Classical Music

Painted Notes

Join Amy Bishop for a program of classical music inspired by art.

If you’ve ever stared at a Kandinsky painting, perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised to know that he often listened to classical music while he worked. He explained that he was simply trying to paint what the music made him feel. We all know that letting music be the muse of an aritst is not unusual. However, it works both ways. Over the centuries, the music makers have drawn their inspiration from great works of art in all forms. Brushstrokes on canvas turn into notes on paper, as the maestro “paints” with his music. As part of Arts Appreciation Month at Houston Public Media, this week’s theme is visual art. This Thursday, tune in for Painted Notes, featuring music that was inspired by paintings and photographs. Here are a few of the most well-known examples of art’s impact on classical compositions:

Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead:

It was a painting of the same name by Swiss painter Arnold Boecklin that stirred the imagination of Sergei Rachmaninoff to compose this piece. The painting depicts a haunting image of an island surrounded by a wall of large rocks jutting out of the dark waters. Carved into the rocks are large chambers for the dead. The sky seems to almost fade into the waters, both being similar in color with clouds of mist hovering above. There’s a small rowboat making its way to the shore. In it you see the oarsman at the stern, along with a coffin and a ghost-like passenger up front, clad completely in white.   

Sergei Rachmaninoff first saw the painting in a black and white reproduction while in paris in 1907. He said that he was so haunted by the mysterious image that he began to write his symphonic poem almost immediately.

In the opening, the music depicts the sound of the oars moving through the water…. slowly, ominously. Suddenly, there’s a sense of urgency, as the island comes into sight. We hear the Dies Irae (the Gregorian chant from the mass for the dead), alluding to death as the music becomes restless and intense. The piece ends similar to how it began, but with more stillness, imitating the sound of the oars rowing once again.

Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition:

In a roundabout way, the subject of death also played a role in the writing of this piece, considering the events that led to its composition. Modest Moussorgsky met the artist and architect, Viktor Hartmann, through the introduction of a friend and the two quickly hit it off. When Hartmann died suddenly of an aneurysm three years later, Moussorgsky, along with the rest of Russia’s art world, was shaken. Several months later, they put together an exhibition of over 400 Hartmann works in Saint Petersburg. It was such an inspiration that the composer created his piece for solo piano, titled Pictures at an Exhibition, in about six weeks. Consisting of ten movements total, it’s a musical tour through the collection of Hartmann’s drawings and watercolors. The opening promenade theme, which is repeated later in the second half of the piece, depicts Moussorgsky strolling through the exhibition.

Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler:

It was the work of the renaissance painter Matthias Gruenewald that sparked the imagination of German composer Paul Hindemith. Gruenewald was an early 16th century German painter who focused mostly on religious works. His Isenheim Altarpiece is his most famous – and largest – work. Being somewhat complicated to explain without seeing a demonstration (see it here on YouTube), it’s a series of wooden panels that are layered on top of each other with hinges that allow them to open and close the wings, exposing three different scenes.

In 1934, close to four centuries after Gruenewald’s death, Hindemith chose to write an opera based on the painter, titling it Mathis der Maler, or Matthias the Painter. The work was still far from being completed when conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler asked Hindemith to write something for the Berlin Philharmonic to perform. Hindemith decided to use his time efficiently by putting together a few symphonic movements that he could later use as interludes within the opera.

The symphony came out to three movements, the first being titled Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert). It depicts the scene of Christ arriving as a newborn baby, accompanied by angels who represent the forces of evil that he’ll eventually have to combat. The second movement is Grablegung, or Entombment, showing Christ entombed on the base panel. Lastly, the third movement is titled Versuchung des heiligen Antonius, or the Temptation of St. Anthony. It presents an image of St. Anthony being tormented by demons sent by Satan. Not surprisingly, there are some incredibly stormy, tumultuous passages within the symphony, but also some of serenity.

Copland’s The Tender Land: 

It wasn’t a painting, but photographs that caught American composer Aaron Copland’s attention and led to the writing of the opera, The Tender Land. The inspiration came from Walker Evans’ photos contained in the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee. Moved by Evans’ photos that poignantly exposed the poverty-stricken Southern families during the Great Depression, Copland based a couple of his characters on a black and white photo of an austere-looking mother holding her underfed children. The opera’s plot centers around a midwestern farm family in the 1930s – Ma, her daughters, Laurie and Beth, and their grandfather – all trying to make ends meet and keep the farm in the family.

Respighi’s Three Botticelli Pictures:

Like so many other Respighi pieces, Trittico Botticelliano sparkles. He gets back to his roots by honoring the work of his fellow countryman, Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. The three movements represent the three parts of the triptych, respectively: La Primavera (Spring), L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi), and La Nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus). It’s the final movement that often gets the most attention, referencing the famous image of a demure Venus standing nude in a clam shell, strategically holding her long, blonde locks in all the right places.

Hear these pictures come to life as Amy Bishop hosts Painted Notes Thursday at noon and 10 pm on Houston Public Media, Classical 91.7.