Le Tombeau de Couperin

In the year that we are celebrating the end of WWI (1914-1918, it is relevant to remember the artists who participated and some of whom perished in ‘the war to end all wars’ .

This is an invitation to listen to and to appreciate Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed for piano between 1914 and 1917, and premiered in 1919. Tombeau was a form of memorial composition used by French composers of the Baroque period as a way of paying tribute to a prominent personality or respected musician colleague and which was rediscovered and revived by a number of twentieth century composers. In Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel has a double purpose: an homage to the French composers of that period and in particular, François Couperin, and an in memoriam to a number of his friends who perished in the great war.

During the period that he is composing the suite, Ravel also serves as an ambulance driver, endures health problems resulting from constant exposure to danger, and, most tragically, suffers the loss of his mother, all this taking a severe toll on his health. It is undoubtedly a very dramatic and difficult  time in his life.

In spite of everything, he composes lively and playful music, perhaps due to his Basque roots and relation to Spain. He writes colourful, childlike, playful sounds flowing from movement to movement, reminding us of the brighter side of life and its happier moments (but nonetheless, with a complex demanding and unique technical demands for even the most able pianist). This is in  sharp contrast with the forms that many other composers of his time were using, mainly dramatic pieces with strong, war-like sounds. Ravel wanted to celebrate his friends’ lives and his memories of them positively. When he was criticised for the resulting music not being sombre and dramatic, he replied: “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence”.

Ravel embodies the impressionist style with an admixture of neoclassical features ( although he disliked being labelled an impressionist.) He works on the edge of tonal harmony, adding ostinato motives and harsh dissonances. The piece resembles a Baroque dance suite with six movements:

Prelude: to the memory of Lieutenant Jacques Charlot who had transcribed some of Ravel’s music for solo piano at the composer’s publishers.

Fugue: to the memory of Second Lieutenant Jean Cruppi, whose mother helped Ravel get his comic opera L’heure Espagnole performed.

Forlane: to the memory of Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc, a Basque painter whom Ravel had met in a small town in the Pyrenees.

Rigaudon: to the memory of the brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, friends of Ravel’s family; they were killed with the same shell on their first day at the front.

Menuet: to the memory of Jean Dreyfus; Ravel recovered at the Dreyfus family home after being relieved from the army due to poor health and after the death of his mother.

Toccata: to the memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave, who died at the start of the war. He was a musicologist and the husband of Ravel’s favourite pianist Marguerite Long, who premièred ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’ on the 11th of April 1919.  

The Battle of Endor

Luke:

Father… I know you’re there, watching from above
I feel your presence and your might
Because I chose the light.

I stand alone, in this forest of old
I’ve brought down many—is this to your delight?
Because I chose the light.

He’s coming straight for me
Wanting my blood, to wish me a goodnight
Because I chose the light.

A flash of green (though I know yours is red)
I may be young, but I am a knight
Because I chose the light.

Steadily I breathe, in and out.
Swinging with focus. I smite,
Because I chose the light.

I watch as he spins, repeatedly
Now it’s my time to wish him a goodnight
Because I chose the light.

Father… I know you’re there, watching from above
The path I follow—I know it to be right
Because I chose the light.

When we stand side by side
Will you help me fight?
Because you once too chose the light

Stormtrooper:

Now’s my chance, I’ve got you alone
I’ve got you in my sight
You and your silly green light.

Aboard my bike, I have the power of flight
Whilst you stand around in the mud
That will soon be covered in your red blood.

Do you think I’m afraid?
Cause, guess what—I’m not.
Not by a long shot.

Fire one! Fire two!
Why aren’t you dead yet?
Are you even breaking a sweat?

Twist the throttle, to give me a boost
Leaves fall and twigs break as I past
Sending you another blast.

I can see your eyes flicker
What are you thinking in that little head?
You won’t need it soon because you’ll be dead.

You swing your light sabre and though I feel no pain
I start to spin and turn
To my stomach’s surprise, as it begins to churn

A tree comes into view
I have no control, this is the end
Too late for amends.

I’m sorry my love, I won’t be coming home
Kiss the kids goodnight for me
Goodbye Empire, now I’m free.


 

 

 

 

The Natural History Museum

 

Designed by architect Alfred Waterhouse, the Natural History Museum is an architectural marvel; the building’s interior equally engaging as the exhibits it houses, due to the intricate mixture of Gothic Revival and twelfth-century Romanesque-style architecture.

The attention to detail is what strikes me as most interesting; the vast number of indentations and layers add up to create an almost mechanical seeming structure. It comes as no surprise, then, that Waterhouse was also responsible for the likes of Manchester Town Hall, Eaton Hall, Rochdale Hall and numerous other historic buildings. Striking detail is a consistent feature of Waterhouse’s work and this element is underscored by his fondness for symmetry. By providing interesting forms at all angles it means that, regardless of viewpoint, one always encounters an impressive level of meticulous detail. The addition of stone monkeys traversing the pillars of the museum is a very nice touch, an intriguing tribute to the exotic wildlife skeletons and exhibits, and may possibly even be an oblique reference to Charles Darwin. Amongst other appearances in the museum, Darwin is given a statue, a reminder of the museum’s involvement not just in exhibiting the past, but also its eagerness to support scientific studies in the future. Interestingly the building was completed in 1881, just a year before Darwin died.



What springs to mind is: what if every building looked like this? What if the level of quality found in its walls was evident in even the most basic of structures? The idea of a city as large as London, for example, with skyscrapers, shopping centres and bridges sharing the stone intricacy of classical buildings, is both a thought provoking and curious concept. This kind of attention to detail was usually reserved for religious buildings or locations of other particular prestige. Thus the notion of walking into a grandiose and visually astounding Tesco’s would be surprising to say the least, as noble and dramatic aren’t common connotations of such an establishment.

Moreover this idea also poses an interesting question: what if, to accompany the large steel contemporary buildings we have now, brand new classical buildings were constructed. Now, much of the success of such a proposal would depend very much on the location of such a structure and even then one could argue that the very fact that the building would be made in the 21st century would detract considerably from the whole point of making it. The intellectual atmosphere and level of technique of the time a building is constructed are fundamental to the soul of its creation, its essence, and to ignore this would undermine its purpose and indeed its integrity. A project vacant of soul is a project void of purpose. Why build something out of its time? If what we seek is architectural artistry, then that is abundant in many of today’s modern designs. That said, it’s worth reflecting upon just how much modern architecture still draws inspiration from all that has gone before. Not to mention that what makes a building truly great is not when it was built, but rather its quality: the coherence of its conception and the success with which it is realised.

 

Man holding a boy’s head, boy holding a toy gun

Andrew Z.Glickerman Man holding a boy’s head, boy holding a toy gun from the Tuscan Street Work series 1996


Who shall I shoot? I have that bird in my sights, as it flies under the café table.
If I aim I can hit it now but it has to stay still.
I can see a target through these people; I can follow her from shop to shop
As I lie here waiting.

Who shall I shoot? Nonno might know. He’s told me about when he was a soldier,
He would wear a uniform and carry a gun.
Did he shoot anyone? That, he never tells me
As I lie here waiting.

Who did he shoot? If I close one eye I can see further, past the top of that building,
Nonno showed me two photos of when he went to war,
He doesn’t like to talk about it
As I lie here waiting.

Who did he shoot? Did he shoot the bad men? Men with bigger guns?
He hums to himself and just strokes my hair
With his rough hands that smell of hair grease and soap
As I lie here waiting.

Nighthawks

Nighthawks: Edward Hopper, 1942, Oil on Canvas, 33.1 x 60″

The viewer must really look into deep into this painting to discover its secrets. Look. You will gradually begin to notice a number of things that you may not have spotted straight away. I was drawn to Nighthawks because of this sense of mystery. Painted at the height of the Second World War, in 1942, this piece is a perspicuous expression of wartime isolation.
The surrounding streets feel cold and alienated, the only source of brightness coming from the diner’s vast windows, a harsh yellow light seeping through the glass and onto the pavement. In a window across the street it obliquely and uncannily illuminates a lone cash register.
Inside are four figures, the picture’s only human presence. Listen. You can almost grasp the quiet, muffled conversation. Then, suddenly, it strikes you—where is the door? How did the four enter and how will they leave?
You think about them, sitting there, within the diner’s walls and windows and of how they came to be there. An array of unsolved questions floods into your mind. The (we assume) couple, the waiter, the man sitting on his own—what are their stories?

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #48, 1979

gelatin silver print 18.9cm x 24cm

This is a photograph by Cindy Sherman, part of a series called Untitled Film Stills. In these, Sherman role-plays as stereotypical female characters to recreate “iconic snapshots” which aim to show that show that “self identity is often an unstable compromise between social dictates and personal intention”.

The photograph is shot from behind Sherman’s character by the side of a stretch of road which disappears left, around a bend. There are no vehicles to be seen. To the left of the image, the road is bordered by a steep hill with trees. On the horizon we see yet more hills, trees and what appears to be a river which parallels the road almost back to the solitary figure. Apart from the road, the landscape is entirely natural and free from manufactured items. Everything works to evoke a powerful sense of, somewhat eerie, isolation.

Sherman’s character looks like a stereotypical housewife of the 1950s. She is well-dressed with a relaxed and casual air, but this is contrasted with the feelings of isolation and dependency that this image offers. She is dependent on someone with a car to pick her up and must wait for this person entirely alone. I feel this image represents the negative aspects of being female in a patriarchal society. There is a need, often felt by women, to have a beautiful and manicured image while being totally dependent on men. Many people will see a woman who appears to be fine on the outside, and yet they don’t see the internal pressures that she has to deal with.

While my reading of this image is through a feminist lens, I believe that it could also be interpreted in the broader sense that most people only ever see others as they are on the outside while never seeing the occulted issues that they may have.

The author Brad Meltzer once said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Linking this back to Sherman’s words, our appearance to others is a compromise between the things that society expects from us, what we are, and what we wish to accomplish in our lives.

A photo by Roger Mayne

Roger Mayne Two Boys Smoking, Southam Street, 1956
black and white photograph 39 x 26.5cm (paper size) 34.1 x 22.7cm (print size)

This image appears in the first major exhibition in eighteen years of the British photographer Roger Mayne, at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.
Shot from above, from a passing adult’s perspective, two boys, seated on a worn Victorian doorstep, are tightly framed, even somewhat cropped. The horizontal lines behind emphasise the characters’ vertical disposition and this, in turn, underlines their hierarchy.
The older boy (are they siblings perhaps?) wears the trousers, both metaphorically and literally, and the viewer notes, by contrast, the vulnerability of the small boy’s bare knees and short white socks. A privileged glimpse of a corner of the street where teenagers are made, in a world of hard knocks where everyone knows their place. A rite of passage into adolescence, a seated adventure in a grubby existence, the younger exhilarated by the attention of the older, the thrill of the ride, dipping a toe, forbidden pastures, driven by the nervous energy of the the chance to and the short lived but sharp thrill of brief intoxication. The initiation is acknowledged with a smile of approval as the older boy looks down with apparent pride.

Mayne, like other photographers of the era, saw the importance of documenting urban working class communities before they were destroyed by the ever accelerating modernization of the second half of the twentieth century. The viewer with the benefit of hindsight anticipates the approaching changes to the area and a sense of sadness is felt. Nevertheless, Mayne did not aim to be a social realist, nor did he have family links to the people of the areas that he photographed. He described the work as a ‘choreography of human life’, ‘the embodied experience out in the street’, ‘the way that people seemed to live through their bodies’.

The curator of the exhibition Ann Douglas suggests Mayne’s ultimate intention was to impart a ‘feeling state’ between photographer and the viewer. He undoubtedly, and very movingly, achieves this.

Vicky Burch