There was a bit of a theme to my hunting of some great masterpieces in Europe. At the Kunstmusem in Winterthur, in Switzerland, the guidebook told me to look at their superb collection of masters like Picasso and Van Gogh, but I was also rather taken by the temporarily installed scultptures of stark glass and metal and light in the back room, by Giulio Paolini. At the National Museum of Rome I was appropriately awed by the rich green garden frescoes of the Empress Livia's Villa, but was really more fascinated with a sideroom displaying marble inlay in eye-popping reds and yellows, still shimmering after 2000 years. At the Louvre I dutifully went to see La Joconde
(known here as Mona Lisa) and discovered that my new favorite Italian Rennaisance painting is a smoky, moody Deposition of Christ
by Jacopo Bassano, displayed on the wall that's left of Mona. So when we went to a concert of Vivaldi's Le Quatro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) and other works at an Anglican church in Rome, I was fully prepared for the Violin Concerto of one M. Giuliani (whom I've never heard of) to take center stage. (More on the art later.)
The church, St. Paul's Within the Walls is a turn of the century gothic structure, with graceful grey stone arches, walls tiled with the IHS initials, and, up above, mosaics by Pre-Raphaelite artists. I was kind of tired of mosaics and imagery. After trudging around in the hot Roman sun, fending off the gold glare from street after street of ochre-plastered buildings, it was soothing to rest my eyes on the cool gray arches and just relax into soft chords and swells of sound. Giuliani definitely seemed like he would be taking the crown of the day.
And then the Vivaldi started, and I could feel backs arching forward and heads raising up on the pew around me. We all knew the piece and we were all mentally strumming along. Maybe it's been just long enough since I've played one of my recordings or heard chamber music live, maybe I've got cliched tastes in music at heart, or maybe Vivaldi really is a genius. But all of a sudden the brightly colored tessera of Edward Burn-Jones's Christ in Glory
came to swirling life, and the heat of spring turning into summer more dramatic than oppressive.
It's always tempting for me to turn music into a soundtrack. The Universal Studio's trope that plays before a movie, "Film is a universal language" is demonstrably false if you've ever tried to watch a bad American movie dubbed in German--what might have been mildly entertaining late at night is rendered unwatchable. Music, on the other hand, really is the universal language. In a taxi back in Zurich our driver apologetically explained in a mixture of German and English that he just didn't really know English. He knew Italian, Spanish, Portugese, German and Arabic, but not really English. U2's Pride (In the Name of Love
) started blaring from his CD player. "This music, you like? You understand?" "Ja
," we replied, "Yes!" "No understand, I like. Just la la la la la
. But I like!" La la la la la