The Agony and The Ecstasy
Signature Tune: The Path of The Beloved from the Suite Rakastava (Op14), Sibelius
This is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM. Today’s programme consists of music from the 1965 feature film, The Agony and The Ecstasy. This Hollywood epic, Directed by Carol Reed and starring Charlton Heston, and Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento and Aldofo Celi, may seem an odd place in which to find music for a classical music-slot, but in fact the score of the main part of the picture, by Alex North and Alexander Courage, is a fascinating attempt to meld music of the renaissance with a Respighi-like pictorialism that suits fully a cinemascope keeping, the vivid colours and vibrant imagery of a film from the mid-‘60s.
Alex North was the second most nominated film composer In Hollywood and received an honorary award In recognition of his brilliant artistry. He provided music for films As various as Spartacus, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Streetcar Named Desire, Dragonslayer and Good Morning Vietnam.
He was nominated for an Oscar for The Agony and The Ecstasy in 1966. In this film, location-work and studio-shot scenes are beautifully lit, a world of rich vestures and palaces, glinting armour and weaponry, bright banners and desolate, smoking scenes of military defeat, all captured in their gentility and horror. In dark interior scenes of chapel and tavern or in front of the vibrant, living frescoes of art and theocratic politics, there glowers the gaunt, paint-spattered figure of Michelangelo Buonarotti – the driven artist forced by Papal commission to break the habit of a lifetime and paint a ceiling with ‘appropriate designs’. The warrior-Pope, Julius the 2nd suffers, too: “Michelangelo, when will you make an end!” - “When I am finished!” and there is a danger that between showing that the Pope is driven also, in his case, to hold together the Catholic Church in a country of duchies and Europe beyond, and that Michelangelo has to suffer and be impossible with authority to paint like one inspired, the film earns another title, “The Mahogany and The Hickory - Or How The Sistine Chapel Gained A Ceiling (In The End)”.
Nevertheless, there is the score, in whose brilliance and half-tones the story of transcendent Art is most truly told through the use of Romantic organ and bells, brash handling of brass and side-drums, bucolic, courtly and agonized use of woodwind in weak register, moments of veil-like expectancy or surge at height and plod de profundis of strings. Snatches from mediaeval pipe-music, a martial galliard here, pastiche of consort- or choral music there, a Shostakovich-like angularity and lacerating implacability of line, chantlike melody and chromaticism that both hark back to Cesar Franck through the Gregorian Respighi; leading motives to represent characters or states of mind are also heard, a common thing in film-scores: with an incredibly wide range of musical influences, Alex North and his assistant, Alexander Courage, wrote a masterpiece expressive of the suffering and isolation of the true artist. Here is the first cue: a scene in a precipitous marble quarry, The Mountains of Carrara.
Track One: The Mountains of Carrara
The second cue accompanies pastoral scenes (two piping oboes – oboes d’amour – and cor anglais in imitational piffero style) suddenly broken in on by skirmish: relentlessly rhythmical cavalry pursue infantry into a maize-crop – slaughter ensues; by far the most of the music occurs to denote victory - the leader of the cavalry is soon revealed to be Julius the 2nd as he takes off his helmet and assumes his calot and white mantle. Here occurs the in fact anachronistic reference to a galliard, ‘La Bataille’, from the Danserye of Tielman Susato.
Track Two: The Warrior Pope
The Florentine family, the Medici, have been Buonarotti’s longest-serving patrons. Cardinal Giovanni de Medici and the Contessina De Medici, his sister, have won Buonarotti a commission to build Julius’s tomb; now, the Pope wishes the artist to paint images of the twelve apostles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Buonarotti is a sculptor, and has scruples... So the adventure begins. The Medicis – a pastiche consort flute-and-strings number written by Alexander Courage - the flute closely attended by imitational figures.
Track Three: The Medici
In deep, brooding music, combining the Gregorian influence with that of what sounds like the Fifth Symphony slow movement of Shostakovich, work begins on scaffolding high in the vaults of the roof of the decayed chapel: The Sketch of The Apostles. New plaster is smoothed on. Outlines are laid. Paint is applied...
Track Four: The Sketch of The Apostles
The Artist is dissatisfied with his commission. The faces of ordinary persons make the best faces for Apostles; nothing formal will do. Sketch Destroyed accompanies strokes of an adze and a flung bucket of red paint...
Track Five: Sketch Destroyed
Having fled and been pursued into the mountains of Carrara, Buonarotti has a vision of God and Adam in the clouds at dawn... There is a growling sonority to the quiet grandeur that, mollified, becomes alternately ethereal and more full-throated and ends terse, staggering, brazen and percussive...
Track Six: Genesis
Having successfully presented plans to the literally embattled pope... there follows The Return to The Sistine Chapel. Now, more than 300 figures must be painted, including seven OT prophets, five sybils, nine stories from Genesis, portraits of the great figures in Christ’s lineage and four scenes from the OT.
Track Seven: The Sistine Chapel
All begins with the quietly anxious cue, Painting!
Track Eight: Painting
Hours of working to all hours with toxic paint inches from his face, lack of rest and forgetting meals, and the necessity of shouting or sighing, “When I am finished,” or disputing aesthetics and morals with cardinals brought in to witness progress, lead to The Agony, as Buonarotti working on alone at night by the light of a candle-stub suffers loss of sight, attempts to move down the scaffolding, falls clutching onto a rope and is swiftly let down onto the floor of the chapel, unconscious and in a fever. The music follows this quickly growing disaster with highly effective use of instrumentation, the growling bassoon particularly sinister.
Track Nine: The Agony
Michelangelo recovers in the care of the Contessina de Medici. This is another of Alexander Courage’s contribution, another consort-piece, like a pavane. Michelangelo’s Recovery.
Track Ten: Michelangelo’s Recovery
Again, haunted by the Susato Galliard, the Pope returns to Rome in brassy triumph. Festivity In St Peter’s Square.
Track Eleven: Festivity In St Peter’s Square
In the evening, Julius visits the recuperating Michelangelo to release him from his contract... Raphael may complete the ceiling...
Julius In The Garden.
Track Twelve: Julius In The Garden
Back at work... This time, progress is suddenly suspended as Michelangelo arrives in the chapel to discover workmen are dismantling the scaffolding...
Track Thirteen: Back To St Peter’s
The Pope and Michelangelo have come to a parting of the ways over the Pope’s desire to show the ceiling half-finished. Julius must go to war again – his enemies in Italy regrouping and victorious – without knowing if he will live to return or be able to see the ceiling completed. Brazenness is moderate in the music, the imploring strings bringing a feeling of pathos above side-drums and intermittent low brass.
Woodwind and low brass prefigure the next cue.
Track Fourteen: The War
Michelangelo seeks reconciliation with Julius on the battlefield... Julius’ military defeat inspires some of the best moments of the entire score – jagged, hollow horn, trombone and muted trumpet fanfares of desolation; the imploring tone returns in strings, answered by the implacability of deep-toned brass and woodwind.
Track Fifteen: The Battlefield
To brief, bright fanfares, the grievously-wounded Julius creates a new cardinal for a fee sufficient to permit Michelangelo to complete the ceiling... Michelangelo returns to work, and the tattered remnants of the pontiff’s army are portrayed on their blood and dust-stained horse and cart-borne journey to Rome. New Cardinal.
Track Sixteen: New Cardinal
Back in Rome, Julius, though reacquainted with the wonderful ceiling, soon lies close to death: only to be angered into rising from his bed by Michelangelo, who proposes to return to Florence with the ceiling incomplete!
The Pope’s allies in Europe have gathered and defeated his enemies. The official soundtrack CD takes up the story with a mass celebrating victory and the completion of the ceiling... The finish has been hard-earned.
Track Seventeen: Michelangelo’s Magnificent Achievement – and Finale
In an affecting final scene, after the congregation and church staff have left, Julius tells Michelangelo what the ceiling means to him. Commissioning it may be what he is remembered for; before the Seat of Judgement, he will present it as something to be placed in the balance; it may shorten his time in Purgatory. Asked what he has learned, the artist says, “That I am not alone.” He refuses a further commission for an altar-piece fresco of The Judgement: he was promised that he could go back to his interrupted work on the tomb; Julius admits that there is need of the tomb. They part: Michelangelo is left to watch the Pope’s faltering progress from the body of the chapel. To Work My Son.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and that you will join us again soon. Goodbye!
Track Eighteen: To Work, My Son