Sunday, 18 January 2015

Gazing at pain

Gazing at pain: Haydn's "Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross"

The slow steady rhythm of Joseph Haydn's profound music, the sense of impending doom, is with me day after day in the studio, as I create kinetic paintings to three of the seven "sonatas" from The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. There's no going back - this man's fate is sealed. Self-evident as you watch the painfully slow flow of my descending colours on screen. Rehearsing this tragic event and this music again and again, as I prepare for my next concert, is an emotionally draining process. That's the way I work - identifying emotionally with the subject and in this case also emotionally revisiting the Christian faith I grew up with. I must confess that I still find it painful when friends hasten to tell me that "of course" this didn't really happen. But however sure of this they are, the point is - in the performance of my abstract kinetic art form right now - it really does happen - a lonely emotional experience invoked by moving colours and terribly haunting music. Oh, man!
Sonata 1: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"

The seven "words" are actually seven phrases spoken by Jesus as he hung dying for hours on the cross (as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Whether you believe them or not, these literary jewels reflect compassion, an intense awareness of the human predicament, idealistic endurance, despair - all vivid soundbites from an iconic event that for better and for worse had worldwide repercussions. And it inspired thousands of artists and musicians. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was physically horrible in itself. Add to that the extraordinary spiritual message (expressed by this person until his last gasp), set this to music, and we have a drama that still grabs you, even these days, accustomed as we are to the media horror-stories of torture and death. 
Sonata 3: "Woman, behold, thy son; son, behold thy mother"

The talented Ebonit Saxophone Quartet will be playing Haydn's own quartet arrangement of this work, as part of our programme Nightfall. Luke recorded that when Jesus died "the sun failed. Darkness covered the whole land". A unique "Nightfall". According to Haydn, his Spanish patrons in 1785 intended this work to be performed in a totally darkened space, with one dramatic illumination. Well, what could be more appropriate today, than to perform this with the coloured illuminations of my overhead projectors in the darkened Bernard Haitink Hall of the Amsterdam Conservatorium. One way or another, we are all desperately in need of enlightenment.
Sonata 6: "It is finished"

The classic question remains: how is it that through the arts this subject can be transformed in such a way that we are inspired and enlightened? Why does one of Haydn's greatest works inspire me to dig so deeply into my artistic soul, and find it so satisfying? You tell me, after the concert, over a free drink. It could be a long discussion!
This is a free concert (no reservations necessary) on February 4th at 8pm. Amsterdam Conservatorium. The seven works in our programme: Shostakovich, Haydn, Reger, Haydn, Webern, Haydn, Sibelius.


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