March 8, 2009

WERE LEMONS NATIVE TO THE SAVANNAH?:

It's a Still Life That Runs Deep: A composer explains how this Zurbarán painting, filled with religious symbolism, inspired him (MORTEN LAURIDSEN, 2/23/09, WSJ)

Francisco de Zurbarán's "Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose" normally hangs on a back wall of one of the smaller rooms in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena. Like a large black magnet, it draws its viewers from the entry into its space and deep into its mystical world. Completed in 1633, it is the only canvas the early Baroque Spanish master ever signed and dated.

We are shown a table set against a dark background on which are set three collections of objects: in the center, a basket containing oranges and orange blossoms; to the left, a silver saucer with four lemons; and, to the right, another silver saucer holding both a single rose in bloom and a fine china cup filled with water. Each collection is illuminated and placed with great care on the polished surface of the table.

But it is much more than a still life. For Zurbarán (1598-1664) -- known primarily for his crisply executed and sharply, even starkly lit paintings of ascetics, angels, saints and the life of Christ -- the objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows. [...]

At the core of my work as a composer over the past 45 years are seven multimovement vocal cycles, each centered on a single poetic theme, most often by one author -- for example, "Les Chansons des Roses" on Rainer Maria Rilke's delightful poems penned in 1924; the "Madrigali 'Fire-Songs'" on Renaissance Italian poems; "Cuatro Canciones," my chamber settings of Federico García Lorca's poems about time and night; and the "Lux Aeterna" on sacred texts about "light." And for each cycle I've selected my musical materials -- harmonies, melodies, rhythm, formal construction, orchestration, etc. -- to complement aspects of the texts I've chosen, including their style, content, language and historical context. The musical settings range from accessible and direct to atonal, abstract and highly coloristic.

For "O Magnum Mysterium," I wanted to create, as Zurbarán had in paint, a deeply felt religious statement, at once uncomplicated and unadorned yet powerful and transformative in its effect upon the listener.


Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2009 8:45 AM
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