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First time round

03 October 2014


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.

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