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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 9

Music and Art

by Robert Markow / June 1, 2000

Version française...

An intimate relationship between music and the visual arts has existed ever since the first cave man scrawled an image of a drum on a rock wall. Throughout history, countless works of art have included musical instruments. Assyrian bas-reliefs featured harpists. Greek vase paintings often showed the kithera and the aulos. Fra Angelico depicted choirs of angels, Vermeer favored the virginal, Chagall the violin, Picasso the guitar and Dufy the orchestra. Musical iconography - the study of instruments as represented in the visual arts - is a fascinating field in itself. However, we are concerned here more with the very nature of music, and of art, and how these sister art forms interact. Each derives inspiration from the other, creating a rich and fruitful symbiotic relationship.

Words like style, tension, balance, form and texture are sure to be part of the vocabulary. But of all the elements common to both, none has held more fascination than color - for composers and artists alike - particularly within the past two hundred years.

Wassily Kandinsky was convinced that he could hear colors, associating them with specific instruments: yellow for the trumpet, orange for the viola, red for the tuba, etc. This phenomenon is known as synesthesia. In 1909 Kandinsky created a one-act "color-light opera" in collaboration with a minor composer, Thomas de Hartmann. Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound) has only fourteen lines of text, but hundreds of lighting cues.

Matisse, among others, warned against attempting the impossible: "One cannot expect to translate the symphonies of Beethoven into painting," he warned. Yet that is exactly what August von Briesen did - or in any case endeavored to do - in his six black and white drawings of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. Pamela Colman Smith created images engendered by listening to Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 11, and Joseph Stella did the same after hearing Richard Strauss's opera, Der Rosenkavalier.

The process has proven even more fertile in reverse, with composers like Mussorgsky inspired by the painter Viktor Hartmann (Pictures at an Exhibition), Rachmaninov and Reger by Böcklin (Isle of the Dead), and Debussy by Whistler, Velasquez, Watteau and Botticelli. Paul Klee's Twittering Machine has generated more musical responses than any other single painting, with Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights and Picasso's Guernica distant runners-up.

Using concepts like harmony, polyphony, tonality, rhythm, color and form as points of departure, the mind can roam freely through a vast world of affinities that bind art and music, a subject of endless fascination.
"The [painter] naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting the color in motion." (Wassily Kandisky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912).

Great Masters: Music & Art is this year's theme of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival which is presented from June 1-10. The above text is a short version of a text by Robert Markow which will be published in its original format in Festival programs (in English and French) and which can be found at www.festivalmontreal.org

Version française...

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