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The Rothko Chapel is a spiritual environment created by the American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) as a place for contemplation where men and women of all faiths, or of none, may meditate in silence, in solitude or celebration together. For this chapel, built in 1971 by the Ménil Foundation in Houston, Texas, Rothko painted fourteen large canvasses.

While I was in Houston for the opening ceremonies of the Rothko Chapel, my friends John and Dominique de Ménil asked me to write a composition as a tribute to Rothko to be performed in the chapel the following year.

To a large degree, my choice of instruments (in terms of forces used, balance and timbre) was affected by the space of the chapel as well as the paintings. Rothko’s imagery goes right to the edge of his canvas, and I wanted the same effect with the music – that it should permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room and not be heard from a certain distance. The result is very much what you have in a recording – the sound is closer, more physically with you than in a concert hall.

The total rhythm of the paintings as Rothko arranged them created an unbroken continuity. While it was possible with the paintings to reiterate color and scale and still retain dramatic interest, I felt that the music called for a series of highly contrasted merging sections. I envisioned an immobile procession not unlike the friezes on Greek temples.

These sections could be characterized as follows: 1. a longish declamatory opening; 2. a more stationary “abstract” section for chorus and chimes; 3. motivic interlude for soprano, viola and tympani; 4. a lyric ending for viola with vibraphone accompaniment, later joined by the chorus in a collage effect.

There are a few personal references in Rothko Chapel. The soprano melody, for example, was written on the day of Stravinsky’s funeral service in New York. The quasi-Hebraic melody played by the viola at the end was written when I was fifteen. Certain intervals throughout the work have the ring of the synagogue.

There were other references which I have now forgotten.

-Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman-ROTHKO CHAPEL & WHY PATTERNS? (1972 / 1978)


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