Nocturnal wanderings with a corpse
The glimmer of torches sheds light on what seems to be a procession, approaching from afar, breaking the serenity of the darkness. The humming of hymns, mumbled prayers and sporadic drumming creep upwards along bare and rocky ridges. The gathering consists of monks, their faces hidden under the large hoods of their habits. In their midst they are dragging along a coffin. The procession is preceded by the queen, who guides them through the night, dressed in a beautiful garment.
Joanna the Mad (1479-1555) could not part from her beloved Philip the Handsome,
after he passed away in 1506. Before she was locked up in the tower of a monastery
for the rest of her life, she dragged Philips’ mortal remains along on nightly wanderings
through Castile and León for quite some time. She frequently ordered the procession
to halt and to have the coffin opened, so she could embrace and kiss her spouse;
or because she thought the moment of his resurrection was imminent, as was predicted
to her. Eyewitnesses perceived inside the coffin ‘nothing but the vague form of
a reclining person. It was no longer possible to distinguish whether it had any
human features’.Joanna took Philips’ embalmed body, of which the heart and intestines
were transported in an urn to his hometown Brussels, with her to her sleeping quarters.
Masses were performed for him there, and motets were sung. After she had been imprisoned
in the Santa Clara monastery in Tordesillas, she lived for forty-six years in a
very frugal chamber with only one window, overlooking the courtyard with the marble
mausoleum of her husband.
Rage d’amours is a story about love, death and necrophilia. It is an essay on passion; about a tragic love, which was of such a boundless and unconditional nature, that it aspired to be indefectible and overcome death. Although it was an arranged marriage, the relation between Joanna and Philip was extremely tempestuous, right from the start. When they first met in October 1496 in Lier, near Antwerp, it was love at first sight. Quite in discordance with the prevailing courtly conventions, they slept with each other before the official marriage ceremony had taken place. In essence, Rage d’amours is the story of a teenage crush which is lived through to its utmost consequences. The portrait of Philip perhaps does not make a smashing impression on us. In his days however, he was regarded an Adonis; a paragon of beauty and elegance, renowned throughout Europe for the grandeur and flamboyance of his entourage and the exuberance of his feasts, which could last for several weeks. From that first moment their eyes had met, Joanna fell under a very strong sensual spell, an all-consuming and compulsive desire to be with her loved one. It was a state of mind that would not let go of her for the rest of her life. On the other hand, it is possible that Philip was not very thrilled about his bride. Chroniclers describe Joanna as a simplex foemina : an ordinary woman. For him it was perhaps more of a passionate infatuation for a shy, inexperienced girl with dark Mediterranean eyes. Philip ‘preferred to deflower a young virgin every day’ and ‘derived great joy from making love to women’, the chronicles tell us. As a consequence of Philip’s adulterous nature, Joanna fell prey to furious attacks of jealousy, which were alternated with somber taciturn moods, apathy and seclusion. Philip knew how to restrain Joanna however: by threatening her to no longer fulfill his marital duties, an argument she was always susceptible to, and made her succumb. After he had died, he could no longer escape her and she wouldn’t let him go.
Joanna the Mad was the third child of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the Catholic Kings, who had succeeded in turning Spain into a solid nation state. The death of her older brother and sister, and their offspring, made her the heiress to the throne. Her alliance with Philip the Handsome, the child of Maximilian of Austria and Maria of Burgundy, had the political goal to contain the power of France and to encapsulate it from three sides. Together with the overseas territories, recently discovered by Columbus, a large and potent imperium had arisen. But it was Charles V, born in 1500 in Ghent and the second of Joanna and Philip’s six children, who would be the first to fully understand the potential of this domain, and have himself crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Philip the Handsome was not interested in state affairs at all. He was susceptible however to the exorbitant banquets the French king lavished him with, when he came to visit there. This political inattentiveness was a thorn in the eye of his father-in-law, Ferdinand of Aragon. Although it is not at all certain that Philip died of unnatural causes, Don Ferdinand was an intrigant by nature. He was a cunning fox, praised by Machiavelli for being a realist and a great statesman. Almost all of his political rivals met their end prematurely, by nefarious conspiracies, assassination or poisoning. Significant in this regard, is the letter Philip the Handsome received several months prior to his death from Philbert Naturel, his ambassador in Rome, in which he urges him not to go over for dinner at his father-in-law’s. Around that same time Philip’s taster, Bernard d’Orley, fell ill and became inexplicably greenish and gray, before withering away slowly. It was perhaps a final warning issued by Ferdinand, urging Philip to stay in line.
‘The liquid ran out of the coffin’, I overheard as a little boy. The funeral of my great-grandmother on mother’s side, also named Johanna, was the topic of conversation, in a juicy Rotterdam accent. At the time of her unexpected death in 1917 the poverty in her hometown Grave, in the province of Brabant, was dire, and there was no money for an interment and last rites. And so the funeral ceremony had to be postponed time and again.
It was probably this family saga which made me already as a schoolboy interested in the story of this wandering queen. After a friend brought a book to my attention, Johanna de Waanzinnige, by Dutch historian Johan Brouwer, dating from 1940, I became aware of the potential of the story as the subject of an opera. I started a search into form and language, which resulted in Foemeneis Blandimentis Gaudebat , a preliminary study of the opera, which was premiered in November 2001 by soprano Lucy Shelton and the Radio Chamber Orchestra in a Matinee concert at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The music depicts a nightly wandering of Joanna with the corpse of Philip and, in a slightly modified form, became scene 7 of Rage d’amours. Around that time I was approached by Anthony Fogg of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to make an opera for the Tanglewood Music Center, in August 2003. A piece of about an hour was required, which would stand side by side with a new work by Osvaldo Golijov. It were the first operas to be commissioned by the BSO since Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1947, made possible by a generous donation by Patricia Plum Wylde. After I somewhat nervously explained my plans in a short half hour at Fogg’s office, he paused thoughtfully, folded his hands together and said in a bass voice; ‘Dead king, great idea.’ And I could get started.
At the back of the book by Brouwers I found an elaborate reference list, which turned out to be of immeasurable value. I came across a great number of sixteenth century sources, chronicles and letters which gave me access to the world of Joanna and Philip. My doubts about the use of language, and the way the libretto should take shape, ended abruptly once I got hold of the Collection des voyages des souverains des Pays-Bas by L.P. Gachard, in the University Library of Utrecht. In this work, which appeared in Brussels in 1888, I found an anonymous chronicle about the second (and fatal) voyage Philip the Handsome made to Spain in 1506. In a graceful, fairy tale-like French it relates, concise and undisguised, the turbulent relationship of Joanna and Philip, both in life and death.
The imaginative musicality of these texts made me decide to construct the entire libretto out of historic source material and to use these sources in their original, untranslated form. Inspiration was also brought by Petrus Martyr, who had been Joanna’s private teacher from 1487 onwards and was a prominent humanist of his time. In 1670 his Opus Epistolarum appeared by Simon Elzevier in Amsterdam, where he amongst others gives his eyewitness account of the nocturnal pilgrimages with Philip‘s remains. In Juana la Loca (Madrid, 1892) by Rodriguez Villa, I found a collection of old Spanish chronicles, including the prediction by an old Galician woman, which I have used in the prologue.
I have intertwined the fragments and pieces from the past which were handed to me through these sources into a libretto which gives a mosaic-like picture of the ‘rage of love’. The historical facts that spoke to me quite often surpassed my wildest expectations. I read about a near-shipwreck at sea, where they put an inflated leather wine bag on Philip’s back, as sort of a makeshift life belt. While he renders a dramatic speech, a tablet is hung around his neck which reads ‘El Rey Don Phelipe’. In case he would drown, he would at least be recognized when washed ashore somewhere, so he could receive a proper funeral. Joanna all the while remained unmoved, indifferent to whether she would perish or survive, because she was happy, being together with her handsome husband. For the dialogues between Joanna and Philip I found suitable material in the exalted lyricism of the Song of Songs from the Bible, which also put the specific historical facts in a more universal context.
I see the dungeon-like tower room, where Joanna the Mad spent most of her life in seclusion, as a metaphor for her head. It is the starting point of a journey through her imagination, leading to the core of her ecstatic and obsessive love. The idea to use three sopranos as an ideal means of transport for this journey came to me as in a sonic epiphany. Besides numerous passages where the three voices are entwined and blend together into one timbre, they each develop more specific individual qualities along the way. Where the first Joanna represents the more physical and sensuous aspects of love, the second expresses love from a more spiritual perspective, as inner faith. For the third Joanna it is constantly being in the presence of Philip, that is most essential.
Philip and Joanna were both great music lovers, in their extensive court chapel composers such as Pierre de la Rue and Agricola were to be found. On his way to the south, Philip had even tried to persuade Josquin des Prez to steal away from the French king. Their affinity with music is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the beautiful choirbook which was made for Joanna and Philip in 1504, an anthology of the most refined Renaissance polyphony of that time. The study of its counterpoint helped me along the way of getting an idea of the sound world of Rage d’amours. Still, the only direct quote of music from that era concerns a fragment of Pierre de la Rue’s Delicta Iuventutis. This motet was composed in September 1506 for the funeral of Philip the Handsome, an event that kept on being postponed. De la Rue was an intimate friend of the royal couple, who affectionately called him ‘Pierchon’. This Pierchon performs the role of narrator in Rage d’amours.
For a long time I struggled with how to bring the story to a plausible ending. It was Hans Werner Henze who, at a stroll along the shore of the Lago Albano, offered me a solution: “If she so vehemently believes in his resurrection, why don’t you give her what she wants?” Thus, Rage d’amours culminates in the tender embrace of a ghostlike apparition and a mad woman, in the garden of the imagination.