On Rembrandt and His Musical Admirer

On October 4, 350 years will have passed since the death of the Dutch Baroque painter and printmaker who loved light, darkness, and mystery: Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669).

The musical side of Rembrandt — his baptismal name and his signature — can be glamorous. In some of his paintings, he portrays himself as a singer, a flutist, and perhaps even a harpist. There are numerous contacts with the major organists and composers of his time such as the Dutch J.P. Sweelinck. Musical elements often appear in his works, and some are paintings of musical representation.

Two in particular, David Playing the Harp for Saul (1629) and Saul and David (1665), have the same subject and refer to the episode narrated in the First Book of Samuel (16:14–23, and 18, 10–11). David’s harp, the future “hero of Israel’s songs” (2 Sam. 23:1), calms the “evil spirit” of Saul, Israel’s first king, and changes him into another man — just as Gregorian chant, as pointed out by the Church, mother and teacher, as proper to her liturgy, is music that descends from Heaven and can infuse joy and hope into the heart. The Saul of the first painting is “impatient, fierce, incensed, and turbulent” (V. Alfieri, Saul, Act II, Scene I), the second one darkly absorbed in his obsession.

Besides being a great painter, Rembrandt was a skillful printmaker. Among his more than a thousand sheets, The Three Crosses, a print in etching and drypoint (created directly on a copper plate) dating back to 1653, is famous. Frank Martin (1890–1974), one of the foremost Swiss composers of the last century, came across this wonderful etching:

In the spring of 1945, an exhibition in our Museum of Fine Arts has allowed us to admire a wonderful collection of etchings by Rembrandt. Among so many masterpieces I was particularly … struck by three “impressions”, each different from the other, of a vision of Calvary, under the general title The Three Crosses. … From that moment I was haunted by the idea of realizing in my own medium an image of the Passion. But in the first place the magnitude of the subject made me doubt my own powers, and in the second place I did not know in what concrete form to realize this aim. I would have liked to have concentrated the entire terrible and magnificent drama in one short work, just as Rembrandt had done it in his modest little rectangle of paper. (Frank Martin, A propos de… Commentaires de Frank Martin sur ses œuvres, Neuchâtel, La Baconnière, 1984, p. 70)

Thus, being a too brief form considered quickly inadequate, a grandiose musical fresco was born in the immediate postwar period, between 1945 and 1948: Golgotha, oratorio in 2 parts for 5 vocal soloists, mixed choir, organ, and orchestra.

Rather than recounting Jesus’s martyrdom and death, as happens, for example, in those masterpieces by J.S. Bach, which are the two Passions, Martin intends to revive the drama and concentrate all attention on the figure of Christ, just as is done in the Rembrandt etching.  In fact, the only two interlocutors of Christ are the High Priest and Pilate.

The texts in French are passages from the Gospels alternated with comments taken from some Meditations of St. Augustine. This large-scale composition is divided into two parts, each lasting about 45 minutes, which recall the events between Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and His resurrection. Besides the main role of Jesus, baritone, there are solo parts for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

The first part begins with the chorus that, with strength and intensity, sings: “Father! How far hast Thou, good Father, loved us all!”

Then Jesus enters the Holy City and is hailed by the crowds in Jerusalem. After the Hosanna of the four soloists and the chorus, we hear Jesus for the first time: “And now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say?” This second scene closes with a most beautiful chorus, marked in the full score dolce e cantabile (sweetly and in a singing style), which sings a text by St. Augustine: “How far, my beloved Redeemer … wilt Thou humble Thyself for us sinners?”

In the next scene, Jesus teaches in the temple and denounces the Pharisees and scribes as hypocrites. “When, oh when, shall I be happy and see that blessed day, and see Thy beauty and Thy glory? When wilt Thou come to me, my sole strength in my distress?” the soprano notes, according to the word of the bishop of Hippo.

Then The Last Supper concludes the first part with the scene of Gethsemane. The chorus is silent here; alto and tenore soli, as narrators, perform short phrases alternating with brief interventions from Our Lord. At the end of the scene, after Jesus’s arrest, the chorus sings another Augustinian fragment: “Behold, the Holy Lamb who is betrayed by sinners.”

The second part opens with the alto solo, who expresses the distress of the abandoned soul; the chorus, in consolation, answers her questions with the word from Psalm 121 (120): “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains. … My help comes from the Lord.”

The following scene depicts Jesus before the Jewish High Court. A touching moment for female choir, with soprano and alto soli, still from the writings of the greatest Father of the Latin Church, follows the condemnation by the High Priest: “Divine Savior, how could they have judged you worthy of this unmerciful abuse?”

The following scene, Jesus before Pilate, concludes with the chorus, marked in the full score sourd et violent, which shouts: “Crucify him!”

The scene on Calvary follows, in which the lower voices of the chorus, alternating with the few words of Christ, tell of Jesus’s crucifixion according to Saint John. At the last words of the Redeemer, “It is finished,” the chorus without sopranos sings: “And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.” A tenor solo leads us to the final chorus of the oratorio, a fortissimo (very loudly): “Where, O death, is your sting?”

The finale, with a rather elaborate vocal writing, bursts into the joy of the Resurrection — a moving conclusion to a work clearly composed with so much ardor and with deep faith.

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