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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 15 JANUARY 2016 — A magnificent exhibition, Le Triomphe de la Musique, is being shown at the Philharmonie in the French capital in conjunction with a weekend of music including Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Firebird, followed by an afternoon’s concert-promenade given by musicians of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris interpreting works from Mozart to Shostakovitch,

Those familiar with the paintings of the Russian/French painter, Marc Chagall, born in 1887,  will have long recognized the preponderance of violins in his work, symbolic of his early childhood in the shtetl of Vitebsk. He grew up with the music of the Hassidic religious rites and the Russian/Jewish culture of his home town where his uncle played the violin, his brother and sister played the mandolin, while his grandfather and mother sang Jewish songs. From 1910 onwards, religious marriages and scenes from the synagogue, popular travelling bands and violinists, flutists and mandolin players figured largely in his works which gradually began to encompass dance. He created scenery and costumes for the Moscow State Jewish Theatre in 1919, designed Aleko for Massine in 1942, The Firebird for Bolm/Fokine in 1949, and Daphnis and Chloe for Lifar in 1958 which led on to a commission to paint the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris, home of the Paris Opera Ballet, inaugurated in 1964. The decorative scheme for the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center in New York was completed in 1966, followed by the costumes and décor of the opera, The Magic Flute the following year.

Marc Chagall: La Musique
First panel for the State Jewish Theatre, 1920
Tempera, gouache, white clay on canvas
Tretiakov National Gallery, Moscow 
©ADAGP, Paris, 2015

Music, omnipresent in his work, was a constant source of inspiration closely linked as it was to his family world, but he also attended concerts in Paris, Nice and St Petersburg where he saw the Ballets Russes. He was not known to play an instrument himself, but he would listen to classical music, particularly to Mozart, while painting. "The two wonders of the world", he said, "are the bible and Mozart’s music … the third is love".

The exhibition with its reversed chronology presents some 270 paintings, designs, drawings, costumes and sculptures, beginning with the monumental ceiling of the Palais Garnier**, completed when Chagall was 77, thus emphasising his passion for music. It throws light on all his earlier paintings showing how he used materials and colours to create sounds as well as visual beauty. The opera ceiling was a very personal musical pantheon, paying tribute to not only the artist’s favourite composers of operas and ballets, but also to the works of Rameau and Debussy which were rarely played fifty years ago.

A large area is devoted to the ceiling, with one entire wall taken up with a spectacular round, moving film, over five meters in diameter which was developed by the Institut Culturel Google in Paris. It allows the visitor to see all the details close to, details which are not always apparent from a distance, even when standing in the amphitheater of the Palais Garnier itself. In addition, Mikhail Rudy, the musical director who was close to Chagall in his later years, created a musical mix  chosen from each composer evoked on the painting which Chagall divided into five sections. Divine music thus greets the fortunate visitor on arrival.

Marc Chagall working on the ceiling of the Paris Opera
Tchaikovsky and Adam section
Atelier des Gobelins, 1964
© Adagp, Paris 2015
Photo Izis © Izis-Manuel Bidermanas

The blue area is attributed to Mussorgsky and Boris Godounov, the green to Wagner and Berlioz with Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet respectively, while Rameau, (with strong associations to the Palais Garnier), is presented in white alongside Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande. Tchaikovsky and Swan Lake, together with Adam and Giselle are present on the yellow section, while red corresponds to Ravel and Stravinsky, with Daphnis and Chloe and Firebird. Beethoven, with Fidelio, Gluck with Orpheus and Eurydice, Bizet with Carmen, the heroine dancing to the tune of a guitar played by a bull, and finally Verdi and the heroines of his operas are visible on the inner ring. The bouquet of flowers carried by the angel symbolizes all the glorious works of the composers.  It was a most moving experience to stand next to so much explosive colour, to such an intricate decorative scheme devoted to music and the arts.  

The themes in the painting are those which had occurred in his work over the preceding years, the culmination of what must have been in his head since the 1920’s. Over 50 experimental sketches, in crayon, ink or water colours, many of which are shown in the exhibition, were completed over the course of a year before the final work was painted on a surface of 220 square meters and assembled in a warehouse outside Paris before being positioned onto the Opera ceiling. Photographs of Chagall putting the final touches abound.

In a second room, the painting Commedia del Arte, created in 1958 for the foyer of the theatre of Francfort, represents a circus ring at the centre of which is a creature with a human body and horse’s head playing the violin. There’s a cockerel, wide-eyed and alert at the bottom of the work, symbolic of the world’s awakening while the conductor of the orchestra at the top could be Chagall himself. The theme of a circus with all its noise including the harlequin fiddler, the balancing acrobats and the girl swinging on the trapeze, together with that of music, occurred regularly in his work.

Marc Chagall: Commedia dell’Arte, 1958
Oil on canvas
Adolf and Luisa Haeuser Collection, Frankfurt
©ADAGP, Paris, 2015

By the 1960’s, such was the popularity of the Russian-born artist in the U.S., that two immense canvases, 9 meters by 11 with the theme of musical creation, Le Triomphe de la Musique and Les Sources de la Musique were commissioned by Rudolf Bing for the foyer of the newly constructed Lincoln Center of New York as well as the scenery and costumes of The Magic Flute, given in 1967.

The predominantly yellow panel of Les Sources de la Musique represents King David with a double profile. He is playing the harp in the midst of a composition inhabited by musicians, animals and angels, evoking the scenery for The Magic Flute, created at the same time. The incandescent red panel represents a victorious angel blowing a trumpet in the midst of a whirlwind, sweeping up musicians, orchestra, dancers and phantasmagorical animals in its wake. Both panels were painted in the Gobelins workshop in Paris before being shipped to New York, where they were inadvertently inverted by mistake.
Chagall’s research into Mozart’s music, evident in the section on the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris, was extended with the commission from Bing for the costumes and scenery for the new production of The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera. The fairy-tale universe of dark and light that he created throws light on his love for Mozart, for the beauty of the music as well as for the spiritual nature of Tamino’s quest. After listening repeatedly to the score the preceding year, the 120 costumes he created, full of colour and ornate details, intrinsically follow the opera, and were pronounced, by the director, Gunther Rennert, as "fantastic". The production, a perfect synthesis of visual beauty and Mozart’s music, was a triumph, as were his creations for Firebird, two decades earlier.

Marc Chagall: Final sketch for the mural painting of the
Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Art Center, New York :
Le Triomphe de la musique, 1966
Tempera, gouache et collage sur papier marouflé sur papier coréen
Private collection
©ADAGP, Paris, 2015

Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird, the Russian fairy-story telling of Prince Ivan who captures the mysterious Firebird who, in return for her freedom, subsequently helps him to rescue the princess he is in love with,  is one of the most haunting of all.  Walking around the exhibits to the extracts chosen, "Prélude et Danse de l’Oiseau de Feu", "Variations", "Danse Infernale", ending with "Hymne final" to a recording by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra directed by Igor Stravinsky himself, one was immediately taken off to the Enchanted Forest. Chagall’s amazing costumes were used by Bolm in 1945 and again by Balanchine 4 years later, while the magical backcloth portrays the captive princess being rescued by the enchanted bird. The two of them again form a single figure, true to the double profile dear to the artist. The costumes for the ballet as well as for Aleko, in Mexico, were also inspired in part by his stay there in 1942.

An interesting anecdote is that just before the dancers went on stage for the première, the artist intervened and added patches of colour to their costumes, delving into the pulsating rhythms and shimmering tones of Stravinsky’s music.

These shimmering tones were to resurface some ten years later, when after trips to Greece in 52 and 54, the brilliant luminosity and the deep blues of the Agean sea were reflected in the costumes and scenery for a new version of Fokine’s 1919 ballet, Daphnis and Chloe, to a score by Ravel, commissioned for the Paris Opera Ballet. The visitor can not only stroll around the costumes Chagall designed, but can also watch a 2004 film of a pas de deux from the work, taken from a gala in honour of Claude Bessy, who created the role of Chloe in 1958. In the extract from the third tableau of the ballet, one can enjoy Marie-Agnès Gilliot and Yann Saiz, both members of the French company, in the costumes designed by Marc Chagall.

Concluding this sumptuous exhibition was the immense panel, L’Introduction au Theatre juif, Chagall’s first monumental work, conceived in 1920 for the Théatre de l’art juif of Moscow. On the left of the work, a violinist is jumping in the air, running towards a green goat, while behind him are actors, dancers, a headless violin player and a flutist with a head. On the right-hand side there is a group of acrobats, and yet another violinist, hatted this time, in a square of red.  When one has seen the later works, it is easy to spot Chagall’s ceaseless search for rhythm and movement in which colour, particularly in his later years, accentuates the musicality of the compositions.

Marc Chagall: Le Cirque bleu, 1950-52
Oil on linen canvas
Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
en dépôt au Musée national Marc Chagall, Nice
©ADAGP, Paris, 2015 
Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée Marc Chagall) / Gérard Blot

And while the themes of circus, dance and musicians may well be used as a metaphor for the rise of political perils, with much of his work full of symbolism, the over-riding feature is his love of music. One leaves the Philharmonie uplifted, full of the beauty of the universe, a sentiment more than necessary in these troubled times. One can only be thankful for the intelligence, time and love that Commissaire Ambre Gauthier, and musical director Mikhail Rudy put into the staging of this superb exhibition dedicated to Sylvie Forestier, the initiator of the project.*

*Sylvie Forestier’s sudden death prevented her from continuing with the project.

**Commissioned by the French Cultural minister, André Malraux, the painted ceiling which was to cover the original one by Lenepveu, dating back to 1869/1871, caused an enormous scandal at the time. Despite its splendor, Vandalism! cried those who compared it to "putting a curly blond wig on the head of a hundred year old man". Truth be told, the criticism being directed more at the fact it disturbed the architectural coherence of the building, the ceiling today, stunningly beautiful, is one of the opéra’s greatest attractions. The Lenepveu work remains there, underneath.

Marc Chagall - The Triumph of Music
Through 31 January 2016
Philharmonie de Paris
221 avenue Jean-Jaurès
75019 Paris
Tel: 33 (1) 44 84 44 84

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Palais Garnier Reopens

DVD Review: Stravinsky and Les Ballets Russes

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