MUSICAL PORTRAITS

The soaring 300-year-old arches of St John’s Smith Square are backdrop to our 2015/16 season opener on Saturday 10 October, featuring Morton Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett, much admired and rarely performed.

Feldman’s music paints an intimate portrait of the iconic novelist, playwright and poet. As Art Lange describes:

“Beckett created a series of situations in which characters were dispossessed, disenfranchised, powerless, bearing the burden of pain, alienation or incomprehension. The degree to which this was a response to specific incidences of his own metaphysical dilemma is open to interpretation. But it’s true that, whatever his motivation or state of mind, he chose to create Art to counteract the Void. This, along with his outsider status and his willingness to embrace ambiguity in the face of fascism and chaos, could be why Feldman felt an affinity to him, and so titled this music.”

We decided to put the internet to good use, and look back through history at other composers who have created portraits with their music:

Chuck Close

Chuck Close Self-Portrait (Yellow Raincoat) 2013 Photo credit Donald Farnswoth, Magnolia Editions and David Adamson, Adamson Editions

Philip Glass A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close

“Composed as a diptych in two harmonically related but distinctly different movements, this work is a spiritual reflection of Chuck Close, and a tribute to the friendship between two of the most influential artists of their generation. Close and Glass first became friends in the late 1960s when both worked as assistants to the sculptor Richard Serra. Close was then taking photographs and painting images of his friends. He specifically did not want to paint ‘famous’ people although many of his subjects, including Glass, Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz and Robert Rauschenberg, did ironically become famous in their own right. Close called his portraits ‘heads’ to emphasize they were exercises in ‘form not biography’. Unlike traditional portraits, they gave every aspect of an image equal value and importance.” Source

Fryderyk Chopin D flat Waltz

“Chopin used to amuse gatherings of his friends by improvising musical portraits of them, but there is only one recorded instance of a finished composition springing from these spontaneous creations. Curiously, the subject is not a human but one of George Sand’s dogs, which chases its tail in the famous D flat Waltz (Op. 64, No. 1).” Source

Francis Poulenc Les soirées de Nazelles

“Poulenc would often stay at a friend’s country house in the town of Nazelles, near Tours. It was here that he played aux portraits (charades) around the piano. Like Chopin before him, he would capture each of the guests in an improvisation and a guessing game would follow to identify who was being depicted. He later published eight of the portraits as a cycle, Les soirées de Nazelles. They are framed by a Preambule and Final, which was later identified by the composer as a self-portrait.” Source

Edward Elgar Enigma Variationsvze36b0fd40ef04ae8b660ab6944e69fe9“This work, commenced in a spirit of humour and continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of Elgar’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme and each one attempts a solution of the ‘enigma’ theme. The sketches are not ‘portraits’ but each variation contains a distinct idea founded on some particular personality or perhaps on some incident known only to two people.” Elgar’s programme note for a performance of the Variations in Turin, October 1911

Claude Debussy Hommage à S. Pickwick

“The ninth prelude of Debussy’s second book of preludes takes as its source of inspiration the lovable and kind-hearted protagonist of Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers (published in 1836), Samuel Pickwick. It begins in a purported serious tone with the first strain of God Save the Queen given in thunderous tones in the lowest register of the piano and accompanied by full-voiced chords above it. This grave rendition of the English national anthem, however, is soon dropped as the tempo quickens and the music begins to reflect the comic nature of Pickwick’s adventures. A lively dotted-rhythm becomes the principal motif of the prelude accompanied at periodic intervals by a rising scale figure that sounds something like a whistle. Just as in Dickens’s novel, moments of grandeur and even sentimentality appear in Debussy’s prelude, yet in their proper place as part of the overall comedy.” Joseph DuBose

For more information about our season opener Feldman: For Samuel Beckett or to book tickets click here.

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