There is something so delightfully romantic about getting postcards from abroad! Yesterday I received one of Melk Abbey, in Austria, from an American friend who spent the month of March touring Europe. Austria is down on my list of places I want to visit before I am old: this is partly due to growing up with “The Sound of Music”, and even more so to the charm of Eva Ibbotson’s Austrian novels (Magic Flutes is a particular favourite).
As I admired my postcard, something about it rang a bell. Somehow the façade of the abbey seemed familiar. And then I realized I’d read a description of it several months ago, in Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts. When Leigh-Fermor was eighteen, he decided to walk across Europe, all the way to Constantinople. Sometime in mid-January 1934, while on his way to Vienna, he stopped at Melk. The pages in which he describes his memories of the place are truly marvellous – armchair travelling at its best.
High on a limestone bluff, beneath two baroque towers and a taller central dome, tiers of uncountable windows streamed away into the sky. It was Melk at last, a long conventual palace cruising above the roofs and the trees, a quinquereme among abbeys.
No janitor was about. A young Benedictine, finding me loitering in the gatehouse, took me in tow, and as we crossed the first great courtyard, I knew I was in luck. He spoke beautiful French; he was learned and amusing and the ideal cicerone for all that lay ahead.
Afterwards, it was in confused musical terms that the stages of our progress strung themselves together in my memory. This is how they resound there still. Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues. The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the décor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene. A magnificent and measured polyphony crept in one’s ears. It was accompanied by woodwind at first, then, at shortening intervals, by violins and violas and ‘cellos and then double basses while a sudden scroll-work of flutes unfurled in mid-air; to be joined at last by a muted fanfare from the ceiling, until everything vibrated with a controlled and pervading splendour. Beyond it, in the church, a dome crowned the void. Light spread in the painted hollows and joined the indirect glow from the ovals and the lunettes and the windows of the rotunda. Galleries and scalloped baldachinos and tiered cornices rose to meet it; and the soft light, falling on the fluted pilasters and circles of gold spokes, and on the obelisks wreathed with their sculpted clouds, suffused the honeycomb side-chapels and then united in a still and universal radiance. Music might just have fallen silent; unless it were about to begin. In the imagination, instruments assembled – unseen cymbals just ajat that would collide with a resonance no more strident than a whisper; drums an inch below their padded sticks with palms ready to muffle them; oboes slanting, their reeds mute for a moment more; brass and woodwind waiting; fingers stretched motionless across the wires of a harp and fifty invisible bows poised in the air above fifty invisible sets of strings.
For me the famous buildings were a peak in a mountain range of discovery which had begun at Bruchsal and continued long afterwards. Again and again during these weeks I was to find myself wandering through great concavities illuminated by reflections from the snow. Sunlight flared in lintels and broken pediments, and streamed in over snowy sills so close to the ceilings that they gave a last lift to the trompe l’oeil Ascensions and Transfigurations and Assumptions as they poured across them and quickened the white and cream wreaths of stucco holding them aloft: garlands doubly etherealized by the reverberated radiance of the snowflakes, and composed of all that reed and palm-leaf and tendril and scallop and conch and the spines of the murex can inspire.
In this high baroque style, halted at a point on the frontier of rococo where the extravagant magic of later decades is all implicit, how easily the same aesthetic mood glides from church to palace, from palace to ballroom, from ballroom to monastery and back into church again! Paradox reconciles all contradictions. Clouds drift, cherubim are on the wing, and swarms of putti, baptized in flight from the Greek Anthology, break loose over the tombs. They try on mitres and cardinals’ hats and stumble under the weight of curtains and crosiers while stone Apostles and Doctors of the Church, who are really encyclopaedists in fancy dress, gaze down indulgently. Female saints display the instruments of their martyrdom as light-heartedly as dice-boxes and fans. They are sovereigns’ favourites, landgravines dresssed as naiads; and the androgynous saint-impersonating courtiers who ogle the ornate ceilings so meltingly from their plinths might all be acting in a charade. Sacred and profane change clothes and penitents turn into dominoes with the ambiguity of a masked ball.
In the half-century following Melk, rococo flowers into miraculously imaginative and convincing stage scenery. A brilliant array of skills, which touches everything from the pillars of the colonnade to the twirl of a latch, links the most brittle and transient-seeming details to the most magnificent and enduring spoils of the the forects and quarries. A versatile genius sends volley after volley of fantastic afterthoughts through the great Vitruvian and Palladian structures. Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of articial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus. Light is distributed operatically and skies open in a new change of gravity that has lifted wingless saints and evangelists on jouneys of aspiration towards three-dimensional sunbursts and left them levitated there, floating among cornices and spandrels and acanthus leaves and architectural ribands crinkled still with pleats from lying long folded in bandboxes. Scripture pastorals are painted on the walls of the stately interiors. Temples and cylindrical shrines invade the landscape of the Bible. Chinese pagodas, African palms, Nile pyramids and the a Mexican volcano and the conifers and wigwams of Red Indians spring up in Arcady. Walls of mirror reflect these scenes. They bristle with sconces, sinuous gold and silver boundaries of twining branches and the heaped-up symbols of harvest and hunting and warfare mask the joins and the great sheets of glass answer each other across wide floors and reciprocate their reflections to infinity. The faded quicksilver, diffusing a submarine dusk, momentarily touches the invetion and the delight of this looking-glass world with a hint of unplanned sadness.
But one is always looking up where those buoyant scenes in grisaille or pastel polychrome, unfolding elliptically in asymmetric but balancing girdles of snowy cornice, enclose room after room with their resplendent lids. Scriptural throngs tread the air among the banks of vapour and the toppling perspectives of the balustrades. Allegories of the seasons and chinoiserie eclogues are on the move. Aurora chases the Queen of the Night across the sky and Watteau-esque trios, tuning their lutes and their violins, drift by on clouds among ruins and obelisks and loosened sheaves. A sun declining on a lagoon in Venice touches the rims of those clouds and veils the singing faces and the plucked strings in a tenuous melancholy; irony and pity float in the atmosphere and across the spectator’s mind, for there is little time left and a closing note sounds in all these rococo festivals.
Ceremonious and jocund, Melk is high noon. Meridian glory surrounded us as a clock in the town struck twelve. The midday light showered on the woods and a yellow loop ofthe Danube and a water-meadow full of skaters, all foreshortened as they wheeled and skimmed beneath the flashing line of windows. We were standing at the centre of a wide floor and peering – under a last ceiling-episode of pillars and flung cloud where the figures rotated beneath a still loftier dayspring of revelation – at a scene like a ballroom gallop getting out of hand. Draperies whirled spiralling up biblical shanks and resilient pink insteps trod the sky. We might have been gazing up through a glass dance-floor and my companion, touching me on the elbow, led me away a couple of paces and the scene reeled for a second with the insecurity of Jericho, as trompe l’oeil ceilings will when a shift of focus inflicts the beholder with a fleeting spasm of vertigo. He laughed, and said: “On se sent un peu gris, vous ne trouvez pas?”
A bit tipsy… It was quite true. Wa had been talking about the rococo interplay of spiritual and temporal, and for a few instants, at these last words, my companion was transformed as well: habit, scapular, cowl and tonsure had all vanished and a powdered queue uncoiled down his brocaded back from a bow of watered silk. He was a Mozartian courtier. His light-hearted voice continued its discourse as he stood with his left hand poised on his sword knot. With explanatory sweeps of a clouded cane in his right, he unravelled the stratagems of the ceiling-painter; and when, to balance the backward tilt of his torso, he advanced a leg in a Piranesi stance, I could all but hear a red heel tap on the chessboard floor.
One of the Abbey’s bells began tolling on a more insistent note and, with an apology from my mentor, who was safely back in his native century, we hastened our step. In a few minutes I was several fields away, high above the Danube with the dome and the cupolas already dropping out of sight below a clump of trees. Twin gold crosses followed them and the cross on the dome last of all. Nothing remained in those hills to give the Abbey’s presence away. The vanished pinnacles might have been the pigeon-loft of a farm.
Un peu gris. It was too mild a term.
From Patrick Leigh-Fermor, A Time Of Gifts, Chapter 6 (1977).
© Florence Berlioz 2015