Claustrophobia finally set in. Despite this city’s size, it’s been possible to go for days on end without leaving Lincoln Center. I live on 64th, study on 65th, work out on 67th, work on W 69th, and shop for groceries on 72nd. It’s convenient and a little infuriating all at once. Sensing my increasing irritability, my colleagues relayed a kind but firm message: “you need to get out more.” The sun has finally started shining in the city, spring is well on its way, and I’m fresh out of excuses to keep living like a mole. So, last week, strolling eastwards from work, I decided to head to the Frick Collection.
The Frick’s peculiarly domestic vibe is truly inviting. Like visiting my grandmother’s house, I pass through furnished dining rooms and parlors, complete with ugly chairs and hideous wallpaper. It’s a refreshing change from the experience I get at most museums, where white walls and light wood floors seem to sterilize my experience. Except for special exhibits, one isn’t conscious of artistic genres or themes are grouped together at the Frick. Groups of paintings are thrown together somewhat anachronistically, sometimes regardless of style and aesthetic, and a dialogue arises between them. I usually bring earbuds along to a museum, but the positioning of Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More next to El Greco’s Jerome fills the silence, as the the stark differences between the two depictions seemingly converse in front of me.
But once the number of paintings I see increases, the experience becomes less dialogical and more musical, as if I’m hearing a recital or a long set of musical miniatures. The closest thing I can compare it to is that of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval. A group of seemingly unconnected paintings are like the 20 separate movements or vignettes, and the room’s garish repetitive decor is somehow a connecting thread like Schumann’s recurrent 4-note theme. Your memory carries you through Carnaval or a room at the Frick in the same way, as paintings and movements gradually become interrelated, blending in and out of each other as you walk or listen. The sensation fosters introspection, in that you don’t simply remember the paintings or the movements individually, you remember where you were in the room, that exact perspective – your perspective – and how it made you feel.
Heading towards an exhibit at the back, I found a new addition to my list of favorites. It’s a Van Dyck portrait of seventeenth century aristocratic bad boy, Sir John Suckling. Embodying contemporary standards of edginess, he’s holding an edition of Shakespeare, rejecting classical literature in favor of popular contemporary authors. He doesn’t really need a tattoo, beard or annoying t-shirt; he’s got his pet rock inscribed with the words, NE TE QUÆSIVERIS EXTRA (Do not seek outside yourself). Deep, right? I chuckle a little, as the painting is so self-consciously ridiculous. But I remember that I’ve seen the quote on the rock before. Grabbing my iPhone, a Google search brings up an essay had read at Oberlin. In Self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson uses the quote as a launching pad to contemplate none other than the effect of art.
Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this: they teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
Despite the flowery Emersonian-ness, the message “art makes us think” is pretty clear. On a day obnoxiously spent thinking about my own feelings in a building of famous paintings, the language doesn’t feel floral or self-absorbed at all, but somehow appropriate.
On my way out, I stop by the same place I usually begin at the Frick. I’ll admit, it was a conscious choice. Opposite a staircase with the collection’s pipe organ sits Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music. Thanks to Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie and your favorite high school English teachers, the painting has garnered attention from whiny teenage girls innumerable over the past two decades.
The symbols in the painting, such as the vase or the painting, supposedly prove that something is going on between them that’s romantic but somehow dark. The music to the side is supposedly “consort music”, a metaphor for sexual intercourse, making the guitar-looking instrument a phallus. I don’t buy it.
It’s probably unsurprising that I’m not particularly bothered about the traditional Dutch tropes in the painting, the man’s oriental garb or the faint painting of Cupid in the background. Otherwise, I wouldn’t waste your time with my blog. I’m more drawn to the triangular ray of light, casting a diagonal shadow beneath the birdcage. It rests not on the girl, but on the lute, cast to one side underneath the music, detracting from the supposed focus on the love interest between the couple.
In Vermeer’s day, it was thought that the study of music fostered patience and perseverance. In Gerrit Dou’s Lady Playing a Clavichord, a young woman is seated at her instrument with a gamba behind her. She plays the clavichord in austerity, not even with any music in front of her. By contrast, the gamba seems to separate the girl from her music and the various items of chinoiserie and decadence nearby. For me her isolation is offset by the gamba in the middle, somehow bridging the gap between the eternal and the ephemeral, the musical and the frivolous.
Being part of the same family of instruments, gambas and lutes were actually symbol of patience and perserverence. Patience is a curious theme to stick in a painting, I’ll admit, but for anyone with any experience playing or performing alongside lutes or gambas, there’s a great amount of patience involved for one simple reason: tuning. Be they strummed or sawed, the thin gut strings are temperamental to say the least, as are the pegs they’re wound around.
As a harpist, when I see the Dutch masters using musical illustrations of patience, I feel a certain degree of solidarity leap from the canvas. Playing a 110 lb. instrument of 47 gut strings which has to be tuned several times a day, there are times when I feel my own patience begin to slip quicker than the pitch of the upper registers of my instrument. Things nearly came to boiling point just a few weeks ago when I was playing a new opera up on 75th street. The rehearsals had gone smoothly enough, but when it came time for the performance I had a big problem. Upon tuning the harp, I realize that the instrument has somehow gone a whole half-step flat in 24 hours. As I manically begin tuning, the conductor starts to look a bit worried. He’s not anxious per se, but he wants to make sure that the harp will be sufficiently in shape for the show. After all, the harp is the the primary accompaniment to Schlomo’s love aria and the Eunuch’s soliloquy (yup, you read that right – and the opera was in Hebrew to boot). Indeed, I feel less like Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted, and more like his manic looking lutenist at the Metropolitan Museum, seen tuning her lute with a map in the background, implying perpetuity or an endless journey.
Without a doubt, harpists have a certain sense of moral superiority, as it takes so long to tune and adjustments are constantly have to be made. But the end result is worth it – when the instrument is really in tune, there’s a certain feeling of serenity or contentment that overcomes the performer of any string instrument, not just the harp. The Dutch humorist Jacob Cats captured this brilliantly in his depiction of a man tuning up his lute. With the words, “Quid non sentit amor” (“what does not love perceive”), a line from Ovid’s Pyramus et Thisbe, the relationship of an instrument to the human spirit is brought into focus: the instrument when properly tuned, allowed to sing to its full abilities, it resonates with the with the human soul. It shows the flip-side of patience: sympathy.
The more I look at Vermeer, the more moved I am by the reality of his musical instruments. They’re not just abstract symbols, but depictions of physical and metaphorical resonance, showing how sound reverberates through them without being performed upon. In crashing around my studio, moving my chair or shutting a drawer, there’s always a faint sound from my harp, an erie combination of the excitement of all 47 strings and their overtones which takes a good 7 or 8 seconds to decay into silence. That’s exactly what Vermeer is getting at in his paintings in showing the physical phenomenon of sympathetic vibrations. Musicians spend so much time learning to curb the effects of these vibrations when they are performing, that it’s possible to ignore or forget what these instruments naturally “do.” Pianists have to pedal cleanly, harpists have to constantly muffle strings to keep them from resonating into infinity, etc. Vermeer’s paintings are a reminder that my instrument can only be restrained to a certain degree. I can try and try to muffle and control, but even why I am not playing the instrument, it speaks, responds.
I can’t get the Girl’s face out my head now. She’s interrupted indeed, but from that which allows her to contemplate or understand on her own. The man towers over her, explaining something on a blank sheet of paper, but ignoring the music in front of her, offhandishly laid on top of the instrument. I feel as if she’s not just been interrupted, but that her patience is being tried. Yet the instrument and the girl still reflect one another as in other paintings, both with paper resting upon them. Again, I don’t see a close relationship between the man and the woman. Cupid is not faint, but worn away. The birdcage sits empty. The man is not courting – he’s interfering, unsympathetic. Maybe she just wants to practice?
This week, I have significantly less time to head to any museums. It’s Holy Week. Coming home from church on Palm Sunday, I partook of that which was the object of my Lenten abstinence by getting some Thai food. But it wasn’t Thai food that I gave up for Lent. Being a good Episcopalian, I felt that items such chocolate, booze, or blogging (you wish!) might not be weighty enough. So, I gave up something truly meaningful: self-denial. In ordering my food, my decision not to get the egg rolls or crab rangoons seemed like perfect justification for the last 40 days of wanton consumption, truly taxing on the soul and body. Clean in body and spirit, I’m now free to give things up as I choose. Sunday it was some empty calories, today it was my CrossFit membership.
My Pad Thai arrives and I switch on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, my annual Holy Week tradition. Just over three hours of oratorio sensory overload firmly lay Jesus in the tomb. By the end, there’s no doubt that he’s dead, but also German, a bass, and in addition to his twelve Judean groupies, enjoys the company of a chatty tenor and an orchestral string section. Despite the work’s length, it never dries up emotionally, as Bach paints some extreme pictures of isolation and despondency. Towards the end of the work, time stops altogether as the strings and rhythm section fall silent, leaving only higher wind instruments to accompany the Soprano’s words “Out of love my savior dies.” Though the aria’s austere texture seldom reaches below middle C, I somehow always feel as if I’ve been brought to the lowest depths of despair.
Some the most passionate arias are those accompanied by the viola da gamba. Like Vermeer, Bach uses the viola da gamba to evoke the notion of patience in the tenor aria Geduld, Geduld. Though Bach’s autograph score tells us to to use the entire continuo section of cello, double bass and organ along with the gamba, it’s become common practice to allow the gamba to accompany the tenor as a soloist with just the organ. It’s admittedly more intimate and draws the listener to the truly rich sound of the instrument. Puritans in the historical performance community have lambasted the new practice, citing the necessity for faithfulness to the score. I confess that concur with them to a point, as Bach’s own conception of the work likely has some musical merit. But in reading Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s book The Musical Dialogue my mind was changed. Harnoncourt pointed out that the the St. Matthew Passion has great importance in the St. Matthew Passion. The gamba is also used in another movement Komm, süßes Kreuz, and the theme from the opening chorus appears to be the same as a dirge by the famed French gambist Marin Marais.
There’s no doubt that Harnoncourt’s ideas are pure conjecture, but that’s not what makes them valid or viable. It’s fascinating because Harnoncourt was a gambist himself, and used his own perspective and passion to bring out what he saw as a historical reality in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The emerging symmetry of the work is incredible as the only two times the word “Geduld” appears only twice in the entire Passion, first in the opening chorus, and again the tenor aria. It’s as if there’s an element to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that not only looks to Marais and France for stylistic inspiration, but to the entire array of symbols associated with the instruments themselves to heighten the drama and despair of the work. We don’t see gambas very often, so the opportunity to let this instrument speak on its own in “Geduld, Geduld” is incredibly striking.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s brilliance needs no further validation (especially from a student), and I fear that before long, my blog may become a string of tributes to my dying heroes. But upon his passing I felt the need to articulate why he his approach to St. Matthew Passion was so special to me. His conception of he work wasn’t simply musical but visual, transforming arias into scenes by the likes of Vermeer. His willingness to to ask questions, experiment with his ideas, and use the instrument closest to his heart as a reference point in his approach bears incredible witness to the ability to carry great art out of the abstract and into the emotive. The fact that this single practice with the gamba became so widely standardized is testament for his knack for tapping into human emotion, be it with Bach Passion, Mozart operas, or any other works. The theme of patience so starkly exposed in Harnoncourt’s scheme for the St. Matthew Passion mirrors the patience he carried into his work, taking time and effort to brave uncharted territory to create historically inspired, yet personally meaningful interpretations. There is no doubt he will be sorely missed.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke