MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Titian’s Dog


In a recent article in The American Scholar“Carnival of the Animals” — Jan Morris joins Ruskin in admiring the menagerie of non-human creatures in Vittore Carpaccio’s paintings.

“I have counted in his pictures 20 species of animals and at least 11 sorts of birds,” writes Morris, “plus a winged lion, a basilisk, cherubs, peculiarly multi-antlered stags, and sundry angels.”

This reminded me of another Venetian painter and his love of nature: the great Tiziano Vecellio. I spent an ecstatic afternoon last month at the exhibition Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Art at the Scottish National Gallery, which brought together Titian’s two Diana paintings as well as The Death of Actaeon — all part of his monumental mythological cycle of poesie canvases based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a vast commission by Philip II of Spain.

The detail above is from Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) and shows the goddess’s lap dog (a spaniel?) yelping at the male intruder who has unwittingly (so Ovid’s account goes) chanced upon the nude Diana and her nymphs as they are bathing in a spring.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon

Titian, Diana and Actaeon

Titian’s sequel painting narrates the denouement in which Diana curses the hapless Actaeon, causing him to be transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hunting dogs. Given this context, the nearly comic effect of Diana’s little toy dog shown in a frenzy is all the more startling.

Titian, Death of Actaeon

Titian, Death of Actaeon

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art history, Titian

Putti in America


Filed under: photography

Czech Mates: Seattle Symphony’s Dvořák Fest

Antonín Dvořák

Antonín Dvořák

The Seattle Symphony’s new season is about to begin, and I’m especially looking forward to the upcoming Dvořák Festival. Here’s my recent preview for City Arts:

Antonín Dvorák wrote his two most popular pieces during his early 1890s stay in the United States—the “New World” Symphony and the Cello Concerto. Their heart-melting melodies, infectious and thrilling rhythmic ideas, and emotionally complex use of the orchestra make both works among the most beloved in the orchestral repertory.

Their mega-success made the Czech composer into a “two-hit” wonder. But they’re just the tip of the Dvorák iceberg.

continue reading

Filed under: Seattle Symphony

Lucerne’s Lion Monument – with Pig


No reference I’ve ever seen to the popular tourist attraction known as the Löwendenkmal (Lion Monument) in Lucerne fails to trot out the quote by Mark Twain claiming this is “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” He also wrote this, in the same book (A Tramp Abroad):

The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff — for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion — and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.

This massively proportioned monument is indeed an impressively stylized expression of a mode of tragic grief. It was designed by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and executed by Lucas Ahorn in sandstone in a spot to the east of the Altstadt, with a pond situated below. The inscription reads HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI (“[Commemorating] the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss”).

As for what it commemorates, the event wasn’t exactly politically correct among European liberals when it was unveiled in 1821, since the lion is a tribute to Swiss mercenary troops in the service of Louis XVI who were massacred by revolutionaries while trying to defend the Tuileries Palace in the insurrection in August 1792.

One intriguing detail about the sculpture is usually glossed over: why does the outline surrounding the lion figure seem to trace the shape of a pig, complete with pointy ears and snout? Do you see it here?


I’ve heard several possible explanations, but the most popular one is that it represents payback by the sculptor for being cheated by the town council out of the agreed-on payment for the commission. He’s memorializing a parody of them as pigs on top of the noble monument. Or perhaps, goes another theory, it’s a middle finger aimed at the French for this massacre. Or — certainly the least-fun theory — could it just be coincidence?

Filed under: Uncategorized

Setting Norma


San Francisco Opera’s season just opened last night with a production of Bellini’s Norma starring Sondra Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton and directed by Kevin Newbury.

Here’s my feature essay for the opening program:

Setting Norma: Bellini and His Librettist

Many valid comparisons can be -— and have been — made between the film industry and opera as it was practiced in the golden era of bel canto in nineteenth-century Italy: the popular appeal of these media, their value as art versus “mere” entertainment, the clout of star performers, or the grueling, nervous-breakdown-inducing production schedules to get a new work “in the can.”

Another comparison that is especially intriguing is the parallel between screenwriters and librettists. To create a commercially viable film or opera that aspires to be something more than the run-of-the-mill competition, the practitioners of these respective crafts must walk a fine line. The indispensable qualification for that goal: being able to negotiate a tricky balance between artistic ambition and originality on the one hand, and generally understood conventions that define audience expectations on the other.

continue reading

Filed under: bel canto, essay, librettists, San Francisco Opera

War Time: Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane, c. 1896

Stephen Crane, c. 1896

Reviewing Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire, Thomas Powers observes:

Something had changed in Crane since the publication of ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ It can be seen in all of the Cuban pieces but most clearly in ‘War Memories,’ a partly fictionalised account as long as a novella. In it, along with much else, Crane describes the fate of Dr John Gibbs, a naval surgeon shot in the night when guerrillas attacked Crane’s detachment at Guantánamo:

‘I heard somebody dying near me. He was dying hard … The darkness was impenetrable. The man was dying in some depression within seven feet of me. Every wave, vibration, of his anguish beat upon my senses. He was long past groaning. There was only the bitter strife for air which pulsed out in a clear penetrating whistle with intervals of terrible silence … I thought this man would never die. I wanted him to die. Ultimately he died. At that moment the adjutant came bustling along erect among the spitting bullets. ‘Where’s the doctor?’ … A man answered briskly: ‘Just died this minute, sir.’ Despite the horror of this night’s business, the man’s mind was somehow influenced by the coincidence of the adjutant’s calling aloud for the doctor within a few seconds of the doctor’s death. It – what shall I say? It interested him, this coincidence.’

Crane had caught a clear glimpse of what he was seeking, the thing beyond ordinary experience. It wasn’t just the death of Gibbs, but the coincidence, and the man’s interest in the coincidence, despite the horror of the night’s business. The change in the writing, the ‘maturing’ noticed by Conrad, is the addition of Crane himself, what he is feeling and experiencing – ‘no longer a cynic. I was a child who, in a fit of ignorance, had jumped into a vat of war.’ He is not only describing war but using himself as an instrument to calibrate the quality and effects of war. Over time this has become a principal technique for writing about war and other extreme experience, widely used by writers as different as Salinger in ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ and Michael Herr writing about Vietnam in ‘Dispatches.’

Filed under: biography, book recs

Step by Step

At the foot of Mt. Pilatus.

At the foot of Mt. Pilatus.

Filed under: photography



From the terrace of the KKL in Lucerne.

Filed under: photography

A German Maverick: Lachenmann’s Concertini

Getting to encounter the latest crop of Lucerne Festival Academy students is always inspiring, but tonight’s concert included an especially thrilling discovery. With the composer in the house, the Academy players performed Helmut Lachenmann’s Concertini, which was given its world premiere at Lucerne nine years ago.

In a brief interview with Mark Sattler, the Festival’s new music dramaturg, Lachenmann made some very interesting observations, his Swabian accent reinforcing the no-BS, down-to-earth perspective of this genuine German maverick. He noted the difference between safe, unchallenging “listening” (when we’re looking for the same old dependable emotional reactions in a piece of music) and actively “observing” a musical landscape — which also leads us to observe something about ourselves. And he declared he doesn’t think of himself as a poet but as someone working with instruments and sounds as “objects.”

The phrase “risk-taker” gets thrown around a lot in new music circles, to the point of irrelevance, but Lachenmann is a great model for the guts behind that overused label. Though they are several universes apart, in a way his attitude reminds me of the radicalism of Harrison Birtwistle.

About the aesthetic principle in works like Concertini, Lachenmann writes:

From the beginning I have been concerned not just with ‘noisiness’ and alienation but with transformation and revelation, with real ‘consonance’ in the widest sense, so that rhythm, gesture, melody, intervals, harmony — every sound and everything sounding — is illuminated by its changed context.

The concertante arrangement allows an ever-shifting balance between accompanying, disguising, covering, uncovering, counterpointing, how and where transformation occurs, every aspect of this ad hoc collection of sound categories: explorers in a self-perpetuating labyrinth, yet fixed in a rigid time-frame; searching an overgrown garden for …

Filed under: composers, education, new music

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR