I love working with strings and so jumped at the chance to give the first performance on 11 June of Artemisia, a cycle of songs by Paul Ayres about the life of ground-breaking Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentilleschi. Sharing the performance with me were Daniel Pioro (violin) and two members of the Castalian Quartet, Charlotte Bonneton (viola) and Christopher Graves (cello).
Paul initially set four of Sue Powell’s Artemisia poems in 2006 and was persuaded by Sue to complete the remaining cycle with three more songs in 2014. The texts touch on dramatic and emotional events surrounding Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi, a fellow artist in her father’s studio, against whom her father subsequently brought a legal case. Artemisia herself testified at the trial and endured an internal examination and torture with thumbscrews to ‘verify’ her story.
Artemisia’s work often portrays mythical and biblical women, both as victims and warriors. One of the most famous of these is Judith slaying Holofernes (right), whose striking violence it is tempting to link directly to the artist’s real-life experience. This painting and the Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting are perhaps Artemisia’s best-known works and are each the subject of a song in the cycle.
The movements in the cycle portraying the rape itself and the painting of the Judith canvas share driving rhythmic motifs and a relentless forward momentum suggesting two different kinds of emotional and physical frenzy. By contrast the trial scene is starkly atmospheric and empty, with the strings only briefly cutting across the vocal line like the shafts of light described in the text.
The concert was recorded and I hope to be able to post a link to some of the music here soon.