Introduction

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The Diary of One Who Disappeared is the title of a song cycle written by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. One of the purposes of this site is to act as a diary where I can keep a record of some of the things that I have spent my time doing, as well as memories that I want to preserve. The tabs above also contain some essays that I have written on subjects that interest me.

Although I am English I have disappeared from my native land and for the past two decades I have split my life between the south-west of France and the north-east of Italy. This has given me the opportunity to pursue a range of activities and interests including completing a PhD in social history, teaching art history and English in Italy, going to art exhibitions throughout Europe, attending concerts and operas by favourite composers such as Janáček, Mahler, Shostakovich and others, and travelling and exploring as much as possible.

The Well of Moses, Dijon

In Dijon, the capital of the Burgundy region of eastern France, to see the monumental sculpture known as the ‘Well of Moses’ (‘Puits de Moïse’), the masterpiece of the Dutch artist Claus Sluter. It was constructed between 1395–1403 for the Carthusian monastery of Chartreuse de Champmol, built as a burial site by the Burgundian Duke Philip the Bold.

‘Portrait of Philip the Bold’ (17th-century copy of a late 14th-century painting)

The structure was originally located in the central courtyard of the main cloister and consisted of four parts – the well, which was about four meters deep, the large hexagonal base, adorned with figures of prophets and angels, a terrace which sat on top of the pillar possibly containing the figures of a ‘Calvary’ scene, and a tall slender cross which rose from the centre.

Drawings of two possible reconstructions of the Well of Moses

Reconstruction in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon

Unfortunately, damage, mainly due to exposure to the weather, has meant that the cross has not survived and there are only fragments of the Calvary, now kept in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon. What is still intact is the hexagonal base with its sculptures of the six prophets who had foreseen the death of Christ on the Cross (Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah).

Claus Sluter ‘Well of Moses’ showing David and Jeremiah (1395 – 1403)

Also in the Musée des Beaux-Arts are casts of the busts of the prophets and angels, so these can be examined at close quarters.

Busts of the Prophets and Angels in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon

The tombs of Philip the Bold, his son, John the Fearless and John’s wife, Margaret of Bavaria have been moved from the Chartreuse de Champmol and are also now in the Musée.

Tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy

Renoir Rococo Revival

At the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, to see the exhibition ‘Renoir Rococo Revival’. Rococo painting underwent a revival in the nineteenth century, despite once having been considered frivolous. Renoir was aquainted with the style of Rococo artists such as Antoine Watteau, Baptiste Siméon Chardin, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard from his time as a porcelain painter in his home city of Limoges. His art later shared Rococo’s interest in certain subjects such as promenaders in the park and on the riverbank and the garden party. He also admired Rococo’s loose style of painting and its bright palette, both of which would influence him as well as other Impressionist artists.

The exhibition showed around 120 works by Renoir and his colleagues Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet and Berthe Morisot as well as examples of the Rococo art that inspired them.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ‘In Summer’ (1868)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze ‘La Vertu Chancelante’ (c.1775)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ‘The Promenade’ (1870)

Antoine Watteau ‘L’Embarquement pour Cythere’ (1717)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ‘The Swing’ (1876)

Jean-Baptiste Pater ‘Pastoral Festivity’ (c.1725 – 35)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ‘The Thinker’ (1876 – 77)

Antoine Watteau ‘Rosalba Carriera’ (1721)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ‘After the Luncheon’ (1879)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ‘Woman with a Fan’ (c.1879)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ‘Bathers with Crab’ (c.1890 – 99)

François Boucher ‘Diana after her Bath’ (1742)

Städel Museum, Frankfurt

At the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, to see the superb permanent collection which ranges from the early fourteenth century to contemporary art, including many paintings of international renown.

Fra Angelico ‘Madonna and Child with Twelve Angels’ (c.1420 – 30)

Robert Campin (Master of Flémalle) ‘The Trinity’ (c.1428 – 30)

Robert Campin (Master of Flémalle) ‘The Bad Thief on the Cross’ (c.1430)

Jan van Eyck ‘Lucca Madonna’ (c.1437)

Rogier van der Weyden ‘Medici Madonna’ (c.1453 – 60)

Hans Memling ‘Portrait of a Man wearing a High Red Cap’ (c.1470 – 75)

Sandro Botticelli ‘Simonetta Vespucci’ (c.1475)

Raphael and workshop ‘Portrait of Pope Julius II’ (1511 – 12)

Bartolomeo Veneto ‘Idealised Portrait of a Courtesan as Flora’ (c.1520)

Jan Vermeer ‘The Geographer’ (1669)

Claude Monet ‘The Luncheon’ (1868)

Max Liebermann ‘Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage’ (1881 – 82)

Ferdinand Hodler ‘Portrait of Hélène Weiglé’ (1888)

Pablo Picasso ‘Portrait of Fernande Olivier’ (1909)

Emil Nolde ‘Christ in the Underworld’ (1911)

Edvard Munch ‘Jealousy’ (1913)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner ‘Nude with Hat’ (1910, modified in 1920)

Otto Dix ‘The Artist’s Family’ (1927)

Baden-Baden and the Black Forest

In Baden-Baden, a beautiful belle-epoque style spa town in western Germany. Baden-Baden is a World Heritage Site and is a gateway to the Black Forest, an expanse of hills, lakes and forests that speads over 6,000 square kilometres.

Our host for eight days is the German documentary film maker, Harold Woetzel, whose numerous films include ‘Mozart in Mannheim’. His delightful house is a scenic walk away from the centre of Baden-Baden via the famous Lichtentaler Allee.

View of Baden-Baden from Mount Merkur

Lichtentaler Allee

It was also a wonderful opportunity to relax and walk around the forest area as well as to visit some of the picturesque towns in the area.

Gengenbach

Ottenhofen

Strasbourg

In Strasbourg, the prefecture and largest city of the Grand Est region of eastern France and the official seat of the European Parliament. The city’s historic centre is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also home to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, a spectacular Gothic structure that is one of the world’s largest. The construction of the cathedral began in 1015 and it was completed in 1439. It is so large that it can be seen all across the plains of Alsace and as far off as the Black Forest. It was described by Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.”

Strasbourg Cathedral

The city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts is located in the Palais Rohan, the former residence of the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan. It houses a fine collection of old master paintings, including works by Giotto, Botticelli, Carlo Crivelli, Filippino Lippi, Hans Memling and El Greco.

Giotto di Bondone ‘Crucifixion’ (c.1319 – 20)

Simon Marmion ‘The Christ of Pity’ (c.1460)

Botticelli ‘Virgin and Child with Two Angels’ (c.1468 – 69)

Hans Memling ‘Polyptych of Earthly Vanities and Heavenly Redemption’ (c.1485)

Raphael ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ (c.1520)

El Greco ‘Mater Dolorossa’ (c.1590 – 1600)

Canaletto ‘View of Santa Maria della Salute, from the entrance of the Great Canal’ (c.1727)

The Isenheim Altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum, Colmar

In Colmar, in the Alsace region of north-east France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece in the Unterlinden Museum. Colmar is an ancient town and was recorded as being the location of an assembly held by the Carolingian Emperor Charles the Fat in 884. It was granted the status of a free imperial city by Emperor Frederick II in 1226. It has a fascinating history; amongst other things it was the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty which France gifted to the United States of America in 1886. Colmar has an extremely well-preserved old town, with numerous architectural landmarks.

Little Venice area, Colmar

The Unterlinden Museum contains a major collection of medieval and early Renaissance art, in which Martin Schongauer, who was born in the town in 1448, is particularly prominent. Other artists represented include Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Holbein. There is also a modern collection with works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Georges Roualt, Pierre Bonnard, Robert Delaunay and Otto Dix.

Martin Schongauer ‘Retable d’Orlier’ (c.1472)

Hans Holbein the Elder ‘Portrait of a Woman’ (c.1515)

Lucas Cranach the Elder ‘Melancholy’ (1532)

However, the most spectacular work in the museum and the reason for my visit is the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald in 1512 –1516 for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar. The monastery was known for its care of plague sufferers as well as for the treatment of skin diseases, such as ergotism.The crucified Christ is depicted on the altarpiece with such a disease, indicating to sufferers that he understood and shared their affliction.

The altarpiece is a complex structure, with two sets of wings, meaning that three different configurations could be displayed. Except on holy days the wings were kept closed which meant that the usual view would be of the crucifixion, with Christ on the cross, his body covered with sores. The side panels depict Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows on the left and Saint Anthony on the right.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with wings closed

When the outer wings were opened for particular holy days, especially those concerning the Virgin, four different scenes were revealed: on the left is the Annunciation set in a chapel, in the centre are a concert of angels and the Nativity, whilst the right-hand panel shows the Resurrection.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with outer wings opened

When the inner wings are open, sculptures of Saints Augustine, Anthony and Jerome are visible, with Christ and the twelve Apostles below. These are flanked by paintings of, on the left, the Visit of Saint Anthony to Saint Paul the Hermit, and on the right, ‘Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons’. Saint Anthony has been beaten to the ground by the monstrous creatures but his appeals to God for help are answered by the arrival of angels.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with inner wings opened

The Beaune Altarpiece

In Beaune, in the Burgundy region of eastern France, to visit Les Hospices de Beaune, which was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, the wealthy chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, as a hospital for the poor and needy. It is one of the finest examples of fifteenth-century Burgundian architecture, particularly noted for its ornate rooftops with coloured glazed tiles.

Les Hospices de Beaune

Inside, the original hospital layout has been preserved, with the fifty-metre-long Salle des Pôvres furnished with two rows of curtained beds. At the end of this ward is the Chapel, which enabled the bedridden to attend Mass from their beds, and this was the original location of the polyptych altarpiece by Rogier van der Weydon, the purpose of my visit.

Salle de Povres

The altarpiece, commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, was painted c.1445 – 50, and consists of nine oak panels with fifteen paintings, as six panels are painted on both sides. The six rear paintings, of saints and donors, were only visible when the altarpiece was closed.

The inside panels contain scenes from the Last Judgement, with the large central panel depicting Christ seated on a rainbow in judgement, while below him Archangel Michael holds scales with which to weigh souls.The left-hand panel depicts the gates of Heaven, with the entrance to Hell on the right. Between these, the dead rise from their graves and move to their final destinations.

Rogier van der Weyden ‘Beaune altarpiece’ (c.1445 – 50) front panels

The wings of the rear panels contain depictions of the donors, Nicolas Rolin and his wife, Guigone de Salins, kneeling in front of their prayer books. (Jan van Eyck had earlier portrayed Rolin in his ‘Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” (c.1435)) The two lower central panels portray Saints Sebastian and Anthony, whilst the upper panels show an Annunciation scene, the four central panels all being in grisaille, borrowing from the Ghent Altarpiece.

Rogier van der Weyden ‘Beaune altarpiece’ (c.1445 – 50) rear panels

Festival de Pâques, Aix-en-Provence

Time once again for the Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival, over two weeks of glorious music making in the south of France. Following the success of last year, once again several of the concerts are being streamed live to a wider audience.

The opening evening of this year’s festival saw Canadian conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan leading the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. The concert opened with Hannigan singing Luigi Nono’s vocal work ‘Djamilia Boupacha’, in which Nono set to music a poem, ‘Esta Noche’ by Jesus Lopez Pacheco, about an Algerian girl who was brutally tortured by French troops and whose subsequent trial caused a worldwide sensation. Djamilia Boupacha became for many a symbol of Algeria’s fight for independence.

Hannigan then took up conducting duties for the rest of the concert, beginning with an excellent performance of Alban Berg’s ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’, dedicated to ‘the memory of an angel’, with soloist Christian Tetzlaff. Berg was moved to interrupt the writing of his opera ‘Lulu’ to complete this commission after the death from polio of eighteen-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, once Gustav Mahler’s wife. It was an extremely moving performance of the concerto, which combines the twelve-tone technique with a more tonal style, by the orchestra and German violinist Tetzlaff, which was much appreciated by the audience.

The second half of the concert was a sumpuous performance of Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D minor’, K.626, with the Choeur de Radio France joining the orchestra. Both the choir and soloists, soprano Johanna Wallroth, mezzo Adanya Dunn, tenor Charles Sy and bass Yannis François, were magnificent. I thought the Kyrie and Rex Tremendae were particularly notable.

The evening was an excellent start to the festival; with a packed hall proving that, whatever else is going on in the world, music, thankfully, never stops.

Charles Sy, Johanna Wallroth, conductor Barbara Hannigan, Adanya Dunn and Yannis François performing Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D minor’

Smetana, Bruch, Tchaikovsky

The second evening of the Aix festival, Saturday 9 April, saw the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice under Lionel Bringuier present a fascinating programme of Smetana, Bruch and Tchaikovsky.

The concert began with a rousing performance of Bedrich Smetana’s ‘Vltava’ (The Moldau) from his patriotic work ‘Ma Vlast’. The piece evokes the sounds of the river Moldou as it runs through the woods and meadows of thr Czech landscape. Instantly recognisable as Smetana’s best-known work it was sublimely played.

Lionel Bringuier conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice

This was followed by Max Bruch’s ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 1’, featuring the festival’s artistic director Renaud Capuçon. The concerto is one of the best-loved works for the instrument, although it is also one of the most difficult to play. However, it was performed with great passion by the soloist as well as the orchestra.

The second half brought an extremely well-played rendition of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony no. 5’. The first section of the opening movement was lively and spirited before becoming more tranquil before the second movement, beginning in B minor, brought a more sombre mood, although it was never gloomy. The third movement, a waltz, was elegently played, before the final movement began with a quite stately tempo but which then became more powerful before reaching the coda which, whilst thrilling, never went over the top. It was an excellent end to a thoroughly-enjoyable concert.

Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Tuesday 11 April brought the concert I had been most looking forward to – a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’. I was not disappointed – it was superbly played by the quartet of Renaud Capuçon, violin, Kian Soltani, cello, Pascal Moragues, clarinet and Hélène Mercier, piano.

The work was written by Messiaen in the most difficult circumstances imaginable – in Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner of war camp, during the winter of 1941. He wrote it for the only instruments available in the camp – piano, violin, cello and clarinet. Its eight movements are a mixture of solos and duets, one trio and in only four of the movements do all the instruments feature.

It is a deeply expressive work and the Aix quartet certainly did it justice. The final movement, ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus’ for violin and piano was particularly beautifully played.

Renaud Capuçon, Hélène Mercier, Kian Soltani and Pascal Moragues