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Stuart MacRae

Publisher: Novello & Co

Portrait (1999)
commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Aldeburgh Festival
Novello & Co Ltd
Large Ensemble (7+ players)
Year Composed
19 Minutes
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Programme Note
Stuart MacRae Portrait (1999)
While I was beginning to think about some of the ideas for this piece, a gift I received of a book on the American painter Mark Rothko renewed a fascination with his work which I had had since I first saw some of his paintings a few years ago. I also had the opportunity, while working on the piece, to visit the large retrospective of his canvases at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Perhaps as a result of Rothko's habit of leaving his works untitled, there is a tendency for any discussion of their qualities and characteristics to be very general, as if an evaluation of one important painting could somehow refer to them all. Some typical adjectives: beautiful, spiritual, religious, disturbing, visionary, imposing, intimate. Rothko would only have agreed with a few of these; his point of view was that his paintings were, in fact, tragic, violent, and dramatic, and that their purpose was to show the viewer his view of the world, not theirs. He wanted his paintings to attain the condition of music, reaching beyond the senses to something more powerful; he wanted people to break down and cry at the meaning of his paintings. In order to achieve this forcefulness of pure ideas, he stripped the content of the works down to basic ingredients: form (proportion, shape), colour (light, intensity) and scale.

My initial intention for this piece was for the music to aspire to the condition of Rothko. However, this would have been a pointless and self-defeating aim, as ultimately a piece of music must be directed through time and thus takes on its own meaning and its own life. Furthermore, the music must have meaning in of itself, and not be dependent on a listener's awareness of its subject or intentions. And lastly, the great variety of moods and visions expressed in the selection of Rothkos I saw eclipsed any notion that "the condition of Rothko" could validly be summed up or represented.

Therefore, I would say that my piece Portrait is a tribute to Rothko - neither a portrait of him, nor of his ideas, but a "portrait of an idea" in Rothko's words - that which expresses in an elemental, abstract and forceful way the vision which inspired it.

© 1999 Stuart MacRae

"Yet it achieved its own momentum and had a motivic coherence that lead the listener through its evolving soundscape."
Matthew Rye, Daily Telegraph,28/08/2005
"Portrait, the new MacRae piece, was inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko, although, as the composer himself outlined in a highly communicative pre-concert talk, it also drew something from the shimmering Suffolk countryside too. Certainly, the warm Snape Maltings acoustic schowed the music at its best. Sustained lines from a brass grouping on one side of the stage meshed with a cushion of violas on the other (...) If MacRae was out to find a kind of musical correlate to the contained turbulance of Rothko's canvasses, this first performance under the encouraging baton of Adès, showed the accomplished coherence with wich he had achieved his aim. Taking its place on a bracing programme (...) the MacRae certainly impressed."
Trevor Johnston, The Scotsman,29/06/1999
"...Portrait confirmed him as an accomplished voice..."
John Allison, Times,28/06/1999
…inspired by the work of American painter Mark Rothko…it achieved its own momentum and had a motivic coherence that led the listener through its evolving landscape.
Matthew Rye, The Daily Telegraph,01/06/1999
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