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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Story of a Dance

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques

Bergamo shrouded in fog
no copyright infringement intended

(click here for the Romanian version)

What would be the relation between a town in Lombardy, an old manuscript in Edinburgh, a Shakespearean play, a capriccio for organ published in 1635 in Venice, a French painter belonging to Rococo, a poem by Verlaine, part of his Fêtes galantes, and two musical suites created by the end of 19th / dawn of 20th century?

This relation exists and all these places so distant in space, and artistic works so distant in time, with their creators and their interprets, all of them make the story of a dance.

Let's start with the town from Lombardy: it's Bergamo, at the foothills of the Alps. The town has a great musical tradition (Monteverdi, Tarquinio Merula, Locatelli, Donizetti, among others, either were born in Bergamo or activated there). The town gave its name to a dance, Bergamasca (Bergamask): a rustic dance, clumsy, awkward, and quirky, as people from that place were renowned to be in their manners. Well, actually a certain subtlety was in the background of the story: their clumsiness was the outer face of a sort of self-deprecating humor, and, as always, when someone makes the fool it's to fool you. Anyway, when Italians want to express buffoonery, one of the ways is to use the jargon spoken in Bergamo. That's it.

Bergamasca was known also far outside its birthplace: in France they named it Les Bouffons or Les Mattachins; in Spain they called it Matachíns; as for Italy (outside Bergamo), the name was Mattacino, or Mattacinata. From Spain, the Matachíns eventually traveled across Atlantic, to Mexic.

If the French term of bouffon does not need explanation, the matachin has a more complicated etymology. It could derive from the Venetian matinees (with jesters producing themselves in front of the attendance); it could also designate those teams of dancers who were going from town to town to play moralities in front of the churches (I think the first hypothesis is correct, and that the Matachíns from Spain borrowed the name from Italy / France; like the Italian Mattacini, they were wearing masks and were intrinsically self-delusive).

I found in The Musical Times (the book can be read on the web: http://books.google.com/books?id=5o0PAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA491&dq=bergamesca&hl=en&ei=s_HcTfbQD5GisQPA9OmhBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=bergamesca&f=false) an interesting information: the venerable Advocates' Library from Edinburgh keeps a manuscript of lute music from around 1600. The score is called The Buffens (which is obviously a corruption of Buffoons, or Bouffons). The tune is identical with Bergamasca.

So the dance was well-known, and no wonder a reference appeared in a replica from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (v.360, according to Wikipedia): Bottom invites Duke Theseus to hear a Bergomask dance.

Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream
engraving, 1796
authors: Henri Fuseli (artist), John Peter (engraver)
source: Library of Congress

no copyright infringement intended

Three composers were attracted by Bergamasca: a Pre-Classic, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and two from much modern times, Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy.

The first time when I heard the Bergamasca of Frescobaldi, it was in the interpretation of Father Iosif Gerstenengst, the organist of St. Joseph Cathedral in Bucharest: one of the greatest organists of Romania. I enjoyed going to the Cathedral especially in the evenings. Sometimes after the Mass, Father Gerstenengst was playing the organ for his own sake. It was divine.

Once I waited for the Father to leave the Cathedral, to ask him something: there was an LP with him performing the Toccata in D by Pachelbel, and I wanted to know whether it was D Major or minor. The question was of course awkward (to put it mildly), but I was enamored by the organ music (actually the LP had both pieces, the Bergamasca and the Toccata). He explained patiently to me that Pachelbel's Toccata had been composed prior to the well-tempered musical scale (not that I understood too much, but that would be another story). He then asked me if I could come one day near the organ, to see him playing. I was too shy to honor the invitation.

Prior to 1959 Father Gerstenengst had been the parson of the Catholic church in Resita, a city in the West of Romania. I went several times there in the eighties and nineties, and I visited the Catholic church. A young priest was serving there, enthusiast and good hearted. I was once with some friends and the priest invited us in the rectory. We stayed for a conversation in a great salon, with a pianoforte in front of an impressive home library: I looked with emotion at the piano; once, long time ago, the fingers of Father Gerstenengst had touched its keys.

The Bergamasca of Frescobaldi is a work of great mastership: the composer succeeded in rendering the quirkiness, the awkwardness, of the dance, in a subtle way, which was far from simple. A lot of mastership is also needed to play it, and Frescobaldi made this warning: Chi questa Bergamasca sonarà, non poco imparerà! The ability to play this Bergamasca comes after much study!

Playing this organ work is reserved only for the happy few, and Father Gerstenengst was one of them.

Frescobaldi's Bergamasca is part of his Fiori Musicali, which sounds a bit curious: a secular dance included in a collection of liturgical music, near three great Masses! Well, at least Bergamasca hasn't remained alone: another secular tune (Girolmeta) keeps it company - two capriccios staying near Missa della Domenica, Missa degli Apostoli, and Missa della Madonna.

The collection was published in 1635 in Venice. Frescobaldi was by that time the organist of St. Peter Basilica in Rome; the three masses had been commissioned for a Venetian church (St. Mark's Basilica, according to some).

The Edinburgh manuscript, Shakespeare, Frescobaldi: history has known Bergamasca since Late Renaissance / Early Baroque. Of course the dance had much older beginnings: that region has been inhabited since the Celtic period.

And the story went on: the 18th century was the period of Rococo, when aristocrats discovered the charms of imitating the rustic life on an idyllic key. It was the epoch of Commedia dell'Arte, and of Fêtes Galantes, so outdoor parties with people fancy dressed and wearing masks were highly prized. Dances like Bergamasca got a new fame, as people were interested about buffoons, and about masks and bergamasks.

And now, if we've arrived at the Fêtes Galantes, it's Antoine Watteau who comes into picture. His works are a good case to argue for the differences between Rococo and the Baroque before: Baroque's grandeur (better said the self-awareness of grandeur) remained in the new period, while imbued with something mildly subversive. You also could think at the mischievous cunning hidden in the rustic Baroque of Bergamasca, however Rococo was another kind of an animal, so to speak: the pleasure, a bit perverse, to play like rustic while remaining an aristocrat. It was also a certain sadness hidden behind the manifest joy of life; looking like nostalgia, while being the opposite; a presentment that all this would end soon, that something terrible would come, erasing everything, and changing the social landscape forever. And the end came, as we know, with the French Revolution, that indeed erased everything.

Actually the whole Baroque with its grandeur, had the presentment of the end to come - I read once a very interesting essay authored by Costin Cazaban - a whole system of values was going to die, and the system reaction was to wrap itself in solemnity: a shield which of course would eventually prove as useless. Maybe I should come back to this later, as now I would go too far from the flow of the story.

Let's come back a bit to Watteau: here is a drawing by him; his skill in using the red and black and white, les trois crayons, is unpaired.

Antoine Watteau: Italian Comedians, ca. 1719
red, black, and white chalks, with stumping, on cream laid paper
Margaret Day Blake Collection
Art Institute of Chicago
no copyright infringement intended

Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard: I had the occasion to see some of their works later in life, when I was already in my late fifties. I will not forget the enjoyment a friend of mine had in front of a Boucher, we were visiting the Met, and her face got suddenly a special brightness; for me Rococo was linked to my own experiences, my journeys throughout the cultural space of Mitteleuropa, and I wouldn't mention any place here, as it should be a shame to forget all the other places: Rococo in Central Europe is pervasive.

And the story of the dance went on. In the last decades of the 19th century it came to Verlaine to discover other potentialities in Bergamasca. This time it was a different view; for him quirkiness looked rather as a hidden desire of evading from the prison of normality toward a world of dream (and the nostalgia of not attaining it): his poem, Clair de Lune - a line imagines charmant masques et bergamasques ... following with, tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

Your soul is as a moonlit landscape fair,
Peopled with maskers delicate and dim,
That play on lutes and dance and have an air
Of being sad in their fantastic trim.
The while they celebrate in minor strain
Triumphant love, effective enterprise,
They have an air of knowing all is vain,—
And through the quiet moonlight their songs rise,
The melancholy moonlight, sweet and lone,
That makes to dream the birds upon the tree,
And in their polished basins of white stone
The fountains tall to sob with ecstasy.

Judit Ekhard, drawing inspired by Verlaine's poem
no copyright infringement intended

Verlaine's Clair de Lune is part of his poetry collection Fêtes galantes, published in 1869. Were we to see it as a stage in the story of Bergamasca, we should be extremely cautious, as the relation between the dance and the poem is mediated through the universe of Rococo: the bergamasques mentioned by Verlaine are those from the Fêtes galantes imagined by Watteau in his paintings; Bergamo and Frescobaldi are far away.

So, speaking about new potentialities discovered by Verlaine in the dance from the North-Italian town has little to do with the dance itself: rather it's about the charm felt by the poet in imagining the way people from the epoch of Fêtes galantes were imagining on their turn the dancers and buffoons of Italy's 17th century.

It is interesting at this point to try a comparison between two composers who were inspired by the poetry of Verlaine and created suites bergamasques, to see which of them went closer to the spirit of the original dance: Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy. Each created a Clair de Lune, inspired by the poem of Verlaine, each continued by composing a whole suite, rendering the spirit of the whole collection of poetry, Fêtes galantes.

The Clair de Lune of Gabriel Fauré was composed in 1887, for voice and piano (the quintessential French mélodie, wrote Graham Johnson in his Gabriel Fauré - The Songs and Their Poets). The suite, Masques et bergamasques, would come much later: it was conceived originally as incidental music, to accompany a divertissment (on a scenario by René Fauchois, imagining a story from the Rococo period: members of a commedia del'arte troupe spying on the amorous endeavors of the aristocrats who were in attendance).

Initially Fauré's Masques et bergamasques comprised six sections (including Claire de Lune); it is now played as an autonomous orchestral suite, with only four sections: Ouverture, Menuet, Gavotte and Pastorale. I listened it several times; I especially like when it comes to that part in which the melody of the Menuet remains in some kind of basso ostinato.

Gabriel Fauré: Masques et bergamasques, Op. 112
Ouverture (from an abandoned 1869 symphony)
Menuet (from the abandoned 1869 symphony)

David Shallon and Orchestra dell Svizzera Italiana
(video by arta2005)

Fauré 's suite is all about Verlaine and Watteau; starting from the poetry of Verlaine, rendering it in the language of music, aiming to create a reenactment of an epoch expressed in the paintings of Watteau.

As for Debussy, he started from Verlaine too, while also being interested in capturing some from the original spirit of Bergamasca. The quirkiness of the North-Italian dance came into the dissonances of Debussy's Suite bergamasque: an early artwork mirrored in the audacity of a modern creator.

When Debussy composed his Claire de Lune in 1890, the tittle was different (Promenade sentimentale); the inspiration was another poem of Verlaine (from his first collection of poetry, Poèmes saturniens, the cycle of Paysages tristes). The whole Suite bergamasque was created in 1890; Debussy continued to work on each part of the suite for another fifteen years. In 1905 the Pavane had become a Passepied, and the Promenade sentimentale had changed into Claire de Lune, one of the most beautiful piano pages.

Sviatoslav Richter plays Debussy's Suite Bergamasque
1. Prélude
2. Menuet

(video by truecrypt)

Sviatoslav Richter plays Debussy's Suite Bergamasque
3. Clair de lune
4. Passepied

(video by truecrypt)

And the story of the dance goes on...

Bergomask scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream
Mikrokosmos production, 2007
no copyright infringement intended

(Old Masters)

(Paul Verlaine)

(Claude Debussy)

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