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Classical Notes

MFA explores evolution, revolution in art of Goya and Beethoven

Program organizer Katarina Markovic of the New England Conservatory (pictured) says the painter and the composer share “a certain aesthetic temperament.’’
Program organizer Katarina Markovic of the New England Conservatory (pictured) says the painter and the composer share “a certain aesthetic temperament.’’Andrew Hurlbut/NEC

Last year, the Museum of Fine Arts held a special event to commemorate the centenary of the publication of “Swann’s Way,” the first volume of Proust’s epic and epoch-making novel “In Search of Lost Time.” The museum asked Katarina Markovic, of New England Conservatory’s musicology department, to assemble a hybrid concert-lecture — including readings from the novel and works by Debussy, Saint-Saens, and Fauré — to illuminate the musical streams that flow on and below Proust’s surfaces.

But what to do with Goya, the Spanish painter whose oeuvre reaches from elegant classicism to sepulchral, Romantic fantasy? Something similar to the Proust program was proposed, involving music of the Spanish court from the composer’s time. But the fit seemed wrong for an artist of Goya’s transformative intensity.

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Finally, Markovic settled on Beethoven — “not the most obvious choice,” she said with a laugh during a recent telephone interview. The event, “Goya and Beethoven: Revolution and Madness,” is scheduled for Sunday, part of the MFA’s ongoing “Goya: Order and Disorder” exhibit.

Yet for a nonobvious choice, the pairing works astonishingly well. They are, to begin with, rough contemporaries, Goya born about a quarter century before Beethoven and dying a year later. From modest circumstances they rose to high levels of patronage, and were both enamored with and contemptuous of the aristocracy. In a bizarre coincidence, both went deaf within a decade of each other.

But the links that interest Markovic run deeper. She sees the painter and composer as sharing “a certain aesthetic temperament,” she said, which she pieced together largely from each artist’s correspondence and other primary docu-ments. The Enlightenment and French Revolution loomed large in their understandings of the world, and they both danced warily with the idea of how their artworks related to the world-historical upheaval around them.

A piquant example comes from Goya’s life, during the period when Napoleon’s army occupied Spain and installed his brother Joseph as king. This was a development, Markovic explained, that Goya initially welcomed, as it heralded the end of the Inquisition. “The Spanish kings Goya had to work with — he was loyal to them, but still you can see in a series of his ‘Caprichos,’ these lithographs that he painted, a certain disgust with the hypocrisy of that society. So he paints very flattering portraits of, say, French military administrators.”

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After the French were finally expelled in 1814, Goya was scrutinized for his activities during the occupation. He pleaded that he had never been truly loyal to the French. More important, later that year he created “The Third of May 1808,” commemorating the initial Spanish resistance to Napoleon. It is one of his greatest paintings, and created a template for the way later artists would capture and reflect revolution.

The point, Markovic said, is not just that Goya was opportunistic, but also that “in the course of the French rulership, he saw the other side of war.” The enthusiasm for Revolutionary ideals curdled into disillusion. The response was eerily similar to Beethoven angrily erasing the dedication to Napoleon from the title page of his “Eroica” Symphony.

Moreover, both artists forged a distinctive “late style” toward the end of their careers — hermetic, inward-exploring works that seem to come from some deeply private muse, each man having been cut off from the world by physical ailment. Both of them, Markovic said, “retreated into some area of experimentation and mysticism and darkness, and created almost incomprehensible works for their time that they lived in.”

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In Beethoven the fruits of this period were the Missa Solemnis and the final piano sonatas and string quartets. Perhaps no piece so exemplifies the frontiers he reached than the Grosse Fuge, originally the last movement of the String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, and a portion of which is on Sunday’s program. The piece still sounds shockingly new, almost two centuries after it was composed.

For Goya, those late impulses emerge most shockingly in the “Black Paintings,” a group of terrifyingly dark scenes originally painted on the walls of his house and almost certainly never intended for public viewing. Satan devours his son, a tiny dog is subsumed in a bleak landscape, a coven of witches gather for the Sabbath. “These are horror paintings,” Markovic said, in which the restraint of classicism has been left behind completely and the more sinister impulses of Romanticism hold full sway. “They’re phantasmagoric, stylistically and technically very advanced for his age. The subject matter, the techniques, the colors — they’re simply from a different region.”

Markovic spent much of her summer in Europe, going to as many museums as she could to see Goya’s work. What she retained was less the scale of his achievement than the expressive intensity that could emerge from tiny details in his work, just as in a few bars of Beethoven.

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“Even in a portrait of some aristocrat, you can see so much — the smallest nuances of how he portrays somebody’s eye,” she says. “The lines on the face say so much. For me, the biographical similarities — OK, that’s nice. But the biggest connection is in their style, their expressivity, and the aesthetic principles that they announce in their art.”

Related coverage:

-Art review: Extraordinary MFA exhibit shows Goya in full

- Special relationship brings Goya masterpieces to MFA


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.