19 January 2019

"Where were you when ...?"

Charles Ryder remarks
"Since the days when, as a schoolboy, I used to bicycle round the neighbouring parishes, rubbing brasses and photographing fonts, I had nursed a love of architecture, but ... my sentiments at heart were insular and medieval. [Brideshead] was my conversion to the Baroque. Here, under that high and insolent dome, under those coffered ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat [drawing], hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones, was indeed a life-giving spring."

Where were you when you first were struck dumb and breathless at the wonder of the baroque? In my case, it was walking along the riverside at Greenwich, when we got to the water-steps and I turned to look through the gates and up the hill between the Hall and Chapel to the Queen's House. Mind you, I had met the rococo before I even entered my teens, in Bavaria and the Tyrol, where, to my childish eyes, every little village church was a magical wonderland.

Paradoxically, it was among the Gothic perfections of Lancing that I first really understood the baroque. A little of this was the experience of handling it: saying once a week a Latin Mass before a crucifix, Bavarian, 1620s, ebony and silver, using an early baroque portuguese chalice crawling with putti. But mostly, it was reading Ovid's Metamorphoses with the VI Form. That is how I first plunged into the spirit of the baroque; its never-failing inventiveness, its exuberant fun, its intriguing intertextualities, its antitheses and syntheses, its endless teases and surprises, the way it offers you a permanent ticket to a country of exquisite delight.

Above all, the baroque makes it easier, indeed very easy if not compulsory, to be an orthodox and Catholic Christian. Nobody who is formed by the baroque delight in paradox will have any difficulty believing that a Bethehem Bambino is God; or that the round white disk winking at us among the sunbeams of the monstrance is the Power that made the galaxies.


Sue Sims said...

I was 14 and spending part of my summer holidays staying with German friends in Bavaria. My host's daughter's fiance (sorry, can't do accents) was a Bach fan, and they took me to a concert of Bach chorales at Ottobeuren. I spent the entire concert just trying to take in the glories of that church.

Zephyrinus said...

Dear Fr. How beautifully put.

Deo Gratias.

Grant Milburn said...

Sue Sims, it's interesting that you should mention Ottobeuren. I was thinking of Ottobeuren while reading Father's post. I'm a Kiwi, and we have Neo-gothic and Modern, but little Baroque. I think my conversion came while watching a YouTube video of Leonard Bernstein in 1985 conducting Haydn’s Missa in Tempore Bello in the Ottobeuren Basilica. (A concert performance, but still an auditory and visual feast.) And yes, Charles Ryder’s experience came to mind.

Bernstein makes some interesting comments before the start of the concert:

“Interviewer: What is your impression of the Ottobeuren Basilica?

Bernstein: Well, it's extraordinary. It's impressive. It also, once in a while, gives the impression of having gone too far. But I think that the impression is caused by its, not having gone too far, or being what one would call kitsch….or overdone, as in the strange alliance, which I think one finds mainly in the Bavarian area of Europe, which is a combination of the Baroque and Rococo, which meet head on and unite in some way….

How does it feel to conduct a Haydn Mass in this setting? It feels perfect ['teleia’ says the Modern Greek subtitle.]….if I had to imagine this Haydn Mass visually and translate it into architectural terms,.....or in decorative terms, painting, this is what I would imagine. It IS the Haydn Mass. Because the structure of the place is, in its Baroque strength and being based on the Roman Basilica to begin with, a very strong structural basis on which to overlay in a way all the Rococo stuff. It's marvellous! And that is the equivalent of the decorative element in Haydn….that is overlaid, appliqued onto the tremendously strong classical structure, formal structure.”

I suppose you could say that Ovid takes that strong classical structure of Vergil, and adds colour, decoration and delight. I'm slowly cribbing my way through the Loeb edition of the Metamorphoses. (I have small Latin and less Greek.) Marvellous! But from time to time his style starts to weary me, and I take a break.

Grant Milburn said...

I mean Missa in Tempore Belli. I do know that much Latin.

Grant Milburn said...

"Deeply impressive.""Perfectly marvellous!"(Thavmasia [Thaumasia] says the M. Greek subtitle). I inadvertently omitted some of Bernstein's enthusiastic adverbs for the Baroque.

Banshee said...

You have Baroque? And you have Gothic too? Real examples of artifacts and buildings, not pretend ones, in close proximity to each other, without going to an art museum?

Heh, sometimes you are so European. Closest Baroque church I can think of is in Mexico City, or maybe Quebec.

(This is of course why a lot of rich Americans once did that thing where they'd buy entire buildings and ship them home. One of the Walmart heirs has set up a latter-day version, an architectural museum of whole buildings, down in Arkansas.)

Rob said...

I was in Vilnius. Baroque crowned many of the city's churches with its own lasting form, "Vilnius Baroque."
The Bernardine monastery of S Francis.
The church of Ss John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.
S Theresa of Avila.
The Dominican church of the Holy Spirit. The Russian Orthodox church of the Same.
The church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross.
The list goes on...

John Patrick said...

Listening to JS Bach in music class in high school. In retrospect I think that the St. Matthew Passion may have been the beginning of a 30 year process that led me back to the Catholic Church.

jaykay said...

For me, as a Gothic fan in my teens, I think it was buying the Thames and Hudson books on Wren and Hawksmoor in my early 20s that first gave me a real understanding, before I got into the European scene. The London skyline with all the glorious steeples, presided over by St. Paul's, as depicted in engravings really moved me as an exercise in planned Beauty. Then, aged about 22/23, I first visited Rome and totally submersed myself at many of the sources. That, for me, as a Catholic, albeit a bit of a wonky one, being a 60s child, was the defining moment. I still love Gothic, but for me Baroque is it, both architecturally and musically.