Sunday, May 9, 2010

Music and Art and the Ineffable

Painting is the most lyrical of the visual arts. And music is the most colorful of the "live" arts. It is no wonder the vocabulary used to describe both forms have so many words in common. Line, palette, chromatic, light, volume and harmony are among the most frequently invoked.

To attribute musical qualities to painting and visual associations to music compliments both and sharpens our perception of each.

This Thursday, members of the Chorale will join me and the directors of the Chrysler Museum of Art for a program of music and art for their Mowbray Arch Society. We will perform a handful of songs inspired by, connected to, or literally depicted in a few of the paintings in the Chrysler's treasure-trove collection.

One week from today, the Chorale will present its season finale concert, Perpetual Light, in the Museum's grand, reverberant Huber Court, as part of the Virginia Arts Festival (May 16, 5 pm:

The program is subtitled "five centuries of a cappella classics." That rather generic descriptor is like saying, "Monet and Van Gogh painted flowers." Factual, and lamentably wide of the mark.

The centerpiece of the program's first half is the Missa pro Defunctis (AKA: Requiem) of Tomas Luis da Victoria (1548-1611).

The greatest choral composer of the Renaissance (sorry Palestrina, Victoria is the musicians' and critics' choice) is a near contemporary of one of its greatest painters, El Greco (1541-1614). Besides their shared Spanish provenance, both artists are revered for the highly individual and expressive power of their art.

Both studied & worked in the capital of the European Renaissance, Italy (El Greco in Venice; Victoria in Rome--with Palestrina). Each, in a style difficult to mistake for any other, combines classical (ie: western) values with iconic & mystical ones. Though Italian in origin, chiaroscuro (literally, "light-dark") techniques strengthen the unmistakably Spanish traits of both artists.

Put another way, both Masters have that intangible soulfulness their descendant, the playwright, poet, artist & composer Federico Garcia Lorca called duende. The visceral, earthy, flesh & blood qualities that stamp Spanish painting from El Greco to Picasso, and that infuse music from the cathedral to the opera house to the flamenco dance halls all pulse with duende.

"The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.'"

The counterpoint to Victoria in the Chorale program is the a cappella Requiem of Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968). From the Generazione dell' Ottanta (the "generation of the '80's"), Pizzetti was the most successful and acclaimed composer in Italy after Puccini. Though his contemporary Respighi is more popular today, the leading Italian critic of their day wrote of

“Chopin’s sensibility for the piano, Ravel’s for the orchestra, and Pizzetti’s for the chorus.”

One listen to Pizzetti's Requiem will reveal why.

Indebted to the same chant upon which Victoria based his compositions, Pizzetti reacted against the hyper-emotionalism of fin-de-siecle expressionism and the melodrama of verismo opera. His music is more closely aligned with the restraint & refinement of the neo-classical movement in architecture (like Art Deco & Beaux Arts). A contemporary of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Pizzetti's own neo-classical style emerged years before that of the great Russian composer.

Evidence of the porous--and limiting--quality of such labels abounds in this Requiem. The "conservative" use of Gregorian chant is integrated into a palette that recalls the splendor of the Venetian baroque (the poly-choral "Sanctus" imitates brass choirs scattered throughout a Basilica like St Mark's). The chromatic expressiveness of the harmony recalls that of Victoria and El Greco. Pizzetti's juxtaposition of the famed dies irae ("day of wrath") chant conjures Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique). The juxtaposition of the chant with an eerily wordless descant stretches further back to the grotesque and visionary--if disturbing--world of Hieronymus Bosch (decades before El Greco).

Our obsessive need to categorize, label & contain arises from our desire to control as much as it exposes our fear of the unknown. Umberto Eco's brilliant new monograph, The Infinity of Lists is one liberating antidote to this all-too-human characteristic. He writes

"The fear of being unable to say everything seizes us not only when we are faced with an infinity of names but also with an infinity of things."

In discussing the "infinity of lists" in Homer, for example, Eco describes the "topos of ineffability:"

"Faced with something that is immensely large, or unknown, of which we still do not know enough or of which we shall never know, the author proposes a list as a specimen, example, or indication, leaving the reader to imagine the rest."

Though of finite length and scope, these Requiem settings--and the art associated with them--are examples of the seemingly infinite attributes and associations such masterworks inspire.

The individual pieces the Chorale will perform on either side of these colorful musical canvasses of Victoria and Pizzetti are miniature models of this very ineffableness.

The concert opens with a two-minute gem of sonic radiance by the young Bermuda-born composer, Gabriel Jackson. His setting of William Blake is called "To Morning" and the luminous composition is as rich in detail as one of its poet's equally famous illustrations or engravings. Indeed, the attention to telling minutiae that engage the imagination--in painting and music--is another defining feature of both.

The contemporary Scottish composer, James MacMillan may be the best composer of classical choral music alive today. Though just 50 years old, his influence is already felt on composers like Jackson, among others. Like many a composer of sacred music, iconic and mystical images feed his creativity. The timelessness such art evokes--doubly ironic in the case of music, which only exists in measured time--is the very essence of the ineffable. MacMillan's music performs the difficult feat of sounding both suspended in time while moving fluidly, inexorably forward. His sacred anthems, "A Child's Prayer" and "Christus Vincit" are literally breathtaking.

"Stunning" and "sublime" are frequently used to describe the beauty and effect such art has. This concert closes with one of the most potent examples of our "topos of ineffability," Gustav Mahler's Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I have become lost to the world").

Mahler (1860-1911; he will be fêted throughout 2010-2011 as a result of the double anniversary) was that rare polymath among artists: an equally successful composer, conductor and impresario. His influence in all three arenas continues to reverberate. Though seemingly Apollonian and Dionysian opposites, Karajan and Bernstein (respectively) are Mahler's descendants, as are composers & song-writers as varied as Britten, Shostakovich, MacMillan, the Beatles, Lloyd Webber & Brad Mehldau.

Among other accomplishments, Mahler defined a genre, the orchestral song. Ich bin der Welt is the most beloved of his settings of the Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert. It was also the favorite of our dearly beloved & recently departed friend, Lisa Relaford Coston, in whose memory it will be sung.

A contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, Rückert was admired by Emerson and the New England Transcendentalists. His poetry is a first cousin to the great 19th-century landscape paintings of Friedrich, Constable, and Turner.

Mahler creates a mystical landscape in music by elongating his harmonic progressions so that time sounds suspended. Rückert's verse aches with longing for that sublime repose of the beyond. This longing--Sehnsucht is a German form of duende--mirrors the landscape painters' depiction of the ineffable in nature. It echoes from their time to Mahler's to today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A lot of big words but "thank you"
Glad that I took the time to read this!