I.Adagio Molto: S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, I
II. Adagio: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Chiesa Inferiore
III. Lento Molto: S. Giovanni in Laterano
IV. Adagio – Oratorio dei Filippini (L’Alzato della Balustrata dalla Loggia d’Ingresso e Trabeazione)
V. Lento: S. Ivo alla Sapienza.
VI. Adagio: Scorsa Secolare – Palazzo Falconieri.
VII. Adagio: Postludio – S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, II.
It was as a student in the nineteen fifties in Rome that I first encountered Borromini’s buildings, and with the helpful insights of my friend Giuseppe Rebecchini (the dedicatee of Naxos Quartet No. 4), then a student of architecture, and now a practising architect in Rome, I began to appreciate the extraordinarily original manipulation of space and light in Borromini’s work. More than in any other seventeenth century building, a small space would appear huge, due to exaggerated angles and recesses, and to the pulsating rhythms of decoration. He based his work firmly on late Roman Imperial models – then being discovered and assessed – although the concave and convex curves of his baroque façades are much more dramatic and dynamic than any classical model. It was this constructive relationship between tradition and innovation which intrigued me, and Borromini became an early paradigm - he knew and respected tradition as well as any architect, yet his buildings, carefully starting out from this knowledge, were so original that he was accused of chaotically breaking all the rules.
In January of this year I decided to make the next Naxos Quartet into a tribute to Borromini. I was staying with the Rebecchinis, where, from their roof terraces in the Via Giulia, one could see very close up the normally obscure and distant Janus heads on top of the Belvedere of the neighbouring Palazzo Falconieri, built by Borromini in 1646, looking out over the Tiber to Trastevere on the one side, and to the cluttered city on the other. This led to pilgrimages to all the Borromini churches I knew, and Giuseppe even showed me two which I did not know.
Obviously it is impractical to take an architectural structural principle, involving manipulation of space, such as the famous S. Ivo church tower spiral, and make it work in music’s dimension, time. Of course one can take a spiral course through any written matrix of notes, or apply the Fibonacci series (of a spiral) to the structure of musical rhythmic articulation on a small and large scale, as Debussy famously did – but the effect on the ears has nothing in common with the direct and obvious effect of a spiral on the eyes.
An article by Paulo Portoghesi in Italian in 1967 (in Essays in the History of Architecture presented to Rudolf Wittkower published by Phaidon) had shone much light on Borromini’s procedures for me, stimulating related but quite different purely musical parallels. Portoghesi has a relevant list of headings concerning the architect’s relationship with tradition:- translation, inversion, simplification, metamorphosis - and concerning work where Borromini takes off on his own independent non-traditional tangents:- contraction, interpenetration and flexible distortion. I began to examine my own relationship with musical tradition in a much more systematic way than hitherto – this towards the close of the nineteen sixties.
The first movement of this quartet concerns S. Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane – known locally and affectionately as S. Carlino. Work started in 1638, but the façade was still unfinished when Borromini died in 1647 – it was completed only in 1682.
Borromini faced the challenge of making a tiny asymmetrical site imposing and well-proportioned. The interior of the church is extraordinary in its geometry – in part symbolic – the commissioners were the Discalced Trinitarian Order. It stimulates and manipulates our eyes with gouged curves and exaggerated angles – with strident articulations of column and pilaster contrasting flat, restful altar areas. The effect of the light from the dome windows is miraculous, and the complexities of the graduated structure, leading from the business of doors and bays below the entablature to more calming articulations above, then up to the absolute purity and serenity of the oval dome, is a virtuoso performance.
I cannot parallel that! However, the challenge to create the illusion of a large sound-space from the close perspective of the quartet was irresistible. I used as a catalyst the plainsong “Quae est ista, quae ascendit sicut aurora consurgens”, (“Who is she, who looketh forth as the morning?”) from the Song of Songs. It has the right ecstatic impetus, and is full of light. This was then paced through the magic square of the Sun, and finally “spiralled” – a purely “on paper” pre-compositional conceit! – the design following the entablature division of Borromini, complete with burst of light (aurora consurgens) at the climax.
I had observed how, after a climactic, loud and very active passage, the music building up to this recedes back in time, becomes distanced, so that a more psychological perception of time takes over from minutes and seconds. I built this aural illusion into the first Taverner Fantasy of 1962 – after the climax, the stillness of the epilogue suggests you are, as it were, looking through the wrong end of a telescope towards the spot from which you set out. The present movement adapts the same device.
The second movement concerns the lower church below the well known Via Giulia landmark, S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini. I had never been into this tiny space until Giuseppe arranged a visit with the priest. I quote my diary: “the Borromini crypt up the street haunting – it’s theatre in that tiny space – a suspended pierced egg, with no visible contact with the very rough and brutal underground surroundings, with hyper-dramatic side-sights on to the altar: a setting for the most intimate and intense theatre of death. Below the altar, just left there, a pair of used ladies’ ballet shoes.”
My tribute to this minor masterpiece takes a magic square of Mercury through a line from a setting I had made of a Hildegarde von Bingen (1098-1179) poem, O Verbum Patris. Hildegarde’s poem concerns a wheel symbolic of eternity, which spins (she wrote, “the wheel is spinning, not static, for it denotes the vitality as well as the timelessness of God, charging all creation with a powerful energy.”)
After a short exposition, we hear the violins, muted, playing a dream-like motet, as if it were filtering down into the lower church from the main one upstairs. It is based on Staffano Landi, the Roman composer who just might have known Borromini. This is later taken up by muted viola and ‘cello, and I imagine it as part of a requiem service for a member of the Falconieri family, about to be entombed in the lower church.
The viola introduces a sarabande-like melody – I feel the whole small egg-space taking off, rising up through the earth, and dancing away on a discarded pair of ladies’ ballet shoes, across the rooftops of Rome, becoming Hildegarde’s spinning wheel.
The third movement takes us to S. Giovanni in Laterano, one of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome, the “Mother and head of all churches in the city and on earth.” Dedicated in 313, it became a great medieval basilica, until the Holy Year of 1650 when Pope Innocent X chose Borromini to modernise it. It was transformed into a splendid statement of Roman Baroque.
As a student I regretted this metamorphosis, enough of the medieval contents remaining to give an indication of its former glory. However, I later came to understand and appreciate Borromini’s work in its own right, done at a time when he could have shown much less sensitivity to what was there, and torn everything down.
I have made a simple structure, which is articulated three times, the first time with fragments of “medieval” music pendent, each crashing to destruction, the second time with no decoration at all, and the third time with a brilliant “baroque” superstructure to suggest the interior we still see today.
The fourth movement concerns a detail of Borromini’s Oratorio dei Filippini – a small but extraordinary innovation present in the later buildings too – but this was the first – whereby the balustrade on the upper floor is based on triangles, formed by three concave arcs of circles, set with the bulge coming alternately at the top, then the bottom of the baluster. (Hitherto balusters had been circular, and bulged uniformly at the middle, except Michaelangelo’s – he had the bulge placed below the middle.) Borromini’s innovation makes the eye dance, with an impression of energetic and restless movement.
Again, this cannot be rendered literally in sound, but I have separated short dance-like paragraphs, their material recto then inverso, by “spaces” simply marked by pizzicato, over sequences of transpositions based upon circling cycles of major and minor thirds. In the Borromini – Spada ‘Opus Architectonicum’ diagrams of the balustrade and trabeation are supplied, with Borromini’s justification for the change –including the observation that in nature, the trunks of trees are wider at the bottom than the top….
The fifth movement was inspired by the spiral tower of S. Ivo alla Sapienza – Rome’s old university church – part of a fantastically elaborate geometrical master plan. Anthony Blunt points out that the confusion of tongues associated with the Tower of Babel, often of a spiral design in sixteenth and seventeenth century illustrations, was transferred to the concept of the gift of tongues (to the apostles) at Pentecost, whereby a spiral tower came to symbolise illumination and wisdom – exactly suitable for a seventeenth century university dominated by theology.
Borromini’s plans catapulted me into thinking of possibly related structural principles – eventually I projected the plainsong “Vidimus Stellam” through a magic square associated with the sun, and starting in the centre of the matrix, spiralled the pitches and note-values out to the matrix’s edge (all this, again, work before composition as such could start!) The results have been subjected to alternately increasing and decreasing modules of irrational values, giving a curved or rippled effect to the music’s time surface.
In the middle section, the irrational values disappear, creating a more rhythmically active version of the same undulating time surface. (I relate it to sea waves).
A useful feature of the square and its inversion, a six-by-six matrix, is that every eighth note is the same. This feature is incorporated to anchor the movement around F and B, the pivotal centres of the whole quartet cycle.
Movement Six concerns the Palazzo Falconieri – the only secular building among those chosen. The Janus herms, mentioned earlier, sparked two kinds of music of opposed character, at tonal centres a semitone above those of the previous movement – C and F sharp- it also maintains the transposition scheme of ‘Sapienza’ but attempts to attain a real sense of seventeenth century counterpoint, albeit modifying the traditions.
The last movement returns us to S. Carlino. This was Borromini’s first commission as an individual architect, as opposed to working in tandem with others. Towards the end of his life, such commissions dried up. This appears to have been caused by his difficult and uncooperative character rather than by an eclipse of enthusiasm for his buildings, and, what with the rise in favour of his rival Bernini, who was gracious and charismatic, receiving all the commissions and renown Borromini longed for, Borromini became obsessively jealous and drastically reclusive.
His suicide is famous, and, surviving for a few hours after making a mess of it, he dictated a lucid and clear description of the act. It is this contradiction that I have attempted to touch upon in this short finale – on the one hand, the extremely emotional, almost delirious content of his work, and on the other, its meticulous design, involving absolutely rigorous mathematics, and hard practicality of vision.
In his work “Die Architectur Borrominis” of 1930, Hans Sedlmayr draws connections between what we see in his work and Borromini’s schizoid personality, even to his way of dying. Perhaps this is a tempting approach – though Blunt dismisses these psychological enquiries as “extremely alembicated”. However, I feel that music may perhaps enter here, where words should fear to tread, as, with music’s abstraction, all implications remain open and absolutely discreet.
In writing seven consecutive slow movements, I am not inviting comparison with great works by Dowland, Haydn or even Shostakovich. However, this quartet’s concerns seemed to demand the concentration of such an unusual sequence, and I resolved to attempt some kind of solution to the inevitable structural problems posed.
Peter Maxwell Davies