Composers and Caravaggios
By Alex Ross, The New Yorker
The sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari describes a picture by Fra Bartolomeo—“The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine,” at the Pitti Palace—in which two child angels are seen playing stringed instruments. One of them, Vasari writes, is a lutenist painted “with a leg drawn up and his instrument resting upon it, and with the hands touching the strings in the act of running over them, an ear intent on the harmony, the head upraised, and the mouth slightly open, in such a way that whoever beholds him cannot persuade himself that he should not also hear the voice.”
The idea that music can somehow reverberate from the flat, dumb surface of a painting is a recurring conceit of art history, whether in the angel concerts of the Renaissance or in the abstract syncopation of Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie.” Likewise, concertgoers have often perceived images in the invisible fabric of sound. As the historian Therese Dolan observes, Charles Baudelaire exhibited both kinds of synesthesia, listening to paintings by Delacroix (“The admirable chords of his color often make one dream of harmony and melody”) and gazing upon the orchestral music of Wagner (“an immense horizon and a wide diffusion of light”). The urge to draw upon another sense is especially strong when an artist takes a turn into new terrain: Schoenberg spoke of “tone-color melody,” Kandinsky of visual symphonies emerging from cacophony.
In the past few years, the music series at the Metropolitan Museum, under the imaginative leadership of Limor Tomer, has been stressing the link between sound and image, staging concerts not only in the museum’s auditorium but also in the galleries. John Zorn has played sax in front of Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm”; the Ming Dynasty opera “The Peony Pavilion” has unfolded in Brooke Astor’s Chinese garden; and the Grand Tour, a vital new ritual, has hosted early-music ensembles in galleries relevant to their repertory. Last season, the Dark Horse Consort performed music of the Low Countries under the wide, sad, searching eyes of Rembrandt, who seemed ready if not to sing along then to deliver an approving grunt. To hear music in the presence of such masterpieces not only brings out the musical in the visual, and vice versa; it creates imaginary communities in which figures from disparate art forms move into the same plane, dancing in the mind’s eye.
The highlight of this season’s Grand Tour was a performance by the vocal ensemble TENET, one of the city’s liveliest and busiest early-music groups. The setting was Gallery 621, which features Caravaggio and like-minded artists. The room is dominated by sombre classical and religious scenes: the self-flagellation of St. Dominic, by Tarchiani; the Dormition of the Virgin, by Saraceni; a tense exchange between Sts. Peter and Paul, by Ribera; and, most memorable, Caravaggio’s naturalistic imagining of Peter’s denial of Christ, in which the saint looks befuddled and his accuser triumphant. There are no musical references in this gallery of pictures, at least in its current configuration. (An exhibition in a neighboring gallery, entitled “Painting Music in the Age of Caravaggio,” displays Caravaggio’s mischievous early canvas “The Musicians,” in which a trio of scantily clad neo-Grecian youths tune their instruments and study a score while a Cupid figure busies himself with a bunch of grapes.) Instead, the music of Gallery 621 is largely one of color: the red of Paul’s tunic, in the Ribera, emerges from a dark background like a tone from silence.
Members of TENET—the sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn, the mezzo Virginia Warnken, the viola da gamba player Joshua Lee, the theorbo and guitar player Hank Heijink, and the harpsichordist Jeffrey Grossman—offered exuberant, subversive counterpoint to the prevailing gloom. The program included three pieces by female composers of the seventeenth century: Francesca Caccini, the daughter of Giulio Caccini, one of the pioneers of the opera genre; and Barbara Strozzi, whose adoptive father, the poet Giulio Strozzi, collaborated with several early opera composers. The two women managed to carve out distinct identities within a nearly all-male composing culture, their finest arias rivalling those of Monteverdi and Cavalli. The Met’s galleries are also a male-dominated realm, and TENET seemed to be giving sly voice to all the silent Madonnas on the museum’s walls.
Strozzi, a remarkably prolific and well-documented composer who moved in lofty intellectual circles in Venice, was represented by “Amor dormiglione,” in which the singer berates Cupid for sleeping through hours that could have been dedicated to lovemaking. Vasari once explained that painters show Cupid in the vicinity of musicians because “Love is always in the company of Music”; Strozzi’s piece could almost be an ironic commentary on that familiar configuration, with the eager lover in distress because the fuel of music is running low. Greenleaf, who is the leader of TENET and also coördinated the Grand Tour project, sang in a crisp, sensuous voice, and, in an amusing bit of theatre, tugged at Heijink’s sleeve as she complained of wasted time. I only wish that we could have heard, by way of contrast, one of Strozzi’s stately, high-minded laments, such as “Lagrime mie” or “L’Eraclito amoroso.” But the Grand Tour ensembles were on a tight schedule, and had about twenty minutes each.
TENET then turned to Caccini, who spent much of her career in the service of the Medici. The canzonetta “Chi desia di saper” has words by Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, the artist’s grand-nephew: over a bouncy beat strummed out on a Spanish guitar (as Caccini’s score requests), the singer cheekily proclaims that love is nothing but pain, fear, and fury. Quinn, the soloist, accentuated the pop flavor with handclaps and tasteful gyrations. Warnken, a bright-voiced mezzo, then delivered a richly ornamented rendition of Caccini’s “Dispiegate guancie amate,” a melancholy, sinuous song of seduction. The ornaments in the first verse were, in fact, Caccini’s own; a singer of rare finesse, she was as precise in her instructions as notation of the period allowed. The program also included two arias by Luigi Rossi and a “Passacalli della Vita,” or “Passacaglia of Life,” by an anonymous seventeenth-century composer. The last made for a rollicking, foot-tapping finale, with the singers strutting about, arm in arm. I would happily have followed them around the museum for another couple of hours. (Fortunately, TENET is expanding this material into an evening-length entertainment, titled “The Secret Lover,” which celebrates the crucial contributions that women made to the emergence of opera. Before the début of the full program, in April, at the Edith Fabbri Mansion, on East Ninety-fifth Street, the group will delve into the profound male woe of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria.)
Other participants in the Grand Tour included Ensemble Viscera, performing Spanish and Italian lute-and-guitar pieces in an El Greco gallery; the harpsichordist Michael Sponseller, playing mostly eighteenth-century works, including the London-based composers J. C. Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, amid English paintings of the same period; and the wind band Ciaramella, presenting Dutch fare in the vicinity of landscapes and maritime scenes by the likes of Aelbert Cuyp and Philips Koninck. None found quite as deft a fit asTENET did in the Caravaggio room: Ensemble Viscera’s gentle vamps couldn’t compete with the flamboyant mysticism of El Greco, and Ciaramella’s reedy din, which included bagpipes and shawms, seemed to overpower the Dutch artists’ calm seas and drifting clouds. Still, each mini-concert brought unexpected epiphanies—Ciaramella made you think about all the noise and bustle that can’t be perceived in paintings of rustic scenes—and together the performances provided a vivid cross-section of current early-music practice, which tends to prize tangy timbres and springy rhythms.
Throughout the evening, I couldn’t escape the uncanny feeling that the people in the paintings were listening in, as in some spooky Victorian tale of portraits come to life. In the presence of the music, their eyes possibly glowed a little brighter, their flesh a little warmer. In Gallery 621, the effect was all but electric: chaste religious figures seemed on the verge of jumping out of the chiaroscuro shadows and joining the women of TENET, who, in turn, looked ready to step through the frames into the other world. Then, with the applause, the spell was broken: the living walked away, and the pictures fell silent for the night. ♦