Sunday, October 28, 2012

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time



                               
Bronzino's masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time is archetypal in its subject-matter and style to the art movement of Mannerism.
  
Mannerism originated in Rome about 1520. The style continued with undiminished vigour and conviction in secular and decorative works in Italy until about 1600, and in the Northern courts of Paris, Munich and Prague until about 1620. The last truly vigorous manifestations of Mannerism in art were in a group of Dutch artists from the schools of Haarlem and Utrecht.

The Florentine artist Agnolo di Cosmi (1503-72) also known as Il Bronzino, depicts in Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time  a quartet of allegorical personifications enacting a drama of the psyche. While Cupid, Venus and Time are easily identifiable from their attributes, the personifications of the three characters in the background to the main action are more ambiguous in their identity; it has been proposed they may represent Despair, Pleasure and Jealousy. 

Typically of Mannerist artists, Bronzino employs a complex symbolism taken from classical mythology in order to make an intriguing psychological statement. Nor can one easily overlook the erotic content of Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time another frequently encountered focus of Mannerist art.

Mannerism has been defined as an artificial style, a style of excess and as an art for connoisseurs. Its main thematic concerns, as in Bronzino's work, often feature the infinite varieties of antiquity, in particular, Roman antiquity, with its refinement, elegance and grace. Mannerist art is also characterised by hidden classical references, interlacing of forms, unexpected departures from common usage and symbolism of an esoteric or mythological nature.

According to critic Arnold Hauser, Mannerism was a refined and exclusive style, intellectually sophisticated and even surrealistic in its outlook, it catered for an essentially pan-European cultured class. Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time c.1547) certainly fits Hauser's definition. It was commissioned by a member of the Medici family as a present for King Francis of France. Bronzino's masterpiece has been at the National Gallery, London since 1860.

Mannerist art  is now recognised as having influenced stylistic effects of the modern art movement of surrealism. In a series of paintings Archimboldo (1527-1593) ingeniously exploited the optical trickery of multiple images, a device copied centuries later, in the artist Salvador Dali's own double-images; the unusual perspective of Joachim Wtewael's Perseus and Andromeda is echoed in Max Ernst's Temptation of Saint Anthony, while the receding horizon and vast urban spaces of Mannerist artist Antoine Caron is imitated in Italian Futurist artist De Chirico's eerie cityscapes.

Arnold Hauser noted of  Mannerist art -

'At one time it is the deepening and spiritualizing of religious experience and a vision of a new spiritual content in life; at another, an exaggerated intellectualism, consciously and deliberately deforming reality, with a tinge of the bizarre and the abstruse.'

                              
Although differing in medium, the quaternity of statuettes upon the Layer monument share a number of thematic concerns and stylistic traits to Bronzino's masterpiece. Both art-works allude to the antiquity of the classical era, both involve the interplay of a quartet of allegorical personifications, indeed there's more than a little shared symbolism between Folly, Venus and Time to Vanitas, Gloria and Labor respectively on the Layer Monument. Both artworks are boldly coloured and exhibit lively, if stylized movement and nudity. They even have a near-identical object in colour and geometric shape in common. Crucially, both Renaissance artworks utilize a complex inter-related symbolism of an esoteric nature to make a profound observation upon the human psyche, which ultimately is unfathomable in depth. 

It's often stated that the left foot of Cupid in the lower left corner of Bronzino's work can be seen  in the opening credits of the  British comedy-sketch TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus. However, a closer inspection reveals the left foot on Bronzino's Cupid doesn't exactly match up with animator and film-director Terry Gilliam's trademark image below. To be fair, commentary on Monty Python's emblematic foot simply states that Gilliam's animated image is only based upon Bronzino's Cupid.

My own big toes are on the instep of my legs last time I checked. Remembering this fact helps me remember which leg is which.    

Footnotes

Wiki-Links   Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time  -  The Foot of Cupid

An essay on Bronzino's painting  here

Books quoted

John Shearman –Mannerism - pub. Penguin 1967
Arnold Hauser -Social History of Art, Volume 2: Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque: pub. Routledge 1951

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Magic Square of Numbers


Recently, while browsing in a charity shop, I found a small brass square with numbers inscribed upon it. After purchasing it and taking it home I discovered that the same total sum occurs, not only on vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines of the square, but also in each quadrant section and the central quincunx of  its squares; in each way, including all four corners, the resultant number of thirty-three is made. (Photo above).

Turns out I've stumbled upon a discarded souvenir from Barcelona, Spain, from the cathedral of Sagrada Familia to be precise. The latin words inscribed upon the reverse of, what is little more than an esoteric fridge-door magnet- TEMPLE EXPIATORI SAGRADA FAMILIA confirm the  probable origin of the brass magic square of numbers.

The unfinished cathedral in Barcelona was designed by Antoni Gaudi and later sculpted by Josep Maria Subirachs, when  he started work on the Sagrada Familia in 1987.

In squares of order 4 where the numbers run sequentially from 1-16 the magic constant (the sum of a single line, row or diagonal) is 34, however in Joseph Subirachs' square the numbers 12 or 16 are omitted while the numbers 10 and 14 are duplicated, making a magic constant of 33, a number associated with the age of Jesus Christ at the crucifixion.


A section of the text on the great doors at the west end of the Sagrada Família includes a magic square which was added by the Catalan sculptor. Every diagonal, row or line sum equals 33, symbolizing Christ's age at crucifixion.



Subrirach's magic square can also be found on the Passion facade of the Sagrada Familia.(above).


Another well-known example of a magic square of numbers occurs in the German artist Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I.(above). In its background a magic number square can be seen in which the year of Durer's composition is inscribed in the bottom row, 15-14.

Number, along with colour, is among the deepest-rooted of all unconscious symbols. We are incapable of expressing consciously all the known associations of a symbol. Psychologically, just like each individual life, a symbol is alive and simultaneously consists of both a known and an unknown content. The colours, (not strictly colours) black and white for example, will forever hold positive and negative associations with virtue, vice, morality, emotion and mood. The colours of National flags and sports teams are often embedded deep within individual psyche's; just as the colour pink is invariably culturally embedded in gender association; no matter how consciously resisted, number and colour hold deep unconscious associations.


The ancient Greek Pythagoras based much of his teachings upon number. Worshipped as a god for almost 1000 years, the mystical philosopher once declaring - 'All is arranged to number'. Pythagoras expressed his mystery religion through symbols such as the celestial 'harmony of the spheres', geometry and the tetraktys, a pyramid of dots structured upon the sum of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10  the number by which the followers of Pythagoras swore allegiance to him.


Number symbolism occurs in many world cultures and religions, including the Old and New Testaments of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, from the first book of the Bible describing the four rivers flowing out from Eden in Genesis, to the naming of the beast 666 in the 27th and last book of the New Testament, the book of Revelation. The numbers 7, 12 and 40  - frequently encountered in the Old Testament, retain spiritual significance to believers.

It's due to a Christian perspective in western culture that the number 13 is considered unlucky and why some high-storey buildings such as hotels omit the floor number. The whole conflict and religious schism between Protestantism and Catholicism can be expressed as a conflict between the numbers 3 and 4, the number three being favoured by Protestantism as representing the Trinity, while the number 4 is closely associated with the addition of the sacred feminine of the Virgin Mary and the symbolism of the tetramorph, the four figures of the evangelists of the New Testament in Christian iconography.

In the twentieth century the Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung based his psychology on their being four distinct functions or entities of psychic activity. He also liked quoting the opening words of Plato's influential philosophical dialogue the Timaeus as an example of Plato's awareness of a conflict existing between the numbers 3 and 4. C.G. Jung considered it highly significant that both Plato, and in the modern era, the German polymath Johann Goethe, were aware of this conflict-

'One, to, three -  but, my dear Timaeus, of those who yesterday were the banqueters where is the fourth ?

C.G.Jung also interpreted the numbers 4 and 5 as representing a dilemma between nature and culture, stating-

'There is thus a dilemma between four and five. Five is the number assigned to the 'natural' man, in so far as he consists of a trunk with five appendages. Four on the other hand, signifies a conscious totality. It describes the ideal 'spiritual' man and formulates him as a totality in contrast to the pentad, which describes the corporeal man....The dilemma of four and five corresponds to the conflict between “culture” and “nature”.  [1]

The number ten is prominent in the Judaic tradition of the ten commandments of Moses and in the ten entities or Sephiroth of the kabbalah of Judaism. It is also the number the hermetic philosopher Sir Thomas Browne consciously evokes in the totality of chapters in his literary diptych  Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus.  Browne confidently declared in Religio Medici (1643) - I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras and the secret magic of numbers  and Pythagorean numerology plays no small role in his last published work, The Garden of Cyrus (1658). Like the known half of a symbol conjoining the hidden half of a symbol, Browne's The Garden of Cyrus is dense in associative symbolism as its artificer playfully provides evidence of the number five, including its geometric form, the Quincunx pattern, is archetypal in nature and art-design; its presence as an archetype is also discerned in the spiritual mysteries of Christianity, the kabbalah and astrology.

Browne concludes his speculations upon the significance of the number five in the Bible in The Garden of Cyrus thus-

whether this number be oftner applied unto bad things and ends, then good in holy Scripture, and why? He may meet with abstrusities of no ready resolution.

We can be fairly confident that Browne was knowledgeable on mystical numerology;  In  a chapter of his encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica  entitled  'Of the great Climacteric year, that is, Sixty three'  he discusses the influence of numbers thus -

Thus is it not improbable it hath also fared with number, which though wonderful in itself, and sufficiently magnifiable from its demonstrable affections, hath yet received adjections from the multiplying conceits of men, and stands laden with additions, which its equity will not admit. 
   
For first,  not only the number of 7 and 9 from considerations abstruse, have been extolled by most, but all or most of the other digits have been as mystically applauded. For the number of One and Three have not been only admitted by the Heathens, but from adorable grounds, the unity of God, and mystery of the Trinity admired by many Christians. The number of four stands much admired, not only in the quaternity of the Elements, which are the principles of bodies, but in the letters of the Name of God, which in the Greek, Arabian, Persian, Hebrew, and Egyptian, consisteth of that number; and was so venerable among the Pythagoreans that they swore by the number four.That of six hath found many leaves in its favour; not only for the days of the Creation, but its natural consideration, as being a perfect number, and the first that is completed by its parts; that is, the sixth, the half, and the third, 1. 2. 3. Which drawn into a sum, make six. The number of Ten hath been as highly extolled, as containing even, odd, long, plain, quadrate and cubical numbers; and Aristotle observed with admiration, that Barbarians as well as Greeks, did use numeration unto Ten, which being so general, was not to be judged casual, but to have a foundation in nature. So that not only 7 and 9, but all the rest have had their Eulogies .. [2]

A casual perusal of the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne's library reveals the 17th century physician-philosopher possessed a commentary on Pythagoras and books by the ancient Greek mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes.  Janus-like, he also kept abreast of the latest discoveries of modern-rational deductive mathematics as advanced by his contemporaries. The British mathematician William Oughtred (the inventor of the slide-rule who is also credited with introducing the symbol X into mathematics) along with contemporary mathematicians Seth Ward and Henry Briggs are represented in Browne's library. [3]

It's worth remembering that no small proportion of the scientific thinking developed in the 17th century scientific revolution by men such as Galileo, Kepler and  Robert Hooke, Boyle and Newton in Britain, were scientists who promoted new ideas on nature, maths and physics and whose ideas formed the backbone of the Industrial Revolution, often held a deep interest in esoteric disciplines.

The scientific revolution, in Britain in particular, as Dame Frances Yates amply demonstrated, was the product of a hybrid of scientific thinking which evolved as much from the study of esoteric sources such as Pythagorean numerology as the methodology of rational, deductive science. In fact, many embryonic scientific discoveries were incubated in the womb of pre-Christian, pagan sources, especially from the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato, along with a host of esoteric traditions, notably from the triumvirate of alchemy, astrology and the cabbala, all of which utilized sacred numerology in one form or another. 

Esoteric symbolism continues to live in modern architectural wonders such as the cathedral Sagrada Familia at Barcelona in Spain, and in mundane and trivial souvenirs for tourists.

Nave roof of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Notes
[1] C.G.Jung C.W.  9 i  680
[2] P.E. Book 4 chapter 12
[3]  Pages 28 - 29 - 30 of the 1711 Sales Catalogue lists 98 books under the generic term, Libri Mathematici includes books on astronomy, astrology and geometry along with mathematics, such as  -

ArchimedesOpera   page 28  no.2
Henry Briggs - Arithemetica Logarithmica London 1644   page 28  no. 15
Thomas Fincke - Geometria Rotundi  Basle 1583  page 29 no.11
Seth Ward - Idea Trigonomeriae  Oxford 1654  page 29 no.12
Thomas Digges  -Alae seu Scalae Mathematicae  London 1573 p. 29 no. 51
William Oughtred - Clavis Mathematica  London 1648   page 30 no. 13

Article on  Magic square numbers

Monday, October 08, 2012

Beauty and the Beast


First performed in its current production in Leeds, December 2011, and now on tour throughout the UK this October and November, Northern Ballet's Beauty and the Beast, choreographed by artistic director David Nixon.

In the course of the performance at Theatre Royale, Norwich, there was a giant hologram, full stage projections, on stage explosions, a judicious use of strobe lighting and bungee cords, seven different stage settings and seventeen scene changes in total. No mean achievement for a company which is currently suffering the effects of a draconian  25% funding cut.  

Artistic director David Nixon became interested in choreography when at the National Ballet School of Canada while still a dancer. His interest became more serious when he took over his first company, stating-

'I discovered that my work was pivotal in developing dancers’ potential and that I had an ability to tell stories through dance'. 

David Nixon has been artistic director of Northern Ballet since 2001. He's created new versions of Madame Butterfly, Swan Lake, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Peter Pan and The Three Musketeers. A highlight of his choreographic career is his innovative Dracula (1999). He received an OBE in the 2010 New Year Honours for his services to Ballet and his latest work, Cleopatra, was given it's world premiere in  Leeds in February 2011. 

The skeletal framework of Nixon's stylish interpretation of the archetypal story of the opposites, of outer beauty and inner moral worth, is the music of several French romantic composers. Setting the atmosphere firmly in the world of the daimonic and fairy-tale, the ballet opened with the Northern Ballet Sinfonia's lively rendering of Saint-Saen's Danse Macabre. 

Highlights of the evening included a tender pas de deux by the principal dancer's (Martha Leebolt and Giuliano Contadini) to the music of Debussy's Clair de Lune and a dream sequence pas de trois, in which Beauty and the Prince dance a rapturous love duet while the Beast despairingly gambols around them in torment. It was also nice to hear a zestful extract from Glazunov's The Seasons, a sprightly invitation to the dance matched by a riot of colour in costume change. Interspersed throughout the romantic fantasy there was humour, in particular from Beauty's two vain shopaholic sisters and most amusingly from the Beast's ape-like servants. The  prop link between a hand-held white rose and a giant-scale white rose in which Beauty slept as a guest of the Beast (photo above) was neat too.

Personally, I felt the last movement of Debussy's La Mer seemed a little too powerful and out of synch emotionally with the ballet's narrative, however, the love-story was well-served returning to the music of the composer opening the ballet; the celebrated pomp and grandeur of the final movement of Saint-Saens Organ Symphony was highly effective accompaniment to the climax and apotheosis of the fairy-tale ballet. The company of dancers received rapturous applause from an appreciative audience which seemed to enjoy the acrobatic talents of the Beast slightly more than Beauty's charms, for he received the louder applause at the curtain-call.

The story of Beauty and the Beast has inspired various artists since it's first recorded appearance in the 18th century. Earlier last century, the French multi-genre artist Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) made a film based upon what is, in essence, an utterly French tale of love, beauty and deception, La Bete et La Belle (1946)The American composer Philip Glass in turn, wrote an opera in 1994 based on Cocteau's film, which, closely following each scene, is effectively a new soundtrack for Cocteau's masterpiece.  

First performed in 1997, it's beginning to look as if Beauty and the Beast is establishing itself firmly in the ballet repertoire. I certainly hope so as David Nixon's stunning interpretation deserves preserving in the ephemeral world of modern dance. But why waste words attempting to describe dance and movement in Nixon's interpretation of the fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast when a generous 2 minute plus video clip, courtesy of Northern Ballet, can be seen here. 


Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Lovesick Man



Another night of Saturnine blues, this time in the form of an early work by the German artist George Grosz, his The Lovesick Man (circa 1916) a painting reflecting dominant themes in Grosz's art - human nature and individual weaknesses, themes which have lost little relevance today.

George Grosz (1893-1959) was born in Berlin and grew up during the prelude to World War I (1914-1818).  In protest against the nationalist fervour and rabid anti-British sentiment vocalized on Berlin’s streets in the build-up to war, Grosz and fellow artist Jon Herzefelde (1891-1968) provocatively changed their names to an Anglicized form of spelling and pronunciation. Incidentally, there's a stylistic affinity between the pioneering photo-montage developed by John Herzefelde for political propaganda, one or two examples of which I've discussed before and the surreal humour of Terry Gilliam (b. 1940) the creator of cut-out, animated montages which were an integral part of the British TV series Monty Python's flying Circus (1969-71). 

In his tense and unsettling portrait of a lovesick young man, George Grosz quite explicitly alludes to the Ursprung tragic hero of German romanticism, Werther, a character created by Johann Goethe in his Der Leidenschaft der Junge Werther (1774) known in English as The Sorrows of Young Werther

In Goethe's phenomenally popular novella of the day, the sensitive and romantic hero Werther is unable to come to terms with the fact that his sweetheart has married another and that his love can never be consummated. He borrows a pair of pistols, and after writing a confessional letter and drinking a bottle of port, shoots himself. Goethe’s semi-autobiographical tale of unrequited love was accused of  encouraging copycat acts throughout Germany, and of making a cult of suicide, accusations which the author strongly denied. 

It's been suggested that the spate of suicides which occurred in Germany following the publication of Goethe's Werther were in fact the result of an increased awareness of educated individuals of the inflexibility of bureaucratic institutions in Germany; this extreme frustration with the deeply-rooted conservatism of German society, effectively prevented the possibility of following  in France's revolutionary path.

Although differing in artistic objective Grosz's symbolism in The Lovesick Man differs little from that of the medieval tradition of Vanitas motifs. In Grosz's early painting not only can a near palpable red heart be seen, but also a revolver in the breast-pocket of the sitter. The empty room with a vacated table and chairs heightens the solitary sitter's loneliness. On his table there's the indulgences of a pipe and cigarettes along with a bottle, probably of alcohol. There's also paper and a pen on his table, suggestive that a confessional, or urgent communication is to be made. The anchor tattooed on his head hints of sinking or wallowing in unloved despair. The bones in the bottom right corner and fish bones symbolically allude to death. In the far background beside a blood-red sickle moon, the rib-cage of a skeleton can be seen. The theme of dissipation and death is developed further with a plant at the top corner which lacks either leaves or flowers. The gun placed next to the sitter's visible heart has strong symbolic associations, hinting that either suicide or a crime of passion is about to be committed.  

Wrapped up in self-absorbed gloom Grosz's anti-romantic hero is capable of senseless acts. The message of Grosz's Marxist morality art- lesson seems to be - self-centred individuals who care only for their own happiness condemn themselves to a solitary madness; they do so at the expense of the well-being of society in general.

George Grosz witnessed the return of the defeated nation's troops to civilian life, the near breakdown of moral order and the subsequent violent conflict between the extreme left and right-wing in street fighting in post-war Berlin. The trauma of hyper-inflation added fuel to the social problems of crime, prostitution, drugs and the black market, endemic on Berlin's streets following World War I.

In January 1919 he was arrested but escaped imprisonment by producing fake identification documents which he'd forged himself. He joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in the same year; however, unlike the Russian communist revolution of 1917, the German communist revolution of 1919 failed, due to various factors too complex to discuss here, not least, the assassination of Communist party leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg in January 1919.

In 1921 Grosz was accused of insulting the army and fined 300 German Marks. The court also ordered his satire on German society Gott mit uns (God with us) to be destroyed. Although Grosz left the KPD in 1922 he subsequently spent five months in Russia, meeting Lenin and Trotsky.

By 1924 economic and social stability in the newly established Weimar Republic allowed the opportunity for the creation of radical new art - Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927), Hermann Hesse’s novel of crisis and re-integration of identity, Steppenwolf (1927) the new music of Jazz and Kurt Weill spring to mind. The decadent, pleasure-loving years of the Weimar era and the rise of fascism are also the setting of Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) which was later was adapted as the film Cabaret (1972).

By 1920 George Grosz had mastered his artistic powers to make powerful statements on the social instability and chaos of post-war Berlin. His art gives a glimpse into a society sharply polarized between rich and poor, and of a Berlin resembling a Dante-like inferno where individuals of varying degrees of power and corruption enact Berlin's social maelstrom on the streets of the metropolis.



Grosz's low opinion of humanity is epitomised in the title of his 1946 autobiography A little Yes and a big No which he wrote once a naturalized American citizen. In a salutary lesson of how serious economic and social upheaval can affect the qualities of empathy with others and encourage selfish behaviour, the embryonic origins of fascism no less, he describes Berlin after World War I- 

"Everywhere, hymns of hatred were struck up. Everyone was hated: the Jews, the capitalists, the Junkers, the Communists, the army, the property owners, the workers, the unemployed, the black Reichwehr, the control commissions, the politicians, the department stores, and the Jews again. It was an orgy of incitement, and the republic itself was a weak thing, scarcely perceptible. … It was a completely negative world, topped with colourful froth that many imagined to be true, happy Germany before the onset of the new barbarism."  

Tragically, although in 1954 Grosz was elected to the American Academy of Arts he continued to be home-sick and returned to Berlin, where he died in 1959 in an alcohol-related accident.

Wiki-Link - George Grosz

Monday, October 01, 2012

Osvaldo Golijov



Earlier this year I was introduced, courtesy of a friend, to the music of Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960). The music of Golijov, who was born and grew up in Argentinia of East European and Judaic descent, draws upon a wide spectrum including experimental and electronic, Jazz and Pop, Klezmer music, the Tango and the folk traditions of World music. In addition to these varied musical influences Golijov has been well-qualified to absorbing world-wide music languages in his career. He moved from Argentina to Israel in 1983 to study music at the Rubin Academy at Jerusalem. In 1986  he relocated to America where he has taught music at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts since 1991.  

The music-making of the Latin-American world, the city of Jerusalem and medieval Spain are of special inspirational value to Golijov. Each of these locations were once seminal places at the crossroads of overlapping cultures, where Christian, Muslim and Jew once peacefully co-existed.

I was probably in a highly-charged emotional state last winter anyway when first hearing the electrifying incantation by singer Dawn Upshaw which opens Ayre (2004). Golijov's song-cycle was influenced by a creative urge to create a companion work to Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs (1964) which draws upon traditional melodies from America, Armenia, Sicily, Genoa, Sardinia, the Auvergne and Azerbaijan. Golijov’s song cycle is no less eclectic and diverse than Berio's. It features the music of southern Spain and the intermingling of Christian, Arab and Jewish cultures with texts from the Sephardic, Arabic, Hebrew and Sardinian languages.

The influence of Berio’s folk-song cycle is most evident in the gentle and traditional Sephardic song which follows the incandescent opening. The next song Tancas serradas a muru in stark contrast is defiant and aggressive, near punk and urban rap-like in style, comes as a complete shock to those who imagine the performing persona of classically-trained singer Dawn Upshaw to be confined to the demure. Her reciting of Be a string, water, to my guitar a calm, reflective, unaccompanied poem is insightful, while the song Yah , annah emtza’cha, aurally and vividly depicts the era of medieval Spain in which Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures once lived harmoniously. Golijov explains why Medieval Spain and the era of peaceful inter-relationship of religious faiths is close to his heart when commenting upon his song-cycle-

'With a little bend, a melody goes from Jewish to Arab to Christian. How connected these cultures are and how terrible it is when they don’t understand each. The grief that we are living in the world today has already happened for centuries but somehow harmony was possible between these civilizations’

The song-cycle Ayre is one of several Golijov compositions written specifically with the qualities and interpretative insight of the mezzo-soprano Dawn Upshaw and her gorgeous singing voice in mind. The subject of the strengths and weaknesses of composers writing with specific voices in mind may well re-surface in musical discussion next year when the centenary of the British composer Benjamin Britten (b.Lowestoft 1913) occurs. Britten wrote many song-cycles and opera parts specifically with the voice of his longtime partner the tenor Peter Pear in mind. Whether or not vocal works written for one specific voice in performance and interpretation can be completely replicated by another, remains an open question. 

Dawn Upshaw’s recording of the song-cycle Ayre concludes evoking Greek mythology with the tale of Ariadne in the labyrinth, a tense, mysterious and coiling musical theme which highlights the instrumental playing of the chamber ensemble, the Andalucian Dogs, as it slowly fades into silence.  Golijov’s final song in the cycle perfectly highlights the cross-fertilization of  musical cultures within the Mediterranean basin far better than words ever can. Golijov himself spoke of the creative motivation of composing his song-cycle-

The idea is to create a forest and for Dawn to walk in it. There is no real sense of ‘form’ –in the sense of Beethovian development – but rather lots of detours and discoveries’.

The title alone of the opera Ainadamar (Arabic: Fountain of Tears) appealed to me as the next work by Golijov work worth hearing. The opera’s title alludes to an ancient well near Granada in Spain where the poet Federico Garcia Lorca was murdered by Spanish Fascists in August 1936. First performed at the Tanglewood Festival in August 2003 Ainadamar is primarily based upon traditional Spanish music, in particular the Flamenco style.  Once more the hypnotic voice of Dawn Upshaw is featured, this time performing as Margarita Xirgu,  a Catalan tragedian and Lorca's lover and muse, who collaborated with him on several of his plays. Without wanting to post spoilers there's a very startling moment in Golijov's opera about Garcia Lorca’s murder. In recent times the terror and trauma of the Spanish civil war is the backdrop for film-director Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) a harrowing account of an episode in the Spanish civil war interlinked with a fantasy world of magical realism.