While I was beginning to think about some of the ideas for this piece, a gift I received of a book on the American painter Mark Rothko renewed a fascination with his work which I had had since I first saw some of his paintings a few years ago. I also had the opportunity, while working on the piece, to visit the large retrospective of his canvases at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Perhaps as a result of Rothko's habit of leaving his works untitled, there is a tendency for any discussion of their qualities and characteristics to be very general, as if an evaluation of one important painting could somehow refer to them all. Some typical adjectives: beautiful, spiritual, religious, disturbing, visionary, imposing, intimate. Rothko would only have agreed with a few of these; his point of view was that his paintings were, in fact, tragic, violent, and dramatic, and that their purpose was to show the viewer his view of the world, not theirs. He wanted his paintings to attain the condition of music, reaching beyond the senses to something more powerful; he wanted people to break down and cry at the meaning of his paintings. In order to achieve this forcefulness of pure ideas, he stripped the content of the works down to basic ingredients: form (proportion, shape), colour (light, intensity) and scale.

My initial intention for this piece was for the music to aspire to the condition of Rothko. However, this would have been a pointless and self-defeating aim, as ultimately a piece of music must be directed through time and thus takes on its own meaning and its own life. Furthermore, the music must have meaning in of itself, and not be dependent on a listener's awareness of its subject or intentions. And lastly, the great variety of moods and visions expressed in the selection of Rothkos I saw eclipsed any notion that "the condition of Rothko" could validly be summed up or represented.

Therefore, I would say that my piece Portrait is a tribute to Rothko - neither a portrait of him, nor of his ideas, but a "portrait of an idea" in Rothko's words - that which expresses in an elemental, abstract and forceful way the vision which inspired it.

© 1999 Stuart MacRae

The premiere of Stuart MacRae’s specially commissioned Portrait confirmed him as an accomplished voice…

The Times

First performed by BCMG conducted by Thomas Adès at the Aldeburgh Festival on 26 June 1999.