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Visual Art and Music

July 28, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.

Have you ever had the opportunity to wander around an art museum like the Getty Center, LACMA, or MOCA looking at paintings and sculptures? Perhaps you, like me, enjoy the relative serenity of art exhibits, just quiet voices chatting about brushstrokes, lighting, and color. I had the opportunity to visit LACMA last week, and I caught a show of Alexander Calder’s mobiles and sculptures. The works on display are fascinating, and they brought to mind a recent piece of music I heard at a Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert. The work was The Great Swiftness, composed by Andrew Norman, and it was inspired by Calder’s large public sculpture La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The sculpture is located on the plaza by City Hall, and people can walk around it, sit under it, and I imagine, it’s a popular place to meet. It also brings to mind the question: what does a piece of music sound like when it’s inspired by a work of visual art?

Andrew Norman wasn’t the first person to write music as a response to art, but his work is quite interesting, with curves and swoops to follow the lines of the sculpture. He imagined the experience of walking around the work, and the shifting perspective that would result from the motion around it. Norman allowed the shape of the work to influence the lines and melodies in his music, but what else could a composer respond to when writing music inspired by art?

One of the first important musical works to represent visual art was Modest Mussorgsky’s solo piano piece, Pictures at an Exhibition. A set of short pieces for piano, each one was inspired on a work by visual artist Viktor Hartmann. The two men met around 1870, and immediately became friends. Among the many things they had in common was the idea of making art that was true to Russian ideals and inspired by Russian traditions. This is the idea we call “Nationalism” in a musical context, and it could mean writing an opera about a Russian historical figure or incorporating actual folk music into a symphony. Unfortunately, Hartmann died suddenly from an aneurysm at the age of thirty-nine. In lieu of a traditional memorial, his friends put together a show of his works at the Academy of Fine Art in St. Petersburg. Mussorgsky was moved by his friend’s paintings.

In about six weeks, Mussorgsky composed Pictures, with each movement representing a painting or drawing. The Promenade, which opens the work, is the walking music. It represents us, the viewer, and it re-appears now and then, as we make our way from one picture to another. The final movement is called “The Great Gate at Kiev,” and it’s based on a drawing Hartmann did of a proposed city gate. Although it was never built, Hartmann’s building would have been a monument to Czar Alexander II. What does it sound like? Mussorgsky turned the opening Promenade theme into a triumphant march, as if we are walking up to it slowly. Mussorgsky actually used Russian music in this movement, adding to its ceremonial sound. Ravel’s 1922 orchestration of this particular movement is as grand as a piece of music can be. Bells toll, horns ring out, and Hartmann’s Great Gate is brought to life through music.

Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi seemingly found musical inspiration in just about everything (especially if he saw it in Rome), as evidenced by his famous tone poems: Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals. He also composed Gli ucceli (The Birds) featuring actual birdsong. In 1927, Respighi was planning to dedicate a new work to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a notable patron of the arts who sponsored the composer’s American tour. On a visit to the Uffizi Gallery after the tour, Respighi came upon three paintings by Botticelli, La Primavera (Spring), L’Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Magi), and La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus). He composed the Trittico Botticelliano, or Botticelli Triptych based on these paintings.

La Primavera was painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s. It depicts some female and male figures in an orange grove. One female figure wears a crown of flowers and a floral dress, and she scatters flowers along the ground. Three ladies dance to the left of center, and a blindfolded cupid figure (called a putto) appears above the scene. In the center, there is a woman in white, with a red drape. For Respighi, fluttering music in the woodwinds seems to represent the gentle breeze of the spring day, and the ethereal celesta and harp add to the delicate charm. In the Adorazione, Respighi uses music to help represent the painting; he includes a Latin hymn on the birth of Jesus called “Veni Emanuel.” In the final movement, Venus’ emergence from the sea is represented by undulating figures in the strings. They are the waves before and after the goddess arises from the waters.

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem in 1909 called The Island of the Dead after seeing a black and white print of Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 painting The Isle of the Dead. The painting depicts a figure being rowed to a mysterious island. Wall of rock jut up on either side of the island, and in the center is a stand of cypress trees. The rower is supposedly Charon, the oarsman of Greek mythology, who was charged with bringing souls to the underworld. Rachmaninoff chose an uneven 5/8 meter that may be the unsteady rowing of the oars. Rachmaninoff also quotes the famous Dies Irae chant from the early Requiem mass. (Rachmaninoff was fond of this chant and used it in other pieces as well.) At the end of the symphonic poem, the composer depicts a musical conflict between the Dies Irae tune and his so-called “Life” theme. The orchestral colors are as dark and mysterious as Böcklin’s painting.

On the lighter side, George Benjamin, composer of the recent opera, Written on Skin, wrote a work called At First Light in 1982. Benjamin was inspired by a painting in London’s Tate Gallery: Joseph William Turner’s Norham Castle, Sunrise. Turner revisited the castle many times in his career, and in this particular version, the sun is nearly overpowering, obscuring crisp lines and washing out the color. Benjamin saw the intense sun of the painting causing the scene to melt under its influence. For the musical depiction of this “melting,” Benjamin takes distinct musical phrases and deconstructs them until they are less distinct, more nebulous, and all of the musical ideas seem to run together, like a watercolor that hasn’t quite dried.

We think of music telling stories. Even music without words can portray a narrative and express emotion. Music is a temporal art and so is drama. It seems natural. But to use music to represent a single visual--a moment captured in time--takes a lot of imagination. The examples above show there are many ways to do this. Some are concrete, some are symbolic, but hopefully, in every case, we get the picture.

 

 

 

Dr. Christine Gengaro is an award-winning educator, and a successful writer and musician. She has been on the faculty of Los Angeles City College since 2004. A graduate of the Ph.D. program in historical musicology at the University of Southern California, Dr. Gengaro currently serves as the program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She has also written notes and other materials for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Pacifica, and the Mozartwoche concert series in Vienna. Her research interests include music and film, music and literature, and classical music in popular media.

Dr. Gengaro's first book, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013.

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