The places where culture converges are some of the loveliest around, for all the senses. So join me below as I dash through a pared down list of remarkable paintings and drawings that acted as muses for classical composers and creatives of a more melodious sort than their paint-flinging brethren. You’ll see, and hear, that the visual arts and celestial-sounding music are far from mutually exclusive.
So, for starters, let’s go big or go home, shall we? There’s a whopping chance you recognise one of Sandro Botticelli’s most famous compositions, Primavera or Allegory of Spring, painted during the Early Renaissance from 1477 to 1482. Mythological figures like Venus, Cupid, Flora, Chloris, Zephyrus, the Three Graces, and Mercury make sprightly appearances in this grand pageant of fertility, marriage bonds and primal renewal.
Another talented Italian, Ottorino Respighi, was so seduced with Botticelli’s imagery here and in two other paintings, The Birth of Venus and Adoration of the Magi, that he produced a symphonic work with a fine art historical title. The Trittico botticelliano, or Botticelli Triptych, was arranged for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, glockenspiel, triangle, harp, piano, celesta, and strings in 1927.
And we’re moving right along to a narrative-conveying series of works by William Hogarth known as A Rake’s Progress. Produced as popular serial prints during the first half of the eighteenth century, the story is that of Tom Rakewell, a young gallant who has just chanced to inherit his father’s admirable fortune. Of course, he duly squanders it away on gambling, drinking and a host of other favourite vices.
His social life, his social standing and even his well-being disintegrate around Rakewell into non-existence, and he ends in a state of pure lunacy at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam. Chester Kallman, W.H. Auden and a certain Igor Stravinsky would later collaborate on a libretto and three-act-plus-epilogue opera based on poor Tom’s tale, aptly titled A Rake’s Progress. The spectacle was first performed on 11 September 1951 upon the stage of Venice’s Teatro La Fenice.
Splash! Claude Debussy couldn’t avoid wetting his imagination when viewing one of Japan’s most iconic masterpieces. The Great Wave off Kanagawa was one of a series of thirty-six woodblock prints showcasing Mount Fuji turned out by Edo-period artist Katsushika Hokusai in the early 1830s.
This particular vista keeps Mount Fuji sequestered in the background, and focuses instead on a massive, rolling wall of water set to smash three fishing boats seeking their daily catch to bits. It’s said that Debussy was so awed by this sweeping, elegant still that he took it as a jumping off point for his orchestral sketch La Mer, which premiered in 1905.
Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin became obsessed with visions of the Isle of the Dead in the 1880s, reworking a composition of the same name featuring the fabled boatman of the river Styx, Charon, ushering a shrouded soul to the otherworld over five times. Prints of Böcklin’s sombre, atmospheric subject were all the rage during the twentieth century, especially in Berlin’s middle class homes.
Yet things got more interesting when Sergei Rachmaninoff happened to view a black and white reproduction of the composition while touring Paris in 1907. When staying in Dresden a year later, he finished a moody and foreboding symphonic poem in A Minor that begins with sounds akin to oars dipping into water. He called it (care to guess?) the Isle of the Dead.
Last but auction records will prove not least, I present Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The scene in question gives viewers a glimpse out van Gogh’s window in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France while resting up at the Saint-Paul Asylum. There’s a magically sad, sadly magical quality to the cool-toned image, and the sentiments found within reflect much the same when we ponder what we know of this loved-too-late master’s life.
Perhaps it’s van Gogh’s struggles and capacities to feel are what endeared him so to other artists, especially the musically-inclined kind. Henri Dutilleux’s orchestral work Timbres, espace, movement is subtitled La nuit étoilée after this painting, and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote an opera about van Gogh’s life titled Vincent. He later adapted this music into his Symphony No. 6, the first movement of which is titled Starry Night. And on a less classical note, I personally always remember to turn the volume up to eleven when American singer-songwriter Don Mclean’s folsky tribute to Vincent begins to play.
Happy viewing, happy listening and happy seeking for more cultural intersections, all.