The Colours of Music – II

Chagall’s Murals at the Metropolitan

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The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center with Chagall’s two monumental tributes to the power of music.

In a comment on Thursday’s post my ether friend Walter at Inquietudes spoke of the Chagall murals that greet you as enter the Metropolitan Opera from the Josie Robertson Plaza.  During the intermission on his visits to the MET he said “I’d stare at the colors and swirls and lose myself in them.”  And he has not been alone in that – for over fifty years they have drawn people in from the Plaza and invited them to celebrate the Source and Triumph of Music.

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Chagall painting the “To Russian Music” figures on The Triumph of Music mural.

Chagall painted the two allegories in his Paris studio and had them shipped to New York.  Each canvas is 9.15 metres by 11 metres (30 by 36 feet) and is ripe with figures and symbols familiar from many of his previous works amidst those swirls of colours that captivate Walter and so many of the rest of us.  Chagall was often criticized for overusing many of those fantastical floating figures and beasts.  His defence was simple:  A poet always uses the same vocabulary but he still writes new poems.  And they are indeed poems to music, the arts and artists it has and continues to inspire; to the music of the city of New York and to the city itself.  And Chagall wasn’t shy about including tributes to his good friend Rudolf Bing as well as portraits of himself and his beloved wife Vava.

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The Source of Music – with the central King David/Orpheus figure surrounded by figures representing Beethoven, Fidelio, Bach and Sacred Music, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, an Homage to Verdi, New York and the Angel of Mozart bearing figures from the Magic Flute.

Chagall had consulted with architect Wallace Harrison and the design committee and they had decided that yellow would be the dominant colour for the south panel and red for the north.  The artist felt that “Source” should then lead to “Triumph” with eye travelling from left to right – the source of music would flow into the opera house and the triumph of music would go out into the world.  When he arrived from Paris to oversee the installation he was astounded, and angered, to see that “Triumph” had already been mounted in the wrong location.  The artist maintained that his screams could be heard all over Lincoln Center.  However the ever persuasive Bing was use to handling all manner of prima donnas and resolved the issue by convincing Chagall that the new arrangement was an equally effective message.  “Why,” he asked, “do you want the music to go out of the theatre and into the world?  Perhaps destiny was behind the error, and the heralding angels should play for the people who have come to the opera house, because they do love music.”   Chagall eventually agreed that Bing had a point and perhaps the error had indeed been serendipity.

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The Triumph of Music – Surrounded by musicians, singers, and dancers the Angel heralds The Song of the Peoples.  Chagall slips in sly little tributes to Rudolf Bing (the Essex House were Bing and his wife Nina lived) and to himself and his wife Vera.

Chagall was also concerned that there would never be a good vantage point to take in a complete mural – the view from the Plazas is broken up by the panes of the archway windows and the Grand Tier Promenade is too narrow to allow viewing from an adequate distance.  And though seeing them as Chagall envisioned them is next to impossible it has been suggested that the two works are the most seen – if not the most observed – pieces of modern 20th century art in New York City.  And they have become one of the enduring symbols of the Metropolitan Opera House along with the iconic starburst ceiling fixtures and the great gold curtain.  When the Met celebrated its 125th anniversary on March 15, 2009 the Triumph of Music was prominently featured in a stunning piece of animation set to the music of Chagall’s favourite composer and opera – the Overture to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Using many of Chagall’s initial sketches as well as the finish work the animators at 59 Productions reconstructed not only the mural but also the activity behind the scenes as sets from various productions are assembled (including a brief reference to the David Hockney Zauberflöte that replaced Chagall’s).  Lincoln Center, Harrison’s opera house, those ascending starbursts, the great gold curtain and finally the iconic proscenium at the old Met form and reform.  Surely much of the applause at the end is for Chagall’s great tribute to the magic of flutes, drums, sopranos, basses, composers, artists and everything under the sun that creates music.

Though I have embeded the video in this post I would suggest that for a closer look that you follow the link below for a larger version.

This animation was directed by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer
The lead animator was Peter Stenhouse

The Magic Flute – Chagall Animation from 59 Productions on Vimeo.

On this day in 1941: February strike: In occupied Amsterdam, a general strike is declared in response to increasing anti-Jewish measures instituted by the Nazis.

The Colours of Music

Marc Chagall – a master of turning music into colour.

chagallUnlike Edith Piaf I do have regrets – but much like Frank Sinatra’s they really are too few to mention.  However (you knew there would be a however didn’t you?) one of the few is not buying that lithograph by Marc Chagall (right) that sat in the window of the gallery downstairs from our office on Bloor St back in the late 1970s. It was a toss up between it and a sage-coloured Dodge Dart and someone, very wisely,  advised that it would be difficult to drive the Chagall to work.  Mind you as an investment the Dart was definitely on the short term.

My love affair with Chagall began when I read about the ceiling he was painting to replace the original Jules Lenepveu 19th century allegory of The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night at the Palais Garnier.  The story goes that in 1960, while attending a gala performance of the ballet  Daphnis et Chloe designed by Chagall, a bored André Malraux looked up at Lenepveu’s academic work and hit upon the idea of having the riot of colour he saw on stage transferred to the Opéra ceiling.  De Gaulle’s minister of culture was use to getting what he wanted and despite the general outcry commissioned Chagall to design a replacement.

Rolling your mouse over the image will contrast the Lenepveu and the Chagall ceilings.

Even Chagall himself was leery of the commission and was subject to much criticism in the press and throughout the French art world.   A few compromises were made – rather than destroying Lenepveu’s canvas Chagall’s work was created on removable panels that were stretched below it.  Nevertheless passions ran high and French Nationalism and Antisemitism reared their very ugly heads.  In an interview the painter said:  They really had it in for me… It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen… work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.

“Who am I? I am neither Michelangelo, nor Mozart, nor Haydn, nor Goya, but just someone called Chagall from Vitebsk.” – Marc Chagall

Chagall was forced to produce the work at a secret workshop in the Gobelins neighbourhood and the canvases were assembled in Meudon under military protection.  When it was unveiled in September of 1964 it made the international news and it was then I read about it.  My fascination with all things Chagall and the desire to own a piece of his work had began.

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Marc Chagall expresses his well-known love for Mozart and his intentions for the Met production.

In 1966 the Metropolitan Opera moved from it’s famous – or infamous depending on your point of view – home at the Yellow Brick Brewery to the glitteringly modern Lincoln Centre.  General Manager Rudolf Bing was an old friend of Chagall’s and asked him to design the two murals that can be seen through the enormous glass facade and a new production (one of a record nine that season) of Die Zauberflöte.  Chagall created over a 100 costume, masks and set designs for Mozart’s magic singspiel.  He was to paint many of the drops himself and in an article in Vogue magazine it has been suggested that Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, his wife, may have overseen the construction of the costumes.  Though the cast and direction were amongst the best in the operatic world at the time  – Lucia Popp, Pilar Lorengar, Nicolai Gedda, Herman Prey and Jerome Hines conducted by Josef Krips under the direction of Gunther Rennert – it was Chagall and Mozart’s night. More than one reviewer and many in the audience felt it was a very personal Zauberflöte that gloriously reflected the painter’s viewpoint on the opera and his often expressed love of Mozart.  And that didn’t sit well with everyone – some felt that it left no room for the audience to form their own personal feelings. And perhaps that is another one of my regrets – that I never had the chance to see the production, which was used until 1991 when it was replaced by painter David Hockney’s designs, and form my own opinion .

However it looks like I may get a chance to see at least a handful of the costumes and many of the set designs that Chagall created for one of my favourite operas. The Musée des beaux arts de Montréal has recently opened Chagall: Colour and Music. A major exhibition it examines the profound influence of music on Chagall’s work and his creations for the stage – theatre, ballet and opera.  It follows his work from the State Jewish Chamber Theatre (though in reproduction only as the originals from the Tretyakov Gallery were entangled in legal paperwork) through his stage work in Mexico, New York and Europe.  It ends with video close-up views of that now much loved ceiling of the Palais Garnier.  Several friends have assured me that it is more than “vaut le voyage“.

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A left click will take you to the MBAM website and further details and photographs of the exhibition.

From the sounds (and looks) of it this I should not let this be added to my “few regrets”.

On this day in 1954:  The first mass inoculation of children against polio with the Salk vaccine begins in Pittsburgh.