One of them, stone by stone, followed me across the Atlantic a score of years later, and got itself set up within convenient reach of me when I most needed to see what a cloister looked like, and what kind of place a man might live in, to live according to his rational nature and not like a stray dog. St. Michel-de-Cuxa is all fixed up in a special and considerably tidy little museum in an uptown park, in New York, overlooking the Hudson River, in such a way that you don't recall what kind of city you are in. It is called The Cloisters. Synthetic as it is, it still preserves enough of its own reality to be a reproach to everything else around it, except the trees and the Palisades.That is Thomas Merton writing in his early autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. He was born in the Catalonian town of Prades a short distance from the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, which is seen in my accompanying photos. During the French Revolution much of the Romanesque abbey, including the cloisters, was destroyed and the materials were used for building local houses. Substantial parts of the cloisters were purchased by the American sculptor George Gray Barnard in the 1930s and shipped to New York to become the centrepiece of the Cloisters Museum, now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There are important musical connections to the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. It was abandoned as a ruin until 1950 and Pablo Casals played his first public concert in the then roofless abbey church after leaving Spain as an exile. His Bach Festivals were held there in 1952 and 1953 and the tireless efforts of the Catalan cellist were largely responsible for attracting the funds for the building's restoration.
There are are also important musical links to the portion of the Abbey of St. Michel-de-Cuxa that followed Thomas Merton to New York City. In 1958 the The Play of Daniel was premiered in the Cloisters Museum by the pioneering early music ensemble Pro Musica. This piece of creative scholarship was the brainchild of early music champion and political activist Noah Greenberg. The Play of Daniel had no aspirations to authenticity and featured a Lincoln Kirstein staging complete with prancing lions and fire eater, and the modern edition of the medieval score was linked by an English verse narrative by W.H. Auden delivered by an actor dressed as a monk. But The Play of Daniel was box office and went on to become a best selling record and was performed many times in America and overseas by Pro Musica.
Those magic words 'box office' take us from the past to the future of classical music. Pablo Casals' music making reached millions because of its passion rather than its authenticity and this was also the case with Noah Greenberg's The Play of Daniel. Just yesterday an email arrived from someone who combines a passion for classical music with the ability to question its often silly conventions. Fellow blogger Antoine Leboyer did not write the email for publication, but it raises such an important question that I am quoting from it with his permission:
When you think about it, the classics have always rebounded because of advancement in aesthetic conceptions. In his time, Karajan’s legato was a controversial novelty, same for “objective” readings by the likes of Boulez (and before him Klemperer ?) …This typically discursive path takes us from Thomas Merton to the Berlin Philarmonic with the basso continuo supplied by a Romanseque abbey in France. But it is an important path that links to recent debates about amplification and sound shaping, and even about funding, because Pro Musica received a Ford Foundation grant of $465,000 dollars to continue its work.
The equivalent for these days should be baroque players but I feel that there is a difference in their contribution. Most of the players are very very dogmatic and tend to apply their principles too much beyond baroque composers. Interpretation is subordinated to strict adherence to certain performance principles, no vibrato (glassy string sound …) , fast tempi with lots of rubato, … Baroque contribution should have been a more theatrical feeling to instrumental music or certain different harmonies and inner voices, not what we have. These days, the Berlin Phiharmonic and others are just trying to mimic baroque practices. This just does not make any sense.
Do not baroque players have their share of responsibility for classical music's current problems?
Classical music often reaches its largest audiences when it combines impeccable scholarship with interpretative freedom. Is Antoine Leboyer right in saying that musicians today are too dogmatic? Do we need more of Noah Greenberg's style of creative scholarship? Do we have the balance between authentic and synthetic wrong? Can classical music learn from Thomas Merton's words about the Cloisters Museum? - "Synthetic as it is, it still preserves enough of its own reality to be a reproach to everything else around it."
* Harry Haskell's The Early Music Revival (ISBN 0486291626) was used a source on Noah Greenberg's The Play of Daniel.
** Hear Bach without baroque practices in a podcast of my musical homage to Catalonia which includes Pablo Casals' 1950 recording of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto complete with piano solo and other delicous examples of creative scholarship. Listen here.
*** A new recording of The Play of Daniel by the Dufay Collective was released in 2008.
Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010 Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). I have made some minor edits to the extract from Antoine Leboyer's email to add clarity. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk