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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal
Правильная ссылка на статью:

Archetypal Plot and its Interpretations: “Dance Macabre" by painter Bernt Notke and “Totentaz” by composer Thomas Ades / Архетипичный сюжет и его интерпретации: "Танец смерти" в живописи Бернта Нотке и музыке Томаса Адеса

Шапинская Екатерина Николаевна

доктор философских наук

профессор, РГУФК СМиТ

107207, Россия, г. Москва, ул. Уральская, 6

Shapinskaia Ekaterina Nikolaevna

Doctor of Philosophy

deputy head of the Expert-Analytical Center for the Development of Education Systems in the Sphere of Culture at Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage of Dmitry Likhachov

107207, Russia, g. Moscow, ul. Ural'skaya, 6, of. Uralskaya
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Аннотация: Предметом исследования является творческая интерпретация архетипического сюжета в различных историко-культурных контекстах. На примере работы средневекового живописца Бернта Нотке «Пляска смерти» и сочинения современного композитора Томаса Адеса «Тотентанц» автор показывает, что, несмотря на ограничения, накладываемые культурными кодами той или иной эпохи, творческая личность находит возможности как для самовыражения, так и для раскрытия новых смыслов архетипического сюжета. Автором рассмотрены особенности художественного творчества в различных историко-культурных контекстах и в различных формах творческой выразительности. При помощи текстуального анализа, дескриптивного метода, а также сопоставительного анализа автор проводит исследование предмета своей статьи на материале различных культурных форм. Материал статьи впервые вводится в российский академический дискурс. Особое внимание уделяется проблеме творчества в «посткультурную» эпоху, для которой характерно истощение творческого импульса и утверждение исчерпанности культуры. В статье показано, что творческое начало является антропологически универсальной категорией, которое находит возможности выразить новым художественным языком вечные экзистенциальные проблемы человека, в частности отношение к смерти. Делается вывод, что различные виды интерпретации архетипичного сюжета несут в себе творческое начало, являющееся выражением глубинной потребности человека, знаком ценности его индивидуального существования в этом мире, находящее выражение в инновативных интерпретациях классического наследия.

Ключевые слова:

творчество, личность, интерпретация, культурный контекст, архетипичный сюжет, Средневековье, постмодернизм, музыка, канон, композитор

Abstract: The paper examines the problem of creative interpretation of an archetypal plot in different historical and cultural contexts. Basing on the work by a Mideaval painter Bernt Notke “Danse macabre” and on the work “Totentaz” by a modern composer Thomas Ades the author shows that, despite the limitations imposed by cultural codes of a period, creative personality finds possibilities both for self-expression and for disclosing new meanings of an archetypal plot. Special attention is paid to the problem of creativity in “post-cultural” epoch, which is characterized by diminishing of creative impulse and insistence of exhaustion of culture. It is shown in the paper that creativity is a universal anthropological category which finds possibilities to express by a new artistic language existential problems of mankind, including the attitude to death.With the help of textual analysis, descriptive and comparative methods the author conducts research of the subject on the basis of the material of different cultural forms. The material of the article is new to Russian academic discourse. Special attention is given to the problem of creativity in “post-cultural” epoch which is characterized by diminishing of creative impulse and declaration of exhaustion of culture. It has been shown that creativity is a universal anthropological category which finds possibilities to express eternal existential problems of people, in particular the attitude to death, in a new artistic language. The conclusion is made that different interpretations of an archetypal plot contain creative impulse expressing the deepest necessities of human beings.


creativity, personality, interpretation, cultural context, archetypal plot, Middle Ages, postmodernism, music, canon, composer

The problems of human existence in all their variety and contradictions have provoked response from intellectuals and artists of all times and peoples, and the forms of representations of existentialist foundations of life are so variegated that the very universality of these categories may seem doubtful. Interpretation of narratives connected with life and death, birth and decline of people, with love and destructive hatred depend on philosophical and cultural dominants of an epoch as well as on subjective opinion of a thinker or artist, his life experience and creative capacity. When we think of a creative personality of post-postmodern time, which has seemingly done away with the problem of creativity as a production of a new cultural text or artifact in its declaration of exhaustion of culture, we inevitably pose a question: what are the possibilities of our contemporary who is endowed by a powerful creative impulse in cultural realm? Are they limited only by innovative interpretations or does the creative impulse overcome that over-abundance of cultural texts which, it may seem, does not leave space for something having its stable place in what we call “classics”, “cultural heritage”?

To answer these questions we shall address the works by two authors belonging to different epochs and representing different kinds of art who, each in his own language, expressed their vision of an archetypal plot. We mean the works by medieval painter Bernt Notke “Dance macabre” and by the contemporary composer Thomas Ades “Totentanz” inspired by the same theme. This plot, widely spread in Middle Ages, when religion called upon people to remember about Death always standing nearby, embodied by a number of medieval artist, found an unexpected new life in the music of a composer of our time which sounds on the concert stages in our days.

In order to understand the sources of the Dance macabre plot one should restore (at least in our imagination) the cultural context of Middle Ages, usually associated with grandeur of Gothic cathedrals, religious imagery in art and menestrels’ songs in honour of “Belle Dame”. But Middle Ages were also the time of active artistic production, far from being totally in the strict grip of canon. Like nowadays, artists, with the help of prescribed representation norms, tried to say something about human life and about that which does not exclude anyone and ever – the fear of death.

The Dance of Death (German - Totentanz, French - dance macabre, Spanish - danza de la muerte, Italian - ballo della morte ) is a «synthetic genre which existed in European culture from the middle of the XIV to the first half of the XYI century which showed an iconographic plot, the dance of skeletons with the newly dead, accompanied by commentary in verse” [1]. This genre emerged in Germany and got spread in other countries of Europe in the forms corresponding to cultural and artistic characteristics of a region. We shall examine the figure and work of Bernt Notke, the author of “Totentanz” in two variants known to us – those from Lubeck and Tallinn. He was one of the prominent artists of Northern Europe, had a large workshop in Lubeck, was well-known in all Baltic district. His “Totentanz” in StMary’s church in Lubeck was destroyed during Second World war, but the Tallinn copy exists today and attracts a lot of visitors to Niguliste church. “Bernt Notke lived and worked in the transition period between the medieval and the early modern eras, between the Gothic and the Rennaisance. On the one hand, he still observed the canons of medieval art: on the other hand, he applied several artistic and technical solutions” [2, 10].


1. Bernt Notke: “Dance Macabre".

The novelty of technical devices is a sign of the fact that artistic life does not stand still, though the themes of art works may remain the same for centuries and millennia. Each artist interprets them in accordance with установки values of his own time and speaks about them using the language of his time.

In Middle Ages the theme of Death was close to people not only as a remembrance of the necessity of repentance, but as a sort of total presence, sometimes assuming ironic character. “One must say that the image of Death in Mideaval and Rennaissance grotesque (including painting, for example in Holbein’s or Durer’s “Dances Macabres”) always bears an element of ridiculous. It is always – more or less – a ridiculous monster” [3]. Bernt Notke’s depiction lacks grotesque. It can be explained by the fact that the artist belonged to a cultural region where grotesque and irony in realtion to religious plot were not common. But, on the other hand, his imagery was under large influence of Rennaissance with its cult of beauty. Unlike other variants of the same subject “Totentanz” by Bernt Notke does not produce the feeling of repulsion but, on the other hand, impresses by its beauty and bright colors.

Life and death are basic categories of human existence, independent of such social and demographic parameters as life duration, suicide rate or the most dangerous diseases. Death is always near, no matter what the achievements of medicine are or how high the living standart is. The fear of epidemics of plague in Middle Ages is no stronger than the freight of AIDS in the XX century or of terrorism in the XXI. “What is necessary for us today more than ever, - writes in his book on problems of cyberculture M. Dery, referring to a well-known representative of gender studies D.Haraway, - is a deep persisting feeling of transience of our life, of the fact that we shall really all die, that our Earth has its limits” [4, 26].

This universality of the feeling of finality of earthly life, expressed in such poignant representations of man’s relations to death as those in “Dance macabre”, has been attracting artists and musicians of the past and the present. This theme was elaborated in famous works by F.Lizst and K.Saint-Saens, in compositions of rock groups "Cradle of Filth" and " Iron Maiden". Thomas Ades’s addressing “Totentanz”, with his usage of daring expressive means, creating a strong sense of mood, shows that this subject is inexhaustible.


2. Composer Thomas Ades.

His “Totentanz” is based on the famous work by Bernt Notke, namely in its destroyed version existing only in black-and-white photos. He made the basis of his piece the Lubeck composition destroyed in the war time. This fact of symbolic destruction of death reified in the medieval picture by the still greater horror of War increased the expressiveness of Ades’s dramatic cantata. But the fates of artistic masterpieces are not simple, they have a capacity for resurrection, like Phoenix bird: destruction, as it happened, was not final. Thus it happened with “Totentaz” by Bernt Notke which has been in existence in St.Nicholas (later Niguliste) church in Tallinn. One is apt to come a conclusion: Death cannot be destroyed, the fire in Lubeck church just touched it showing a more sinister face of Death and transience of all things earthly including the masterpiece of a medieval painter, but the slogan “Manuscripts do not burn” put forward by Mikhail Bulgakov proved to be stronger.

We have chosen two performances of the symphonic cantata by Th.Ades as the basis of our analysis – the first one, in London in 2013, and the performance of this work in Amsterdam in 2016, as a part of program “Frescos” dedicated to music works inspired by paintings. Though “Totentanz” was performed several times between these two events, we shall examine these particular ones since the author of the present article can refer to her own experience of their perception which, in our opinion, is very important for reflection on art works. In the first case it was the on-line streaming from Barbican Centre, in the second – personal impressions of two concerts in Amsterdam het Concergebau [5],[6].

Death in “Totentanz” by Thomas Ades, as performed by British baritone Simon Keenlyside, is seductively appealing, addressing individually each character. Performing music by Thomas Ades is not a chance – the singer is known for his brilliant performance of the part of Prospero in different stage versions of opera “The Tempest” by Thomas Ades [7]. Different victims of Death are performed by a mezzo-soprano who reaches an effect of individuality but at the same time expresses the universal fear of death in men and women, in the old and the young. Expressiveness of music intensified by the conductor’s mastery of Thomas Ades – who but the composer can best communicate the complex mood of his work, gloomy and ironic at the same time – makes his “Totentanz” very up-to-date in our time, where Death shows new faces and stands may be even closer to man than in the times of Bernt Notke. From this point of view the vocal part shows splendidly the ambivalence of Death which may seem not so much frightening as desired – it can, once and for all, solve the problems which seem insolvable in earthly life. The cantata by Thomas Ades is a fine embodiment of this sinister and seductive theme in sounds of music. Hearing the call of Death in the voice of the singer one can succumb to its charm, entering that immortal dance which humankind has danced for ages.


3. British baritone Simon Keenlyside.

In the pictorial representation the dance of Death with its victims unfolds spatially. “Mortals follow one another in hierarchical order, beginning with the mightiest, the pope and the emperor, and ending with the lowest, the peasant, the fool or a small baby… The picture begins with Death playing the flute and ends with a baby in a cradle”. [2,17] The same order has been observed in the cantata which creates an opportunity for spatial unfolding of the narrative. “ … In Totentanz, Death, a baritone (Simon Keenlyside) invites in turn a succession of human repredentatives – including Pope, Emperor, Cardinal, King, Monk, Usurer and parish Ckerk – to join his inescapable and deadly dervish, delighting that, ‘When I come, great and small,/ no grieving helps you’…. Thus the invitations of Death performed by Keenlyside with “seductive charm … mingled with imperious contempt – “duet” with a range instruments and groupings: trembling double bass as he addresses the emperor, a repetitive pattern played by the celli when his words are directed as the King, a dialogue with trombones as the Monk is called to the dance…” [8]. In this way the composer intensifies the meaning of the text by using the expressive means of music, diversifying the Death’s address to his victims by different sound possibilities of music instruments.

This experience of interpretation of the next written in Old German and retold by the most modern means of musical language make us think of a very important problem which has been troubling researchers in different fields and gas been coming up again and again in connection with the emergence of new cultural practices and the extension of limits of interpretation. Extending the traditional problem of the correlation between the form and the contents, one may assume that there are certain basic cultural universals which are mediated through different cultural forms and codes without losing their basic meaning. If we accept this basic pattern based on anthropological universality of contents, we can understand constant return to the same subjects and plots, their “retelling” in a different code which becomes a transmitter of deep meanings forming their basis and at the same time an expression of creative individuality of the author. This problem lies in the heart of philosophical reflection in all times and on all planes of its existence. The primarity of the “idea” (in this case, a cultural universal, or an aspect of being) is postulated by all history of human thought though – starting from the Age of Enlightenment – such views have become less popular under the attack of materialism, and later the spread of cultural pluralism, postulating a fixed tie of meaning to its reification, signified to the signifier. In the XX century a number of cultural and art scholars addressed the subject of “Dance Macabre”, interpreting it in different ways. “In the works of J. Huisinga, I. Ioffe and F. Arries understanding if iconography of death is closely connected with the interpretation of the plot of "danse macabre". In the very fact of appearance of series of etchings of “danse macabre” J.Huisinga sees a symptom of crisis of mediaval person’s worldview, fear of life and beauty, since pain and suffering are connected with it in his mind. Popularity of “macabre” symbolic on the time of ‘Autumn of Middle Ages’ is explained by Huisinga by the cruelties of Hundred Years’ war and plague epidemics, the worst of which took more than 24 million lives. F. Arries, on the contrary, sees in the demonstration of depictions of skeletons and rotting corpses sort of counterbalance to the lust of life expressed in the higher role of testament, presupposing solemn funeral and numerous masses " [9].

As to artistic interpretation, it expresses similar ideas in its own language. What Thomas Ades does in his “Totentanz” can be seen as an encounter of two worlds. The world of the signified is the world of a fresco and of an old legend in which different “realities” belonging to Life and Death come into contact. The signifier is music, which correlates with the members of the Dance of Death only through the characterization of the inner world of its participants, answering the call of Death in turn. As to the form of this signifier, it is a product of a time completely different from the original text and can be seen as a palimpsest of styles born in the past and having influenced in some way the language of modern composers. “Modern cultural consciousness is surrounded by the time and space of palimpsest. New artistic images and text emerge mostly above “hidden” or “scratched” previous cultural text which in some way had prepared their appearance” [10, 326].

The complexity of musical interpretation of a non-musical source, as it happens in “Totentanz” by Thomas Ades, lies in the circumstance that, on the one hand, the language of modern music is used to render the verbal language of a different epoch. On the other hand, the very correlation of musical and verbal components is more difficult than “pure” poetry or music uncomplicated vocally. Besides, interpretation of texts of “other” culture (linguistically or in terms of Time/Space relations) always presupposes intercultural, or, rather, crosscultural connections, overcoming of tome, space and linguistic and cultural barriers in creative act.

But no matter how important are the reflections on the essence of culture and society, on the dynamics of cultural contexts and the change in meanings, the more important aspect in understanding creativity is placing it as a vital human necessity, as a kind of anthropological universal existing in an endless number of variants. As to the forms taken by creative energy of a person, they depend both on cultural dominants of the epoch and on individual traits of a person capable of introducing creativity into an old archetypal subject in one’s own way. Medieval painter Bernt Notke does it with the help of individuation of characters, expressive colors and dynamics not typical of Medieval religious art. Thomas Ades uses all the possibilities of modern music emphasizing the destructive element of the subject of his work by the fact of destruction of its original (Lubeck cathedral). He purposefully placed a taiko drum in the centre of the stage at the London performance which reminds us “that terrible things happened all over the world, not just in Europe” [11]. No doubt, this disturbing music sounds very up-to date.

Thus we can say that both examples of an interpretation of an archetypal plot are based on a creative impulse which is an expression of a basic necessity of human being, a sign of the value of his individual existence expressed in the innovative interpretation of the works of classical heritage which shows its new facets to us, appealing both to emotional experience of life essence and to reflections on the subjects of undying interest.

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