The Madonna of the Yarnwinder

Press reports of the trial concerning the theft of Leonardo’s The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, prompted me to go to the Scottish National Gallery and have yet another look at it. Few, I imagine, would elect any of the great trio of High Renaissance artists, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael as favourite painters. They inspire awe rather than delight. Probably the greatest draughtsmen who ever lived, they reached such perfection in the concerns of painters of their age,d that those who followed them were stymied for a time as what to do. It was only when Caravaggio showed that saints could be wrinkled and bald and even paunchy, that, with this new realism and heavy light and shade, Western painting was given a new lease of life.

With Leonardo in particular, the wide area where he employed his genius, somehow comes between the spectator and the paintings. It certainly came between Leonardo and the ability to finish them. Could we have had the crowning achievement of the whole Renaissance, if The Adoration of the Kings had been completed? Some may consider that his range of interests has caused certain paintings to be overloaded. Wouldn’t The Virgin of the Rocks, in both its versions, be more digestible if Leonardo hadn’t felt the need to bring to them all the fruits of his enquiries into geology and botany? Then there is The Mona Lisa with all the stuff about the enigmatic smile and the idea that the eyes follow you about. The composition of The Virgin and Child with St. Anne is beautifully resolved in drawings, but in the painting something more ambitious with very complicated poses is attempted and the work left unfinished.

But there are Leonardo paintings with a subtlety of detail and handling unique in the history of art, that have all the serenity of any Piero della Francesca. The portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci in Washington and the beautiful Lady with an Ermine in Cracow are such works. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is another. This small painting makes every other work around it in the Scottish National Gallery look ordinary, the Raphaels, the Verrochio, the Perugino. The Wemyss Botticelli if it weren’t on loan to the Städel in Frankfurt would suffer the same fate.

I note that Kenneth Clark in his book on Leonardo, first published 1939, revised 1958, describes The Madonna of the Yarnwinder as a very good copy of a lost work. I doubt this. Copies of Leonardo are invariably squirm-makingly awful, witness the copies of the lost Leda and the Swan. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is simply stunning.

The Edinburgh Quartet and its Part in my Eclecticism

On 19 February I attended the 50th Anniversary Gala Concert of the Edinburgh Quartet. Apart, obviously, from the premiered work by Howard Blake, I knew the programme very well. The Mendelssohn octet had been a favourite work ever since I acquired an LP of the piece, but although I had updated to a CD recording, I hadn’t played it for several years before digging it out for a couple of hearings prior to the concert. Mendelssohn wrote it when he was sixteen. The earliest piece by Mozart that I have come to love is his Sinfonia Concertante K 364 written when he was twenty-three, so we might say that Mendelssohn was more precocious than the Austrian composer, although it is generally accepted that he declined after his early years of supreme brilliance. The Edinburgh Quartet was joined for the octet by the young Medlock Quartet in the only live performance that I have ever heard. It was an additional pleasure to see where the paired instruments played in unison and where they went their own ways.

I came to the song cycle On Wenlock Edge armed with a criticism of the third song. Colin Wilson, in his book Brandy of the Damned compares unfavourably, Vaughan Williams’ setting of Is My Team Ploughing? with the later setting by George Butterworth. The dramatic string effects and vocal repetitions are out of character with the simplicity of the poem. But Vaughan Williams can be forgiven a lot for the opening poem where the string quartet accompaniment evokes wonderfully the way the gusts of the storm build and subside, meteorological tone painting that is up there with Britten’s Sea Interludes. I think it’s because of this setting that On Wenlock Edge has become almost my favourite Houseman poem. I love the first line: ‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble.’ It is a perfect example of how rhyme works to make poets say things in a more interesting way. The chiming line, the third one: ‘The gale, it plies the saplings double,’ obviously came first and to find a rhyme the poet came up with the wonderful opening. For me, the Roman in Uricon staring at the heaving hill has an echo of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, where it is Sophocles who is cited from antiquity, with a nature-inspired emotion that corresponds with the modern poet . Samuel Barber set the Arnold poem, also with string quartet, and I remember marking up the Radio Times so that I wouldn’t miss a recording of the composer singing the piece himself. Now I listen to it on CD with the Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley.

Colin Wilson’s book was important for me. I realised I was a musical eclectic like him. I like reading about music if it isn’t too technical, and when I read about a piece I have to hear it. I also went through a period of musical snobbishness, which serves a purpose: it may make you neglect fine works for a period but it also has you investigating difficult pieces which give their rewards in time. Wilson put me on to English song and in fact to Houseman as a poet. Saga Records (nothing to do with oldies) produced the first cheap LPs at ten shillings a time, and I bought Butterworth’s Houseman settings, my first Haydn quartets, Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross opus 51 and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. I also remember picking up a second-hand LP of the Edinburgh Quartet playing Haydn. The Razor quartet was one of the pieces. I collected the late Beethoven quartets, and it was surely the Edinburgh Quartet that I heard playing them all at the Reid School of Music, in those days for the price of a programme. The one worrying thought I had at this most enjoyable gala concert was the lack of young people. There were so few that I could bet they were all music students. The rest of the audience was all grey hair and grey beards.

In my experience, many from the older generation regard premieres with trepidation. That section of the audience must have been relieved at Howard Blake’s Spieltrieb, which proceeded through a series of playful sections and finished with a lush melodious episode. John Adams named his work Harmonielehre after Schoenberg’s book – in which Schoenberg claimed that tonality was dead. Alex Ross wrote that Adams’ piece said in essence ‘like hell it is.’ Blake’s work in a more modest way seems to be saying the same thing.

During the interval, in true eclectic fashion, I bought a CD of the Edinburgh Quartet playing three quartets by Mátyás Seiber, of whom I knew little except that he was a serialist. The two works that used that technique would be a good starting point for anyone frightened by the term. These are not angst-laden compositions. There are passages in both quartets that are lyrical, even soothing and the scherzo of no. 3 is – well, wonderfully scherzo-like.