Five Pieces Of Music Inspired By Visual Art

We explore the relationship between visual art and music through five diverse works from the early twentieth century to the present.

9 March 2016

Kandinsky – Impression III – Concert (1911)

The link between music and art is nothing new, in the same way that all art forms are linked. However, call us biased, but there is something particularly special about how music specifically relates to the others. Is it because music is the one art form that has no solid visual world attached? Every art form – painting, literature, poetry – has an intangible, unseen element which binds with something in our own minds to create a new object. But only music stands alone as being wholly invisible.

Many people will be familiar with Kandinsky’s blast of colour, above, which was inspired by a concert he attended on 2 January 1911, at which he heard Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op.11, amongst others. The title of this – ‘Impression’ – is significant as the artist was quite overt in terms of how he named his work and what that indicated (if you’re interested: an ‘impression’ described paintings that reproduced a direct impression of external nature; ‘improvisations’ replicated impressions of an internal nature; and ‘compositions’ were elaborate impressions of an internal nature, but created more slowly and with greater deliberation).

This ‘impression’ is particularly interesting because although it did come about after witnessing a specific performance of Schoenberg’s music, at a specific event, the result seems like more of an impression of how the music made him feel. Yes, there’s a piano in there and some audience heads – but that suffocating, enrobing sweep of vivid yellow is the previously invisible music.

But, as musicians, we’ve naturally been thinking about what happens the other way round – when composers take a painting as the inspiration for composition. How do you do this? Is it harder? (Is that a question you can even ask, of an artistic process which is totally subjective?)

The advent of moving images has probably changed this perception to an extent; providing a soundtrack for a silent film (as in, a film watched in silence, as opposed to the actual genre of silent film) seems a natural endeavour, matching a feeling or atmosphere with an aural representation of it. But the concept of taking inspiration from a still painting or sculpture seems to remain more mysterious.

Together with Jonathan, we picked five of our favourite examples. If you have any of your own, we’d love to hear from you.

Debussy – La Mer (1905)

Inspired by: Katsushika Hokusai – Under the Wave off Kanagawa (or The Great Wave) (1830-33)

Rachmaninov – Isle of the Dead (1908)

Inspired by: Bocklin – Isle of the Dead (1880-86)

Respighi – Trittico Botticelliano (1927)

Inspired by: A trio of Botticelli paintings – La Primavera (1482), Adoration of the Magi (1475), The Birth of Venus (1486)

Kate Bush – Aerial (2005)

Inspired by: Paintings by American artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

Morton Feldman – Rothco Chapel (1971)

Inspired by: Mark Rothco panels (1971)

Saving the best ’til last? This 25 minute piece for chamber choir, voila, celeste and other percussion instruments is a particularly fascinating response to the abstract art of Mark Rothco, hung in panels on the walls of what is now known as the Rothco Chapel, an octangular space in Houston, Texas. Read the full story on The Guardian website.

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