I am in Basel this week for three Emperor Concertos, the fifth of that least imperialistic composer’s works in the genre. As he is reputed to have said, “There are, and have been, thousands of princes; there is only one Beethoven”. I have never before felt so tangibly the nobility of this music and, in the 3rd movement, its sheer joy. Last week I was working with the Catholic, Scottish composer James MacMillan in the States and we discussed the lack of such joy in most modern music. There can be humour of many varieties, and tragedy until the cup is overflowing, but seldom that open sunshine, free from cloud or pollution. As I played the 3rd movement’s leaping arpeggio theme, its duplet skips quickening and falling with a final thump beyond the downbeat in purest E flat major, I actually felt the pricking of tears in my eyes. All the clichés were true about Beethoven: his overcoming of suffering and pain, his belief in the human spirit, his refusal to give in to despair, the ultimate triumph over fate.
On Saturday morning I decided to visit the Kunstmuseum where, in addition to its magnificent permanent collection, there was a special exhibit of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Basel works. The guidebook wrote of the Reformation’s iconoclasm which eventually forced him to leave town for France and England. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s henchman and chief iconoclast, whose portrait Holbein was later to paint, had obviously not yet reached his more destructive period. Holbein’s Last Supper, unlike Leonardo’s or Dan Brown’s, had an unmistakably masculine St. John next to Christ, and he looked the spitting image of the young Franz Liszt. I was intrigued by a dramatic painting from the Basel workshop where the Holbein brothers are thought to have worked – The Taking of Christ, designed as part of a rood-screen for a local church. In a scene of viciousness and ugliness the last figure on the right in the crowd, looking away from the moment of Judas’s kiss of betrayal, bore an uncanny resemblance to Martin Luther. An accident, I’m sure … Moving from the historically charged and turbulent early 16th century to the permanent collection of mainly 19th and 20th century art was breathtaking. From pictures where every woman wore a head-covering, to rooms where not even a brassiere was in evidence, was a bracing experience of cultural time-travel.
The whole museum is a delight in its very Swiss way: impeccably selected, delightfully arranged, beautifully lit, spotlessly clean. In fact one thing was too clean. The Oberreid Altarpiece “recently restored for this exhibition” was garishly brilliant after its ‘improvement’. The painter, Ingres, who was apparently afraid to touch up even his own canvases, seems to have inspired no such reluctance in the restorers here. No specialist knowledge was needed for this amateur critic: the figure of Mary is in both panels as if a mirror image, and the panel on the right was now a totally different palette of colours from the tarted-up one on the left. Even Mary’s enhanced halo was now the glinting tinsel-gold of a Galaxy bar – a visual equivalent of hearing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto as someone’s mobile ring-tone. Such an ‘immaculate correction’ is unforgivable. Where is Thomas Cromwell when we need him?
A version of this essay appeared in the Catholic Herald