On the Art Gallery Trail in Florence – Vasari Corridor

On the first floor of the Uffizi Gallery there is an unremarkable door that provides entry to the Vasari Corridor.

Entrance to Vasari Corridor in the Uffizi

The Vasari Corridor was reopened for viewing in 2010 and closed again at the end of November 2016, for renovations. It has a non-specific opening date of 2018. More than that, it seems the corridor is undergoing quite a bit of re-organization, completely changing the way it has looked for hundreds of years.

We were lucky to visit the corridor in 2012 and see it in its original state so to speak.

Vasari Corridor

Entering the Vasari Corridor was like stepping onto another dimension – the atmosphere was quiet and silent, almost unreal and completely different from the rest of Uffizi Gallery. Unfortunately no photos were allowed and the group was escorted by Uffizi staff. So no photos of little bears running up and down the corridor 😦

Staircase behind the entrance door in the Uffizi
First room of the Vasari Corridor

The collection of artwork displayed along the Corridor’s consists mostly of works from the 16th and 17th centuries as well as a special and unique collection of artists’ self-portraits. More than 1,000 paintings from the 16th century to modern day grace the walls, from artists such as Diego Velázquez, Marc Chagall, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn. The collection was added to by subsequent generations of Medici, and artists have been known to donate portraits as well. Many paintings and self-portraits that are a part of the collection are actually not on display for lack of space along the corridor’s walls.

Vasari Corridor

The collection of art in the Vasari corridor was unique in that it was organised chronologically, often in the same spot where various members of the Medici family had originally displayed it. Some self-portraits – such as one portrait where the artists is painting himself in a mirror – reveal an eccentric flair not typically seen in 16th and 17th century portraiture, while others make significant statements about gender and allow insights into artistic identity. For example, there were very few women painters at the time, and many of the self-portraits have more humour or cheekiness than was often displayed in works of the period.

There are three different collections in the Vasari Corridor, and the collection of portraits is one of the most famous and complete collections in all of Europe. The first collection begins at the doorway to the Uffizi Gallery and ends as the corridor turns toward the Ponte Vecchio. It contains paintings completed by Italian and European 17th and 18th century artists including Guido Reni, Gerrit van Honthorst, Empoli, and Guercino.

Portraits along the Vasari Corridor

The second collection is a famous collection of self-portraits arranged chronologically beginning at the Ponte Vecchio. Cardinal Leopoldo started this collection in the early 17th century with 80 portraits and some of the early pieces collected by the Medici family were later added to Leopoldo’s collection. Some of the portraits on display in this section of the Vasari Corridor include those of Giorgio Vasari, Titian, Correggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Antonio Canova, Delacroix, John Singer Sargent, and Carlo Levi.

The last group of paintings in the corridor is displayed where the Corridor turns toward the Boboli Gardens, and is part of a collection of Medici and Hapsburg/Lorraine family portraits.

The panoramic windows over Ponte Vecchio

Like most of Florence’s key attractions, the story of the Vasari Corridor is linked to the powerful Medici family, who rose to prominence in the 15th Century. Cosimo I de’ Medici, then the second duke of Florence, purchased the Palazzo Pitti in 1549, and up until the completion of Versailles in Paris in the early 18th Century, Palazzo Pitti was considered the most opulent palace in Europe.

There was just one problem for the Medici family: to travel from their new home to both the Uffizi administration offices where Cosimo worked and the Palazzo Vecchio, their previous home, the Medici had to cross Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s main pedestrian bridge above the Arno River. Today tourists encounter a gauntlet of flashy jewellery shops, but back then the bridge was occupied with butchers and tanners who needed to be close to the river for their businesses.

View from Vasari Corridor

Cosimo’s solution was bold. He would simply build an overground passageway above one side of the Ponte Vecchio, reaching from the Palazzo Pitti to the Uffizi offices.

Designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1564 and spanning a length of 1.2km, officially the passageway was created for the celebration of the wedding of Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christina of Lorraine.

A section of the corridor passes through the upper balcony of the church of Santa Felicita, which allowed the Medici family to attend mass without having to mingle with commoners or potential murderers.

View of the Church of Santa Felicita from the corridor
Entrance to Church of Santa Felicita

To build the corridor several medieval towers located along its way were quite literally crossed. All owners were forced to consent to give the space through their properties for the passageway… all consented except for the Mannelli family that firmly opposed having the corridor pass through his home. It seems that Cosimo appreciated the courage the family had to stand up to him and thus permitted them to withhold entrance into their home and the corridor was built around the tower.

Torre dei Mannelli at the end of Ponte Vecchio where it meets Via Bardi and Via de’ Guicciardini

The exit from the corridor (for the tour) is a discrete door near the grotto in the Pitti Palace’s opulent Boboli Gardens.

Cosimo had a clear vision for the use of architecture in his Dukedom: he wanted it to bring harmony to the urban fabric, but it was also intended as an unmistakable expression of his absolute political power. In the 1540’s he was already planning to unite all the various offices of government in one administrative centre, and in 1546, he opened up a street down from the Palazzo Ducale to the river, beginning the demolition of many houses and workshops in that densely-populated area, all with an eye to building the new government offices there. In the February of 1549/50 Eleonora got the opportunity to acquire the new home she had wanted: 9,000 gold Scudi from her dowry were used to purchase the Palazzo Pitti over the river in Oltrarno.

The 15th century property had never been fully completed, and a great deal of work would be necessary to bring it up to the standards required by the Duke and Duchess, who intended to expand it to be a suitable home for their growing family, and a fitting official residence for themselves and their retinue, set in beautiful terraced gardens reaching up onto the Boboli hill behind. Now Cosimo needed architects to serve him.

It was the death of Pope Julius III in 1555 which gave him the opportunity to bring his vision for the architecture of Florence into being. The Pope’s death freed two individuals from his service: Giorgio Vasari and Bartolommeo Ammannati. Cosimo sought Vasari as both artist and architect, and Vasari introduced Ammannati to the Duke for his skills as both sculptor and architect. Cosimo took them both into his service, and while Vasari began work on the Palazzo Ducale, Ammannati was engaged on the Palazzo Pitti. In Cosimo and Vasari we have one of those perfect meetings of minds between artist and patron, and Vasari is at pains in his writings to stress the rapport between his artistic ideas and the will of the Duke. The two developed a lifelong close relationship, and Vasari acted as Cosimo’s Superintendent of Works in the modern sense.

View of Vasari Corridor from the Uffizi

This was what Giorgio Vasari was later to describe as the “great corridor”, the ‘umbilical cord’ that was designed to link the official residences of father and son with the new seat of government, by passing right over the Ponte Vecchio. He gave his name to it: it is now known as the Vasari Corridor. The reason for this corridor takes us back to the Pazzi Conspiracy and the death of Allesandro de’ Medici in 1537. Cosimo himself survived several assassination attempts, dealing with the culprits brutally, and his own agents had caught up with Lorenzaccio in Venice in 1548, stabbing him to death in public. To an absolute ruler like Cosimo, this risk of assassination was ever-present, and when he went around in public he wore a mail shirt beneath his doublet and was surrounded by an armed bodyguard. How much simpler then, to have your own aerial walkway raised safely above street level, keeping you out of the mud of the streets and the inclement weather, and without the need to arrange an armed retinue to accompany you, horses to ride, or even a carriage?

Considering Cosimo’s great vision for the development of the Uffizi and his official residence over the river, the decision to physically link them must have pre-dated the betrothal of Francesco and Joanna, but the planned celebration of those nuptials in December of 1565 meant that the project had to be completed in record time. The newlyweds were to move into the Palazzo Ducale after the ceremony, which was to be linked to the Uffizi by a single arch on one side, while the main part of the corridor was to run down the lungarno, across the Ponte Vecchio, and through Oltrarno to the Pitti, a distance of nearly 400 metres.

The project began in March 1564/5: Tommaso de’ Medici, Florentine patrician and Knight of the Order of Jesus Christ drew up an agreement in the name of Duke Cosimo, with “Maestro Bernardo Esquire son of Antonio, alias son of Milady Mattea, builder.” Maestro Bernardo was in fact the Ducal Builder, who Vasari says worked on all his projects “with great excellence”. In the agreement he was committed to: “bring to perfection and to build by the end of September next [in the] future [year] 1565 a corridor that is able to pass from the principal Palazzo in the Square of His most Illustrious Excellency as far as the Palazzo de’ Pitti, in this form: that it needs to have two arches, one that crosses the street where the wall of the Customs Office meets that of the church of San Pier Scheraggio, and the other [passing] over the said church; and continuing with another arch from the house where Signor Traiano Boba lives, the Gentleman in Waiting of His Excellency, and following the Lungarno, with a corridor with arches and columns as far as the Ponte Vecchio, and then continuing over the botteghe and houses of the said bridge, on the flank of the bridge towards the Ponte a Rubaconte [ie the upstream side], passing over them on stone corbels, and [also for] the small turn around the tower of the house of the heir of Matteo Mannelli, upon which tower should be supported another arch over the Via de’ Bardi; and continuing it should rest upon the tower of the Parte Guelfa, which is in front of the said house of the Martelli, and continuing it should go in the direction of the alley which is behind the houses which are on the main street [Via de’ Guicciardini] arriving next above the steps of the church of Santa Felicita, above those steps it needs to have a loggia, to which should be attached another corridor on columns, which should stretch along the cloister of the priests of Santa Felicita, and descending there it should finish on the flat area where today there is the nursery of the garden of the Pitti. And the said corridor and work in its entirety should be covered by a roof, all tiled, with wicker for the ceiling of the roof, with rough and fine plastering, according to the order, design style and model which step by step will be given to you and communicated by the Magnificent and excellent Maestro Giorgio Vasari, painter and architect of the aforementioned His Most Illustrious Excellency: as declared by the said Maestro Tommaso, in his name, who will be held responsible in this project for alleviating all difficulties which might be caused to the said Maestro Bernardo, for the most part regarding the particulars of the owners of the edifices, over and beside which he will have to guide that project and fabric.”

The construction of the Corridor had a cost for others, and not just in the form of taxes. It has been estimated that around thirty houses were demolished in the course of building the corridor, and the owners and tenants of the botteghe and houses on the bridge had to put up with the construction of the corridor right over their properties, and the tops of those buildings must have been levelled to allow the corridor to pass. An anonymous diarist confirms that along the course followed by the corridor, there were “very great damages to the artisans who had houses and botteghe there; and further damages of many citizens who had beautiful houses there…” The diarist put the number of houses flattened at three hundred in total, but this would also have included the area where the Uffizi were built, so it’s quite believable. People were compensated: where the corridor trespassed into a small part of the house of the Ricci family on the corner of the Via de’ Bardi, they only received the amount of fifty gold Florins, but in the same street the “old house of the Paganelli” was purchased outright for the much larger sum of two hundred gold Scudi.

Ponte Vecchio was the bridge at the very narrowest part of the whole course of Arno river through Florence, and so the bridge where the pressure of the water was greatest. It was the first bridge built over the river and it was the only bridge over the river for over a thousand years.

The Ponte Vecchio of today is not the original bridge. The flood of 1177 destroyed one Ponte Vecchio, and the flood of 1333 destroyed another one.

In August 1220 the Ponte alla Carraia was completed with wooden decking, and the monks of the nearby monastery of Ognissanti were given the right to levy customs dues on the traffic crossing the bridge. Some 1,270 years after the first bridge was built across the Arno here, there was finally more than one bridge spanning the river. With the building of the ‘Ponte Nuovo’ (the ‘New Bridge’), the other one naturally became known as the ‘Ponte Vecchio’: the ‘Old Bridge’.

In very short order there was a third bridge. In 1237, Villani tells us that another bridge was constructed, this time upstream of Ponte Vecchio. Ponte Rubaconte (later called Ponte alle Grazie) was built entirely of stone, with nine arches, and being at the widest part of the river, it was about 215 metres long, which was about twice the length of Ponte Vecchio.

In 1252, and with considerable urging from the powerful Frescobaldi family, a fourth bridge was built between Ponte Vecchio and Ponte alla Carraia, connecting the Palazzo Spini on the north bank with the Palazzo Frescobaldi in Oltrarno. Because the church of Santa Trinita was close to the north end, the bridge was called Ponte a Santa Trinita.

In just 39 years the number of bridges in Medieval Florence had gone from one to four, demonstrating not only the need created by a massive increase in population to around 60,000, but also the great wealth of the city, largely generated by the wool trade. Not having the same strategic importance as Ponte Vecchio though, none of the new bridges were fortified.

In 1333 Ponte Vecchio was destroyed again by another flood. It was what the river was carrying that posed a mortal threat to the bridge at this point. Massive amounts of wooden debris had gone into the river: everything from spars from floating mills, to beams from collapsed buildings, to baulks of timber carried by barges that had been wrecked, to whole trees uprooted by the flood. All of this had smashed into the bridge and built up against it, and…

“and then the Ponte Vecchio was crushed by the great amount of wooden debris in the Arno, and because of the narrowness of the channel of the Arno [there], which rose up to and flowed over the arches of the bridge, and [right] through the houses and botteghe that were upon it, it was overwhelmed by the water, and completely torn down and destroyed, save for two piers in midstream.”

Twelve years after the flood of 1333 – in 1345 – the bridge itself was rebuilt, but the buildings upon it took longer to be rebuilt.

The 16th Century saw Ponte Vecchio survive further floods that destroyed or damaged other bridges, and its structure had coped with the addition of the Vasari Corridor. The houses had returned, and in the following centuries the properties grew into the charming confusion that we see today.

In an eerie repeat of the great flood of 1333, in 1966 another flood struck the city on the same day, November 4th. The similarity was reinforced by the way in which the flood arrived. The river level was already rising on the November 3rd, with cellars flooding in the lower-lying parts of the city. The two hydro-electric dams of the Levane/La Penna system in the upper Valdarno were discharging some 2,000 cubic metres of water per second downstream. At 4am on the following morning, engineers were so worried about the structural integrity of the dams that they took the decision to relieve the pressure on them by releasing a great quantity of water: that water arrived at Florence in a surge travelling at around 60kph.

As ever, the lowest-lying parts of the city were hit first: at 7am the Arno burst over the lungarno at the Corso dei Tintori on the north bank, sweeping on towards Piazza Santa Croce, and on the south bank the waters began to flood Oltrarno. By 8am the Arno rose over the balustrade beneath the arches of the Vasari Corridor along the lungarno, and by 9am all of the bridges in the historic centre were impassable: Florence was cut in two, and throughout the morning the torrential waters of the Arno were once again hurling all manner of debris at the Ponte Vecchio.

In museums, churches and archives across the city, workers struggled to get priceless artworks and manuscripts to safety. At 1pm the Sovrintendente of Fine Arts, Ugo Procacci, arrived at the Uffizi. He was concerned with just one thing: to rescue the important collection of self-portraits hanging along the walls inside the Vasari Corridor. The force of the water was now so great upon the arches along the lungarno, and upon the Ponte Vecchio itself, that the corridor could have collapsed at any moment. Along with Umberto Baldini, head of the restoration department of the Soprintendenza, Dott. Procacci entered the corridor from the Uffizi. In his diary he wrote:

“The rescue of the famous collection of self-portraits was dramatic. The floor of the long corridor which runs from the Uffizi to the Ponte Vecchio was shaking continually beneath our feet as though from a violent earthquake, because below the water was pounding and swirling against the arches of the Lungarno of the Archibugieri.”

This wasn’t the moment for the usual painstaking care that museum staff normally employ when moving valuable and delicate works of art. According to Umberto Baldini, the two men lifted the paintings in their heavy frames from the walls, and then ran them along the Corridor, sliding them along the smooth terracotta tiles on the floor. These two brave men got around 70 paintings to safety in the Uffizi. Fortunately, the corridor and the collection did survive.

Ponte Vecchio also survived the flood, but the premises upon it took a terrible pounding. On the morning on the 5th, cine footage shot by the film director Giampaolo Lomi shows a scene of devastation in the bright sunshine. The flood had smashed straight through shops on the upstream side of the bridge, one having been impaled by a whole tree. Shutters were ripped from the shop fronts, and the street on the bridge was choked with debris and furniture brought from the shops. Yet once again, Ponte Vecchio – and Florence – had endured.

Ponte Vecchio in the 1966 flood

Beary Mondayitis

Is Beary Fun!

Little bears are out for a burger. It turns out today is International Hamburger Day. Who knew there was one?!? But it’s a good excuse to try Huxtaburger at the Hibernian Place.

Lots of burger choices, but for a first visit it has to be the namesake burger, the Huxtaburger.

Is that all for me? 🙂

According to Andrew F. Smith, author of Hamburger: A Global History, the short answer to the question of who invented the hamburger is: “Germans gave the hamburger its name and disseminated the idea of a patty, Americans made it a sandwich.”

The early version of the hamburger was known as “hamburg steak” or “hamburger steak”, with the name said to come from the city of Hamburg in northern Germany, known for its quality beef. Smith argues that the food likely became popular as Germans immigrants in the US opened up restaurants and started serving plates of ground beef in the form of a patty meant to be eaten with a knife and a fork. The method was “cheap, easy to do, and a way to make a little money on the massive amounts of scraps from slaughterhouses,” he says.

As street vendors started selling “hamburger steak”, they were not giving it out with a plate and fork, so someone put a piece of bread around it. Some say the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 may have helped get the word out about this “sandwich”, for it was shortly after that newspapers in Nevada and Los Angeles described the hamburger as a sandwich of chopped meat with onions, and the meal started appearing all over US. Fans later began adding cheese and other condiments to enhance the flavor of the patties.

The Bournonville Method

The beautiful always retains the freshness of novelty, while the astonishing soon grows tiresome.August Bournonville

In a Bournonville ballet, there is no room for modern tricks and multiple pirouettes that dazzle the audience. There are no perilous overhead lifts or gasps of astonishment at impossible feats. Instead, the audience is entranced by graceful refinement and the art of investing each movement with meaning. It’s as close as we can probably get to the roots of classical ballet.

Ballet is often said to be the dance of the air, where we defy gravity – effortlessly. But until you see the Danes you don’t really know just how effortless and joyful this can be. And big too – each springy hop, or bound, seems to cover more ground. They also distort time, seeming to have all the time in the world to get from A to B with their beautifully-defined movements but there are constant embellishments that make the feet flicker with speed and dexterity. Bournonville is ballet in a different way.

August Bournonville

August Bournonville was a celebrated Danish dancer and choreographer who created the Bournonville method, a technique and training system still in use today by the Royal Danish Ballet, revered as the world’s third oldest ballet company.

In 1979, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death, the Royal Danish Ballet created the Bournonville Festival, a weeklong celebration in Copenhagen featuring performances, lecture demonstrations and open classes and rehearsals that was well-attended by dance writers, Bournonville scholars and ballet fans from all over the world. The Bournonville Festival appears to be held once every 13 years! The second festival was in 1992, then 2005 and Royal Danish Ballet has announced it will hold the Bournonville Festival this year.

Bournonville’s flair for the virtuosic was in his blood. Born in Copenhagen in 1805 to the famous dancer Antoine Bournonville, the younger Bournonville entered the Royal Ballet School at 8 years old. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet at 16 as an apprentice, while his father was artistic director. The talented teenager took a break from Denmark to further his ballet studies in Paris, under renowned dancer Auguste Vestris. After passing the difficult dance exams at L’Académie Royale de Danse, Bournonville briefly danced with the Paris Opéra Ballet, in which he was often partnered with famous Romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni.

Marie Taglioni

He returned to Copenhagen in 1829, bringing with him the refinement and style of the French. One year later, at the age of 24 — already known for his sparkling technique and charisma — he became the Royal Danish Ballet’s ultimate triple threat: premier danseur, choreographer and ballet master. Though he didn’t create his first full-length, original ballet until five years later (Valdemar, 1835), Bournonville would go on to create more than 50 ballets, the most popular of which are La Sylphide (1836); Napoli (1842); and the one-act Flower Festival in Genzano (1858).

Aside from two short breaks to stage works in Vienna (1855–56) and direct in Sweden (Swedish Royal Opera at Stockholm, 1861–1864), Bournonville remained at the helm of the Royal Danish Ballet until his retirement in 1877, at the age of 72.

Marie Taglioni dancing the title role in La Sylphide

La Sylphide is one of the oldest full-length story ballets, first staged in 1832. It tells the story of a beguiling sylph who turns the head of handsome Scotsman James, betrothed to one Effie.

Charles Nodier’s Trilby ou Le Lutin d’Argail (The Elf of Argyll) published in 1822 tells of a male elf who lures a Highlands fisherman’s wife away from her husband. Inspired by it and with legendary ballerina Marie Taglioni in mind, Adolphe Nourrit, an operatic tenor and arts sponsor decided to create a ballet reversing the genders in Nodier’s story and casting Taglioni as the seducing spirit.

Nourrit borrowed the concept of the Sylph from previous 18th century ballets, only here he gave the Sylph more personality, making her a leading character. He also looked to Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian for the names Effie and Madge and possibly to Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the witches.

He took this scenario to Paris Opera ballet master Filippo Taglioni, Marie’s father. Instantly recognizing its potential as a vehicle for his virtuoso daughter, Taglioni commissioned music from Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhöffer and the ballet premiered on 12 March 1832. La Sylphide became an instant classic and cemented Marie Taglioni’s reputation as the most ethereal of ballerinas.

Marie Taglioni was the first dancer to be celebrated for her work ‘en pointe’ and La Sylphide marks the first time female dancers used pointe shoes to dance on their toes and give the impression of floating or skimming across the stage.

Taglioni’s 1832 version of La Sylphide did not survive. There have been attempts at reconstructions, but the majority of versions are now based on that of Danish ballet master August Bournonville, whose 1836 production also featured a new score by Herman Severin Lovenskiold.

Bournonville’s La Sylphide is a rare case of a remake that’s better than the original. Bournonville had seen Marie Taglioni dance La Sylphide in Paris in 1834 and for him “She lifted one up from this earth, and her dancing could make one weep”.

Bournonville acquired Nourrit’s scenario and commissioned a new score from Norwegian composer Herman Løvenskiold (as Schneitzhoeffer’s score was too expensive). His new and improved La Sylphide premiered in Copenhagen in 1836.

Bournonville saw in La Sylphide an opportunity to promote his own pupil Lucile Grahn but at the same time he wanted to take some emphasis out of the ballerina and put her on equal footing with the male dancer. He re-choreographed the ballet to suit his own abilities as a virtuoso dancer, thus giving a bigger role to the character of James, full of mighty leaps, turns and challenging beaten steps.

Bournonville filled his ballet with deeper meaning and intention. Cutting the “fat” in Taglioni’s choreography, he condensed it and fleshed out the poetic imagery and symbolism of the story. Thus, the witch Madge is a more important figure who sustains the drama. He also decided that James should not be able to touch the Sylph, so their pas de deux in Act 2 became a dance where James tries to emulate the ethereal moves he sees in the Sylphs. James tries to become like the creature he’s obsessed with. He aspires to belong in her world and to possess her and this ultimately leads to tragedy.

At the time the ballet premiered in Copenhagen, some accused Bournonville of plagiarism, but for others it was clear that his version was overall superior. And while Taglioni’s version did not survive unscathed throughout the years, the Royal Danish Ballet tradition ensured that Bournonville’s La Sylphide remained intact. It has been passed on from one generation to the next with very few modifications and is regularly performed by some of the world’s biggest ballet companies.

This year, WA Ballet performs La Sylphide.

WA Ballet remains true to the Bournonville tradition by working with staging director Dinna Bjorn, an international authority on the Bournonville style who has worked with the Royal Danish Ballet as a Bournonville consultant and Finnish National Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet as artistic director. For the second Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen in 1992, Dinna Bjorn reproduced the whole second act of Napoli, and this version stayed in the repertoire of The Royal Danish Ballet until 2010.

Dinna Bjorn

Apart from WA Ballet, Dinna Bjorn has staged La Sylphide for Bavarian State Ballet (Munich), Boston Ballet (Boston), Norwegian National Ballet (Oslo), Hong Kong Ballet (Hong Kong), Capitole Ballet (Toulouse), Universal Ballet (Seoul), Bulgarian State Ballet (Sofia), Het Nationale Ballet (Amsterdam), Paris Opera Ballet School (Paris), Grazer Landestheater Ballet (Graz), Royal Danish Ballet (Copenhagen), Ballet du Rhin (Mulhouse/Strasbourg) and Ballet Nice Mediterrané (Nice).

For WA Ballet, Richard Roberts’ sets and Lexi De Silva’s costumes help bring the story to colourful life.

Bournonville’s most enduring contribution remains his technique and style, known as the Bournonville method and championed today by the Royal Danish Ballet. August Bournonville was heavily influenced by the early French school of ballet, which he preserved in his teaching and choreography, when the traditional French methods began to disappear from European ballet. What is considered today to be the “Bournonville style” is essentially the unfiltered 19th century technique of the French school of classical dance.

The guiding principle of the Bournonville method is that the dancer should perform with a natural grace, dramatic impact and harmony between body and music.

Some characteristics of the Bournonville method include: a graceful épaulement, with the upper body often twisting toward the working leg; a lowered eye-line to exude kindness; extreme attention to the placement of the arms (often in a preparatory fifth position); quick footwork; a contrast between the speed of the legs and the grace of the upper body; pirouettes in a low leg position; and little visible effort.

There should be no visible effort. Even the largest, most dramatic steps should be performed in an understated manner. What should be visible is the contrast between the speed of the legs and the grace of the arms and torso. The legs are the rhythm, the arms are the melody.

Bournonville never composed a variation in which dancers merely run or walk from one corner to another. The dancer dances the entire time, even with his or her back to the audience.

In the hands (and feet) of dancers not trained in this technique, these movements can come across as old fashioned and pedantically academic. In the right hands (and feet) even the simplest steps can portray a character. A Bournonville ballet, the right hands (and feet), informs the mind while it uplifts the spirit, inspires with its gentility and affects with its poetry.

The pas de deux from the one-act ballet Flower Festival in Genzano (1858) perfectly illustrates the Bournonville style: intricate footwork and ballon against a quiet upper body. It is a commonly performed variation in ballet competitions.

Bournonville’s ballets offer a glimpse of a world that has been largely lost but that we feel we know from lithographs of 19th century ballerinas like Marie Taglioni, the original interpreter of La Sylphide (1832). This was the era that gave birth to what we think of as ballet, with ethereal women skimming the stage on the tips of their toes.

Most of the Romantic ballets have disappeared, with the notable exceptions of La Sylphide and Giselle. But not in Denmark. Bournonville made more than 50 works, and he populated them with trolls, fairies, nymphs and good common folk. Only nine or so have survived, but they are rarely seen outside Denmark. That many have stories drawn from Danish folklore, contain reams of mime and are set to charming but unmemorable music has kept them from leaking into the wider repertory. A few fragments, like the playful pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano and the tarantella in Napoli sometimes pop up at galas.

Bournonville himself was esteemed for both his technique and acting. A contemporary critic wrote, “He speaks during his mime; he soars in his dances.” This stress on persuasive acting is an important ingredient of the Danish style.

Janáček’s Magical Cunning Little Vixen

Music is magic…

That’s what the very first opera in history says: in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the lyre appears like the only way to charm the most unyielding of all, the prince of the underworld. Music expresses the inexpressible, depicts imaginary worlds. No wonder that the opera dives into the fantastic universe.

Little bears love fairy-tales and it’s a good thing that in the 19th century composers moved away from the mythological figures bequeathed from the antic theatre, and explored the fairy-tale world…

Fairy tales present archetypical characters: the pure and loving young girl, the hero on an initiatory journey, the evil… From this fundamental structure stems an infinite number of variations explored by writers such as the Grimm Brothers, and an inexhaustible source of inspiration for composers. As a result, these heroes, who are well-known to every child, appeared on every opera stage: Hansel and Gretel and their famous gingerbread house, Sleeping Beauty and the spindle, the unfortunate Cinderella and her lost slipper…

Honey and Puffles saw Rossini’s Cinderella last year and Honey and Isabelle went to see Janácek’s The Little Cunning Vixen last month. The costumes were most colourful and little bears were very excited to see them in action!

The story follows the adventures of feminist fox Sharp-Ears, a vixen who snubs conservatism, uses her wits and plays to win. Along the way she breaks a heart or two – namely the Forester, a human who becomes infatuated with her when she escapes imprisonment after he abducts her. She then goes on a killing spree, boots a badger out of his home and hooks up with another fox. Meanwhile the Forester, obsessed by the vixen he could not tame, is intent on tracking her down.

Emma Pearson as the Vixen with a rooster and a chicken
Paull-Anthony Keightley as the Badger and Emma Pearson as the Vixen
Emma Pearson as the Vixen and Rachelle Durkin as the Fox

It’s not all sharp edges, however. Very rarely does an opera focus on animals in their natural habitat – in this case, a farm and a forest – nor the poignancy surrounding the inevitably of life and death. It also reflects on the complicated relationship between people and animals (and the often tragic fall-out that can occur when these two worlds collide), while at the same time acting as an ode to the imperfections and frailties of being human.

Visually, it was a veritable feast. The animals were depicted in a riot of colours, while the humans were dull and drab. Tony award-winning costume designer Roger Kirk, who once created sets for Elton John, gave the animals a whimsical, fable-like quality with his creations, while set director Richard Roberts offset this with unobtrusive backdrops.

Vixen was beautifully played by Emma Pearson, a soprano who has won a slew of awards and performed in some of the world’s best opera houses and concert halls.

Little bears will tell you a bit more about the opera now 🙂

The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears or The Cunning Little Vixen is unlike any of Janáček’s other operas – or any composer’s operas for that matter.

The opera was written by Czech composer Leoš Janáček in 1921 when he turned seventy. He adapted the idea from a daily comic strip in his newspaper, throwing in some folk-inspired music for good measure.

Rudolf Tesnohlídek’s novel about the scheming vixen Bystrouška was serialised in Janácek’s local Brno newspaper in 1920, complete with line-drawings by the artist Stanislav Lolek; Janácek was clearly captivated by the story and the illustrations, and his original newspaper cuttings, together with the story as published in book form the following year, still exist today, complete with his copious annotations.

But that peculiar starting point provided Janácek with much more than just the narrative thread for Vixen. The episodic nature of the story, together with the vignettes that illustrated it, carried over into the structure of the opera itself, in which short scenes follow each other with almost cinematic conciseness; the transitions are so seamless that within each of the opera’s three acts Janácek does not bother to number individual scenes but simply outlines what is happening at each point, so that there are sections of the score that are labelled How Bystrouška was Caught; Bystrouška in the Farmyard; Bystrouška Escapes, and so on.

The result is a work of almost improvised fluidity in which set pieces such as arias and ensembles hardly exist at all, and in which the orchestra takes much more than a supporting or merely illustrative role. When he was planning the opera, Janácek considered creating an “opera-ballet”, “an opera as well as a pantomime” as he termed it in an early interview, and elements of that concept survive in the final work, especially in the purely orchestral sections that depict in such magical musical detail the life of the forest where the Vixen lives – sounds that he had often transcribed from nature during his walks through the Moravian forest around his home. That was one of the means through which the two worlds of the opera – the human and the animal – are differentiated, for while the village scenes involving the schoolmaster, the innkeeper and the forester are recognisably the work of the same composer as Janácek’s earlier operas Jenufa and Kátya Kabanová, the scenes in the forest have an utterly different, almost phantasmagoric feel.

Yet there’s nothing cosy about Janácek’s depictions of either world. In Tesnohlídek’s original story everything ends as it always must in good comedies, with the Vixen outwitting the humans and she and the Fox settling down to live happily ever after. But Janácek knew that neither human nor animal life was like that – he has the Vixen killed by a poacher, so that the uneasy sense of something provisional that’s been present in the music ever since the opening bars of the orchestral prelude is confirmed.

The Vixen’s death also prepares the way for the opera’s radiant, heart-stopping finale, in which human and animal worlds come together; the forester’s hymn to creation and to his acceptance of the cyclic nature of life and of the constant renewal of the forest around him is one of the most glorious moments in opera.

Despite being rarely staged, the opera has gone on to become one of the great masterpieces of the early 20th century, and has since been adapted into two movie-length feature films.

That was fun!

Listening to Graupner

At the beginning of May, we attended the Distinguished Artist Lecture at UWA – with Artistic Director of WA Opera, Brad Cohen.

One of the points raised by Brad in his lecture was the vagaries of historical fortune, or the fact that talent will not always rise.

Music historians of our time invariably describe the early 18th century as the era of Johann Sebastian Bach. But if one were to have asked German musicians living at the time, they might well have described it as the era of Georg Philipp Telemann. The distinguished music encyclopedia published by Johann Gottfried Walther – J.S. Bach’s cousin, as it happens – in 1732 devotes four times more space to the fashionable maestro of Hamburg than to the humble Thomaskantor. And there were many others who were considered greater masters than the parochial Bach.

Telemann entered university to read law in 1701, but in the very next year he founded a musical society or collegium musicum for students. The regular public concerts initiated by this society, which were aimed at the city’s bourgeoisie and where coffee was served too, laid the foundation for the concert institution as we know it today. Telemann and his fellow students turned Leipzig’s conservative musical scene upside down within a few years. There was music everywhere, officially and unofficially. Johann Kuhnau, who as Thomaskantor was theoretically responsible for all official musical performances in the city, had to acknowledge that the situation was no longer under his control. A handful of law students had achieved what a senior civil servant with all the resources of the city at his command had not managed! It must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Kuhnau’s copyist and amanuensis was also a law student. His studies were interrupted by a rather less than friendly excursion by a group of Swedes and Finns – not tourists, though equally destructive – led by King Charles XII in 1706. It was a military intervention intended to safeguard Protestants against Catholic oppression and as such did not directly threaten the general population; however, this budding barrister, who like many other law students in Leipzig later gave up law for music, considered it prudent to remove himself to Hamburg. He was Christoph Graupner, a close friend of Telemann’s and the future composer of ten operas, a hundred symphonies and over a thousand cantatas.

Christoph Graupner was born into a family of weavers and tailors in the tiny village of Hartmannsdorf bei Kirchberg in Saxony in 1683. His first musical mentors were the local church musician Michael Mylius and his uncle, organist Nikolaus Küster. Young Christoph followed his uncle to Reichenbach and then entered the Thomasschule in Leipzig in 1696.

In Leipzig, Graupner studied music with Thomaskantor Johann Schelle and his successor Johann Kuhnau. As mentioned above, when the Swedish Army marched into Saxony, he fled to Hamburg. He found employment as a harpsichord player under Richard Keiser at the Oper-am-Gänsemarkt and was inspired to compose operas himself. One of the young violinists in the orchestra at the time was one Georg Friedrich Händel. Graupner continued his pursuit of opera after finding employment with Landgraf Ernst Ludwig in Darmstadt in 1709. He was appointed Hofkapellmeister or Court Conductor in 1711, his principal duties being to produce secular instrumental music and sacred vocal music at the court.

The finances of the Darmstadt court declined notably in the 1710s, however. The opera house was closed down, and many court musicians’ salaries were in arrears (including Graupner’s). After many attempts to have his salary paid, and having several children and a wife to support, in 1722 Graupner applied for the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, competing for the position with five other candidates, including Telemann and J.S. Bach. Having heard the auditions, the selection committee recommended Telemann, Graupner and Bach for the post – in this order of preference.

Following Telemann’s withdrawal (after securing a salary increase in Hamburg), Graupner was invited to direct the Christmas music service in December of 1722. His Magnificat was composed specifically for this occasion, possibly the only Latin text-setting of his output. The composition is written in the Thomaskirche tradition, especially the works of the late Kuhnau, and ends with a massive doublefugue. Along with the Magnificat, Graupner presented two cantatas on January 17, 1723, to further support his application process; the two cantatas were Aus der Tieferufenwir, and Lobet den Herrnalle Heiden. These cantatas were scored for a larger number of instruments accompanying the chorale setting note-for-note, without altering the harmonic language. Musical expression was left to the virtuoso elements in the orchestral accompaniment, also found in the freely composed chorus movements of the cantatas. The Graupner’s Italian compositional style used in setting the audition cantatas must have impressed the Leipzig town council, as he was offered the position of Thomaskantor.

However Graupner’s patron (the Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt) would not release him from his contract. Graupner’s past due salary was paid in full, his salary was increased; and he would be kept on staff even if his Kapelle was dismissed. With such favourable terms, Graupner remained in Darmstadt and declined the offer for the position of Thomaskantor.

After Telemann and Graupner both turned down the appointment, having been offered a tempting salary increase by their respective employers (plus which, of course, they would not have to teach Latin), the committee was obliged “to settle for the mediocre, as the best men turned out not to be available”, as the story goes. Like most good stories, this anecdote is only marginally accurate. What happened was that Bach also initially refused to teach Latin, and the committee was forced to consider someone even less remarkable than the top three. It was to this situation that the immortal words of Ratmann Platz referred.

After hearing that Bach was appointed Thomaskantor, on 4 May 1723 Graupner graciously wrote to the city council in Leipzig assuring them that Bach “is a musician just as strong on the organ as he is expert in church works and capelle pieces” and a man who “will honestly and properly perform the functions entrusted to him.”

So it came to pass that Graupner, officially verified as a composer better than Bach, remained in Darmstadt until his death in 1760. He went blind in 1754, but not before creating a distinguished career spanning nearly half a century at one single court. Operas gave way to cantatas, orchestral works, chamber music and keyboard music. A significant part of his orchestral output consists of concertos and suites with diverse, sometimes very curious instruments in the solo ensembles.

Graupner’s total surviving output comprises some 2,000 separate works, including 85 orchestral suites and 44 concertos. The bulk of Graupner’s output consists of more than 1,400 cantatas, an astonishing number. Nearly all of Graupner’s cantatas were conceived as chamber music, that is, for few performers in the excellent acoustics of the Court chapel and were composed for the Sunday afternoon services. His gigantic output also includes some 60 chamber music works, most of them titled Sonatas or Trios. The trio sonata was the principal genre of chamber music in the Baroque era, and the ensemble represented the essence of the musical style of the time.

The term ‘trio’ refers to three independent voices, in this case two melody instruments and an accompaniment that usually requires both melody instruments and harmony instruments to produce. In fact, ‘accompaniment’ is not really an appropriate description; the continuo has more in common with the drums-and-bass (plus guitar) rhythm section of a jazz or rock band. The continuo carries the movement of the music just like a rhythm section. The harmonies are produced by the musician playing the harpsichord, organ or lute, improvised on the basis of numbers over the bass line indicating the harmony or, as in Graupner’s case, on the basis of the bass part alone. This required a great deal of knowledge, skill and experience.

As the term ‘trio’ specified the number of voices involved, not the number of instruments, a Baroque trio ensemble might be anything from one musician (as in the organ trios by French organists or J.S. Bach) or two musicians (as in Bach’s Sonatas for obbligato violin or flute and harpsichord) to just about any number of musicians – someone like Monteverdi or Corelli might have a continuo group that included an organ, a harpsichord, a harp, a cello, a violone, and so on. Graupner specified only the harpsichord as the continuo instrument in his trios.

Among the rarer solo instruments he favoured were the flûte d’amour, a flute pitched a third lower than the normal transverse flute, and the viola d’amore, an instrument roughly the same size and shape as a viola but with resonating free strings in addition to the (usually) seven strings played with the bow. Bach also used the viola d’amore in some of his vocal works, most notably the St John Passion.

Combining the traverso and hunting horn in the same concerto, or the viola d’amore and the chalumeau, was extremely exceptional for the period. One of the rare comparisons is Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, where the solo ensemble consists of trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin.

The chalumeau was the predecessor of the clarinet, and Graupner is probably the most prominent composer to have written for the instrument. Other composers had a nodding acquaintance with it, such as Telemann, Vivaldi and Fux. The clarinet displaced the rather narrow-ranged chalumeau around the middle of the 18th century, although Christoph Willibald Gluck did give the instrument an important role in the first version of his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, written in Vienna in 1762.

What is significant in Graupner’s music is his exceptional command of melody and harmony, which are individual and unique. Perhaps it is because he spent fifty years cooped up in the same court and wrote a huge amount of music that his music somehow seems detached from its time and the surrounding world. His eccentric choices of instruments were probably dictated by availability, as with the pigments available to great visual artists. But what is significant in his music is his exceptional command of melody and harmony (brushstrokes and composition, if you will), which do not really resemble those of any of his contemporaries.

The form and texture of Graupner’s compositions tend toward the classic style of Haydn and Mozart, rather than continuing baroque forms and trends. He was well informed regarding newer techniques, including the influence of Johann Stamitz at the Court of Mannheim. Clearly he was actively a part of the bridge between baroque and the Viennese Classic, including the concern for the “Edle Einfalt” (Noble Simplicity).

His life’s work was inaccessible for a long time because of a dispute between the rulers of Hesse-Darmstadt and the Graupner estate. The estate lost the court case and was prohibited access to Graupner’s manuscripts. Graupner was largely forgotten. What is fortunate, however, is that virtually all of his works have been preserved in one place at the library of the University of Darmstadt, unlike the works of J.S. Bach, which were dispersed among his children. While some of his children lost some / many of J.S. Bach’s works, they also tirelessly advocated for him, resulting in the current belief of J.S. Bach as the father of music.

Graupner’s reputation as a noteworthy composer has come to light only in the last few years. Through the recent world premiere recording of such ensembles as the Montréal based Les Idées heureuses, and research by its leader Geneviève Soly, Graupner has become a more central figure in the already well-established canon of Baroque composers.

We have selected two recordings by the Finnish Baroque Orchestra.

Back to Brad’s lecture, little bears enjoyed it beary much 🙂

Tafelmusik and Bach

Yay to Tafelmusik’s third visit to Australia! We can’t believe it’s already six years since we saw them first with the Galileo Project.

Galileo Project has received a Helpmann Award in Australia, for distinguished artistic achievement, and the International Astronomical Union has named an asteroid “197856 Tafelmusik” in honour of the concert.

Bach and his World is another innovative multimedia program from Tafelmusik.

The program was conceived, programmed, and scripted by Tafelmusik double bassist Alison Mackay, based on her Bach: A Circle of Creation, premiered by Tafelmusik in May 2015. Alison is the creative force behind many of Tafelmusik’s most innovative concert and touring programmes, including The Galileo Project and House of Dreams.

Alison Mackay

For these multimedia productions, the Tafelmusik musicians must memorize nearly two hours of music. The musicians now enjoy the experience of being able to communicate on stage without the barrier of music stands and the ability of moving around while playing to be in the prime position for the ensemble needs of each piece. There was a lot of hesitation about taking on such a huge task the first time, for the Galileo Project, but now musicians are enthusiastic about the freedom they feel in being able to perform in this way and spend countless hours alone or with two or three colleagues working on sections of pieces, to memorize the entire programme.

Bach and His World draws on spoken word, video and detailed images to explore the world of the artisans — papermakers, violin carvers, string spinners, and performers — who helped J.S. Bach realize his musical genius. Led from the violin by new Music Director, Elisa Citterio, appointed in January 2017, this all-Bach program is performed on instruments of the composer’s time, the story narrated by actor Blair Williams.

Bach’s world comes alive as Tafelmusik recreates the ambience of a Friday evening at Zimmerman’s cafe in Leipzig, with images of his treasured artisans blended with footage of the craftspeople who create Tafelmusik’s instruments today. Because the guild members of early modern Europe were obliged to guard their trade secrets, modern makers have had to be detectives, using forensic evidence from scraps of old strings and sources such as Diderot’s 18th century Encyclopedia of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts to determine the materials and techniques that would have been used for Bach’s instruments.

Malcolm Rose, who makes the brass strings for the Tafelmusik harpsichord, helped to discover the old way of making strings, analyzing scraps of strings left on old instruments to discover the proportion of copper and zinc in the brass which would have given Bach’s harpsichord a warm and resonant sound.

Bach and his World examines Bach’s material world and all the things that had to happen between the moment a musical idea came into his mind to the point of an actual performance for the public. We first learn about the family of paper makers in a tiny Bohemian village in the NW corner of the Czech Republic who supplied Bach’s paper for five years – this is known because of research into watermarks in paper – and how the paper was made. We learn about how Bach made his ink and began composing by ruling lines on a page with a five-pointed “rastrum” to make manuscript paper.

Bach made his own ink. Bach’s ink was called “iron gall ink” and was made of iron sulphate, oak galls (small outgrowths on oak trees – the little balls have high concentration of tannins), gum arabic, salt and water. The iron sulphate is corroding the paper, eating holes through the pages.

We learn about the Leipzig instrument makers who worked with Bach to create his instruments and we actually see a cello being created, specially by Quentin Playfair, from the plain cut wood to the finished instrument. This process unfolds while Christina Mahler and Allen Whear play some of Bach’s most exquisite music for solo cello.

Toronto luthier, Quentin Playfair, was asked to re-create a 1726 cello made in the workshop of Antonio Stradivari and the process was recorded for the concert
Toronto luthier Quentin Playfair

We see amazing footage of gut strings being made from sheep intestines and the inner workings of harpsichord jacks. We’ll also learn about the financial aspects of musical life in Leipzig – the tax base which provided the funding for instruments, salaries and housing for the town musicians, and the debt which the city owed to highly-taxed Jewish merchants at the famous Leipzig trade fairs.

Quills from raven feathers are cut so that they create a uniform sound when used to pluck the strings inside a harpsichord.

The concert is a celebration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach while at the same time introducing the audience to the way baroque instruments are built and how they work with each other in the orchestra.

Most of the music on the programme is typical of the works that would have been performed at regular Friday night concerts at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in the North German city of Leipzig where Bach lived for the last 27 years of his life. He directed the music in the principal churches of the city, taught at the famous St. Thomas choir school, and directed the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble made up of university students, members of his family, professional players from the Leipzig municipal band, and musical visitors passing through the town. Many of these performers played on instruments made by local artisans in Leipzig, a well-known centre for instrument building.

The building of baroque instruments began with materials from the natural world — bird feathers for the quills that pluck harpsichord strings, maple and spruce for the bodies of stringed instruments, and boxwood for oboes. Sheep intestines were used to create strings for Bach’s stringed instruments, and brass strings were made by hand for his harpsichords. 18th century techniques are still used for the manufacture of historical strings for period instruments today.

Having a full, two-hour presentation (including intermission) devoted to the music of one composer may seem like a recipe for monotony. But Johann Sebastian Bach was no ordinary artist. He had a distinct musical style, rendered in seemingly endless variety: a richness nicely reflected in Mackay’s 21-piece patchwork quilt of a program.

It is a program that not only delivers a cross-section of Bach’s inventiveness with a variety of solo and ensemble genres, it also gives each member of the Tafelmusik orchestra a moment in the spotlight. Freed from the constraints of music stands and enlivened by the need to tell a broader story, Tafelmusik’s period-instrument-playing string, woodwind and harpsichord musicians delivered lively, engaging performances.

It is another superb, committed and passionate performance that has become the trademark of a Tafelmusik concert.