Vesalii Icones

Music-theatre work for dancer, solo cello and instrumental ensemble


40 minutes




Commissioned by





Solo dancer (male), cello solo, flute (+ piccolo and alto flute), clarinet (+ bass or basset clarinet), *percussion (1 player), viola, piano (+ out-of-tune autoharp or zither, cheap commercial tape recorder, music box, 4 bamboo blocks, claxon, whistle, knife and plate), slightly out-of-tune upright piano (to be played by the dancer or the conductor)
*percussion (1 player): glockenspiel, xylophone, bass drum with foot-pedal, suspended cymbal (small), band kit, tam-tam, wood block (very small), anvil (small), sanctus bells, thunder-sheet, short lengths of scaffolding, grater, ratchet, whistle, toy clarion (e.g. Hohner Clarinet 12), biscuit tin filled with broken glass, chains, manual typewriter, saucepan, 2 pebbles, blacksmith’s bellows (or fingers drawn across bass drum to produce analogous sound)


1. The Agony in the Garden
2. The Betrayal of Judas
3. Christ and Pilate
4. The Flagellation
5. Christ Condemned to Death
6. The Mocking of Christ
7. Christ Receives the Cross
8. St. Veronica Wipes His face
9. Christ Prepared for Death
10. Christ Nailed to the Cross
11. The Death of
12. The Descent from the Cross
13. The Entombment of Christ
14. The Resurrection – Antichrist

P. Maxwell Davies - Vesalii Icons (1969)



Composer Notes

The idea of making a set of fourteen dances based on illustrations by Vesalius came to me when I bought a facsimile edition of De humani corporis fabrica (1543); the idea of superposing the Vesalius images on the fourteen Stations of the Cross (slightly modified to include the Resurrection) came much later and was the direct stimulus to composing the work.

In St. Thomas Wake: Foxtrot for Orchestra, I had worked with three levels of musical experience: that of the original sixteenth-century St. Thomas Wake pavan, played on the harp; the level of the foxtrots derived from this, played by a foxtrot band; and the level of my ‘real’ music, also derived from the pavan, played by the symphony orchestra. These three levels interacted on each other; a visual image of the effect would be three glass sheets spaced parallel a small distance apart, with the three musical ‘styles’ represented on them, so that when one’s eye focuses from the front on to one sheet its perception is modified by the marks on the other glass sheets, to which one’s focus will be distracted, and therefore constantly changed.

In the Vesalii Icones such processes are not only present in the music, but, more importantly, the Dancer has a parallel set of superpositions: (l) the Vesalius illustration; (2) the Stations of the Cross; and (3) his own body. In the music, there are also three levels – plainsong, ‘popular’ music, and my “own” music derived from the other two – but the three are very much fused, and clearly separate identities emerge rarely.

Each dance starts with the body position of the Vesalius illustration, to the sound of the turning of a wheel of small jingles and bells in the band (a ritual significance of bell-signals is present in several of my works). The Dancer then moves to express the parallel situation in the relevant Stations of the Cross, but the dance is not an attempt literally to act out the Vesalius drawing or the Station: it is an abstract from both, in which the Dancer explores the technical possibilities suggested by the Vesalius illustration – in the light of the ritual and emotional experience suggested by the Station – in terms of his own body. Similarly, the music is not an attempt to ‘illustrate’, in the traditional way, the movements or ‘moods’ of the Dancer but works out its own interrelationships – between my own style at that time and the fragments of Good Friday plainsong used, my motet Ecce manus tradentis, and my Miss super L’Homme Arm© – each of which is in itself full of musical quotations and cross-references. In No. 1 the Dancer himself enunciates the basic rhythmic pattern which generates the rhythmic structure of the work, and in No. 6 the ‘mocking’ is effected inside the music entirely – the Dancer plays, on an out-of-tune piano, a garbled Victorian hymn (a musical style which I consider almost the ultimate blasphemy) and subsequently the pianist turns this into a cheery foxtrot. The cello soloist sits apart from the instrumental group, near the Dancer, and in his eyes, on one level, can become Pilate, Veronica, or even a Flagellator – or, on another level, the Anatomy Demonstrator. In the last dance, The Resurrection, The Christ story is modified. It is the Antichrist – the dark ‘double’ of Christ of medieval legend, indistinguishable from the real Christ – who emerges from the tomb and puts his curse on Christendom for all eternity. Some may consider such an interpretation sacrilegious, but the point I am trying to make is a moral one: it is a matter of distinguishing the false from the real, that one should not be taken in by appearances.

Fides est virtus qua credentur quae non videntur Nos quidquid illud significat faciamus, et quam sit verum, non laboremus.
(Faith is a means by which those things that are not seen may be believed; and we may believe whatever it signifies to us, not troubling as to how true such things might be.)

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

This is the balletic counterpart to the operatic Eight Songs for a Mad King: a central work in the repertory of small-scale music-theatre. There are fourteen linked sections, tracing a pilgrimage around the Stations of the Cross. The dancer takes up the positions of Christ while also referring to anatomical engravings by Vesalius in a sixteenth-century treatise (hence the title). The music meanwhile adds further levels to the journey: one of intense searching in the important solo cello part, and others more picturesque in the parts for the other instruments, creating a maze of commentaries and distortions. And at the centre of the maze, discovered at the end, there is a manic foxtrot for the resurrection of the dancer as Antichrist.

Note on Vesalius

When the Belgian Andreas Wessels (or Weasels – or, in more dignified Latin, Vesalius) first became interested in dissecting human bodies in the early 1530s, he had to procure his specimens by creeping out at night and filching the half-rotten corpses of criminals from gibbets. Scarcely ten years later, he had become so celebrated that the civic authorities at Padua (where he was professor of anatomy) timed executions to coincide with his lectures, to ensure that the great scientist would never lack fresh cadavers to cut up. It was the start of ‘the culture of dissection’. In the following decades, anatomy theatres sprang up in Paris, Leiden, Bologna and other cities and fashionable crowds flocked to see the body’s secrets laid open. Explorers began to map the new continent. In 1543 Vesalius published De Humani coprporis fabrica, his great work on the fabric of the human body, with magnificent illustrations designed by artists of the school of Titian, showing bodies flayed or sliced open to reveal muscles, veins, nerves and internal organs.

To modern viewers, a bizarre feature of Vesalius’ anatomical diagrams, and those of his successors, is their liveliness. The human forms displayed are not, as you would expect in a modern textbook, schematic and anonymous. They are beautifully proportioned nudes, who gambol through pastoral landscapes or recline in ornamental chambers. That they have no skin, or that a sausage-shop of tubes and bladders is tumbling out of their midriffs, seems to have escaped their notice.


First Performance

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Tuesday, 9 December 1969

William Louther  dancer