• Michael Nyman
  • Mosè (2001)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Progetto Mosè, via Attilio Regolo, 19 - 00192 Roma, Italy

  • string quartet
  • 19 min
  • Michael Nyman
  • Michelangelo and Sigmund Freud
  • English, Italian

Programme Note

When I was asked to write a piece to celebrate the restoration of Michelangelo’s Mosè, I returned to the paper written by Sigmund Freud on the sculpture which I had discovered by chance many years ago. Freud’s fascination with the Mosè began in 1901 when he visited San Pietro in Vincoli for the first time. A series of subsequent visits culminated in the publication of the Moses of Michaelangelo in 1914, from which I have used two extracts to ‘frame’ the main body of my text which consists of selections from Michelangelo’s own letters.

In 1505 Michelangelo was summoned to Rome by Pope Julis II and was commissioned to build a tomb which would reflect the magnificence of the Pontiff’s reign. Forty years and four Popes later, the tomb, modified and scaled down due to a variety of financial and political changes of circumstance, was completed. The letters give the impression of an idealist at work: Michelangelo personally selected each piece of marble and supervised its transportation to Rome by his more worldly and capricious paymasters. His creative and artistic frustrations are mirrored by problems of a more a practical nature; payment for both his services and the materials is erratic. At one point his is accused of embezzling funds.

The complete text which follows tells the story of an artists struggle and eventual triumph against external circumstances. The Mosè, by virtue of its very nature combines the elements of the physical and the spiritual with which Michelangelo challenged and eventually triumphed over the restraints of the context in which he had to work. The lovingly selected and cared for marble in the hands of the unpaid, exploited artist is transformed into something more substantial and eternal.

The complete text

The Moses is seated. His body faces forward, his head with its mighty beard looks to the left and his right foot rests on the ground and his left leg raised so that only the toes touch the ground. His right arm links the tablets of the Law with a portion of his beard while his left arm lies in his lap.

I overheard the Pope talking at dinner…saying that he didn’t want to spend another penny on stones, whether small or large, which shocked me. However, before I left I asked him for part of what I needed in order to continue working.

Suffice to say that it made me wonder whether if I stayed on in Rome my own tomb would not be finished before the Pope’s. This was the reason for my sudden departure.

As for myself, I am penniless, practically barefoot and naked; they won’t hand over the balance due to me till I have finished the work, so that I still have much toil and hardship ahead.

As I said I would when I last wrote, I have ordered many blocks of marble, handing out money here and there to start the quarrying in various places. In some places, I have spent money on marble that in the end has not been suitable, because of faults, especially in the larger blocks which I need and which I want to be as perfect as is possible.

I want to confess to your Lordship the so-called sin that I committed at Carrara. I stayed there for thirteen months on account of the tomb, and lacking money I spent 1,000 crowns that Pope Leo had given for the façade of San Lorenzo on marble for the tomb…And this I did out of my love and enthusiasm for the job, for which I am thanked by being called a usurer and a thief by ignorant people who hadn’t even been born at the time.

Then Pope Julius took me away, and nether from one not the other did I get anything. Once in Rome, Pope Julius commissioned me to do his tomb, which would have absorbed 1,000 ducats worth of marble; and I was paid this and I was sent to Carrara to select the marble. I spent eight months there, having the blocks roughly shaped, most of them were then transported to the piazza of St Peter’s. After I had finally paid the transport costs and finished the money that I’d received for the work, I furnished the house I had on the Piazza of St Peter’s with my own belongings, depending on my hopes of doing the tomb. The Pope Julius changed his mind and no longer wanted to do it and in ignorance of this, I went to ask for the money and was thrown out if his presence.

The Moses of legend, hasty temper, subject to fits of passion: broke the tablets of the Law inscribed by God himself. But the artist has placed a different Moses on the tomb of the Pope, superior to the historical Moses. He has modified the theme of the broken tablets; Moses does not break then in his wrath, but fears the danger they’ll be broken and makes him calm that wrath. And in his way he has added something new and more human to the figure of Moses, so that the giant frame with its tremendous physical power becomes only a concrete expression of the highest mental achievement that is possible in a man, that of struggling successfully against an inward passion for a cause to which he devoted himself.