Joep Franssens – Harmony of the Spheres

I’ve never hear of Joep Franssens.  Before the internet and youtube, I probably never would have, either, since appreciation for classical music in the United States has declined over the years.  His name popped up on youtube in the most serendipitous of ways.

Yesterday I went to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, to see an exhibition of paintings — called “Seeing Nature” — that came from the collection of Paul Allen.  Paul Allen, along with Bill Gates, founded Microsoft and is worth an estimated $17.6 billion dollars.  The collection, I was told by a security guard, came from his 18 houses.

There was a painting in the exhibition, painted I believe, sometime in the 1700s, which depicted Mt. Vesuvius erupting.  Though that eruption looked pretty fierce, it attracted crowds who came to watch it from across the Bay of Naples.  Great entertainment before television and the internet.

At the bottom of the picture, standing on a rock, was a priest, his back to the volcano, preaching to a small group of people, his hand pointing back to the flames shooting up to the sky.  It reminded me of when I lived in Naples, Italy from 1980 to 1980, where I was based under a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct inservice teacher training sessions to Italian middle school teachers of English as a foreign language throughout the south. The preacher bore a resemblance to San Genarro, the patron of Naples, who allegedly has the power to stop the flow of lava from Vesuvius and save the city.


Naples has a rich history, of being conquered.  The ancient Greeks did so and named it Neapolis (new city).  Then came the Romans, and after the fall of the Western Roman empire, the Ostrogoths, and the Byzantines.  The city became and independent Duchy for about 500 years (interrupted for periods by conquest by the Lombards and Saracens) until the 12th century, when the Normans annexed it.  Next, it was joined to the Kingdom of Sicily, which was eventually taken over by the Hohenstaufens, a German royal house.  Let’s see. Next came the French Angevins (from Anjou), who gave way to the Spanish Aragonese, who fell to the Hungarian Angevins, before being captured again by Spain and reunited with the Kingdom of Sicily.  In 1501 Naples was captured by the French again before being recaptured by the Spanish in 1503.  In 1647 a local fisherman named Masaniello led a revolution and was in power for a few months before being quashed.  In 1714, it was lost again to the Austrians and ruled from Vienna, Here, I get confused, and I think after the French Revolution, the British royalist Nelson tried to keep the city from having its own revolution against the monarchy.  That failed in 1799, and supported by the French Republican army, the Parthenowpaean Republic was established (Parthenope was the pre-Greek name for Naples). That was overthrown and it came back under Spanish rule through the kingdom of Sicily. France came back, under Napoleon and then his brother Joseph, and ruled for 7 years. When they were booted out, the city reverted to Sicily and this was known as the kingdom of the two Sicilies. In the late 1800s, Italy was unified under Garibaldi1, which unfortunately, looted the treasury and left the city destitute. As a result over 4 million people emigrated from Naples from 1879 to 1913. Naples was one of the most bombed cities in WWII after the Germans conquered it. It was finally freed by the US and British in 1944 and much money was funneled into the city to help after that.

Why is this important for me to tell you? Neapolitans, when I lived there, had a bad reputation among the rest of Italians. There has been pretty much active discrimination against them by many conservatives (and not so conservative) in the north who advocated seceding from the south. Granted, the Neapolitan mafia, known as La Camorra, was at its height when I lived there. And the neighborhood around the train station, known as Forcella, was full of cut rate stores, selling cheap electronics brought in legally and illegally through the port of Naples. Almost every Neapolitan I met had a story of having gone to Forcella, bought a television, saw it put into the box, and when they opened the box at home, it was full of bricks. Living there, I found the Neapolitans warm and passionate and they would always ask you on first meeting if you didn’t find Naples the most beautiful city in the world. Living under occupation for so long, (and under the Germans, supposedly it was the worst), I think Neapolitans survived by being intensely loyal to their family, and clever, to take advantage of and pull the wool over the eyes of their occupiers. They were also extremely religious and devoted to the popular saints, Santa Lucia and San Genarro.

Gennaro’s power was proved in 1944, when the mountain last erupted. A flow of lava threatened a suburb of Naples, so people carried a statue of Gennaro to the the edge of the town and pointed him toward the flow, his hand raised as if casting out demons. The lava miraculously stopped.  The preacher in the painting I saw in the Phillips connection struck a similar pose.

Gennaro also has a hand in determining economic fate of Naples three times a year. In the cathedral of Naples, there are relics of the saint, head, body and two vials of dried blood. Three times a year, the faithful of Naples come to church to witness a miracle. The blood is displayed in a sealed ampoule, and women in the audience begin chanting. (A friend in Naples told me they shout, “Gennaro. Gennaro. Do it!”) The priests watch the ampoule closely and after a while, one announces that the blood has miraculously liquefied. Supposedly, the time it takes to liquefy, or not, is an indicator of how the city will do economically.

So after I saw the painting that reminded me of San Gennaro, yesterday, I checked out Youtube to see if there were any videos of the ceremony. There were.

When I found the above video, for some reason, Youtube also also suggested today’s piece by Joep Franssens. He was born the same year as I was, 1955, and he lives in The Hague. He was classically trained and also influenced by the minimalists, including Steven Reich, Glass, and Terry Reilly. This piece is wonderfully, ethereal.

Paul Allen’s work allowed him to buy hundreds of paintings and other works of art for his personal collection. The exhibition at the Phillips is the first time items from his collection have been put on public view. People grumbled that he buys these paintings because he is a billionaire and can, thereby driving up the price of art, making it even more inaccessible to the hoi-polloi. One critic in the Washington Post, actually trashed the show for this reason, writing it didn’t say anything substantial as an exhibition. The pieces to me were stunning. The critic says Allen’s collecting is a form of philistinism, that is, he likens it to a tourist who thinks that since he saw some impressive work of art on vacation, it is now a part if him. My feeling is that the art itself isn’t a political statement, it’s just art, which is what humans do in order to express their emotional response to the ineffable and inspiring world around us.

It is odd though that the internet, torrent, youtube and music streaming services, allow us to consume culture in a way we couldn’t do in the past, thereby democratizing it more. But at the same time, it’s also destroyed the the old pay and royalty system which — though admittedly not very fair to the artists — at least did try to compensate them for the hard work and devotion they put in to their work.

What do you think?

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