(an occasional series)
Here one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century (composer Morton Feldman [1926-1980]) pays homage to another (painter Mark Rothko [1903-1970]).
Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel (composed in 1971; first performed, at Houston’s Rothko Chapel, in 1972)
. . . The example of the painters was crucial. Feldman’s scores were close in spirit to Rauschenberg’s all-white and all-black canvases, Barnett Newman’s gleaming lines, and, especially, Rothko’s glowing fog banks of color. His habit of presenting the same figure many times in succession invites you to hear music as a gallery visitor sees paintings; you can study the sound from various angles, stand back or move up close, go away and come back for a second look. Feldman said that New York painting led him to attempt a music ‘more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore.’ Just as the Abstract Expressionists wanted viewers to focus on paint itself, on its texture and pigment, Feldman wanted listeners to absorb the basic facts of resonant sound. At a time when composers were frantically trying out new systems and languages, Feldman chose to follow his intuition. He had an amazing ear for harmony, for ambiguous collections of notes that tease the brain with never-to-be-fulfilled expectations. Wilfrid Mellers, in his book ‘Music in a New Found Land,’ eloquently summed up Feldman’s early style: ‘Music seems to have vanished almost to the point of extinction; yet the little that is left is, like all of Feldman’s work, of exquisite musicality; and it certainly presents the American obsession with emptiness completely absolved from fear.’ In other words, we are in the region of Wallace Stevens’s ‘American Sublime,’ of the ’empty spirit / In vacant space.’
If there is a Holocaust memorial in Feldman’s work, it is ‘Rothko Chapel,’ which was written in 1971, for Rothko’s octagonal array of paintings in Houston. Rothko had committed suicide the previous year, and Feldman, who had become his close friend, responded with his most personal, affecting work. It is scored for viola, solo soprano, chorus, percussion, and celesta. There are voices, but no words. As is so often the case in Feldman’s music, chords and melodic fragments hover like shrouded forms, surrounded by thick silence. The viola offers wide-ranging, rising-and-falling phrases. The drums roll and tap at the edge of audibility. Celesta and vibraphone chime gentle clusters. There are fleeting echoes of past music, as when the chorus sings distant, dissonant chords reminiscent of the voice of God in Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron,’ or when the soprano sings a thin, quasi-tonal melody that echoes the vocal lines of Stravinsky’s final masterpiece, the ‘Requiem Canticles.’ That passage was written on the day of Stravinsky’s funeral, in April, 1971—another thread of lament in the pattern. But the emotional sphere of ‘Rothko Chapel’ is too vast to be considered a memorial for an individual, whether it is Rothko or Stravinsky.
Shortly before the end, something astonishing happens. The viola begins to play a keening, minor-key, modal song, redolent of the synagogue. Feldman had written this music decades earlier, during the Second World War, when he was attending the High School of Music and Art, in New York. Underneath it, celesta and vibraphone play a murmuring four-note pattern, which calls to mind a figure in Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms.’ The song unfurls twice, and the chorus answers with the chords of God. The allusions suggest that Feldman is creating a divine music, appropriate to the sombre spirituality of Rothko’s chapel. In a sense, he is fusing two different divinities, representative of two major strains in twentieth-century music: the remote, Hebraic God of Schoenberg’s opera, and the luminous, iconic presence of Stravinsky’s symphony. Finally, there is the possibility that the melody itself, that sweet, sad, Jewish-sounding tune, speaks for those whom Feldman heard beneath the cobblestones of German towns. It might be the chant of millions in a single voice.
But I can almost hear Feldman speaking out against this too specific reading. At a seminar in Germany in 1972, he was asked whether his music had any relationship to the Holocaust, and he said no. He was a hard-core modernist to the end, despite his sensualist tendencies, and he did not conceive of art a medium for sending messages. It was probably in reaction to the communicative power of ‘Rothko Chapel’ that he later dismissed it, unbelievably, as a minor work. But in that German seminar he did say, in sentences punctuated by long pauses, ‘There’s an aspect of my attitude about being a composer that is like mourning. Say, for example, the death of art . . . something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me.’ He also admitted, ‘I must say, you did bring up something that I particularly don’t want to talk about publicly, but I do talk privately.’
Only this one time, in the last minutes of ‘Rothko Chapel,’ did Feldman allow himself the consolation of an ordinary melody. Otherwise, he held the outside world at bay. Yet he always showed an awareness of other possibilities, a sympathy for all that he chose to reject. Listening to his music is like being in a room with the curtains drawn. You sense that with one quick gesture sunlight could fill the room, that life in all its richness could come flooding in. But the curtains stay closed. A shadow moves across the wall. And Feldman sits in his comfortable chair.—Alex Ross (New Yorker, 6/19/06)
(Originally posted 12/5/09.)