From Bach to Braque

Georges Braque, Lemons and Napkin Ring, 1928. Oil and graphite on canvas, 15 3/4 x 47 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1931 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Georges Braque, Lemons and Napkin Ring, 1928. Oil and graphite on canvas, 15 3/4 x 47 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1931 © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

One of the intriguing aspects of investigating an artist and their practices is delving into the context of his or her time, understanding the historical and formative moments that helped shape their aesthetic and world view.  Confronting the maelstrom of social, political, and artistic upheaval of the 20th century can be an intimidating, if elucidating, obstacle in the consideration of an artist. Painters, writers, and musicians of this period were all tackling the same aesthetic questions and quandaries of expression and the human condition. The art and music of this period are often viewed as interweaving yet divided entities. A comparative look at both almost feels too big to confront, the possibilities too vast or too vague to be meaningful. In the case of George Braque, whose works are currently on view in the Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 exhibition at the Phillips, we can learn much from looking further into history too.

In works that predate this exhibition, Braque had made explicit reference to his admiration of the Baroque composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Between 1912 and 1913 he stenciled Bach’s initials on his Homage to J.S. Bach, as well as musical forms that Bach employed, like the Aria, as in the Aria de Bach of 1913. These explicit placements of Bach’s name yield more than mere admiration of his music and art historians have found an analogue between Bach’s polyphony and counterpoint and the angles and perspectives of Braque’s cubist works. If we think about the form that is most associated with Bach, the fugue, we find a careful balance of four distinct voices woven together. In listening to his many fugues it is possible to feel a parallel with the sense of line and architecture in Braque’s painting. Yet beyond this fairly abstract comparison there are similarities in terms of form and practice between the two men. The writer and art historian responsible for much of the early scholarship on Braque, Carl Eisenstein, speaks of Braque’s meticulous and tireless pursuit of perfection in his still life variations. By limiting himself to specific forms and motifs, Eisenstein says, Braque heightens his images to new levels of technical achievement. The same sense of economy of means applies to some of Bach’s music: in choosing a single theme and subjecting it to a series of variations, he evinces the endless possibilities that can be generated from a single musical idea.

The initials that Braque stenciled into his homage, B-A-C-H, actually form a four note musical motif in German (B-flat, A, C, B-natural), which many composers have used in their music, most notably Bach himself in his Art of Fugue. From this four note musical cell Bach’s weaves a thematic tapestry of ceaseless invention, in the same way that Braque’s paintings reimagine motifs with nuanced differences and variations. Perhaps the similarities extend further: by 1940, Braque had produced 24 variations of the napkin ring motif in his still life compositions, many of which are on view in this exhibition. In musical harmony there are 24 major and minor keys, for each of which Bach produced a prelude-fugue combination in one of his most beloved and iconic works: The Well-Tempered Clavier. As a trained musician and lover of Bach’s music, Braque would have known and heard these works, and doubtless he would have appreciated them for the artistic and technical practices that formed such an integral function in his own life and career. Certainly it is true that beyond the guitars, mandolins, and instruments that appear in his still life works, Braque was a musical painter beyond the canvas.

Jeremy Ney, Music Specialist

Concluding the 2012/2013 season of Sunday Concerts

We would like to take the opportunity to thank all the performers, volunteers, Concertmasters, supporters, and audience members for making a successful 2012/2013 concert season. See you in October! In the meantime, you can find podcasts of our recordings on iTunes.

Music Team 2013

From left to right: Ed Kelly, Caroline Mousset, Alexandre Mousset, Roberto Alcaraz, Jeremy Ney. Photo Credit: Kathryn Zaremba.

The Audacity of Youth: Teenage String Octets

On Sunday May 26, in the concluding concert of the 2012/2013 season of Sunday Concerts, The Phillips Camerata performed a program of string octets by Felix Mendelssohn and George Enescu. It was a first in the museum’s musical history to present eight string musicians and a unique opportunity to hear works written for this unusual form. The rich combination of strings produces a compelling sonority in any acoustic, but in the intimacy of the wood paneled Music Room, these two wildly contrasting works were heard up close and personal, with all their depths and intricacies on view.

Phillips Camerata rehearsing. Photo: Edward Kelly

Phillips Camerata rehearsing. Photo: Edward Kelly

The repertoire for string octet, (a double string quartet consisting of four violins, two violas, and two cellos) is unhappily slim. Octets and septets for woodwind instruments, or string and wind combinations, have enjoyed a happier life in the classical canon. There may be good reasons for this: how do you control eight string voices individually and as a whole? Does the lack of other orchestral instruments lead to a shortage of musical color at the composer’s disposal? Whilst these may be valid questions, perhaps the short answer as to why neither Mozart, Beethoven, nor many other great masters attempted the string octet is quite simply because they never got around to it.

Why then that the 16-year-old Mendelssohn and 19-year-old Enescu decided to turn their hands to the form is intriguing. Both composers were child prodigies and crafted these works in their teens. A delicate time for even the most prodigious composer, many of the teenage works of the great composers hardly attest to the image that genius emerges on the scene fully formed. Many of these early efforts are condemned to the drawer, stripped of their themes and recast with renewed grandeur, or destroyed in fits of Byronesque self-recrimination. However, both Mendelssohn and Enescu managed to compose music that remains compelling irrespective of its adolescent, hormonally-charged origins.

The two works offer vastly different sound worlds. Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major sparkles with originality and the work’s four movements showcase his consummate skills as a composer. He seamlessly combines fugue and counterpoint, complex orchestral textures, and tapestries of interweaving themes, which continually surprise and engage the listener. Throughout this piece you can feel Mendelssohn’s joy in having found his voice. After the first performances of the Octet his name began to be uttered in the same breath as the great masters.

Enescu’s world is decidedly more dramatic and emotionally charged. Influenced by the folk music traditions of his native Romania, Enescu drives a raw almost primitive quality through the heart of his Octet in C Major, written at the turn of the 20th century. Approaching this form was an endeavor Enescu took very seriously, almost to the point of torment, writing, “No engineer putting his first suspension bridge across a river can have agonized more than I did as I gradually filled my manuscript paper with notes.” This strength of purpose is apparent from the very first notes of Enescu’s Octet, which plunge us into an unsettling world, charged with a powerful sense of pathos.

Both of these works exhibit the hallmarks of maturity, yet retain the probing and inquisitive sense of youth. They demonstrate the meticulous and hard fought transition from child prodigy to established artist, and carry forth a clarity of musical vision that remains as rich and artistically vibrant as it did when these works were heard for the first time.

Jeremy Ney, Music Consultant