IF YOU want to please a Spanish patron, Michelangelo is reported
to have said, show him plenty of blood and nails. And the Iberian
penchant for the melodramatic can, according to Stephen Johnson in
The Essay (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week), equally be
detected in the music of the time. The tortured dissonances and
intense declamation of Spanish Renaissance polyphony reveals a
distinctive compositional dialect.
Johnson's comments were directed in particular to Tomás Luis de
Victoria's Lamentations, as part of a series of essays on
how audiences might have heard and received great musical works at
their first performances. Of course, neither of the terms
"audience" and "performance" is exactly apt here; and musicologists
might like to have a go at the term "work" as well. For, as Johnson
explained, these were pieces designed for the ceremony of Tenebrae,
and the atmospheric polyphony would have accompanied the gradual
extinguishing of candles. On the other hand, Victoria had the
Lamentations published as a set, and may have had his eye on
posterity. If he did, then he will not be displeased by the
enduring popularity of his music.
We can usually only guess at the response of audiences to music
that at the time might have seemed baffling. And it is all too easy
to imagine that the things that fascinate us about Bach's St
Matthew Passion (the subject of Thursday's essay) were the
same for his Leipzig congregation. As Johnson reminds us, many of
them will merely have, at the end of the marathon devotion,
stretched their legs and got on with their lives. And we know that
Bach's masterpiece did not catch on until a century later. Novelty
can, like so much else, be judged only in retrospect.
The Truth about Life and Death (World Service,
Wednesday of last week) is one of those programmes you need to
listen to right to the end. Focusing on the Jewish religious and
legal definition of death, as understood in Israel, you might have
been forgiven for gasping at the implacable nature of the law, and
the hypocrisy exercised by medical practitioners attempting to find
a way around it.
The central challenge for Israeli doctors comes from the 2005
Law of the Dying, which forbids the withdrawal of treatment that
keeps a patient alive. The result is a large number of patients in
a persistent vegetative state, in wards such as that which we
witnessed in Herzog Hospital, Jerusalem, where the business of
simple life preservation has become super-efficient.
Because the law does not prevent the withholding of treatment
from those in a critical condition, however, one hospital is
developing a system of intermittent, as opposed to continuous,
ventilation; there is no obligation to restart treatment once it
has been stopped.
Another ultra-Orthodox practice defines death not by brain-stem
inactivity, but the cessation of the heart; something which might
take a further few days. Yet, when we heard from the parents of a
17-year-old girl involved in a car crash, one could not argue
against the intuitive, emotional truth of their position: when the
heart stops, and the body goes cold - then you know it is over.