A Turning Point Ensemble Carnival Without Sauce BéarnaiseSaturday, March 07, 2015
I could compose graceful ballets of my own if I wanted to - by the score. The fact is, I detest conventional 'nightingale and rose' poetry; my own inclinations are 'primitive', I eat my meat without sauce Béarnaise.
|L' Après-midi d'un Faune - 1912 - Baron Adolf de Meyer
As a young twenty something in the early 60s I attended a concert with friends at the University of Mexico that featured a soprano singing Olivier Messiaen. I hated it and I quoted (to my friends) my Spanish grandmother’s “los gemidos de Poncio Pilato” (the moans of Pontius Pilate. In fact the only composer of the 20th century that I almost warmly liked was one called Ellington.
Little by little with youth out the window I learned to appreciate last century’s composers. One most important event was the Turning Point Ensemble’s A Quartet for the End of Time (and yes! Messiaen) a few years back at Ryerson United Church. Of late thanks to the Microcosmos String Quartet I can add Bartók and Britten. Thanks to all the new music festivals at the VSO I can add contemporary composers I had never heard of until now.
Turning Point Ensemble’s, concert called Carnival this coming Friday and Saturday features music of the 20th and 21st century. But two of them are from the end of the 19th. Of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals I will write in tomorrow’s blog. The other 19th century work is Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun.
Thanks to the likes of the Turning Point Ensemble and of those intimate new music gatherings at Pyatt Hall and the Vancouver Symphony’s little hall on Seymour this is changing for this old man. It amply proves that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.
To those who might be tempted to attend this Friday’s and Saturday’s Carnival and as you listen to the soft melodious and so comforting (because of your recognition) Debussy I might just add a bit here that could change your mind to enjoy it even more.
You might wonder how a photograph could affect music. There is no doubt in my mind that Isaac Newton’s scientific (most precise they were) discoveries in the in the 17th century led to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th when reason became paramount. Would it have influenced all those Bach canons and those nicely mathematical fugues of the baroque period? I believe so.
His name was Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier.
It wasn’t until I read Canadian author, Ross King’s The Judgement of Paris – The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism that I heard a big click in my head that brought photography, art and music together in one swoop.
I will be short in the explanation (I have re-read King's The Judgement of Paris several times) but here is more or less how that click happened. In 1814 Meissonier started with his The Campaign of France a theme that included Napoleon on a horse in battle or on his way to one. Meissonier’s paintings were large (The Campaign of France was his smallest at 76.5 cm) and had incredible detail such as Napoleon’s sprouting beard, the veins on the horse and the dirty snow result of the trampling of an army.
This man held court in France and in most of the civilized Western world. But something happened in 1827 that was to change the direction of painting as art. In 1827 Nicéphore Niépce took a picture from his kitchen window that was the world’s first heliograph. By 1839 the French Academy of Sciences announced to the world the Daguerreotype process. Later in that year the English Henry Fox Talbot announced his collotype process.
With Impressionism in vogue the startlingly realistic L'Origine du monde by Courbet was seen as tired as Meissonier. But art history has been kinder to Courbet than it has been to Meissonier. The former is still famous and the latter is mostly forgotten.
As a parallel to this, photographers got tired of recording detail so such pioneers as Alfred Stieglitz began a movement called Pictorialism in which photographs were hazy, blurry and painterly. By the late 1920s this movement began to weaken to be replaced by photographers who now wanted to shoot with consummate sharpness. This is how the Group f64 began headed by Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke.
Since then both photography and painting have gone back and forth between great detail and abstraction and have influenced each other. We might want to add music to this.
Debussy disliked the idea that his music could be called impressionistic. But it did shock as much as Manet’s paintings did in the Paris Salon’s. His Prelude (a complete work in spite of the name) was performed for the first time in Paris on December 22, 1894.
Whichever way you look at it, when you listen to Debussy’s Prelude imagine the Paris police being asked to close the production because of lewd movements in the end of the work by Nijinsky in which he allegedly masturbated with a faun’s veil.
Best of all when you listen to this wonderful work imagine the ballet as seen by the photographs of Baron Adolf de Meyer’s photographs taken not at the performance but at his studio. He used all kinds of devices to unsharpen his images and what is left is a beautiful record of a ballet (it shocked the people of its time) which perhaps someday we might witness here in Vancouver. Until then listen to the Prelude and imagine all the hullabaloo behind it. We are beyond shock now.
I would suggest a good dose of Bartók via the Microcosmos String Quartet soon.
Or perhaps get ready to listen to this Friday (or Saturday) a paired down L' Après-midi d'un Faune arranged in 1920 by composer Benno Sachs who was part of Arnold Schoenberg's circle.
If the stylized hands of the dancers in Baron Adolf de Meyer's photographs make you curious here is is a version of the ballet by Rudolph Nureyev This video reminds me of A.K. Dewdney's two-dimensional world - The Planiverse.
The bassoonist is going to do it