David Matthews composer

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Titian's Flaying of Marsyas as a Metaphor of Transformation

Originally published in The Salisbury Review, 1993

In an essay in his collection Along the Road, Aldous Huxley describes a visit to Borgo San Sepolcro in Tuscany to see what he believed to be the greatest painting in the world: Piero della Francesca's Resurrection. To single out one picture from the relatively small number of supreme masterpieces is a matter of personal taste. While acknowledging the claims of Piero, I would give the ultimate accolade to a panting that spends most of its life in an equally obscure European gallery, in the archbishops' palace at Kroměříž, near Brno in the Czech Republic, but whose travels to major cities over the past 25 years have brought it to the attention and admiration of many more people than can have seen it during the previous 300 years: Titian's Flaying of Marsyas.

The Flaying of Marsyas is one of Titian's last paintings: it dates from the 1570s, when he was in his late 80s, and it was in his studio when he died. It shows the freedom of his late style, when according to Vasari he used his fingers as well as a brush. His free technique here anticipates Rembrandt, Turner, the Impressionists and even the Abstract Expressionists: the bottom left-hand corner in isolation, for instance, looks rather like a Jackson Pollock. Critics who claim that it is unfinished have perhaps misunderstood the need of some great painters in their late works to use the mastery of technique they have acquired to break free, almost to improvise in paint (I am thinking in particular of Monet as well as Titian here).

On the face of it, this is a horrifying painting. Marsyas, a satyr, is being flayed as a punishment for losing the musical competition with Apollo that he rashly initiated when he challenged the god who was, of course, the supreme master of the lyre. As the myth tells it, Marsyas discovered one day a reed pipe, an αὐλός, which had been discarded by Athene because the other gods had laughed at her when she puffed up her cheeks trying to play it. Marsyas picked up the pipe, learned how to play it and became so confident that he challenged Apollo to a musical duel. Midas, the figure in the bottom right of the painting, was appointed judge. According to some accounts Apollo won because, rather unfairly, he resorted to playing his instrument upside down, which Marsyas could not do. In any case, Apollo was judged to be the winner, and Marsyas received the punishment that Apollo decreed. One version of the myth, however, has a satisfyingly redemptive end, for, it tells, Marsyas' blood became a river on the banks of which reeds grew, from which men cut pipes, and so his music continues.

Marsyas played the αὐλός, but Titian shows his instrument as panpipes, σῦριγξ. Both instruments were associated with Dionysus; both came from Asia unlike the purely Hellenic lyre; both were therefore slightly suspect at first (and were disapproved of, for instance, by Plato in his Republic, as was the cult of Dionysus itself, for good reasons, as Euripides' Bacchae makes clear). Apollo, in the painting, plays the lira da braccio, a Renaissance precursor of the violin. At least I'm assuming that this is meant to be Apollo, for the figure on the left who is carrying out the flaying must also be Apollo, as he wears a laurel wreath. I'm inclined to think that Titian gives us two representations of Apollo here.

If you look carefully at the flaying, you will see that it is being carried out lovingly. Marsyas is smiling. The whole painting in fact radiates a sense of calm, as if it depicts a healing process rather than an act of brutality. And this is indeed what it is. We should note how, for instance, the musician Apollo's bow parallels the knife that the man with the hat holds. What I noticed first about the painting - and led me to compose a piece for oboe and string quartet based on it - is how music plays the strongest part in the redemptive process: it is the music that Apollo is felt to be playing that engenders the deepest sense of calm, and contributes most to the profundity of the whole composition. Notice too how Apollo's violin almost touches Marsyas' panpipes, and how Apollo seems to look towards them in particular: in this way, the two instruments are brought together.

I want to quote here a passage from Edgar Wind's book Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. He says: "The musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas was therefore concerned with the relative powers of Dionysian darkness and Apollonian clarity; and if the contest ended with the flaying of Marsyas, it was because flaying was itself a Dionysian rite, a tragic ordeal of purification by which the ugliness of the outward man was thrown off and the beauty of his inward self revealed." Marsyas represents the pure Dionysian aspect of art, which must be tamed by the blending of the Apollonian aspect with it. From that union, Titian seems to be saying, true art, true wisdom, will come. So that what at first appears to be a portrayal of a particularly cruel act of torture becomes, instead, a metaphor of transformation, and of ultimate harmony.

Marsyas' ordeal is watched over by figures representing the three ages of man: the child, the two personifications of Apollo in youthful maturity, and the old wise man, Midas. This is a theme that Titian had taken over from his master Giorgione, and which was the subject of several of his own paintings (for instance the early painting of that title in the National Gallery of Scotland and the middle-period painting The Vendramin Family in Adoration in the National Gallery in London). In The Flaying of Marsyas, the attendant figures are witnesses to the act of transformation that is taking place. Their disposition around the figure of Marsyas suggests, of course, the iconography of a crucifixion, with its traditional attendant figures. This can only be intentional. In fact what this painting really and very profoundly represents, I believe, is no less than a Renaissance alternative to the portrayal of the crucifixion.

What the crucifixion implies, what Christianity implies, is that man is helpless unless he puts his trust in God to redeem him; but The Flaying of Marsyas suggests that man can advance from a lower to a higher state himself, by learning from his mistakes. This is both in accordance with the Greek idea that self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom and comes near to the Buddhist idea of man working out his own salvation himself. I would suggest that in our present time, this painting of Titian has more to say to us, as a myth for our lives, than a crucifixion. It was already obvious in the sixteenth century that the new Renaissance vision of man had made the Christian doctrines of the atonement and of salvation either through the church or through faith alone, intellectually untenable. This is a dilemma that the church has still to solve, and which I cannot pursue here. Instead, I should like to discuss some other implications of this painting, in particular in relation to music.

Titian's art, like all great Renaissance art, is one of Becoming rather than of Being (I hesitate to use these Hegelian terms, but they are still the best available). As opposed to the Medieval artist who presents us with an icon, a static moment, the virgin and child outside time, Titian gives us processes of change, allegories of getting of wisdom. (The getting of wisdom, I might point out in parenthesis, is sadly a subject of little concern to contemporary painters.)

We are at a stage in our history where the idea of continual progress, which originated in the Renaissance's countering of Medieval Christianity's static view of man, is being strongly challenged by those who see that it may lead to the devastation and indeed the total destruction of the world. As a reaction to this destructive idea of progress, some are now advocating an anti-progressive ideal, which takes many forms. In some areas of the arts, for instance in music, there are those who largely reject the past 500 years of so-called progress in favour of a return to pre-Renaissance ideas of simplicity and non-development. I'm thinking of the minimalists, and of such composers as Pärt, Górecki and John Tavener.

I believe this artistic attitude is mistaken. Its rejection of the past stems from a perception of progress as continuous change, change for its own sake, rather than change as development, for the acquisition of self-knowledge and wisdom. The Renaissance vision of man as a creature of nobility in harmony with nature and the gods, allied with a perfect balance of the sacred and the secular, the corporeal and the spiritual, and an emphasis on human love as the key to all knowledge, has not found a superior replacement. One facet of the Romantic ideal that followed it, which replaced the idea of harmony with an arrogant conception of man as a god himself, in control of subordinate nature, has failed, together with its accompanying philosophies, including, I hardly need point out, Communism. We would do well to reconsider the Renaissance ideal if we wish our civilization, which owes so much to it, to survive.

In music, the transformation from music of Being - the polyphonic masses of the middle ages and early Renaissance - to that of Becoming happens at almost the same time as Titian's life and work and in the same city of Venice, and pre-eminently in the music of Monteverdi. The opening of Monteverdi's greatest work, his Vespers, is itself a symbol of that transformation: first comes the plainsong invocation, like an exultant farewell to the Medieval world; then the pure joy of the discovery of the triad as a sound in itself; finally, the use of dance rhythms to impel the triadic harmony forward. Yet through this music of ecoming, grounded in the secular rhythms of the dance, Monteverdi achieves moments of pure, transcendent Being, as at the very end of the work where the repeated amens tumble over each other in ecstatic fulfilment. In all the greatest post-Renaissance music the process of Becoming brings about a state of being, as supremely in Beethoven's late quartets, where the suspension of time that he achieves in his slow movements could not have happened but for the dynamic motion that has preceded it. A good example is the E flat Quartet, Op.127, the slow movement growing out of the tension and relaxation of the first movement; the end of the finale revealing a wonderful moment of pure Being as the culmination of an energetic sonata allegro. Beethoven almost never begins in a state of stasis; when he does, as in the C sharp minor Quartet, Op.131, it is to move away from it, and then back again, and finally into very troubled waters indeed in the finale. But what has come before the finale makes it seem only one aspect of a whole that must be explored or else life would not be complete: all in all, this piece provides a metaphor for human experience and for the attaining of wisdom that is as all-encompassing and as profound as The Flaying of Marsyas. I would suggest that there is a strong affinity between these two similar works, which are perhaps the supreme masterpieces of Western art. [1]

In Beethoven's late quartets, as in the music of the Renaissance, the forms of the movements more and more approach the dance; and this is what composers today can chiefly learn from them. Music has largely withdrawn into a static state, but not one of enlightened contemplation - though there are exceptions - but rather of frozen, often terrified inertia. Music should once again find its appropriate dance forms, though where these are to come from is a problem that every composer must face himself, and for which there are no obvious general solutions. Except that it may be necessary to look outside Europe, to cultures where the connection of music with life - as in India or Africa - has not been so obviously lost, or debased. I'm more and more convinced that the renewal of Western music must come from an influx into our European musical language of non-European ideas - as a composer such as Messiaen, for instance, has already shown. In reconnecting itself with the dance, and with the elemental language of music that we encounter in folk music throughout the world and, although in a crude and often debased form, in our own contemporary Western popular music, music in the West may recover its former, necessary function to move, to sing and even - despite the appalling course of recent history which has cast a shadow over the art of the past hundred years - to be joyful.

[1]    Interestingly, the location of The Flaying of Marsyas is in the former summer palace of the Archbishop of Olmütz, who in Beethoven's last years was his patron Archduke Rudolph, for whose inauguration as Archbishop Beethoven had intended his Missa Solemnis (he was far too late in finishing the piece for it to be played at the ceremony). I often think that, had Beethoven lived a few years longer, he might have visited Archduke Rudolph at Kroměříž and seen the painting, though goodness knows what he might have thought of it: we know nothing about Beethoven's appreciation of the visual arts.