L'Asie d'après Tiepolo
24/04/2009 - Witten (Germany), Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik - Ensemble Recherche
Between 1752 and 1753, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo decorated the immense vault of the Great Stairwell in the Würzburg Residence, which had been built under the supervision of Balthasar Neumann, architect-engineer for the Schönborn family, principal architect of the Prince-Bishop. After the Peace of Utrecht, Count Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn undertook one of the period's most ambitious building sites, the Würzburg Castle, entrusting it to Neumann in 1719. Neumann's originality consisted of a geometric vision particularly suited to conceiving and combining volumes, and of organizing surfaces and effects of depth. Neumann had been trained as an artilleryman and military engineer, and cultivated a passion for lotharing synthesis, when not taken up by projects of "grand European architecture". A distant heir of Guarini, he brought innovative reflection about structures further than any other German architect and resolved problems of space by what art historians call "syncopated interpenetration". Neumann liked amplitude, not picturesque pomp. In Würzburg, he wanted to build, a grandiose edifice of universal importance.
In 1752, the Prince-Bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenklau entrusted Tiepolo with painting the monumental frescos decorating the vault of the main stairwell (30 x 18 m) into a gigantic ellipse, where the painter depicted Olympus and the Four Continents. Tiepolo carried out his task in two hundred and eighteen days of work. The fresco - with Giandomenico Tiepolo, Urlaub and perhaps even Lorenzo Tiepolo contributing to the painting - is signed on the cornice beneath Asia and dated 1753. The view of the entire ceiling, with distortion on the outer edges due to perspective, centres on the triumphant figure of Apollo, god of light, in an open sky. It is a mythological representation of sunrise. This vision of Olympus gives rise to an overwhelming, vertiginous impression of aerial emergence from the depths. On the cornice, Tiepolo depicts the Four Parts of the Word. The allegory of Africa is located in the East, on the interior side. Asia lies to the West, adorning the longitudinal side that leads onto the cour d'honneur. Three windows in the western wall open onto a sweeping horizon.
The allegory of Asia - emblem of science and of the monarchy - appears in a ceremonial costume, sitting side-saddle on an elephant and decked in sumptuous jewels. The figure is scholarly, engaged in a twisting movement. The Asian frieze remains an enigma and the symbolic signification of the various characters in the group at the obelisk has, for example, not yet been entirely elucidated. Historical worlds coexist or affront each other: we remark the Golgotha, stone hieroglyphics, Esculape's snake, the obelisk, a pyramid and princess of Egypt, the capture of a tigress and a parrot as illustration of the fauna, and above all, in the foreground, the mass of chained slaves, prisoners lying on the ground or prostrate subjects. This unclear aspect of the frieze has furthermore retained the attention of commentators. The presence of a soldierly escort no doubt makes reference to the military importance of the continent, but it is obviously the theme of captivity that is treated here, together with that of voluntary servitude.
A new atmosphere pervades this last frieze: dramatic pallid figures, fragmented distances, bitterly realistic situations, a confusion of distorted anonymous bodies. An immaterial wind seems to blow everything over, carrying off everything in its passage, in the urgency of pressing necessity. Asia brings Rembrandt's engravings to mind, with a style reminiscent of the twenty-four hallucinating etchings - Scherzi di fantasia (1739-1757) - by Tiepolo himself and prefiguring Goya's Caprices. The formal principal of this monumental fresco seems to be the capriccio: a fantastic assemblage of ill-assorted elements, an unusual reconstruction of engulfed worlds, a morbid evocation of prison spaces.
I consider Tiepolo's Asia as a sort of preliminary manifesto for the music of our time: a world deprived of colour that functions in brown and in grey, nevertheless dominated by a form of expressive acceleration. Tiepolo has set down a sort of poetic art for music of the future. In it we discover a range of speeds, a spectre of speeds, turbulent areas, unstable mechanisms, an interlacing of axes and loops. Flux, swivelling, lateral tensions, dilations, projections, and degrees of distance are the new categories of this poetic art. The principal idea is the necessity of initial association with the elementary gestures that dominate contemplation of the always secondary spectres of variation.
My own Asie d'après Tiepolo was commissioned by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk and Ensemble Recherche, with support from the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung. The sequel to Afrique, it was premiered under the same auspices at Witten in 2005. For Asie, I used a large range of new types of percussion instruments (chromatic scales with Philippine gongs, cow bells, and Japanese rin). I again used the procedure of paradoxical temporalities from Saturne, consisting of returning to a metric and metronomic measurement in common with the speeds of progression, and very different types of development and writing. The first part of the piece systematically uses woodwind multiphonics, in the manner of an electronic continuum. The end, calmer, revolves around a duet between contrabass clarinet and marimba, using bowing to obtain melody. The piano maintains a central role from beginning to end, in a sort of acoustic vehemence that never reaches subjective formulation. The strings are treated in trio style, with dense and jerky textures.
translated from the French by Jacqueline Rose
1 CD Kairos (KAI0013142)
Hugues Dufourt: L'Afrique et l'Asie d'après Tiepolo