By Ricky O’Bannon
In his 1873 essay on the Renaissance, English art critic Walter Pater wrote, “All art consistently aspires to the condition of music.”
More than 140 years after the fact, critics are still debating just what that idea means. The notion is abstract and usually just beyond the capability of words to sufficiently explain, and yet somehow it just feels true. Visual art and music have their own language and modes but there is a shared energy and artistic vocabulary that drives them both.
Unsurprisingly, artists and composers often feel compelled to neatly outline that enigmatic connection by responding to a piece of music or painting with a work of their own. Abstract expressionist art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky admired the power of music to elicit images or an emotional response in its listener without trying to literally depict a recognizable form, and Kandinsky hoped to replicate sound and musical gestures with shapes and swathes of color.
For classical music, undoubtedly the most celebrated musical depiction of art is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is performing later this week. Mussorgsky was inspired to write Pictures at a posthumous exhibit of work by his close friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann. The composer sought to musically represent the experience of being at that exhibit, wandering between Hartmann’s works and becoming lost in thought imagining the worlds evoked by them.
But while Mussorgsky’s work might be the most-often-performed classical work that depicts visual art, it is far from the only one.
Arnold Böcklin and Sergei Rachmaninoff
In 1907, Rachmaninoff was profoundly affected by seeing a black-and-white reproduction of Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead while in Paris. As a Symbolist, Böcklin believed in describing fundamental truths indirectly with metaphor. The scene depicts a rowboat carrying a figure dressed in white that is guided by an oarsman past a seawall to a small island. Böcklin described it as something you might see in a dream.
While the artist provides no explanation, most interpret it to represent a scene from Greek mythology where the oarsman Charon rowed the deceased across the River Styx to the underworld. Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem of the same name musically depicts this scene and the feelings it drew from the composer.
Jackson Pollock and Jennifer Higdon
While many composers on this list were inspired by the recognizable figures, places or stories in a painting, Jennifer Higdon was instead inspired by the process of artist Jackson Pollock for “Splashing the Canvas,” a movement from the piece Short Stories.
As she wrote about the piece “Jackson Pollock, [is] an artist who splashes paint upon a canvas in a wild and uncontrolled manner, building up layers and constantly changing the resulting structure. Through this piece, many ideas are presented and are thrown about and layered. At the beginning of the movement it takes longer for the ideas to be stated, but as the piece progresses, the themes come back quicker and quicker as if the canvas were building into thick layers of overlapping ideas and becoming more complex.”
Sandro Botticelli and Ottorino Respighi
The Italian composer Respighi always had a love of history and the past. In 1927 he composed Trittico Botticelliano (Three Botticelli Pictures) as a series of tone poems depicting three paintings by Sandro Botticelli from the late 1500s. The Renaissance muse of Botticelli allows Respighi to mine old melodies and pre-Baroque modalities.
Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Franz Liszt
German artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) depicts a legend surrounding a historic and brutal battle between a Roman and Visigoth army at Catalaunian Fields. According to historians of the era, the battle was so bloody that the souls of the combatants continued to fight in the air above the battlefield as they rose upwards. Liszt was inspired to create a symphonic poem of the same name and wanted to capture a spectral battle, even going so far as to include a note for conductors that in the first section “all instruments should sound like ghosts.”
Katsushika Hokusai and Claude Debussy
Following an 1853 treaty between Japan and the United States that opened up several ports of the island nation to trade with the west, Europe and in particular France became a hungry market for Japanese art. Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai was extremely popular with French impressionists like Claude Debussy, and a 1910 photo of the composer and Igor Stravinsky in Debussy’s Paris studio shows a print of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa hanging on the wall. Debussy drew inspiration from the work when composing La Mer, and the first published edition of the piece uses a portion of The Great Wave for cover art.