish theme:
Some have suggested that this trio commemorates the Holocaust (e.g. Dubinsky, 1989, pp 111-157). News of the concentration camps was becoming available at the time of the trio’s composition. Some have interpreted the last movement of the trio as representing Jews being asked to dance before they were executed. Although this idea fits the music, the trio was not specifically written to honor the victims of Nazism, but as a requiem for Shostakovich’s friend Ivan Sollertinsky.
Shostakovich directly considered the Holocaust in his Opus 113 Symphony No. 13 Babi Yar (1962). The symphony is a choral setting of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko written to commemorate the massacre of the Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar. The poems and the symphony were discredited by the Soviet government for placing the sufferings of the Jewish people above that of the Russians. Mravinsky refused to conduct the symphony. Though Stalin was dead, Soviet Russia continued to suppress the arts.
Toward the end of his life, Shostakovich was bitter. The photograph on the left by Ida Kar shows Shostakovich in 1959. The anxiety is palpable. Shostakovich was angry about the way artists such as Akhmatova had been treated in Soviet Russia. He was depressed that he had not been free to compose as he wished. The bitterness comes out in Volkov’s Testimony. Although much of the book comes from prior publications, some of it was indeed based on Volkov’s interviews with the elderly composer between 1971 and 1974.
Laurel Fay points out that
Soviet history was always a work-in-progress; people, ideas and facts that became unpalatable were routinely “airbrushed “out of existence in later Soviet sources. Only rarely was anything so erased later on restored. Shostakovich himself was obliged to reinvent his past on occasion. By the time successive generations encountered the “expurgated” pages of their history, they often had lost track of what had been excised, and why. (Fay, 2000, p. 5)
Perhaps only fiction can get at the truth. Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, a fictional retelling of Shostakovich’s life, is slated for publication early in 2016.
Shostakovich died of lung cancer in 1975. His last work was Opus 147 Sonata for Viola and Piano. The final movement of the sonata is similar in length to the last movement of Beethoven’s last sonata. However, where Beethoven is transcendent, Shostakovich is austere. The following clip gives the beginning of the last movement. The piano accompaniment makes allusion to Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, but the violin theme is very Russian.
Aranovich, S., & Sokurov, A. (1981/2005). Dmitri Shostakovich:Sonata for Viola (DVD). Paris: Idéale Audience.
Barnes, J. (2016). The noise of time. London: Jonathan Cape.
Brown, M. H. (2004). A Shostakovich casebook. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bullock, P. R. (2010). The composer’s voice, the poet’s echo: Monologic verse or dialogic song? In P. Fairclough (Ed.) Shostakovich Studies 2 (pp.207-227). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Conquest, R. (1968, revised 1990). The Great Terror: a reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dubinsky, R. (1989). Stormy applause: Making music in a worker’s state. London: Hutchinson.
Fay, L. E. (2000). Shostakovich: A life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fay, L. E. (2004). Volkov’s Testimony reconsidered (2002). In Brown, M. H. A Shostakovich casebook. (pp 22-66). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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.
However, at the beginning of the war, the general population had no such reservations. People rallied to support their King and Empire. Young men thronged enthusiastically to the recruiting centres.
On looking at photographs of these happy volunteers, Philip Larkin wrote in 1960 a poem called MCMXIV
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
The title gives “1914” in Roman numerals, the way dates are written on the war memorials. The crowds lined up as if for a sporting event – cricket at the Oval or soccer at Villa Park. The innocence of England went back to medieval times when the country was surveyed for the Domesday Book of 1086. It was a land of simple pleasures, of hot cocoa steaming in a mug and pipe-tobacco sold in a “twist.” It was a society, where everyone from lord to maid knew their place.
Over the next four years, everything changed. The pubs that had once been open all day became restricted in their hours so that workers did not become too inebriated to produce munitions. Servants fought alongside their betters and began to wonder about why they were different. In the years that followed the war, the British Empire began slowly to unravel. The war etched itself into modern memory through poetry, photographs, painting and music (Silkin, 1972; Fusell, 1975; Malvern, 2004).
The bravado of the war’s first months soon ceded to harsh reality. Young men in their thousands marched to their deaths; trenches were dug like graves in the once-fertile land; the instruments and engines of war grew more efficient and terrible; form and sound became incomprehensible in the exploding shells; death came even in the air that soldiers breathed.
Siegfried Sassoon described trench warfare in his 1917 poem Attack:
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
Sassoon was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. He often went out on his own to engage the German lines, and was called “Mad Jack” for these near-suicidal exploits. Deeply disillusioned by the conduct of the war and the waste of life, in 1917 he wrote to his commanding officer a letter entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, and forwarded a copy of this to the press. Rather than prosecuting him for treason, the military authorities sent him to Craiglockhart Hospital to be treated for neurasthenia or “shell shock.” At the hospital, Sassoon met and encouraged another soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen.
The Great War altered forever the way that we see the world. More than in any previous war, the public was able to see what actually happened from photographs of soldiers in action. These were strictly censored. Nevertheless, the published photographs showed clearly both the isolation of the soldiers and the desolation of the land.
Paintings no longer portrayed romance and courage but horror and fear. Paul Nash was a war-artist who served with the British Army at Ypres in 1917. He wrote to his wife
Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all though the bitter black night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave which is this land; one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls. (quoted by Haycock, 2009, p. 278)
His impressions formed the basis for his painting The Menin Road:
After the Allies broke through their defences in 2018, Germany sued for peace. Negotiations began in October and the war was finally ended by an armistice between the Allies and Germany signed on November 11 at 5 am in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne. Hostilities were to cease at 11 am that day “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” At that time each year since then, we have paused to remember those who died in battle.
Wilfred Owen was killed in action at the crossing of the Sambre-Oise canal on November 4, a brief week before the war ended. One of his last poems imagined what might happen when he died. The slant rhymes underline the uneasiness of his Strange Meeting.
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, –
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . .’
The dead soldier’s description of the life that might have been, the laughter and the tears cut short, portrays “the pity war distilled.” Strange Meeting was one of several poems by Owen that were set to music by Benjamin Britten in the War Requiem, composed for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. The old cathedral had been destroyed by bombing in World War II, which began only twenty-one years after the end of the “war to end all wars.”
Britten used as an epigraph to the score a quotation from the draft preface that Owen had written to a planned book of his poems on the war:
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity … All a poet can do today is warn.
Owen’s words and Britten’s music provide context for today’s Remembrance. The following clip provides the ending to the War Requiem. The final lines of Owen’s poem, beginning with “I am the enemy you killed,” lead into the final section of the mass, initially sung by the two male soloists and a boys’ choir, before ending with the full chorus.
In paradisum deducant te angeli
In tu adventu suscipiant te martyres
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem.
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat et cum Lazaro
quondam pauper aeternam habeas requiem.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Requiescant in pace.
(May the angels lead you into paradise and at your arrival may the martyrs receive you and bring you into the holy city of Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive you and may you have eternal rest together with Lazarus who once was poor. Lord, grant them eternal rest and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.)
Fussell, P. (1975). The Great War and modern memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Haycock, D. B. (2009). A crisis of brilliance: Five young British artists and the Great War. London: Old Street.
Holmes, R. (2001). The First World War in photographs. London: Carlton Book.
James, H (edited by P. Lubbock, 1920). Letters. London: Macmillan.
Larkin, P. (edited and annotated by Burnett, A., 2012). The complete poems of Philip Larkin. London: Faber & Faber.
Malvern, S. (2004). Modern art, Britain, and the Great War: Witnessing, testimony, and remembrance. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Owen, W. (edited and annotated by Stallworthy, J., 1963). The poems of Wilfred Owen. London: Chatto & Windus
Sassoon, S. (1961). Collected poems, 1908-1956. London: Faber & Faber.
Silkin, J. (1972). Out of battle: The poetry of the Great War. London: Oxford University Press.