Themed Programme - Stairway To Paradise

This programme was created to compliment the major exhibition of Joan Miró paintings held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2012. The recital, with harp accompaniment, tied songs in with his life history and with various of the art works that were on display.

Stairway to Paradise

The programme was put together especially for the National Gallery of Art in Washington to compliment the Joan Miró exhibition that was on display

Le travaille du peintre – Joan Mirò

Poulenc wrote his song cycle Le travail du peintre – the work of the painter - in 1956, based on poems by Paul Eluard. The seven poems about the cubist and surrealist painters Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, and Jacques Villon were taken from Eluard's 1948 collection Voir, although his poem about Joan Miró was initially published in 1927.

Those of you who have visited the exhibition or who have read the essays in the extensive catalogue will know how the events during Miró's life, both on the international and local stage affected him deeply and how this translated into his work. I could not begin to mirror his anguish or politics within a song recital so you will have to bear with me if I approach how I tie the music in with the paintings and with his world in perhaps a more subtle and parallel fashion.

To that end I am singing "A sa guitare" both because of Miró's 1924 painting of the Catalan peasant with guitar and because he would have heard Poulenc's music during his visits to Paris, starting in 1920. The guitar is also the national instrument of Spain. A guitar-like instrument features in his 1924/5 Harlequin's Carnival.

A sa guitare

Joan Miró was born in the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona in 1893 and did two year's military service from 1915-1917. It was a time of continual strikes and radical labor agitation with the rise of socialism, anarchism and syndicalism. He saw this at first hand when his regiment was called to suppress the General Strike in 1917 that led to a state of emergency. Perhaps this was the start of his passionate but often pessimistic support for the Catalonian's struggle for independence, for he was witness to dictatorships, World Wars, fascism and repression. After an initial period of painting landscapes at Mont-roig – possibly the peace of the countryside was his first "escape" - the impact of the trouble around him began to infiltrate his work and Paris beckoned. In 1920 he declared himself an International Catalan and was welcomed in the French Art world with two paintings (Self-Portrait 1919 and Mont-roig,the Church and the Village 1919) displayed in the Catalan section of the Salon d'Automne plus a subsequent exhibition at the Galeries Dalmau. Paris became a stairway to success and Miró visited frequently over the next few years, becoming friends with the rue Blomet circle of writers and immersing himself in the rich cultural scene. In 1924 he went to the Theatre de la Cigalle where he saw the ballet Mercure which had music by Eric Satie and sets designed by Picasso.

Early in the morning

La Diva de l'Empire

Events in Spain spiralled into the coup of 1923 and the subsequent repression and Miró went out of his way to stress his identity, with many of his paintings having the word "Catalan" in the title. Thus Catalonian peasant heads and Catalonian landscapes feature strongly during the years of the build-up to the Civil War. Els Segadors, which means the Reapers and is the national anthem, calls upon the people of Catalunya to sharpen their sickles in preparation. Miró's great lost painting for the Spanish Republic Pavilion in the Paris Exposition Internationale of 1937, was called Le Faucher - The Reaper, which epitomised the Catalan peasant in revolt.

Els Seguadors

Between 1936 and 1940 Miró lived in France. He wrote to Pierre Matisse "We are living through a terrible drama, everything that is happening in Spain is terrifying in a way you could never imagine". This fear must have returned ten-fold when he and his family were forced to escape from France to Palma in Majorca because of the German invasion. It seems that the one way that he dealt with the events around him at this time was to immerse himself in his work.

Many of his paintings of the peasant heads feature stars and a deep blue background, a sort of void or dream-induced space. Indeed, photographs show that The Reaper's head was also seen against a starry sky. Miró began work on his magnificent and extensive Constellation series in 1940 and the series includes wonderful titles such as "Woman with Blonde armpit combing her hair by the light of the stars", and "Figures at Night guided by the phosphorescent tracks of snails". Perhaps he used this series to escape the harsh reality of day – and for day read war.

Sure on this shining night

Crescent moons or using the light of the moon within the images feature in paintings such as Femmes, oiseau au clair de lune (Women and bird in the moonlight) or Chien aboyant à la lune (dog barking at the moon). In the catalogue of this exhibition there is a quote that sums up the feeling of the time: written two days before Miró and his family left France for Spain, André Gide wrote in his diary that "Everything swoons and seems to be enraptured in the light of an almost full moon… I think of all those for whom this so beautiful night is the last."


Break in grief

Whilst in Palma in 1940 Miró listened often to gramophone recordings of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Of particular inspiration to him were the Cello Suites, as played by the famous Pablo Casals, a fellow Catalonian in exile. Danielle is going to play one that has been specially adapted as a left hand exercise on the harp.

Cello Suite

Whenever he was in Palma he visited the Cathedral most mornings, getting there at 10. He wrote "At that hour of the morning there was nobody about except for the organist who was rehearsing. I hung around for ages. There was the organ music, sometimes singing, and the light coming in through the stained glass windows (extraordinary, those windows) and the canons dressed all in red in the gloom."

Miró planned to paint a series called "Musique-Évasion", but it was never realised, although in 1945 he painted Femme entendant de la musique (Woman listening to music), which was inspired by music heard in the cathedral. He also created a lithograph called Homage à Mozart.

Miró used a lot of animals and birds in his paintings, quite often he painted roosters with red cockscombs, dripping like blood, or else his depiction of birds was even more sombre in that the birds were actually planes dropping bombs, as they are in his series of paintings called Le Vol de l'Oiseau sur la plaine (The flight of a bird over the plain), alluding to the bombers that devastated Barcelona, Madrid and Guernica. His bronze sculpture Personnage et oiseau (Figure and bird 1966) actually has a plane, nose down, instead of a bird. Other paintings include The Passage of the Divine Bird and The Migratory Bird, both painted in 1941. The eleventh Constellation picture Le Chant du rossignol à la minuit et la pluie matinale (The Nightingale's song at midnight and Morning rain), was completed in Palma in 1940; although it is not in this exhibition, it was my inspiration for the next two songs.

Die Nachtigall

How beautiful is the rain

I am continuing with the theme of birds for the second of these next songs. Although Joaquin Rodrigo was a native of Valencia, that region's historical link to Catalonia and the composer's international renown warrant inclusion in the present concert. Rodrigo often used Catalan texts, which he set with uncommon sensitivity, frequently in a neo-classical style with modal harmonies. These are two of his Cinque canciones en llengua catalan, originally set for soprano and orchestra.


Canco del Teuladi


What I couldn't find were suitable songs for his burnt canvases but there are plenty that contain the fierce heat of the sun. The first of the 1940 Constellations was called Sunrise; then there is Femme et fillette devant la soleil (Woman and little girl in front of the sun 1946) and Le soleil rouge ronge l'araignée (The red sun gnaws at the spider 1948). In 1958 he created the Wall of the Sun and the Wall of the Moon for the Unesco building in Paris.

The sun whose rays

The enormous Blue tryptich paintings, first exhibited in Paris in 1961 required tremendous self-discipline which Miró likened to the preparation of Japanese archers, the Yabusame, who use breath control to concentrate the mind. He was very interested in Japanese culture and religion, especially Zen Buddhism. He made his first visit to Japan in 1966 where he had exhibitions in Tokyo and Kyoto, although his art was known about long before that with the help of the writer Shuzo Takiguchi who had written an in-depth piece about him for the 1937 Surrealist Exhibition in Japan.

Farewell to a Japanese Buddhist Priest Homeward Bound

Miró's first visit to America was in 1947 but there had been exhibitions of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941 and at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1945. The Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge's Cinco Canciones Negras were written in 1945 and it ties neatly in to Miró's painting Une Étoile caresse le sein d'une négresse (A star caresses the breast of a negress 1938).

Cancion de cuna para dormer a un negrito

One could say that there is something childlike about some of Miró's paintings at surface value, therefore I wanted to include two songs by Frederic Mompou – another Catalan composer – of which the second is the light-hearted children's ditty "Hevesdins la lluna" (Drunken rabbits on the moon). Miró was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Barcelona on the same day as Frederic Mompou in 1979.

Jo et pressentia com la mar (Combat del somni)

Comptines No 3 (Hevisdins la lluna)

Miró married Pilar Juncosa in 1929 and they had a daughter Maria Dolores in 1930. His was a long and happy marriage of 54 years. Apart from one painting, Le Réveil de Madame Bou-Bou (The Awakening of Madame Bou-Bou at dawn), any other painting with a female figure simply uses the title "Femme", such as Femme fuyant l'incendie (Woman fleeing from a fire), Femme en révolte (Woman in revolt), Femme nue montant l'escalier (Naked Woman going Upstairs), etc. And they are not depicted in a very kindly light other than abstract and rather overtly sexualised. I would like to end my recital by singing two of the Cinq Chansons de Femme, composed by Philip Cannon, the first about a much loved woman "born under a lucky star" and the second a rather jolly song sung by a tipsy married lady!

La Bien Aimée

La Bien Mariée

Encore :
Since one of Miró's favourite poets wrote; "I am the unknown ladder that unites heaven and earth" and one of his Constellation paintings is called Le 13 l'échelle a frôlé le firmament - On the 13th the Ladder Brushed the Firmament, therefore I felt it fitting to end this Ladder of Escape concert with my encore, I'll build a stairway to Paradise, in the hope that I have presented a slightly different angle into Miró's world. Thank you.

I'll build a stairway to Paradise

Le travail du peintre – Joan Miró
À sa guitare
Francis Poulenc
Early in the morning Ned Rorem
La Diva de l'Empire Eric Satie
Els Segadors, Himne Nacional de Catalunya
Sure on this shining night Samuel Barber
Silver Armstrong Gibbs
Aria from St Matthew Passion; Break in grief) Johannes Sebastian Bach
Prelude from Cello Suite BWV 1107 Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Nachtigall Johannes Brahms
How beautiful is the rain Gary Higginson
Canço del Teuladi (Cuatre cançons en llengua catalane)
Joaquin Rodrigo
The Sun whose rays Sir Arthur Sullivan
Farewell to a Japanese Buddhist Priest Homeward Bound Edmund Rubbra
Cancion de cuna para dormer a un negrito Xavier Montsalvatge
Jo et pressentia com la mar (Combat del somni)
Comptines No 3 (Hevistdins la lluna)
Frederic Mompou
La Bien Aimée
La Bien Mariée
Philip Cannon

I'll build a stairway to Paradise



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