A Toast to Verdi

The classical music “flash mob” fad has really grown on me. You can find videos all over YouTube of cheerful cellists, violinists and the like bursting into performance in public places to the delight of commuters and pedestrians. The scenes can truly lift your spirits.

I came across this video that I thought would make a charming Music Monday. Canadian opera singer Jonathan Estabrooks organized and directed this “flash mob” at an upscale New York City event. During the cocktail hour, unsuspecting guests were treated to a spontaneous performance of the merry “Drinking Song” from Verdi’s La Traviata by incognito opera singers who had been blending in with the crowd. Good fun. Raise a glass and enjoy!

 

A splendid portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini. Verdi sat for this piece reluctantly, but both artist and sitter were quite pleased with the results. Pastel on cardboard, 1886:

Verdi-Boldini

Yearning for Maud

Am I too late for Saint Patrick’s Day? Not according to my clock. It’s almost 9PM New York City time so I’m right in there! Would have posted earlier today but I was busy taking Mom to the doctor’s. I’m sure the patron saint of Ireland would understand :-)

I will seize any occasion to post poetry by William Butler Yeats – a longtime favorite of mine – and this day of celebrating all things Irish will do just fine. The maestro of symbolism and verse had me hooked since the first time I read the sea voyage of “Sailing to Byzantium” and its “no country for old men”, “tattered coat upon a stick”, “singing-masters of my soul”, monuments, mosaics, and “Grecian goldsmiths”. The Dublin-born Yeats is also responsible for what is probably my favorite short lyrical poem ever, “Cloths of Heaven”. I memorized it many years ago and it continues to move me … “tread softly”.

The inspiration behind that poem was Maud Gonne, Yeats’ muse and love of his life – a love that was unrequited. He proposed marriage four times .. and was rejected four times. Though she was born in England in 1866, Maud became an active revolutionary and fervent supporter of the Irish Nationalist movement, having been spurred on by the Land War and the attending civil unrest. She was also an actress and organizer of feminist causes. Of the tumultuous political climate in which she lived Maud wrote, “it is the English who are forcing war on us”.

Photo of Maud Gonne:

MaudGonne

The intuitive Yeats sensed right away that Maud was a force to be reckoned with, and described the moment he first met her as the day “the troubling of my life began”. Gonne, a convert to Catholicism, and Yeats, a Protestant, shared an intensely strong emotional bond and had a common fascination with the occult. But Maud simply could not conceive of marrying the moody poet. Instead, she married fellow Irish Nationalist John MacBride. Yeats was crushed. The union, however, was unhappy and acrimonious. Maud and John had one son, Sean MacBride born 1904, who became a prominent figure in the IRA and later a founding member of Amnesty International.

For decades, Yeats carried a torch for Maud and agonized over her involvements with other men. His continued pain over her having escaped him is manifest in his poetry. But Maud had his number and expressed this alternate view about their relationship:

“You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.”

Maud telling it like it is! Damn girl. She certainly has point. Here’s an example of that beautiful, lovelorn-inspired poetry Yeats composed from of his heartache over Maud. We may not like to admit it, but loss, regret, and grief really do inspire poignant and powerful artistic expressions.

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Charcoal drawing of W.B. Yeats by John Singer Sargent, 1908:

Sargent-william-butler-yeats-1908

Living Water

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
They give drink to every beast of the field:
He watereth the hills from his chambers:
The earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.

- Psalm 104

On my modeling break at the 92nd Street Y the other day, I walked out of the studio into the hallway, where I filled up my water bottle from the drinking fountain. Very thirsty, I stood right there and took a few long refreshing gulps. I don’t know why I felt so dehydrated, but the cool water flowing down my throat and into my stomach felt like life being breathed back into me. Then I pushed the lever to fill my bottle again and put the cap back on. I knew I would need it for the second half of the drawing session. Just a few feet away from me was a vending machine where I could have easily purchased a bottle of SmartWater if I so chose. Or I could have dashed across Lexington Avenue to the tea shop for a lemon water. Options abound. Pull a lever; water. Turn a faucet; water. Unscrew a cap; water. Fresh clean water, all the time. It’s how we live.

 Bedouin Women Carrying Water Jars, John Singer Sargent, 1891:

Sargent-bedouin-women-carrying-water-jars-1891.jpg!HalfHD

But 700 million people around the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. That number is simply staggering. Seven hundred million. Can that be right? How does one wrap their mind around such a statistic? Many of us use our checkbooks to donate to charities, as I’ve done with Episcopal Relief and Development and their clean water programs. But the problem persists, and those of us who can fill up our water bottles to our heart’s content without giving it a second thought can’t possibly understand what it’s like for those 700 million.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Arthur Hacker, By the Waters of Babylon:

Hacker-BytheWatersofBabylon

Of all the basic essentials for life, probably none is more taken for granted by those who have it than water. And none has been more yoked with survival – and miracles – than water. Water heals. Water nourishes. Water baptizes and bathes and purifies. In imagery, symbolism, and stone cold reality, water is the sustainer of life. Water carves out canyons. We gestate in water in our mothers’ wombs. Our houseplants shrivel up and die when watering is neglected. Hunger strikers engaging in political protests still drink water to extend their lives as long as possible. We wonder if scientists will ever discover the presence of water on other planets. Why? Because water = life. Biological life. And spiritual life. Because water is “alive”.

But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him
will never thirst: but the water that I shall give him
will become in him a fountain of water
springing up into everlasting life.

- John 4:14

Moses strikes water from the rocks [fresco detail], Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1544:

Bronzino-moses-strikes-water-from-the-wall-rocks.jpg!HalfHD

I have never had to go to bed hungry. I have never had to walk 20 miles for water. I am a flawed and imperfect human being in more ways than I can count. But I try, with all my heart and soul, to never take for granted my advantages and good fortune – advantages bestowed upon me purely by “accident of birth”, as G.K. Chesterton would describe it. During this time of Lent, when so many give up something as an act of sacrifice or self-denial, people around the world experience deprivation every single day, due solely to their “accident of birth”, and not as some temporary penitential act during a holy season. It is, rather, their normalcy.

Horses at the Watering Trough, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1884:

Dagnan-Bouveret

The rector at my church told our congregation that he and his wife are sponsoring a water well project in a developing country. This page from charitywater.org describes the different kinds of clean water systems. I still have trouble grasping that something so basic, so seemingly uncomplicated as water, is an issue for millions of people in the year 2015. Maybe I’m naive. I hope I’m not.

This has been my Lenten meditation. It burst into my consciousness as a result of my greedy water-guzzling at the 92nd St Y. And discussion at church. And my daily self-reminder that I am no more deserving of anything than my fellow children of God. Life without gratitude is no life at all.

I am the figure in this painting by my friend Daniel DaSilva, Second Paradise #1:

IMG952806

Building Blocks

Life as a born-during-the-Johnson-administration 46 year old in a millennial-driven culture felt a little less alienating this week when the rock music world celebrated the 40th anniversary of Physical Graffiti. Led Zeppelin’s epic double album was released on February 24th back in 1975 and can now be called, officially, “middle-aged”. We’re in good company, yes! I like it :-)

Since I’ve already opined extensively about Zeppelin on this blog, I’ll spare my readers another fawning monologue and highlight instead the album cover for Physical Graffiti. But first I want to mention that I love the MP3 phenomenon as much as anybody. For all us music lovers it’s been, truly, a revolution. But if we lost anything of value with the death of LPs (the need for ample upright storage space not among them) it’s the art and design of the album cover. Particularly the rock album cover. Can you envision them? I’m sure you can. The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Sure there are covers to CD releases today, but it’s not quite the same.

Peter Corriston designed the iconic cover for Physical Graffiti which is instantly identifiable to Zeppelin fans:

PhysicalGraffiti

The source for this image is a block in New York City’s East Village, building street numbers 96 and 98 on St. Mark’s Place. My town has provided countless settings and images that have made their way into popular culture, and it always makes me proud. From the Empire State Building to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, in music and television and movies, New York City is everywhere … and don’t you forget it! Here are the Physical Graffiti apartments:

physical_graffiti_album_cover_led_zeppelin

The top floor of the building was cropped out and the window spaces on the album were cut out and inserted with liner notes and illustrations. You can read more about the Physical Graffiti album cover at this page.

It looks like I’ve just done a Music Monday at midnight on Saturday. So I might as well go the whole nine yards and conclude with actual music. But what to choose from this magnificently rich, confusing, strange, uninhibited double album? One on which you can detect the wear and tear in Robert Plant’s voice, and savor Jimmy Page falling obsessively in love with his guitar? No we won’t do the masterpiece “Kashmir”, but an acoustic ditty that was recorded outdoors in the garden at Mick Jagger’s house. From Physical Graffiti, this is “Black Country Woman”.

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Have a great weekend, friends! Be back soon. Until then, peace ..

Art Model Funnies

So here in the Big Apple, the Bryant Park fountain is frozen solid. And 200 miles from us, winter-weary Bostonians are jumping out of their windows into the snowbanks below and posting their antics on social media. This winter is determined to drive us to lunacy, and it’s succeeding. I’ve had enough. Can we fast-forward the calendar to May 1st please?

Some art-themed cartoons to warm our frostbitten heads:

mtun45_hi

rmun66_hi

rron1694_hi

Enter the Harem

Hello darlings! Neither my tired art model’s body nor my dread over another impending snowstorm and frigid temperatures will stop me from presenting a Valentine to my readers on this Valentine’s Day. And it ain’t chocolates or a bouquet of flowers. That’s kid stuff ;-) For us it is the scandalous, seductive, come-hither gaze and frank nudity of Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque. Painted in 1814, this iconic masterpiece of Neoclassicism predictably shocked the uptight sensibilities of the Salon art establishment. Were they shocked because it was risqué and erotic? Or because the figure is anatomically disproportional? Both actually.

Jean_Auguste_Dominique_Ingres,_La_Grande_Odalisque,_1814 In the ruthless shredding this work of art received, censorious critics concluded that the model, as concubine, was given “three vertebrae too many” and that she had “neither bones nor muscle, neither blood, nor life”. The then 34 year old Ingres was accused of ignoring anatomical accuracy and having fallen victim to his wild, erotically-charged imagination. Perhaps he did. To that we can say, “so what?”. Surely there was a method to his madness. The female body is unique in its longer lines which create visually appealing curvature. Ingres clearly took it to the next level with his elongation. Proportionally, the figure is indeed strange, with some even claiming that the particular flexure of the spine with the rotation of the pelvis is physically impossible. But as an art model I’ve done some nearly impossible poses, so I’m not so sure. Although I don’t have any extra vertebrae that I’m aware of :lol:

But Ingres had a vision in his mind and he went for it. His subject is a nubile sex slave after all, and he wanted to heighten that purpose to maximum effect. Sensuality was priority number one. I’d say he succeeded, don’t you? She’s an enticing woman and she’s on view at her permanent home in the Louvre, keeping company with the Mona Lisa.

Hearing the Heart

What happens when doctors and musicologists join forces and embark on a research project? Some interesting, albeit speculative, theories are born. A couple of weeks ago, a article on the Internet grabbed my attention and, for a brief moment, set my heart aflutter <– I’m cute and clever for choosing that phrase as you will soon see. A medical journal published the article in which is it theorized that the distinctly dramatic, sometimes volatile and erratic tempos found in Beethoven’s music were caused by the composer having had a cardiac arrhythmia. My own damaged aortic valve and I became excited at the thought that the great Beethoven was a fellow member of the heart abnormalities club. It’s all I’d ever have in common with my musical hero that’s for sure. I’ll never compose brilliant music and I’ll never be German :P

But alas, none of it amounted to some newly discovered provable truth about Beethoven. As the cardiologist involved with the paper said himself, “This is entirely speculative”. Well, phooey then.

Anatomical drawing of the heart by Leonardo da Vinci:

DaVinciHeart

Putting aside my childish desire to have heart issues in common with the greatest composer who ever lived (yes I’m weird), the study raises some compelling questions about the intersection of creativity and science, or artistic abilities and human biology if you will. I have nothing against scientific research and new ideas, conjectural though they often are. Much of it is quite fascinating. On the other hand, the tendency to pathologize the reasons behind artistic expression is as disillusioning as it is intriguing. It falls into the category of things that are over-analyzed to death, investigated and studied and pulled apart to no real illuminating end or purpose. And that indescribable realm in which artistic gifts take flight is a realm that science can never explain or elucidate no matter how hard it may try.

We know that Beethoven was deaf, and hardly the only deaf person who ever lived. We also know he suffered from lead poising, which was not uncommon in Beethoven’s era. And yet Beethoven was the only lead-poisoned deaf person to compose the 5th Symphony. Physical ailments, of which Beethoven had many, don’t define us exclusively. Isn’t it just possible that Beethoven’s soaring melodies, fierce tempo shifts, and complex harmonies were the result of him being, well, a musical genius? Isn’t it possible his music is “heartfelt” not due to “atrial tachycardia” but to the man’s profoundly intimate understanding of the human soul? To attribute the emotional weightiness of Beethoven’s String Quartets to a bout of “angina” strikes me as a bit unseemly.

I will, however, point out what I think is the most convincing postulation of the study. The researchers claim that because Beethoven was deaf he would have been more aware of his heartbeat. That is genuinely interesting and makes you think. Unlike the 188 years-late diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat, Beethoven’s deafness was real and without question impacted the nature of his composing as it progressed throughout his life; middle register and lower frequency notes are more perceivable in the inner ear before complete deafness sets in. High notes go first, and Beethoven began to complain about that as early as age 30.

Beethoven’s hearing aids, known as “ear trumpets”:

beethovenhearingaids

Oddities, illnesses, and abnormalities may or may not affect creativity. I posted previously about the alleged shrapnel lodged in the brain of Shostakovich. But the art and music survive, and how lucky we are for that. Let’s conclude this Music Monday with a video of Beethoven’s hand-written music manuscripts. They’re incredible to see, smudges, smears, erasures and all. His heart is clearly beating throughout: