Prelude to Fame: Emanuel Ax at the Phillips, 1967

Sunday Concerts, the Phillips’s time honored music series, began in 1941. Before then music had always been a part of life at the museum, but the formal inauguration of the series aimed to bring the same level of ambition and experimentation that Duncan Phillips had for the visual arts, to music. The charge was led by the inimitable Elmira Bier, Duncan Phillips’s secretary from 1924 onwards. Phillips could scarcely have found a stronger advocate in Bier, who although not formally trained in music, schooled herself out of necessity across a broad range of artistic areas. Her lack of musical preconceptions may have been her strongest suit, as it led her to take risks, especially in her encouragement of young artists. This remains a central tenet of the concert series today as we carry the torch into the current 73rd season and beyond.

This spirit of openness and support for young artists is wonderfully encapsulated by letters of correspondence from 1967 between Bier, Polish pianist and teacher Mieczyslaw Munz, and his pupil, an eighteen-year-old Emanuel Ax. Fast forward to today and Emanuel Ax is regarded as one of the finest pianist of his generation who has collaborated with many of the major orchestras and conductors. He has won several Grammy Awards for his recordings, and along with a slew of competition wins and honorary doctorates, also teach at the Julliard School in New York.  But in 1967, he was a virtually unknown young Polish émigré studying under Munz at Julliard. Munz wrote to Elmira Bier in March 1967 suggesting that she consider Ax for a performance that season, mentioning his extraordinary qualities, and that the late Arthur Rubinstein thought highly of him. Bier wrote back:

Letter from Elmira Bier to Mieczylaw Munz, September 8, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Ax responded and made a recording, sending it to Elmira with a short but revealing disclaimer:

Emanuel Ax to Elmira Bier, undated. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

One can imagine Elmira and her staff huddling around an early compact cassette player listening to Ax’s DIY recording. We do not know what he recorded, but clearly it was enough to make an impression on the discerning music director, who wrote back in May of that year offering Ax a Sunday afternoon performance.

Elmira Bier to Emanuel Ax, May 18, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Ax wrote back soon after with his ambitious program: two Scarlatti sonatas; the Sonata, Op. 57, Appasionata, by Beethoven; two Liszt transcriptions of songs by Schubert; the Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116 by Brahms; L’isle Joyeuse by Debussy; and Chopin’s Etude, Op. 10, No. 8 and  Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. It was certainly a brave and auspicious choice of works, and shows a musical maturity that belied his young age. He was still a student cutting his teeth on the circuit when he performed at the Phillips, and it is a mystery what the audience would have thought about this young man, who in just 7 years’ time would go on to win the first ever Arthur Rubinstein competition in 1975, catapulting him to international stardom. If they were anything like Elmira Bier, they would have welcomed his ambition and passion for music-making with open arms.

There was one last piece of motherly advice that the worldly wise Elmira had for the young aspiring concert pianist, advice that we are sure did not go unnoticed.

Elmira Bier to Emanuel Ax, September 8, 1967. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Jeremy Ney, Music Specialist

The [Fine] Art of Fugue

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Nicolas de Staël, Fugue, c.1951 and 1952. Oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 39 1/2 in. (80.645 x 100.33 cm). The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Acquired 1952.

Since beginning my internship at the Phillips in May, one of the works in the collection that has made a big impression on me is Nicolas de Staël’s Fugue (along with his other eight pieces in the permanent collection). The cool colors and vibrant texture attracted me when I walked by and I instantly recognized something different about this piece. There is a simultaneity, yet complex unity to this painting.

While I am by no stretch of the imagination a music buff, I do appreciate classical music. When I researched de Staël’s Fugue, I found out that Duncan Phillips described de Staël’s work as having the “structure of rhythmical repetitions with underlying counter rhythms” present in a musical composition.

After looking into what a fugue was, I discovered that Johann Sebastian Bach is known for his compositions of masterful Baroque fugues and cannons. According to Oxford Music Online, the term fugue means, “flight” or “escape.” In music the word denotes a composition in which three or more voices (very rarely two) enter imitatively one after the other, each “giving chase” to the preceding voice.

In the same way that Bach’s Fugues produce simultaneous resounds, de Staël’s Fugue echoes the same sentiment, in this case with a brushstroke instantly mimicking its preceding mark. Even the musical animations for Bach’s Fugues visually resemble the composition of de Staël’s Fugue in the way that the different colored blocks are layered, aligning with the fugue pattern of Bach’s work.

Looking at de Staël’s piece, we see that he uses more than three colors (gold in the first layer, blue green in another, along with accents of black, white, and gray) in his Fugue, which correspond to the minimum of three voices in Bach’s works. These color palettes within the painting are structured into a flow of blocks which seem to imitate each other, similar to Bach’s melodic lines.

In view of Duncan Phillips classifying de Staël as a “poet-painter and a protégé of Braque,” the current location of his nine pieces conveys Phillips’s careful consideration of the conversation between neighboring works and how they interact with one another as they are perfectly situated just outside the Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life 1928-1945 exhibition.

Are there any interesting relationships you’ve noticed in the Phillips’s galleries that make you want to investigate?

 

Carson Shelton, K12 Education Intern

Having Sunday Concert Withdrawal?

Pagainini and Rachel Barton Pine

(Left) Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, Paganini, 1831. Oil on cardboard on wood panel, 17 5/8 x 11 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1922. (Right) Rachel Barton Pine in the Phillips’s Music Room. Photo: Lou Brutus

While our Sunday Concert season is on hiatus, check out our new audio tour stop on Eugène Delacroix’s painting, Paganini. Music Specialist Jeremy Ney describes Paganini’s role in music history and provides an excerpt from Rachel Barton Pine’s January performance of his music. And if this whets your appetite, have a listen to our music podcast from our last season.