One of the most entertaining, insightful and concise assessments of the early music movement I’ve ever encountered is an essay by scholar/keyboardist/conductor Raymond Leppard.
Authenticity in Music (1988, Amadeus Press) considers the cyclical nature of cultural trends, and the many ways they’ve manifested at different times in recent history. The turn of the 20th century, much like the 1960s, was a time of renewed interest in traditional instruments like harpsichords, and handmade artisanship in everything from weaving and pottery to poetry and folk dancing. Leppard writes, “…the ‘knit-your-own-violin school achieved remarkable things and survived to take its place among the first of those who showed older values still valuable.”
Before the Arts and Crafts movement materialized, the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau artists around the start of the 20th century had already begun working in very much the same areas with a mission (art for the masses) and practices (high quality work) furthered in the textiles and designs of William Morris, in print (see: Roycrofters), in paintings and poetry, and in the many unique artistic efforts of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Today was the final day for the Shelburne Museum’s Tiffany exhibit, with four large rooms of the Webb Gallery dedicated to the glass panels, jewelry, ceramics, and – of course – lamps, from the Tiffany Company.
I’ve seen Tiffany glasswork in pictures, but never in person. If you’ve seen some of these same photos of the lamps, the stained glass panels, and maybe even some of the vases or other Tiffany Co. ceramics – I can tell you there is no comparison with seeing them in person. Photos flatten out the layers and depth of color that distinguish the works and make them special.
How it changed my understanding of Tiffany’s artistry and gave me new appreciation for his complete understanding of glass as a versatile, artistic material to see one of the flat wall hanging’s multiple layers of colored glass lit up with a security guard’s flashlight. (Quite happy oblige, he said “that’s what I’m here for!”) The top layer was milky, the middle one opalescent, and only in the third (bottom) layer of glass did we get to the the earthy, mottled emerald glass that gave the whole piece its rich colored foundation. Only backlit did the three layers of colored glass fuse to form the iridescent, deeply wooded garden scene of the panel’s design. Remarkable.
The exhibit’s accompanying video “Tiffany: Magic in Glass” (produced by the U. of Connecticut) surveyed the interesting back story, including Tiffany’s schooling at the National Acedemy of Design and his leaving the school over its emphasis on form and draftsmanship, over color and composition. Very telling. It is an oversight NOT to also mention Tiffany’s superb eye for form, though, realized in all of his works but none more than his jewelry. I’m thinking in particular of a brooch featuring an exquisite egg-shaped amethyst jewel nestled in an oval thicket of silver filigree, or the pear-shaped green tourmaline gem deeply glowing from the middle of its silver ring setting. Organic forms, all, unusual and perfectly crafted.
Raymond Leppard’s Authenticity in Music makes the case that the enduring values of older generations and cultures are as relevant as ever in today’s world. And, that it’s in the periodic societal re-acknowledgment of this truth that the early music revival and cultural movements like Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement can take root and flourish.
Whether it’s harpsichords, knitting, or stained glass lamps – there’s no question we’re a better world for that occasional rediscovery.