Traveling the Sistine Road (of Promise…)

Rehearsals have been underway for Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s The Road of Promise for several weeks now.  I can report that the Chorale is in fine voice and really enjoying working with this fascinating piece.  I was trying to think of how to describe it to someone recently, and it was hard to categorize.  It was originally an epic musical in the late 1930s titled The Eternal Road, the origins of which Janet Pascal has chronicled thoroughly here.  From what we’ve learned during the rehearsal process, it was quite possibly the most massive musical ever staged, with seven acres of set pieces, a 100+ person cast, and a length of nearly five hours.   This unwieldiness meant that revivals weren’t likely, so the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music commissioned a shortened version, which is The Road of Promise.

11078082_813690508720931_5446364770332979057_nAs a choral singer, you don’t get the full effect of a piece until you perform it with the orchestra and soloists, and there’s not a recording of this work yet (although there we’ll be: we’re making it!), but here’s what I can tell you.  While it is shorter in terms of time, it doesn’t seem to have lost much in terms of sound.  Weill’s sonic palate was rich and bright in this score, and his phrases are painted in broad strokes.  It’s luscious, even when we only have a piano to sing with; I can only imagine what the orchestra is going to sound like.

The story recounts a number of tales from the Old Testament as a Jewish community huddles fearfully in its synagogue during a pogrom.  Werfel’s lyrics, therefore, have the chorus perform one moment as God’s voice on the wind as he tells Abraham to spare his son, Isaac, and another moment as a choir of trumpeting angels.  Meanwhile, on the ground, you’ll hear us raucously rejoice as we worship the golden calf, pout grumpily as Joseph’s brothers who wish to kill him, and so forth.  It’s gorgeous music that relays profound subject matter, but it’s also quite a lot of fun to listen to.

So as I thought about how to describe it — lush sonic color, Old Testament themes — it occurred to me: this is the musical version of the Sistine Chapel, and I’m not just saying that to be cutesy.  Most operas and oratorios that deal with the same biblical subject matter hone in on a single story to explore in depth, but this work brings as many tales to life as it can in order to tell a much bigger story, which is exactly what the Sistine Chapel does.

So there you go.  I don’t know if anyone has ever described a musical work as ‘Sistine,’ but that’s what The Road of Promise is:

Huge. Breathtaking. Demanding. Gorgeous.


(AND tickets are still available!  May 6th and 7th at Carnegie Hall!)

The Renaissance Man and the Doomsday Prophet: Michelangelo and Savonarola

The third installment of Michelangelo musings after reading Ross King‘s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling:

"I am the hailstorm that shall break the heads of those who do not take shelter." Well.

“I am the hailstorm that shall break the heads of those who do not take shelter.”

3. The influence of Savonarola.  Giralomo Savonarola was, strange as it may seem, ahead of his time.  I say ‘strange’ because it’s hard to think of someone who is best known for igniting ‘the bonfire of the vanities’ — whereby he encouraged Florentines to toss into the flames any books or works of art they deemed indecent — as ahead of his times.  And yet, his goal was to cleanse Florence (and Christendom) of corruption; and some of his rhetoric is not so different from what we hear people say about Washington D.C. today.  If he’d have been born about two decades later he would have fought for reform alongside Martin Luther; three centuries later and he would have been a Jonathan Edwards igniting the “Great Awakening” in America.  But, as it happened, he was born into Renaissance Florence. Though he caught the attention of a great many of the citizens who were also fed up with the clerical abuses of the Church, it was a time and place where power was absolute (and held by Pope Alexander VI, a Borgia…not a good enemy to have…) and the Zeitgeist was shifting.  Poet Heinrich Heine famously wrote that “where they have burnt books, they will end in burning human beings.”  In our day and age, this is quote is usually trucked out to sum up the horrors of the Nazis, but it was true long before that, and ironic in this case: Florence’s own book-burners turned out to see the execution by hanging and fire of Savonarola.  It is said that the Florentine crowds shouted curses at him as he mounted the scaffold; after he died from hanging, but before the fire burned his body completely, a burst of heat caused his arm to raise up as if he were blessing the angry mob, at which point many of those yelling curses began to weep.

I'd like my Dante medium rare...with a side of  Ovid, per favore.  Grazie.

I’d like my Dante medium rare…with a side of Ovid, per favore. Grazie.

I’ve gone on at length because I was surprised to learn from King’s book that Michelangelo was an ardent supporter of Savonarola (as was Botticelli, who is alleged to have burned some of his own works, although this may be apocryphal).  It seems puzzling at first that an art-maker should be so keen to follow an art-burner, but maybe it speaks to Michelangelo’s melancholic nature and, perhaps, his desire to make the world more beautiful.  Michelangelo was devout, but not a fan of the power structures of the Church.  He didn’t have a lot of love for the Pope or for Rome, and, as King points out, when given full-control over the Sistine Chapel ceiling’s design, he chose somber scenes from the Old Testament of humanity’s transgressions and pain rather than the more uplifting scenes from the New Testament (“No Wedding of Cana or multiplying of loaves in this chapel!”).  Jesus’ ancestors are painted along the perimeter of the ceiling, which was strange subject matter to begin with,  but stranger still was the fact that, rather than painting them as kings and queens, he depicted them as regular people who toiled at work.  In fact, other than the very famous central scene of the creation of Adam, the overall motif of the ceiling is suffering.  Suffering was a favorite theme of Savonarola as well, and his sermons were said to be masterpieces of charismatic oratory on the matter.  Perhaps that’s why Michelangelo seemed to think of him more as a kindred spirit than an enemy.


Anti-social Artist vs. Warrior Pope: Michelangelo and Julius II

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m in the midst of reading Ross King‘s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling in preparation for a trip to Rome in April.  I’ve been keeping a list of fascinating facts as I read, and I was planning to write a Top 5 list when I finished, but I’m halfway through and already the list is long.  So I started to write the Top 5 for the first half, but I hit 1100 words after the first three and decided I’ll just do a separate post for each one to keep it brief(er).

Michelangelo and Pope Julius II on a good day.

Michelangelo and Pope Julius II on a good day.

1. Relationship with the Pope.  Based on the title of the book, it should be no surprise that there was tension between the artist and the pontiff.  What is surprising is the degree to which the Pope gave in to Michelangelo’s demands.  I mean, Pope Julius II was not the peaceful shepherd that is Pope Francis I.  When Julius wanted to bring the Papal States that had either gone rogue or been taken over by foreign rulers back into his pontifical fold, he sent out an army and rode at the head of it — armed — himself.  They called him the Warrior Pope.  He had a nasty temper and beat messengers who brought him bad news…and sometimes hurt those who brought good news by clapping them on the back with pleasure.  He first brought Michelangelo to Rome to work on his ostentatious tomb, but then he had a change of heart and sent him packing.  And then he wanted him back, but Michelangelo said no.  After several pleas, the Pope finally resorted to an ultimatum, and, reluctantly, Michelangelo returned, but not to resume work on the tomb: he was brought back to to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which had been damaged due to a shoddy foundation — despite the fact that he was a sculptor and not a frescoist.  Even so, he agreed.  Not long after he started work, he was forced to get a little testy with the Pope: he told Julius to butt out and stop being such a micromanager.  Said he knew what to paint, and that the Pope was going to have to trust him.  His reputation must have been astounding, because the Warrior Pope did back off.  Later, as the months went by and he couldn’t see the ceiling due to the canvas that stretched across the chapel sixty feet below the workspace (meant to keep any drippings from interrupting a Mass or making a mess), Julius attempted on several occasions to sneak up the scaffolding to get a look at what was going on.  He even donned disguises.  How could such a powerful pope be kept at bay for so long?  Answer: Michelangelo was, oddly, just as powerful.

What Is Your Favorite Work Of Art?

It has occurred to me that Michelangelo might be my favorite artist.  I’ll be in Rome with students in April, so I’m reading Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.  I’m loving all the minutiae about the creation of the Sistine Chapel, from detailed information about pigments (did you know ‘ultramarine’ is so called because it describes the place far from the sea (as the name suggests) — Afghanistan! — where the lapis is quarried that’s used to make it), to the political intrigues surrounding Pope Julius II (The Warrior Pope!) and the office politics of the renaissance art world.

Halfway through the book, I realize that I’m enjoying it as much as I am because I love the Sistine Chapel.  I’ve seen it twice in my life and both times I stood there in the crowd, looking up at its immensity and grandeur, and I swooned like the heroine of a Victorian novel; it quite literally took my breath away.  So did the statue of David (and the gallery of figures emerging from the marble leading up to it).  Van Gogh and Chagall rank highly in my esteem as well, but Michelangelo…no lie: I swooned.

And I can’t wait to do it again.

So have you swooned before a work of art?  Even if you haven’t, what would you say is your favorite work and why?