Friday, September 10, 2010

your correspondent in berlin

I went the Pergamon today, which I missed on my first visit to the city two summers ago. Nico posted a few weeks back about the museum's most jarring exhibit: Colorful Gods, a series of statues painted as they might have been in their time of creation. The Pergamon is entirely devoted to relics of antiquity; they've got almost two entire temples crammed in there, along with a ton of other stuff from various pre-Christian cultures. It reminded me of the Metropolitan Museum's ruins--actually, it reminded me more of Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum, but that's another story.

As Nico mentioned, there is something unsettling about seeing Greek statues covered in such outlandish colors. Assuming that the painting done by the museum's curators and scientists is authentic to the original designs, why does this this "restoration"/"modernization" seems so odd?

Take Bach, or Handel. Every Christmas and Easter, some provincial music critic inevitably writes an editorial bemoaning the hiring of HIP conductors for their St. Matthew Passion or Messiah. "Why can't we have 200 choristers? Where's my Wagnerian-size orchestra? Why isn't Thomas Beecham still alive?" What they really seek, though, is the old aesthetic of the great Klemperer and Walter and Furtwangler recordings of Bach: heavy, deep, all-embracing, profound. When confronted with something fleet, brisk, and lively, they recoil. It's not what Bach's supposed to be!

That is the same problem I found when gazing on this.
It just feels wrong, somehow. It looks straight out of Legoland, it seems too shiny and new. Which is what the period-instrument-haters usually hate on--they want their old aesthetic back. But what is tied up with our view of ancient ruins (whether Byzantine, Roman, Greek, Assyrian), is the idea that they are ruins. The aesthetic is so dependent on the idea of the civilizations as dead that to breathe life into them seems sacrilegious. We like our statues gray-scale to historicize them and set the old civilizations apart from ourselves. There, isn't this better?

The old aesthetic, the pre-HIP and pre-Colored Gods aesthetic, puts these past civilizations on a pedestal. We make the art bigger than ourselves: we consider the statues and the music the way they considered their gods. The St. Matthew Passion, rather than Jesus, is the thing we worship. And there's not anything really wrong with that--elevating art to religion has produced some incredible art.

Back to Bach. The first audaciously-HIP recording I remember hearing was Rinaldo Alesandrini's Brandenburg Concerti with his Concerto Italiano. The only other Brandenburg recording I knew were the rather average rendition by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Marriner's is a modern instrument affair with light orchestration, quick tempos, and star soloists. The opening of Brandenburg No. 1 sounds entirely perfunctory, bouncing merrily along in the way of the Bach of WQXR and The Teaching Company. Here's the Concerto Italiano:

Those horns hit you like a punch to the face. It's wild, it's scrappy, it's alive. Alessandrini, and his greatest contemporaries, consider Bach a living reference point rather than a holy shrine--they interact with him rather than worshiping at his feet. Obviously, not all Bach should be this fun. But we should try not to take the artists more seriously than they took themselves (improvised vs. fixed cadenzas is the classic example).

In historicizing the statues of antiquity, the dominant emotion is melancholy. The act of observing the art becomes one of mourning lost civilizations: the lack of color and the fractured limbs of the figures is almost more important to us than what the completed statues might have looked like at their time. I cannot imagine that all the artifacts of these civilizations were meant to observed so bleakly.

Here is a lion:
It looks like how you'd expect an ancient lion to look: regal, maybe even a little woeful.

Now here's another lion:
The colors make it almost cartoonish. What the lion might lose in nobility, though, it gains in a sense of the visceral. Nearly all ancient sculpture looks sedentary, but with these fierce colors it finally moves, and savagely so. Tthe crazy difference between the unpainted and painted lions throws our entire view of these civilizations into question. How did they view their lions?

Apparently, color was as essential to these sculptures as it is to any painting today. In Euripides' play Helen of Troy, the title character weeps:

My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.*

Taking away the color, for the ancient Greeks, stole the beauty from their creations. We seek out these placid, colorless statues in order to distance ourselves from this society, in order to view their relics as art in the modern sense. We used to clothe Bach in the garb of Wagner, which was fine for some of it, but definitely not okay for all of it. What you hear in that Brandenburg recording is one of the most vital things about the HIP movement--the restoration of color to Baroque and earlier music. Klemperer's sweeping B-minor Mass and Stokowski's overpowering Toccata & Fugue in D minor are driven not by color or texture but by drama--the same values they ascribed to Wagner and Mahler. Bach should certainly have drama, but newer performers show that the music can breathe with exotic textures, bizarre quirks, and glimmering colors. If we lose just a smidgen of nobility in favor of immediacy, as does the lion, maybe it's worth it.


*this excerpt was in the museum, and can also be found in Matthew Gurewitsch's Smithsonian article, which describes ancient ruins, in a brilliant analogy, as "frozen Beethoven." I read the article after writing my blog post, and it says basically the same thing, but with a bit more eloquence and a few more facts.


  1. Excellent observations! There really is a disconnect we've become used to that exists between our modern sensibility and the art's lost intent. I find myself asking similar questions to yours when reading older literature-a good example being "This humor doesn't speak to me. How did people find this funny in the context of their daily social interactions in the XX00's?" I think it's easier to get to the heart of those answers with visual art and music than it is with prose because of the noticeble adjustments we can make to those. And I agree, the "frozen Beethoven" concept is spot on and adds a great deal to the work at hand.

  2. I think you meant sacrilegious , not sacrosanct.

    You probably already heard this, but when I tried to teach my students the word sacrosanct last year, one kid explained how he "sacrosanct his iPod to his computer."


  3. Which Rezzo are you?! It haunts me. And thanks for the comment, I agree. Updating and staging comedies especially is difficult enough for spoken theater and only gets more complicated with opera, where you have the difficulties of translation and rigor of the score. Visual art and music theoretically transcends that boundary better, but cultural differences mean we still don't get the jokes a lot of the time. Haydn, generally, is not all that funny.

    And yes, Michael, that's what I meant, thanks! Although I actually meant that I would sacrilegious my ipod to my computer.