Sunday, 26 May 2019


Graphic © Unraveling Musical Myths
A note from the author:

Thank you for your ongoing support during my period of hiatus - your comments and emails are very much appreciated!

I will be returning on a more frequent basis shortly - in the interim, I have decided to add to my blog a new series, Unraveling Musical Myths: Art Corner, wherein masterful works of art of all mediums will be discussed with a musical slant. I am a firm believer in the free exchange of knowledge and the appreciation of the arts (in all of its many forms) and thought it quite fitting to highlight both known, and relatively unknown masterpieces from both realms, particularly when they compliment each other so well.

Just as the great pioneers of opera looked to the drama of Ancient Greece for both influence and subject matter, and as maestri from all eras payed homage to major events in world history, in religion and in literature through music, so too did many of the most iconic painters and sculptors (as the reader will discover through "recommended listens" - gorgeous music from the classical realm with a shared mythology.)

In many ways, the concept of "Gesamtkuntswerk," as defined by Richard Wagner - as an all-encompassing synthesis of the arts - predates, by far, the Romantic era in which the concept would become widely known.

The format presented here will be on an introductory basis - that is, in a brief, analytical form, with an aforementioned "recommended listen," or related piece of music at the end of each analysis, meant to serve as a compliment to each work of art. This succinct format is intentional, with the hope that it will encourage the inquisitive reader to further explore this world of immeasurable beauty.

We begin with a stunning funerary-inspired statue of an ailing Mozart, presently housed at the  Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux in France:


Ravished and near death, Italian sculptor Rinaldo Carnielo's (1853-1910) "Mozart Expirant" (Mozart Expiring) is a both shocking and somber sight to behold (as is much of Carnielo's oeuvre, which is renowned for an indulgence in the macabre.)

Executed in 1877, the life size monument - which stands just below five feet - depicts an emaciated likeness of composer - imagined as he would have appeared in his final moments, his infamous Requiem in hand. It is this sordid scene which recalls the extant testimonials left behind by those present at Mozart's bedside in the days and hours before his untimely death, namely, that of Sophie Weber, sister-in-law to the composer, who recalled her experience to Mozart biographer Georg Nikolaus von Nissen in 1823:

"...a long search was made for Dr. Closset...he came and ordered cold poultices to be placed on Mozart's burning head, which however, affected him to such an extent that he became unconscious and remained so until he died. His last movement was an attempt to express with his mouth the drum passages in the Requiem. That I can still hear." [1]

We know that Mozart fell ill in whilst busying himself in Prague, where the composer had been commissioned to write an Imperial opera (La Clemenza di Tito) for the coronation festivities of Leopold II, mere months before his return home to Vienna whereupon he would become bedridden.

Carnielo's decision to place Mozart on an armchair rather than on a bed is both curious and visually (not to mention emotionally) striking: the composer's gaunt physique is showcased on full display, his torso unobstructed by bed covers, resting not so much in a slump but rather on a sharp angle, foreshadowing the soon-to-be onset of rigor mortis. Even so, there remains something somewhat regal about his posture. Even his throne-like chair, ornate with trimmings, and the oversized cushions behind his head and underneath his elegantly clad foot (in opulent damask, no less) speak to his status as a (often) revered musician and composer of 'God-given' ability - an otherworldly association which had so permeated the minds and hearts of almost all who had the pleasure of encountering his music.

It is this dichotomy, so clearly displayed by Carnielo, between the exalted, earthly self and man's pitiable mortality which recalls, for me, the famous tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead - a medieval moral analogy well known among über spiritual 19th century Western Europeans. 

Click image to display full leaf. This detail of a miniature from the 14th century De Lisle Psalter depicts the cautionary tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead: a moral analogy on the pitiable, equal state of death over worldly rank and status. It accompanies an abridged version of the Anglo-Norman poem, Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs, which details the conversations between the mortal men and the spectres, each cadaver presented in various states of decomposition: So spoke the Three Living: ‘"I am afraid" , "Lo, what I see!" , and "Methinks these be devils three."   Reply the Three Dead: "I was well fair", "Such shall you be", and "For God’s love, beware by me." It is this last cadaver - the furthest decomposed of the three dead, who truly drives the metaphorical nail in the coffin when he informs the three living, causally enjoying a day's sport: (in full verse) "Know that I was head of my tribe, princes, kings and nobles, royal and rich, rejoicing in wealth,  but now I am so hideous and bare that even the worms disdain me."
Translated from old English,  British Library, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v |

But what of Carnielo's Europe? How would a sculptor living, and sculpting a monument to the maestro some 86 years post mortem have viewed the death of Mozart? What stories might he have heard regarding this ill fated occasion?

As it turns out, rather many - and nearly all of them quite dubious. Even the recollection of Sophie Weber has since been called into question - her precise, word-for-word accounts of Mozart's final moments, recalled 33 years after the fact for a biography to be written by the second husband of Wolfgang's widow Constanze (van Nissen) is considered by many modern scholars to have been a result of the sensationalism that surrounded the composer's demise - a phenomenon which began almost immediately after death, and which continues to persist, even today.

Constanze herself has been accused of abetting the rumor mill with a now infamous account of an outing to the Prater with a sickly Mozart in which he allegedly confided in his spouse a fear of having been poisoned, and a belief that the Requiem on which he was composing was intended for his own funeral. Stanzi is believed to have been the source of this story for the saintly biography by Franz Xaver Niemetschek - the first full length account of the composer's life, published in 1798. She would later dismiss the idea of poisoning as "absurd," only to recapitulate the tale - with various deviations to her original account - some 30 years later to the English musician Vincent Novello and his wife Mary upon their pilgrimage to Salzburg in 1829 where they interviewed the composer's sister Nannerl, Sophie, and Constanze - who they erroneously believed was impoverished. In this latest, sensational telling of the Prater affair, Constanze insists Mozart pursued his Requiem with vigor - not questionably - but rather, certain that it was his purpose to compose his own Mass for the Dead. The poison now coursing through his veins, in this later account by Stanzi, even had a name: Acqua Toffana.

"Some six months before his death he was possessed with the idea of his being poisoned - 'I know I must die', he exclaimed, 'someone has given me acqua toffana and has calculated the precise time of my death - for which they have ordered a Requiem. It is for myself that I am writing this." 
- from the diary of Novello, p. 125, as recounted by the widow Constanze  

Again, Constanze referred to the idea of poison having killed her husband as absurd, only to once again, seemingly confirm her husband's testimony in a subsequent letter referencing the couple's eldest son, Karl Thomas, in which she reiterates the latters' belief that  

"...he does not have, as his father once had, envious people to fear, who strive after his life." [2]

Clearly, it seemed Constanze was not the only member of the surviving Mozart clan to have shouldered (or at the very least, perpetuated) thoughts of a homicidal death for the dearly departed.
Undoubtedly, Carnielo would have heard of the fantastical rumor that had been circulating Europe for the better part of six decades of an insane Antonio Salieri, institutionalized and delirious, claiming himself to be the administer of the lethal tonic - this account, since debunked by Salieri's around-the-clock caregivers (who swore to having never heard Salieri utter such words) was spread with such enthusiasm that it even made the writing book of Ludwig van Beethoven. In fact, by the time Carnielo conceptualized his marble tribute to Mozart, the celebrated playwright Alexander Pushkin had already staged his one-act play based on this sensational fabricated account: Mozart & Salieri.

Wolfgang's association with Freemasons was also repeatedly made the focal point for vocal conspiracists who believed the composer had been unceremoniously "offed" by one of his own Brothers. The roots of this diabolical theory were first planted in Germany in 1861, with a series of polemic essays in the popular periodical "Aus der Mansarde" (Out of the Attic) ran, edited, and largely written by G.F Daumer.

This was the Europe - and, more importantly the Mozart - known to Carnielo: one of a man of near-mythical status who had blazed the continent - the "God-like" hero with a boyish countenance, both victor and victim of his own destiny, whose pitiable, pathetic demise left in its wake a convoluted, mysterious legacy as contradictory as the mortal himself. 

Click to enlarge. The Last Hours of Mozart, ca. 1860, Henry Nelson O'Neil ARA
One of the more dubious 'bedside testimonies' to have been recalled by Mozart contemporaries is the infamous scene of a gaunt, fever stricken Mozart, propped up in what would become his deathbed, surrounded by an intimate cast of friends and family, who took part in a 'rehearsal' of the completed parts of the composers' Requiem.

It is said Mozart performed his part with an unnatural, brave sense of vigor - that is until the Lacrimosa, at which point he is said to have broken down, sobbing. This apocryphal tale seems quite fitting - Mozart had completed the first eight bars of this movement prior to his death, making the final words he set to music "ah, days of tears and mourning!"

Franz Xaver Süßmayr's gorgeous completion of the Requiem, and the Lacrimosa itself, has been posted numerous times on Unraveling Musical Myths, so for a change, I am choosing to feature 19th century composer Sigismond Thalberg's exquisite transcription of the Lacrimosa (Lacrymosa), as performed by the French virtuoso pianist Cyprien Katsaris. While there is no match for a full choir setting, Thalberg's rendition, in my opinion, certainly does the composer justice, particularly in the hands of the expert musician Katsaris. Listen below:

Did you know?

Carnielo's Mozart would set a precedent for later "expiring" figures,  which were sculpted by the artists' contemporaries - notably the 1882 "Molière mourant" (pictured above, left) by Henri Allouard (of the famous playwright /collaborator of French baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully), and the funerary sculpture of composer Hector Berlioz, "Berlioz mourant," (above right) executed by Pierre Joseph Rambaud ten years later, in 1892, presently housed at the Paris Odéon and Le musée des Beaux-Arts de Grenoble, respectively. 

[1]Emily Anderson tr./ed. The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 1938, pp. 976-7
[2]Wilhelm A. Bauer, Otto Erich Deutsch, Joseph Heinz Eibl, Mozart: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen, 515

Wednesday, 8 May 2019


New York has long been a hub for the artistic intelligentsia - the go-to one stop shop in the American east for Gesamtkunstwerk.

The Big Apple is set to blaze several degrees hotter in the coming months as a slew of historically significant works of art will be made available, entirely cost-free, for public consumption - a move I enthusiastically applaud - great art deserves to be shared!

The first item on the docket is the contested Caravaggio, which Unraveling Musical Myths discussed in a previous post in April of 2016.

Starting this Friday, May 10, the recently discovered allegorical painting of Judith decapitating Holofernes, “Judith and Holofernes” (ca. 1607), found in the attic of a home in Toulouse in 2014 and later attributed to Caravaggio (which remains a subject of debate) will be making a week long pit-stop at the Adam Williams Fine Art Gallery (24 East 80th Street) before returning to Toulouse where it will be briefly displayed before being auctioned off later next month (at the Halle aux Grains, 1 place Dupay.)

This is a great time to view this stunning work of art up close - whether or not this piece is in fact a second go at this famous Old Testament tale by one of the most influential masters of the Italian Baroque/Renaissance or the work of another, incredibly gifted artist (some believe it to be painted by the brush of Louis Finson, who copied an original work)[1], it is worth making the trip to the gallery: the Louvre declined the acquisition of this piece back in 2016 (for budgetary reasons) and it is presently unknown with whom - or where - this controversial painting may wind up. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime visual experience for those U.S. bound.

If indeed a true Caravaggio, the c. 1607 Judith Beheading Holofernes would make the piece the 66th surviving work of the artist. Caravaggio's known work based on this scene from the Book of Judith was rediscovered in 1950 and is presently part of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome.

UPDATE: Judith Beheading Holofernes has been sold to a private buyer who intends to display the work in an as yet unrevealed "major" public gallery. The purchase occurred two days ahead of the painting's scheduled auction on Thursday, 25 June, 2019. Read more about the transaction here.

Visitors to Unraveling Musical Myths may recall my recommendation of Arma, Caedes, Vindictae, Furores from Vivaldi's Juditha Triumphans devicta Holofernes barbarie, performed by the great I Barocchisti and Coro della Radio Svizzera under maestro Diego Fasolis to accompany the enjoyment of this masterful work of art. I present it here again for those who missed it - never before have I heard a better interpretation of this movement in particular - it is simply an incredible rendition, from the blood-boiling timpani crescendo which opens the martial movement, to the rich tapestry of voices offered by the mixed choir.

Juditha Triumphans, save for it's overture, which has been lost to the hands of time, is Vivaldi's only surviving oratorio. It was originally scored for an all female cast (for performance by the women of the Ospedale della Pietà with which the composer was linked) and the biblical subject matter meant to serve as a metaphor for the Venetian victory over the Turks at the siege of Corfu in 1716.

As for the "Caravaggio," visitors to the Adam Williams Fine Art Gallery can expect to view the painting until May 17.

Exciting, admission-free events take a musical turn in late 2020, as the New York Public Library gets set to launch its very first permanent exhibition.

Residents of and visitors to New York will soon be able to
view, up close and in person, Mozart manuscripts, free of
charge, courtesy of the New York Public Library.
As yet unspecified, original sheet music in the hands of classical music titans Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, among other historical items of interest (ranging from rare books and manuscripts to film, photographs and ephemera - even Thomas Jefferson's handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence and a prized Gutenberg Bible) will make an appearance. Each acquisition will be hand selected from the NYPL archives. Previously accessible only to visiting scholars, the documents will be viewable on rotation in the 6,400-square-foot Gottesman Hall exhibition space (located in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.)

The world of dance will not go unnoticed: a personal diary belonging to 20th century Russian dancer and choreographer/Parisian icon Vaslav Nijinsky of The Rite of Spring fame will also make the public round. 

It is all part of the Library's commendable initiative to "showcase the depth and breadth of the Library's holdings," according to Library President Tony Marx, who added that he hopes by allowing these formerly exclusive items into the open, it will "excite a new generation of researchers.”

In an age where digitization of composer manuscripts and memorabilia is rapidly becoming commonplace, a live, in person, physical manifestation of the musical past is an added - and much overdue - welcome.

The NYPL's much anticipated exhibition is the result of a generous $12 million donation from philanthropist Leonard S Polonsky's Polonsky Foundation.

Unraveling Musical Myths will keep you updated when the day of launch is formally announced.

I am celebrating these momentous occasions with a listen of David Deveau's reduction of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 14 (presented below is the works' second movement, the "Andantino")

If you haven't already heard Deveau's charming rendition of Mozart's inaugural mature concerto, you are missing out on a truly unique listening experience. The pianist's collaboration with the Borromeo String Quartet recently released on the Steinway and Sons label made quite a buzz earlier this year and it's easy to see why.

Deveau has adapted the a quattro form by way of an added double bass (performed by Thomas van Dyck of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) to enhance the (chamber version) of Mozart's Concerto while keeping intact the composer's original cadenzas. It was not uncommon in the age of Mozart, with the era's rapidly expanding subscription concert sector, for popular works to be adapted for play in the private home with a small ensemble. Over a dozen of Mozart's concerti (nos. 1-14) served as ideal models for performing "a quattro" - that is, in a transcribed version for soloist and string quartet.

Deveau's intimate recording takes us back to this time - in the age before radio and televised broadcasts - into the private salons of the musical 18th century Viennese.

[1] Louis Finson (Ludovicus Finsonius) was a known acquaintance of Caravaggio and has been documented to have been in possession of several of the master's paintings, and known to have painted copies of Caravaggio's originals.

Some scholars believe this to be a variation on his ca. 1607 "Giuditta decapita oloferne" (seen below) after an original, since lost, second depiction of this scene by Caravaggio. It should be noted, however, that the 1607 work to Finson is also an attribution.

Finson's (attr.) Giudetta decapita Oloferne:


Sunday, 5 May 2019


Tchaikovsky's entire oeuvre has been digitized. Access the archive here.
Add the iconic Russian composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky to the growing list of composers who joined the digital age long after death.

Representatives of the Pyotr Tchaikovsky International Charitable Foundation and Muzyka Publishing House recently announced the digitization of the complete works of the 19th century romantic icon, which are presently available in the composers' native tongue on the Foundation's website - a version in English is set to follow later this year.

The virtual treasure trove of scores are derived from both scholar and composer submissions which had been entered into a 63 "fundamental edition" volumes published by the Muzyka Publishing House over some five decades, beginning in 1940 and concluding in 1990.

The digitization process was both a massive and laborious undertaking – over the span of “several years” experts scoured over each and every one of the 63 volumes of collected works for any errant inaccuracies, and, where necessary, restored and cited their corrections.

Speaking through the organization's press service, Foundation President and General Director of Muzyka publishing Mark Zilberkvit referred to the project as one which bears a “significance of which [it] is difficult to overestimate.” “It is important,” he continued, “that the complete works appear in the public domain. Now all professionals and amateurs can access the music."

The archive may be accessed here.

Listen below to the Münchner Philharmonie perform the gorgeous andante cantabile of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony (op. 64 in E minor) conducted by maestro Celibidache (movement 2 begins at 18:42):

Did You Know?

Pyotr's younger brother
Modest provided a source
of comfort for the often
melancholic composer to
air his grievances.
As undeniably stunning as Tchaikovsky's 5th is, the composer had not thought of commencing work on writing a new symphony until the spring of 1888, some ten years following a period of apathetic self-doubt following the disastrous 1878 premiere of his 4th symphony, which had been widely critically panned.

Pyotr first made mention of his intention in letters to his brother Modest and benefactress/confidante Nadezhda von Meck to spend the spring and summer months of 1888 composing at Frolovskoye, just outside of Kiln. A sense of personal vacillation during this process had not evaded him, and was clearly evident in his correspondence to Modest and Frau von Meck, in which the composer flip-flopped between perspectives, both pessimistic and optimistic.

On the 27th May 1888, he wrote to his younger brother:

“[it's now] mid/late May, [yet] I've still not yet made a start, because I've been working on various proofs. But I can honestly say that the urge to create has deserted me. What does this mean? Am I really written out? I've no ideas or inspiration whatsoever!"

This was followed three days later with a soupçon more hope: 

"Now I am gradually, and with some difficulty, squeezing a symphony out of my dulled brain." 

By the 22nd of June, Pyotr would lament in an exchange with the patroness von Meck that inspiration” had “deserted [him] completely."

After toiling for some three months, Tchaikovsky had at last found himself humbled by his work, telling the benefactress: 

“Now, as the symphony nears its end, I can view it objectively, and at the culmination of the work I must say that, thank God, it is no worse than my previous ones. This accomplishment means a great deal to me!!"  

Pyotr even went so far as to later proclaim 

“My symphony is ready, and I think that I have not miscalculated, that it has turned out well."

Critical feedback for Tchaikovsky's 5th was swift, and very much mixed: whilst praised by those in the composer's inner circle following the Moscow premiere in December 1888 (which the composer himself conducted – the first orchestral performance having been held in St. Petersburg one month prior) as possibly his “best work," the demand for the symphony was wholly underwhelming back in St. Petersburg and in Prague, where a mere three performances were held (twice in the Russian Imperial capital and only once in the Czech republic) prompting Tchaikovsky to lament his misfortune in a letter of characteristic self loathing to von Meck:

"With each day that passes I am increasingly certain that my last symphony is not a successful work, and the realisation that it is unsuccessful (or perhaps that my powers are declining) is very distressing to me. The symphony is too colourful, massive, insincere, drawn out and on the whole very unsympathetic... Am I indeed, as they say, written out?... If so, then this is terrible. Whether my misgivings are mistaken or not, regrettably I have concluded that the symphony written in 1888 is poorer than the one written in 1877."

It would take a successful performance in Hamburg in March of 1889 to sate Tchaikovsky's doubts as to his compositional ability (and of his reservations regarding beauty of the 5th itself.) He quietly raved over the concert in exchanges with both Modest and his trusted nephew, Vladimir Daydov:

"The musicians took to the music more and more each time the symphony was played. At rehearsals there was general enthusiasm, flourishes, etc. The concert also went excellently. As a result, I no longer have a bad opinion of the symphony, and like it once more... The Fifth Symphony was again performed magnificently, and I have started to love it again; my earlier judgement was undeservedly harsh..." 

Theodore Avé-Lallemant
Perhaps aiding in Tchaikovsky's change in perception lay in the encouragement of the works' dedicatee - Pyotr dedicated his 5th to Theodore Avé-Lallemant, then Chief Director of the Philharmonic Society, of whose acquaintance the composer first made shortly after his arrival in Hamburg in January 1888, where the composer was scheduled to conduct a concert of his own music at the Philharmonie (the program included his Serenade for String Orchestra, the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Theme and Variations from Suite No. 3.) Herr Avé-Lallemant, who was known for his criticism of much of Tchaikovsky's oeuvre, was nevertheless so bowled over by Tchaikovsky's potential (as a potential future "German" composer), that he made arrangements for a private meeting with Pyotr two days following the performance, to be held in his home, where he surprised Tchaikovsky with a request that the composer emigrate to the country.

Writing in his memoirs, Tchaikovsky recalled the moment he received the unexpected request:

"First of all I should mention the chief director of the Philharmonic Society, the aged Herr Avé-Lallemant. This most venerable old man of over eighty paid me great attention and treated me with paternal affection. In spite of his age and frailness, as well as the long distance from his house, he attended my two rehearsals, the concert, and even Dr Bernuth's reception [after the concert]. In his extraordinary kindness he went so far as to request some photographs of me, which were to be taken by the best photographer in Hamburg. He even called on me to ask about this and arranged an appointment when I could pose for the photographer, as well as deciding on my behalf what size and format the photographs should be produced in. When I then visited this kindly old gentleman, who passionately loves music and who, as should be obvious to the reader, is quite free from that aversion which many old people have against everything that has been written in recent times, I had a very lengthy and interesting conversation with him.

Herr Avé-Lallemant openly confessed that there was a lot in those works of mine which had been performed in Hamburg that wasn't to his liking; that he could not stand my noisy instrumentation; that he hated some of the orchestral effects which I resorted to (especially with regard to the percussion), but that all the same he saw in me the makings of a good, truly German composer. Almost with tears in his eyes he exhorted me to leave Russia and to settle permanently in Germany, where the classical traditions and the general atmosphere of a higher culture would not fail to correct me and rid me of those deficiencies which he felt were easily accountable by the fact that I was born and grew up in a country which was still so unenlightened and backward when compared to Germany as regards progress.

Evidently, Herr Avé-Lallemant harbours a deep prejudice against Russia, and I tried as far as I could to mitigate his hostile feelings towards our country, which, incidentally, this venerable Russophobe did not actually express openly, but merely allowed to shine through in his words. We parted as great friends."

Unfortunately for Tchaikovsky, the warm reception awarded the composer following the performance at the Hamburg Philharmonie in March the following year (which the composer himself also conducted) went un-witnessed by the director, who had taken ill and was thus unable to attend the concert.