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(Beethoven's 9th Symphony)
Steven: Our necks are getting a little tired looking up
but it's well worth it.
We're in the Vienna Secession building and we're looking at
Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze.
Beth: The secession artists decided to do something really radical
and design something entirely around a sculpture by Max Klinger
of Beethoven and their idea was to make a total work of art
involving architecture, sculpture, painting and music.
And the idea behind the Gesamtkunstwerk, or a total work of art,
is to unite the arts and the idea was that that unification
of the arts was something that had been lost.
Steven: The notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk had come from Richard Wagner
who had conceived of operas that were, of course, music, speech,
but also set design and costume.
Something that was a totality of the arts
and it was this notion of a kind of lost ideal.
Beth: At the opening of this exhibition,
Mahler's version of Beethoven's 9th Symphony was playing
and one can almost hear that music here.
Beethoven was seen as an isolated, heroic, misunderstood genius.
Someone who the artists of the 19th century could really identify with.
Just before painting the Beethoven Frieze,
Klimt himself had been terribly persecuted
for the frescos he made for the university.
Steven: And so that idea of alienation, of lone genius,
these are romantic notions that really must have resonated at this moment.
Beth: Beethoven Frieze now resides in the basement of the Secession building
in a room that exactly mirrors the room that it first occupied.
Steven: The Frieze begins on the long wall with a very spare composition.
Most of that long wall is empty space, just plaster.
But at the top you see a series of figures in long flowing gowns
that seem to float or almost fly softly across the surface.
Beth: Their eyes are closed.
Their bodies are elongated and these are genii,
or figures that represent the idea of humanity's longing.
Steven: The genii are interrupted in one area of the Frieze
which shows first a young girl, a nude and we see her in profile.
She's virtually just an outline.
Her hands are clasped, she seems quite timid
and seems to be embodying hope.
Beth: Next to her are two figures on their knees who also are nude.
These figures represent suffering humanity, pleading with a knight
who's decked out in golden armor with two female figures above him,
representing ambition and compassion.
Steven: You can see that ambition holds a laurel wreath
as if it's egging the knight on.
Beth: The figure of the knight has a helmet at its feet
and carries an enormous sword.
Steven: There is this notion of seeking a kind of heroic mythic figure
that could be a kind of savior.
Austria and Germany of course will distort these ideas in terrible ways
where people are looking to insane fanatical figures as their savior.
Think Hitler and others.
Beth: And in fact some of those types of leaders
were emerging in Vienna in the 1890's.
So let's go on to the next wall which represents
the forces that the knight is here to save humanity from.
Steven: These are the forces of darkness.
That end wall is painted very darkly and visually functions
as an obstacle through which the knight needs to move.
He needs to both be able to vanquish and also
to be able to resist the temptations.
Beth: On the far left of this end wall we see the three gorgons.
Steven: Those are mythical Greek monsters.
They were three sisters who had snakes for hair,
the most famous of which of course is Medusa.
They were lethal but they're also painted in a most seductive way.
Beth: And above those three gorgons are the figures
of sickness, madness and death, also represented by women.
The figure that takes up the largest portion of the wall, however,
is the figure of just pure evil and that's the mythic creature of Typhoeus.
Steven: When you look at Typhoeus you can certainly recognize
his ape like head and chest but the entire mass of decorative painting
to the right is also Typhoeus.
You can make out an enormous bluish eagle wing
and below that a kind of infinitely articulated almost serpent-like body.
Beth: And within that serpent and wing we see another female figure
who represents gnawing grief.
Steven: Whereas so many of the other figures are rendered
in brilliant golds or blues, she is all grey and black.
Draped not only with her own hair but in a thin veil.
Beth: The figures just to the right of Typhoeus represent
lasciviousness, wantonness and intemperance.
Steven: The genii do emerge and the last wall is light again.
Beth: This wall represents a kind of salvation for mankind in the arts
and so we see a figure playing a lyre representing poetry and music.
Steven: She's just beautifully draped in brilliant gold.
There's a heavily ornamented surface that you can see
the appliqué's on her dress are actually built up with gems
that reflect the light.
Beth: It's almost like an ancient Greek vase painting
in its linear and decorative qualities.
In this last portion of the Frieze, the genii now emerge vertically.
There's a sense of fulfillment, that longing has been satisfied.
Steven: They look like they're enraptured and they seem to be moving
almost in a kind of rhythmic response to music.
At the end of the 9th Symphony, Beethoven incorporates a poem
called the Ode to Joy by Schiller which is this triumphant piece of music
where an enormous number of voices harmoniously rise to the music
and express a kind of intense fulfillment.
Beth: One of the lines in Schiller's Ode to Joy
is "a kiss to the whole world" and in this *** shape
at the very end we see a man and a woman in an embrace,
wrapped in a golden decorative cocoon with the sun and moon on either side.
Steven: In fact water seems to swirl around them, binding them together
and their bodies are so close they seem to almost merge.
Neither of their heads are visible so they are, their love,
it is this summation of the yearning that this entire Frieze has been about
and it seems to be such a perfect visual expression of the way
in which Beethoven's music comes to a kind of extraordinary crescendo.
(Beethoven's 9th Symphony)