Halloween: An Epic Journey to The Isle of the Dead

“A dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.” ~ Arnold Böcklin

As our collective fascination with death prevails at this time of year, my thoughts drifted to Rachmaninoff’s evocative symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, completed in early 1909.

This haunting music was composed after Rachmaninoff had seen a black and white reproduction of the painting Isle of the Dead, exhibited in Paris two years earlier.

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

The original and subsequent versions of the Isle of the Dead paintings were created in colour by the romantic Swiss artist, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901).

Between 1880 and 1886 he painted a total of five versions of his iconic Isle of the Dead. The original painting was commissioned by his patron, Alexander Günther which was spotted half-finished, sitting on an easel in his Florence studio by German widow Maria Berna. This is often referred to as the Basel version.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

She persuaded him to add the female figure and the draped coffin to the solitary rowing boat in memory of her deceased husband. Maria’s painting (version two) was a smaller painting (29 x 48 inches) of oil on wood, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Böcklin must have admired Maria’s idea as he then also added the figure and coffin to his original painting. These first two paintings were titled Die Gräberinsel (Tomb Island) by Böcklin. The enduring ‘Isle of the Dead’ name that all the versions now go by was suggested by art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Painting number three was done in 1883 for Böcklin’s dealer Fritz Gurlitt. Beginning with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Böcklin’s own initials: A.B. The painting was sold in 1933 when it was acquired by Adolf Hitler, where it hung in the Berghof in Obersalzberg. After 1940 it was moved to the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Its less contentious home these days is in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version number four, (upon which Rachmaninoff’s music is based), was created in 1884 due to financial pressures, and was bought by art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen. Luckily a black and white photograph was taken of the painting before it was destroyed by fire during World War II.

Rachmaninoff eventually got to see the fifth and final colour version (painted in 1886) at the museum of fine Arts in Leipzig. He commented that he much preferred the earlier black and white version and that he would not have been inspired to compose his opus 29 had he seen the colour version first instead.

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

“When it came, how it began—how can I say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down.” ~ Sergei Rachmaninoff referring to his orchestral opus 29 in A minor, Isle of the Dead.

Possible inspiration

halloween-pondikonissi_islandIt has been proposed that the Greek islet of Pontikonisi near Corfu, with its Byzantine chapel and Cypress trees was the main inspiration for the painting, along with the high volcanic walls of Strombolicchio. Also the English Cemetery in Florence, where Böcklin’s infant daughter was buried served as the location for the painting of the first three versions. Another suggestion is St. George’s Island in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro.

Overview of the music by Phillip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra :

Rachmaninov begins with the irregular movement of oars in the water. (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, completed just four years earlier, also begins with the stroke of oars on a lake.) The opening is dark—just low strings, with timpani and harp at first—and mysterious. For a very long time, we move forward with little sense of destination, but with a growing urgency. (Tantalizing melodic fragments appear from time to time, like glimpses through the mist, and a haunting high violin theme takes wing at one point.)

Finally, the island comes into sight, the music gathers force and direction, and at last we hear the Dies Irae, the Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead—a motto of mortality that recurs often in Rachmaninov’s music. Then suddenly the music is suffused with life—urgent, passionate, and joyous. (Here Rachmaninov departs from the painting, although Böcklin did in fact paint a complementary Isle of Life two years after his last Isle of the Dead canvas.) But the Dies Irae rings out, and the music is again clouded in shadows. The ending is mostly still, and we are left where we began, with the sound of ceaseless rowing.

Two spine tingling versions:

Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

An arrangement for 2 pianos sourced from my favourite treasure trove of classical music, with Zdeňka Kolářová and Martin Hrše of the Prague Piano Duo:

In honour of  Böcklin  and Rachmaninoff, as well as the historical origins of our modern interpretation of Halloween, I’ve written a few verses of my own:

Journey to The Isle of the Dead

Deep, melancholy chords escort me to the Isle of the Dead,

Remote, alabaster tombs protrude, rising from darkness and dread.

Monotonous oars glide through glassy, unfathomable depths…

No wind to rustle the sombre shroud of Cypress leaves,

Oil on canvas for widow Maria; a window to her dreams.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Reverent brush strokes paint entry to immortal sleep,

The fatal shore beckons: come, come, your soul to reap.

Cross the silent, still surface, to peace or purgatory…

Within the high, pale rock, lies the secret of eternity,

Destiny concealed from searching, inquisitive fervency.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Five versions, against muted backdrop of foreboding firmament

Greys and blues, softened by nebulous cloud; omnipotent.

Navigate lofty cemetery through the watery gates…

Sea and sky blend and merge, in subtle, never-ending horizon,

Arrival assured: but no departure possible, from Death’s Island.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Rhythmic notes on the stave narrate a deathly story,

Atmospheric melody; oppressive, mythical and eerie.

A final journey to the sea-bound realm beyond the living…

Corpses lay buried, side by side, forever to abide,

Within the endless cavern of souls; life doth hide.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Hallowed art and music, death’s mystery shall convey,

Sacred and ancient celebration – All Saints’ Day.

‘Samhain’ bids Gaelic farewell to light; to summer’s passing…

Hallow –e’en, from 18th century Scottish: ‘All-Hallows-Even’

Holy Eve before the rising; for death is conquered in heaven…

By Virginia Burges

Happy Halloween!

HBO’s Popular New Drama ‘Westworld’ and its Provocative Plot 🚂🛤🌵🐎🎬

“These violent delights have violent ends.” ~ Peter Abernathy

Like millions of other viewers over the past few weeks, I’ve been gripped by HBO’s latest drama ‘Westworld’, based on the eponymous 1973 film by writer and director Michael Crichton.

Trailer for the original film with Yul Brynner:

The current Westworld airing on HBO differs in plot and characterisations compared to its earlier, less sophisticated film version, but the premise is basically the same: for an exorbitant sum guests can enter a futuristic wild west theme park where there are no rules, to live out their wildest fantasies.

In Westworld they can maim, kill, rape and plunder at will and without consequences. The murdered and brutally raped inhabitants of Westworld are the creations of Dr. Robert Ford (played chillingly by Anthony Hopkins), co-founder of the park, and are designed to be indistinguishable from humans. Their technology has created highly sophisticated organic robots, programmed with certain memories and narratives that serve the human guests.

These humanoids are referred to by the park’s creators and programmers as ‘hosts’.

Dolores Abernathy

In the first episode we are acquainted with the pretty, sweet-natured Dolores Abernathy, (Evan Rachel Wood), and her loving rancher father. Dolores was the very first host made for Westworld; always youthful and unspoilt, thanks to her constant repairs and ‘upgrades’ after each episode of rough treatment she suffers at the hands of the park’s guests.

We see her going through the same motions at the start of each day, but how each day goes depends on her interactions with the human guests in the park. Her mutual affection for fellow host Teddy, (played by the handsome James Marsden), draws you in to the one beautiful aspect of her world. At first, despite the violence she witnesses on a daily basis and the rapes that she has endured, she does not appear to recall these harrowing incidents.

Or does she?

As glitches are becoming apparent in some of the hosts’ programming they are promptly questioned and either returned with adjustments or taken out of service.

Despite the staff’s efforts to curtail these glitches they only seem to become more widespread and frequent. Trouble is brewing in Westworld…

One of the most harrowing scenes for me was in episode 3 when Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who is currently the madam of the brothel, awakens during her repairs. She sees strange men in hazmat suits hovering over her, gets up and runs off with the wound in her stomach still unrepaired, staggering around the factory in confusion. To make matters worse she stumbles upon the naked, lifeless bodies of her fellow hosts that were also slaughtered in Westworld as they are being hosed down.

It seems she cannot compute what is happening as it is so alien to her normal world. When back in operation within Westworld she begins to draw the hazmat men on pieces of paper to try and make sense of it.

Maeve also has other distressing memories of being scalped and being killed in other settings away from her current role. It’s not easy viewing.

Although you know she and her fellow machines are not human – Dr. Ford makes a big point of telling Bernard not to forget that they are ‘not real’, you start to feel for them as though they were.

In episode 3 Robert Ford tells Bernard (his chief programmer), the story of his original business partner Arnold, who helped him to create Westworld some thirty years prior. Arnold perished in the park under mysterious circumstances, and we learn from the rather cold and detached Ford that Arnold became too attached to the park and obsessed with being able to help the hosts experience consciousness in a similar way that a human being would.

Rather cruel when you witness the atrocities they go through every day. The internal monologue he tried to imbue them with did not appear to succeed, until now perhaps… I’m sure his motives and fate will become clearer as the series progresses.

utah-landscape

But with errant hosts and even innocent Dolores showing signs of cognition and questioning of her reality, you just know that, along the lines of the original film, the ‘hosts’ are going to rebel against their treatment sooner or later!

The hosts are unable to hurt or kill any of the human guests, but I’m not sure this will remain the case for long. And you can’t help thinking that the guests deserve whatever retribution is forthcoming from the hosts.

Newcomer William (unlike his friend, seasoned park visitor Logan), seems to be the only decent guest in the park who wants to stay true to himself and uphold his values. The park is billed as a place where guests can explore their deepest, darkest desires whilst acting in their chosen story lines and scenarios, and in most cases the free reign to do as they please in Westworld, with no repercussion, brings out the very worst in them!

The most enigmatic human guest in the park is the ‘man in black’ (played to perfection by Ed Harris), a veteran of 30 years in Westworld. In the first few episodes he comes across as pretty ruthless, but now I’m starting to suspect there is more to him than meets the eye and his agenda clearly goes beyond personal gratification. He does not act as a friend to the hosts, but could he really be on their side?

Behind the scenes look at Westworld:

It’s brutal, tender, intelligent, character driven and thought provoking; a great mix of sci-fi and good old western mixed into a mind-bending thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Artificial intelligence going wrong isn’t a new idea in films, although I think the original 1973 film must have been quite ground-breaking in its day, but the moral questions it raises are very pertinent to society.

I think that was the genius of Michael Crichton. He makes you think.

Is it okay to act in a way that you never normally would, in a setting that allows depraved fantasies of every kind to be played out?

Even though these interactions are with robots, they look and react like humans, and surely it begs the question that if you indulge in your absolute worst behaviour, it is going to affect you on some level.

There has been debate over whether the prevalence of violent video games adversely affects players and therefore makes them more prone to acts of violence. Imagine being immersed in a real world and acting in the same manner…

The insidious premise behind the park is pandering to the wealthy and morally corrupt guests of Westworld. If you wouldn’t do it to a real person, why do it to a robot that may possibly develop the senses to experience pain and suffering?

It’s a pretty compelling drama, and no doubt the lack of ethics at the heart of the park will ultimately cause the hosts to exact a bloody revenge!

I’m going to end with the opening credits, which are also brilliant and eerily congruent with the theme of artificial intelligence, violence and suspense:

“You can’t play God without being acquainted with the devil.” ~ Dr. Robert Ford

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Bosch’s Masterpiece: The Garden of Earthly Delights (Triptych c. 1510)

A work of art is not always created exclusively for the purpose of being enjoyed, or, to use a more scholarly expression, of being experienced aesthetically. …But a work of art always has aesthetic significance (not to be confused with aesthetic value): whether or not it serves some practical purpose, and whether it is good or bad, it demands to be experienced aesthetically. ~ Erwin Panofsky (art historian)

I can’t say I find Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights particularly beautiful, because it’s really quite disturbing in places. When you feast your eyes on many of the smaller images that make up the whole work, the words that spring to mind are freakish, Bacchanalian and nightmarish.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch

Unlike his Renaissance contemporary, Michelangelo, Hieronymus Bosch was unaffected by Italian influences and was not concerned with painting works that hailed the glory of man in all his strength and beauty; but instead portrayed man’s vices and weaknesses in settings of fantastical worlds.

The general consensus among art historians and scholars is that the triptych was not created to be aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense, as more of a social commentary about the extent of human folly that Bosch perceived around him.

The Garden of Earthly Delights – Overview

From left to right, the triptych depicts humanity’s journey and experience of life in three stages: Paradise, The Garden of Earthly Delights and Hell. It is painted in oil on oak, with the central panel measuring 220 x 195 cm and each wing is 220 x 97 cm. If you want to see it in real life you’ll have to travel to the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

To me it comes across as a bold, imaginative, surrealist dreamscape; rooted in reality yet completely off the wall!

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a visual smorgasbord of polymorphous nude figures, beasts and human-bestial hybrids, illustrated in various poses and pursuits of pleasure; the most obvious being carnal satisfaction. Other iniquities on display include vanity, pride, decadence and greed, as well as their inevitable consequences.

Detail of a man and a woman inside an amniotic bubble of a seed.

Detail of a man and a woman inside an amniotic bubble of a seed.

It’s so bizarre, it’s like a Renaissance parody of unbridled fornication, except its meaning or warning is deadly serious.

Bosch’s unusual creatures had their origins in the Physiologus, a folk book from Alexandria, and Herold’s illustrations of Herodotus, featuring images of monsters and strange hieroglyphs.

Details of The Garden of Earthly Delights to ‘De Profundis Clamavi’ composed by Josquin performed by The Hilliard Ensemble:

When I gaze upon these mostly grotesque creatures and monsters intertwined in activities and positions that are still shocking today, I wonder at his bravery for committing them to panels, as well as for stepping outside the established norms of the era.

Had he been living in any of the major artistic centers his peculiar type of art may not have been acceptable on the grounds of perspective or traditional expectations. Fortunately he was under the radar of the religious authorities, living in the provinces of the Low Countries which were under the control of the Burgundian aristocracy.

The Draper's Market in 's-Hertogenbosch ca. 1530

The Draper’s Market in ‘s-Hertogenbosch ca. 1530

The Garden of Earthly Delights is something of a time bomb, being way ahead of its time during the Renaissance, containing nothing in its imagery that dates it. The triptych is just as relevant and enigmatic today as it was 500 years ago. Mind you, one has to wonder if Bosch was on some kind of hallucinogenic substance when he painted it!

Hieronymus Bosch has defined sin as a consequence of temptation and lack of judgment in startling, 16th century high definition.

bosch-hell-detail

The three panels that comprise the triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights are full of symbolism and mystery, and Wilhelm Fraenger, a leading Bosch scholar, considered him to be under the influence of esoteric mysticism and occultism.

Provenance, journey to Spain and the tapestry

When the tripych’s owner, Count Hendrik III of Nassau died, The Garden of Earthly Delights was passed on to William of Orange. However, Bosch’s altarpiece was coveted by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, who took it (after torturing William as to its whereabouts), at the start of the Eighty Years War.  He transported it back to Spain, where a copy was made in tapestry form in 1556, exquisitely woven in silver, gold and silk, which now hangs in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Tapestry after Jheronimus Bosch

Tapestry after Jheronimus Bosch

After the Duke of Alba’s death the painting was passed on to his illegitimate son and then became the property of Felipe II of Spain.

Left Panel – The Garden of Eden (Paradise)

In the far left panel of the triptych, Bosch shows us the Garden of Eden at the exact moment Eve is created to be Adam’s earthly companion, with their creator making the introduction. It is a pristine paradise where animals, both European and exotic, as well as mythical creatures roam freely in God’s garden.

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden

…”As though enjoying the pulsation of the living blood and as though too he were setting a seal on the eternal and immutable communion between this human blood and his own. This physical contact between the Creator and Eve is repeated even more noticeably in the way Adam’s toes touch the Lord’s foot. Here is the stressing of a rapport: Adam seems indeed to be stretching to his full length in order to make contact with the Creator. And the billowing out of the cloak around the Creator’s heart, from where the garment falls in marked folds and contours to Adam’s feet, also seems to indicate that here a current of divine power flows down, so that this group of three actually forms a closed circuit, a complex of magical energy”… ~ Wilhelm Fraenger (German art historian 1840 – 1964).

It has been noted that Eve’s body is leaning seductively towards Adam, whose intense gaze has been attributed to three things by Fraenger: firstly, surprise at the presence of his creator, secondly an awareness of Eve and that she has, essentially, the same nature as him and has been created from his body, and thirdly the intense sensation of sexual desire and the primal urge to go forth and copulate…ahem, multiply!

Centre panel – The Garden of Earthly Delights

Some scholars read the triptych panels as a narrative from left to right, so you have the perfect start, moving into the middle panel, which depicts man and woman gone wild with lust; cavorting around the landscape with the animals and each other.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The desire for earthly delights has run rampant and is now in full swing! The amount of naked flesh on display, the frolicking, debauchery and carefree attitude towards the pleasures of earthly life are evident in all the land areas of the Garden of Eden.

In the upper half of the main panel we see maidens bathing and they are encircled by hordes of men riding horses, donkeys, unicorns and beasts in various poses of bravado and acrobatics in order to gain the attention and favour of the females.

bosch-maidens

It seems evident from Bosch’s depictions and the dogma of Original Sin that the blame for man’s fall from grace lies squarely with Eve! The biblical story portrays Eve as the one who succumbed to the serpent’s temptation of eating an apple from the tree of knowledge, promptly leading Adam astray…

Therein lies the struggle of women over the centuries (perhaps subconsciously), with guilt issues!!!

It is a powerful allegory for the loss of innocence and the responsibility that comes with free will and knowledge, since we all can do both good and evil deeds, depending on our nature.

There is an interesting enclave to the right and centre of this panel that shows a group of men and women beneath apple trees. One male is reaching up for an apple while another couple eat an apple and a man approaches a resplendent woman with a giant strawberry, a symbol of the fleeting nature of hedonistic pleasures. One of the few clothed men in the triptych is the man tucked away behind them, watching their activities intently. He stands out with his very dark hair and a stern countenance.

bosch-detail-of-apple-tree

At the very bottom right of the panel there are two men, one of which is more obvious for he is clothed, has dark hair in the shape of an M and is crouching at the entrance to a small cave, pointing to a woman lying down. His possible identity has caused some debate among scholars and art historians. Some think it could be the painting’s benefactor, or an advocate of Adam denouncing Eve, or St John the Baptist or even a self-portrait.

Birds live in pools, fish fly or lay on the ground, it’s as if the world order is in chaos. Interestingly there are no children or elders in the painting, perhaps denoting the garden as it would have been before the fall of man, in a utopia without consequences. The images coalesce into an erotic vortex.

Fraenger believed that Bosch was indicating a route to paradise through sexual freedom that ultimately returned humans to a state of innocence.  Basically redemption through sex, putting his hypothesis directly at odds with the accepted idea that its central theme is one of morality.

Right Panel – Hell

The aversion these brutal images of miscreants suffering to eternity provoke in me, makes it all the more important to appreciate the timeless genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

bosch-hell

The flames, furnace and fires raging in the night of the upper part of the right panel would have been painted from real fires that Bosch had witnessed. Given the religious situation of the time it’s highly likely that he would have seen the burning of villages and executions of those branded as heretics and witches.

The atmosphere reeks of acrid smoke and the stench of wickedness, choking the air out of the viewer’s lungs.

It seems Bosch is expressing his curiosity about Hell, highlighting the fact that it is a firmly established empire here on Earth. The consequences of humanity’s sins (such as gambling), are shown in graphic detail. There is no longer any hint of eroticism, only ugliness.

Contorted, tortured, and broken bodies are subject to physical and psychological punishment and many are being devoured by animals, demons and beasts. It is a gathering of bleak scenes, devoid of hope and God forsaken; in stark contrast to the divine image of the first panel. The darkness is pervasive and heavy. Who wouldn’t amend their ways to avoid such a reality?

bosch-hell-music-detail

I can’t work out why the lute and harp are featured in Hell, with music emblazoned on some poor, half-squashed soul’s derriere! You can hear what the music of Hell sounds like if you take this detailed interactive audio-visual tour: Jheronimus Bosch – the Garden of Earthly Delights

Interestingly, if you draw a straight line from Adam’s eye line in the far left panel of paradise, and follow it diagonally all the way across the Garden of Earthly Delight to Hell in the far right panel, it aligns with Bosch’s self-portrait as the grotesque tree-man afflicted by his sins.

The Exterior panels

On the reverse side of the left and right panel, (which fold over the central panel), Bosch has painted an image of the Earth on day 3 of its creation by God, when the land is separated from the sea.

bosch_-_the_garden_of_earthly_delights_-_the_exterior_shutters

Thus, when the doors are closed it denotes the oneness and unity of creation that is to become fragmented and corrupted once the panels are opened to reveal the carnage within.

Earliest description

The earliest known writing about The Garden of Earthly Delights was recorded in Brussels in 1517, just a year after Bosch’s death, by Antonio de Beatis, secretary/chaplain to Cardinal Luigi of Aragon.  Whilst travelling with the cardinal and his entourage, de Beatis kept a journal of their grand tour through Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France and Italy in 1517-18.

In the palace of the Counts of Nassau, Antonio de Beatis noted for posterity the unusual art he beheld:

“Some panels of bizarre themes. They represent seas, skies, woods, meadows, and many other things, such as people crawling out of a shell, others that bring forth birds, men and women, white and blacks doing all sorts of different activities and poses. They feature things so pleasing and fantastic that they could not be properly described in any way to those who do not know them.”

In the same diary he also wrote about meeting Leonardo da Vinci in France in October 1517 and being shown three of his paintings by the ageing artist.

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 9th August 1516)

There was no other artist quite like this early Netherlandish master, who was a genre defining anomaly of his era. He was truly an independent, creative free spirit.

Image of Hieronymus Bosch thought to be based on a self-portrait.

Sketch of Hieronymus Bosch thought to be based on a self-portrait.

His birth name was Hieronymus van Aken and he was born in the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, after which he is named. His first name is also linked to a mysterious religious sect in the town, the ‘Hierononymites’, also known as the ‘Brethren of the Common Life’ whose aims were withdrawal from the world and cultivation of the interior life.

Although he never travelled, he was well known outside of his home town and made a very good living from his art. Felipe II of Spain acquired a total of 33 of his paintings.

Trailer to a new 2016 documentary – Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil

Some of his other famous works are the Haywain Triptych ca. 1490 (also in the Prado), The Ship of Fools (Louvre), Christ Carrying the Cross and the Last Judgement Triptych, Ascent of the Blessed, c. 1504, which resides in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

“This too high for my wit,

I prefer to omit.”

~ Erwin Panofsky on deciding the secret to the interpretation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights has not been found.

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Spohr

Before reading up a bit for this post I was aware that Louis Spohr (named Ludwig, but he preferred the French equivalent Louis), was a virtuoso violinist and younger contemporary of Beethoven, widely known for inventing the violin chin rest in 1820. I’m very grateful to him for that; I really don’t enjoy playing my violin without one. It’s a fabulous creation. I can’t imagine how violinists managed during the baroque era!

Portrait of Louis Spohr composing in Kassel c. 1824

Portrait of Louis Spohr composing in Kassel c. 1824

He also had the foresight in 1812 to use letters on musical scores as an aid to rehearsal. So he was quite the innovator in many ways. When our conductor at Aylesbury would bark something like: “You made a real hash of the passage between D and E, so let’s go back to D again,” you’d be able to find the place in the music very quickly and easily. I had no idea that this bright idea was down to Louis Spohr.

My copy of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto complete with rehearsal letters, shown on all modern music scores.

My copy of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto complete with rehearsal letters, published on all modern music scores.

Louis Spohr: (5 April 1784 – 22 October 1859)

I was pleasantly surprised and impressed to say the least, when I started to discover his many other accomplishments. His musical compositions were largely unknown to me, despite his immense popularity in classical circles during his lifetime. His fame dwindled after his death and only a small portion of his work remains in modern repertoire.

It couldn’t have been easy crafting your notes in the shadow of Mozart and at the same time as the likes of Beethoven, Hummel and Schubert, but to his credit he followed his own path within the parameters of early romanticism.

He was widely known and respected in Europe during the early 19th century as a virtuoso violinist, conductor, teacher and composer.  He was probably the most famous violinist in Europe until Paganini arrived on the scene with his own fiery brand of pyrotechnics.

Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel.

Statue of Louis Spohr in Kassel.

Like his friend Beethoven, he also believed in democratic freedoms and was known to possess a noble character. He was unusually tall for the time, being over six-foot. Unlike Beethoven, who was the epitome of the lonely, tortured artist, Spohr was a family man who enjoyed a happy social life and varied pursuits like swimming, ice-skating, hiking, gardening, as well as considerable skill as a painter.

Biedermeier period

Whilst Beethoven was creating music that was innovative, immortal and ‘new’ to the ears of early 19th century concert goers, Spohr appears to blend in with the tastes of the zeitgeist, certainly nothing that would upset the apple cart. But when tastes changes, as they invariably do over time, his more traditional music became eclipsed by Beethoven and Schubert.

The so called Biedermeier period (1812 – 1848), saw the rise of the middle class in Europe, paralleling urbanisation and industrialisation, when access to the arts expanded to attract a larger number of people. Biedermeier encompassed literature, music, the visual arts, interior design and architecture.

It seems that Louis Spohr was a product of his era, whereas Beethoven was a musician for all-time. Rather sadly he is sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten master’.

Liszt at the Piano by Biedermeier painter Josef Danhauser, c. 1840

Liszt at the Piano by Biedermeier painter Josef Danhauser, c. 1840

As I’ve discovered, his music was mostly written in the romantic genre and I was surprised at the many different instruments he wrote for aside from the violin. I believe his music should be more widely heard and performed than it is.  He may not be a Mozart or a Beethoven, but his achievements are worthy of admiration.

Career

Louis was born to musical parents; his mother being a talented singer and pianist whilst his father was an amateur flutist. The young Spohr however, despite starting out on the harp, took to the violin. His first tutor was a violinist named Dufour, who saw an opportunity for his pupil to further his musical learning at the Duke of Brunswick’s court.  He joined the ducal orchestra aged 15.

Three years later he was sent on a year-long study tour of St Petersburg and Moscow with his tutor, violinist Franz Anton Eck. He also wrote his early compositions during this time.

After Spohr returned to Brunswick the duke allowed him to make a concert tour of northern Germany. An influential music critic, Friedrich Rochlitz happened to be in the audience during his recital in Leipzig in December 1804, and wrote a glowing review of both his virtuosity and his opus 2 violin concerto in D minor. Hence Spohr was promptly catapulted into the pantheon of revered violinists of the early 19th century.

German stamp depicting Louis Spohr from 1959

German stamp depicting Louis Spohr from 1959

Spohr became orchestral director at the court of Gotha between 1805-1812 until he landed the job of leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna from 1813-15, where he met Beethoven.

His career progressed as he moved to Frankfurt where he took up the post of Opera Director between 1817-19, and thanks to the recommendation of fellow composer, Carl Maria von Weber, he was appointed Court Kapellmeister at Kassel from 1822 until his death on 22nd October 1859. Incidentally, Kassel was also the place where the Brothers Grimm wrote most of their fairy tales in the early 19th century.

During his career and at the height of his popularity Spohr travelled to England on five separate occasions, and was named in an aria from Act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Opera, The Mikado.

Compositions

Spohr was a prolific composer of many genres: violin concertos, symphonies, clarinet concertos, harp and chamber music, lieder, cantatas, oratorios and operas. I’ve selected a few pieces from each genre to give an overview of his style and talents. He composed a total of 290 works.

 Violin works

Although he wrote eighteen violin concertos, six violin sonatas and various duos for violin and harp he did not set out to write purely for the violin in the same way that Viotti, Kreutzer, Vieutemps or Wieniawski did.

Of particular note is his Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Op. 47 ‘In modo d’un scena cantate’ that just sings in the most mournful, lyrical melody when performed by the incomparable Jascha Heifetz:

 Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 2 by Christiane Edinger and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra:

‘Duo für 2 Violinen’ with David and Igor Oistrakh:

Violin Concerto No. 7 in E minor, Op. 38 (3rd movement) with Takako Nishizaki, Libor Pesek  and the Bratislava Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra:

Sonata in D Major for Violin and Harp, with Sophie Langdon and Hugh Webb:

Duo for Violin and Viola in E minor, Op. 13 with Antje Weithaas and Tabea Zimmermann:

Sonata for Violin and Harp in C minor, a delightful recital by Jean-Jaques Kantorow and Susanna Mildonian:

Concertante No. 1 in G Major, WoO 13 for Violin, Harp and Orchestra (Adagio) with Ursula Holliger, Hansheinz Schneeberger and English Chamber Orchestra:

Concertante No. 2 in E minor, WoO 14 for Violin, Harp and Orchestra, (3rd movement) performed by English Chamber Orchestra, Ursula Holliger and Christoph Poppen under the baton of Heinz Holliger:

Symphonic works

Like Beethoven, Louis Spohr has nine symphonies to his name, and a tenth unfinished!

His Symphony No. 4 in F Major, Op. 86 ‘Die Weihe der Töne’ (The Consecration of Sound), was based on the poems of the same name by Carl Pfeiffer.

Overview from Naxos:

The first movement opens with a slow introduction, illustrating the profound silence before the creation of sound. The Allegro that follows, in traditional sonata form, includes the gentle sound of the breeze and woodwind bird-song, before the storm that forms the central section of the movement, to die out in the distance in the final bars. The second movement demonstrates the function of music as lullaby, dance and serenade, the last with a solo cello. All three finally combine in a conductor’s nightmare of varying bar-lines and tempi.

The third movement shows the role of music as an inspiration to courage, here with a narrative element. Soldiers depart for battle, while in a central trio section those remaining behind express their anxiety, followed by the victorious return of the marching troops and the song of thanksgiving. The final movement buries the dead, to the sound of the chorale ‘Begrabt den Leib’, leading to ultimate consolation in tears.

Here is a recording by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Alfred Walter:

Symphony No. 6 in G Major, Op.116 ‘Historical Symphony in the style and taste of four different periods’ composed in 1840, performance by Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Ton Koopman:

  1. Largo-Grave (Bach-Händel’sche Periode, 1720)
  2. Larghetto (Haydn-Mozart’sche Periode, 1780
  3. Scherzo (Beethoven’sche Periode, 1810)
  4. Allegro vivace (Allerneueste Periode, 1840)

Symphony No. 9 Op. 143 ‘The Seasons’ performed by Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Walter:

 Harp and clarinet works

Spohr wrote a significant number of works for, and including the harp, which is entirely understandable as his first wife, Dorette Scheidler, was a renowned harp virtuoso. They were married for 28 years until her death in 1834.

Dorette Spohr, née Scheidler (1787-1834)

Dorette Spohr, née Scheidler (1787-1834)

Fantasie for Harp in C Major, Op. 35 with Lena-Maria Buchberger:

Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 26 (3rd movement) with Paul Meyer and the OCL:

Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 57 with Julian Bliss:

Clarinet Concerto No. 4 WoO 20, ‘Rondo al espagnol’ with Paul Meyer and Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne:

Chamber music 

Among his output of chamber music are 36 string quartets, 7 string quintets, a string sextet and 5 piano trios. Probably the most performed in modern repertoire are the Nonet and the Octet, for your listening pleasure below.

Octet in E Major, Op.32 with the Vienna Octet:

Nonet for Wind Quintet and Strings in F Major, Op. 31 with the Consortium Classicum Conducted by Dieter Klöcker:

Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major, Op. 123 with the Hartley Trio :

Concerto for String Quartet & Orchestra Op. 131 (1st movement), composed in Kassel during the last three months of 1845, performed here by Leipziger Streichquartett, Leipziger Kammerorchester and Sebastian Weigle:

Six German Songs 

Spohr’s Six German Songs for Soprano, Piano and Clarinet, Op. 103 are a delightful indulgence of his romantic side! These lovely performances are by Helen Donath, Klaus Donath and Dieter Kloecker:

  1. Be still my heart
  2. In a lilac bush sat a little bird
  3. Longing: I look into my heart
  1. Cradle Song: All is quiet in sweet peace
  2. The Secret Song: There are secret pains
  3. Awakening : Why do you stand and ponder 

 Operas

Of the ten operas Sphor composed the two most popular are Jessonda and Faust.

Jessonda

Jessonda was written in 1822 to the libretto by Eduard Gehe, based on Lemiere’s novel, La veuve de Malabar. Under Spohr’s baton it was first performed on 28th July 1823 in Kassel, and tells the story of an Indian princess (Jessonda), who is condemned to burn on her husband’s funeral pyre; as was the custom for a widow of a recently departed Rajah. She is ultimately spared by a young Brahmin (Nadori) and eventually rescued by the Portuguese General she was in love with (Tristan d’Acunha). It was popular in 19th and 20th century repertoire until it was banned by the Nazis.

Overture to Jessonda:

Jessonda – Selected highlights with Gerd Albrecht leading the Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus and Julia Varady and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the main roles:

The Tristan Chord

So, the big question is, did Wagner take inspiration from Spohr to create his famous chord?

I might ignite some controversy here!

The Tristan Chord in Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

The Tristan Chord in Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner from Wikipedia.

Much has been made of the Tristan Chord in the opening bars of Wagner’s beautiful, romantic opera, Tristan und Isolde; but composer and musician Dr. Dick Strawser, who was quite taken with aspects of Jessonda noticed the following:

Now, what I found in the vocal score of Spohr’s Jessonda – opening the main character’s entrance aria – was an almost identical passage: the same key, the same 6/8 meter and (as I recall) the same rhythms but, more importantly, virtually all the same pitches but one – the next-to-last note in Spohr is a C-natural, an “upper-neighbor” embellishment, where Wagner’s A-sharp is a chromatic passing tone.

Spohr composed his opera in 1823.

Yet no one calls it “The Jessonda Chord.” Nor does anyone accuse Wagner of plagiarism, either.

Was Jessonda so forgotten 25 years later that Wagner could steal this, even subconsciously, without anyone noticing? Hmmmm…

Wagner aficionado Stephen Fry:

A beautiful aria ‘Ich bin allein’ from Act Two of Faust:

Spohr the conductor  

Louis Spohr was one of the first musicians to use a baton when conducting. Imagine the orchestra’s surprise when their leader, instead of using his bow, put his violin down, took a wooden stick out of his pocket, got up and turned the music stand to face the orchestra where he proceeded to wave it about in time with the music.

Later in his musical career after he had scaled back his violin performance schedule, his reputation as an eminent conductor meant that he continued to receive many invitations to music festivals and various events, including the unveiling of Beethoven’s statue in Bonn in 1845.

He championed Wagner’s music and also played Beethoven’s late quartets, even though it seems he was as baffled by them as audiences were at the time. He also played with Beethoven during rehearsals of the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Major,  Op. 70 ‘The Ghost’ in 1808, commenting on how Beethoven, almost devoid of his earlier technical abilities, hammered away on the ivories and that his piano was out of tune, but he must have made allowances for Ludwig’s hearing loss.

A wonderful recording of ‘The Ghost’ with Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre and Pinchas Zukerman:

Violin School

Spohr made many valuable contributions to violin technique in the early 19th century and was a proponent of the Mannheim School. He taught around 200 pupils during his career. If I ever find myself in Kassel I’ll be sure to visit his museum there!

‘Metamorphosis’ 🍂🍁🐛

“What’s happened to me,’ he thought. It was no dream.”  ~ Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

This stunning performance on the harp by Lavinia Meijer, of Metamorphosis II by Philip Glass, plus a lovely violin and guitar duo make a perfect accompaniment for my poetry on the subject. I hope you enjoy the music, the prose and the paintings!

‘Metamorphosis’

What is this force that draws me, inexorably towards you?

The Earth’s four seasons, unfaltering, come and go,

Red, orange and yellow foliage now proliferates,

Love, like burnt leaves, clings precariously,

To rustic boughs; fearing annihilation from the gusts of life.

Pompeo Mariani - Autunno

Pompeo Mariani – Autunno

Thoughts and feelings transmute like the elements,

Hot for a time, cold the next, perhaps even icy…

But passions warm like a glorious autumn day,

Lighting up your life while they burn and glow; evolution

Is inevitable, yet the heart yearns for what has passed.

The Stone Bench in the Garden at Saint-Paul Hospital by Vincent van Gogh

The Stone Bench in the Garden at Saint-Paul Hospital by Vincent van Gogh

Learning to embrace the wisdom of changing seasons;

Both life and death. All effort against nature is futile,

Souls are forged within molecular metamorphosis,

Dipping in and out of an infinite, primordial panoply,

Merging with other souls, individual but connected.

Apple Picking at Eragny sur Epte c. 1888 by Camille Pissarro

Apple Picking at Eragny sur Epte c. 1888 by Camille Pissarro

The concertina caterpillar chews quietly on his leaf,

Unremarkable on the surface, evolving inside his chrysalis,

Hidden from the world, he is overtaken by energy,

Emerging from his self-imposed cocoon transfigured,

All of life is metamorphosis, an explosion of alteration.

Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue by Dosso Dossi circa late 16th Century

Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue by Dosso Dossi circa late 16th Century

The new butterfly tests his dynamic, vibrant wings,

Fluttering to and from the sweet scent of flowers,

Thus an old heart may beat to a new tune,

But it remembers the shared music of before,

Where unforgotten melodies are woven into DNA.

Autumn Leaves by Sir John Everett Millais

Autumn Leaves by Sir John Everett Millais

A new phase, a new masterpiece will be written,

As the trees release their golden halos, ready

For preordained progression, so it is with spirit.

The journey of metamorphosis and rebirth carries us

To infinity, where we are ever the same – yet different.

~ By Virginia Burges

Autumn c. 1904 by Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933).

Autumn c. 1904 by Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933).

Philip Glass on the piano playing his Metamorphosis IV and V:

“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.” ~ Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis