The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

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NOV 2014 Issue
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…art translated

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867) stand as colossi between two epochs. With limitless reinvention and self-contradiction, the two of them translate the Classic into the Romantic, without losing one iota of the original’s meaning. Having apprenticed themselves to Mozart’s and David’s art, Beethoven and Ingres belong to a new century, whose uneasy balance of idealism and disillusionment they express so variously and so well. Both bring their grounding in Classic techne into dissonant and humane counterpoint with the descant of Romantic self-discovery.

There are, in each artist’s oeuvre, outstanding instances of how this synthesis was managed. For me, no greater exemplars exist than the Eighth Symphony and the Portrait of Hippolyte-François Devillers (both from the year 1812). I am a composer and a fanatical admirer of Old Master drawings. As the years go by, these two activities seem more and more to overlap. This little essay on “translation” is an effort to arrange my preoccupations into a single resonant chord. I’m attempting here to translate Beethoven’s achievement in the Eighth into an analogy for Ingres’s achievement in the pencil portrait. More pointedly, I hope (experimentally) to express my sense of wonder over how epochal shifts—e.g., this one from Classic to Romantic—can take place synchronously in different arts, in ways that are unlikely and sometimes overlooked. 

Naturally, my analogy begins on the musical side. 

Every radical shift of composers’ sensibilities since medieval times hinges upon an essentially comic turn, whereby the decorum of a prevailing musical style is undone by transgressions of one sort or another. Fauxbourdon, monody, the operatic Intermezzo—these are the subversive forces which helped to usher in (respectively) the musical Renaissance, Baroque, and Classic periods. Each epochal change can partly be understood as a blithe adaptation of vernacular energies, whereby an intrusion of simple song naturalizes an excessively learned complexity.  Dufay, Monteverdi, and Pergolesi all let the light in some more, whereas beforehand there had been much convoluted darkness, the function of a style having become too static and self-regarding over the course of generations. (A thrilling new set of analogies—the first one of historic record, the other two usefully imagined—now clamors for attention: Dufay with Brunelleschi, Monteverdi with Caravaggio, Pergolesi with Tiepolo). 

Beethoven is the only composer in history to work this epochal critique upon himself. On the double-bill premiere concert of 1814, a four-act comedy (the Eighth Symphony) is grafted onto a monumental seriousness (the Seventh). The Eighth gleefully dismantles all its predecessor’s pieties. Its mischief is profound. Whatever fulfillments of symphonic form may have been proposed by the Seventh, the Eighth sets itself determinedly against them all. The sabotage reaches a naughty peak in the finale of the symphony, where a recurrent raspberry in the entire orchestra—a booming D Flat, ranged over many octaves—finally unleashes pandemonium. The mask is ripped off, and the authentic trickster revealed (the D Flat turns out to have been a C Sharp all along).

This unholy ruckus is pure Romance, the sort of sonorous high jinks Berlioz and Strauss would perpetrate later on, with more narrative and less art.  Beethoven’s sublime fun in the Eighth anticipates Rossini’s in The Barber of Seville by two years. Beethoven’s warrant goes further than Rossini’s could, demonstrating how a Classical order best licenses a Romantic extravagance. The Eighth marks a liminal moment, when the formal and collective serenity of one epoch’s music breaks through—via the historic vehicle of comedy—into the fantasy and wayward individuality of the next’s. Beethoven towers over both eras, their Janus-faced avatar.

Considered in the imposing light of his historical paintings, Ingres’s Portrait of Hippolyte-François Devillers looks very modest indeed.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “Portrait of Hippolyte-François Devillers,” 1812. The Thaw Collection. Courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum.

Here is Devillers, an officer of the Napoleonic occupation of Rome, recently arrived to manage the affairs of his fellow French officials living in the Eternal City, in lavish and peaceable exile. Ingres is so smart to stay in Rome long after his Prix money runs out, managing in graphite the affairs of those who manage affairs.  There is no precedent for his souvenir drawings. That most formidable of modernists Degas recognized their extreme importance as the bearers of a new naturalism. The English artist David Hockney famously refused to credit the realism of Devillers’s facial features, proposing that Ingres must have used an early version of a camera in order to get such detail onto paper.

Hockney’s folly (even if he’s right) underscores the superior comedy of Ingres’s drawing. The antique métier of dessin—whose supreme practitioner is Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres—descends from Parnassus unto Rome, straight into the bourgeois offices of the petty Director of Probate and Estates. Devillers cannot conceal his innate lack of confidence and circumstantial anxiety from the artist.  Each magnificently drawn moment of his face radiates a nervous empowerment.  But from the neck down—with consummate skill and startling discordance of effect—Ingres translates his subject’s figure into delightful essences, winding up at a caricature of Devillers’s law books on the shelf (his bona fides). Ingres’s warrant goes further than even his rival Delacroix’s could, demonstrating how a Classical order best licenses a Roman extravagance—that is, a Romantic one. 

Like anything seen through the eyes of love, translation entails necessary embarrassments. Somebody’s bound to look foolish. “Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated!” Even at such an extremity, Shakespeare insists on deploying the word to suggest an advance in understanding, whereby errors are “to truths translated” (Sonnet 96). If it is foolish to bring the composer Beethoven and the draughtsman Ingres into unlikely relation with each other, I hope that the connection can at least be of assistance, if not assent. “Bless me, Beethoven! bless me! Thy art, translated!” That’s my humble wish. 


Michael Alec Rose

MICHAEL ALEC ROSE is a composer of symphonic, chamber, vocal, wind ensemble, and piano music. His music has been performed widely in the U.S., as well as in the U.K., Paris, the Balkans, and Brazil. Rose has received 28 consecutive annual awards in composition from ASCAP (1986 ? 2013). Rose is Associate Professor of Composition at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. With renowned violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved, he co-directs an ongoing International Exchange Program between the Royal Academy of Music and Vanderbilt. Rose’s first book, Audible Signs: Essays from a Musical Ground, was published by Continuum Books in 2010. A compact disc of his music for strings was released in 2013 on the Toccata Classics label. An evening of all three of his song cycles will be presented at the National Opera Center in New York City on January 19, 2015, by tenor Tony Boutté and pianist Margaret Kampmeier.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

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