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FEATURE | 10 Paintings With An Extraordinary Connection To Classical Music

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on November 15, 2017

Aesthetics: its root word, aisthetikos, “of or for perception by the senses, perceptive,” of things,   deftly describes the way we see the world through the five senses.  In communication, (especially indirect communication), we largely depend on aural and visual representations, and music and visual art remain closely intertwined, sharing that certain ambiguity by being mostly wordless.

Today, we decided to look at ten music-related visual ideas and paintings.

1: Fernand Khnopff: Listening to Schumann (1883)

Listening to Schumann (1883) by Fernand Khnopff
Listening to Schumann (1883) by Fernand Khnopff

Fernand Edmond Jean Marie Khnopff (1858-1921), quite a handful of a name, was one of the great leaders of the Symbolist movement. The Symbolist Manifesto (1886) by Jean Moreas, in Le Figaro states:

In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.’

Khnopff casts quite a realistic scene (after all, he began as a serious Realism painter), then mixes in borrowed motives and ideas from all over history. Even in his portrait series, Khnopff goes past a mere pictorial description of a scene — these are evocations, not observations.

Listening to Schumann is an excellent example: here is a person who is playing the piano. The outstretched right hand suggests that there is sound, but whether it’s at the beginning, middle or end of the piece, we have no clue.  The piano player is actually out of the frame, and we are left to assume that there is a person, though this person has been rendered as an abstract. And the woman sitting on the chair — we don’t get to see her face either. It is impossible to tell whether the music being played is happy or sad, or even if she’s listening at all. Maybe all she is doing is listening.  In school, we used to use this painting as a meme, to depict our own acknowledgment of failure and lack of skills, etc., and that stylized face-palm by our teachers. But in all seriousness, the only thing that is prescriptive is the heightened emotion- the rest is left to the viewer.

What do we mean when we say we are listening, to Schumann….?

*One subject, one set of killer Illustrations, a masterful art deco poster, and two over-the-top-decadence Klimt paintings: Salome is an exquisite subject that fascinated many artists, writers, thespians and musicians in fin de siècle Vienna.

2: Oscar Wilde/Aubrey Vincent Beardsley: Salome (1894)

The Western Europe arts scene was mad with Symbolism by the end of 19th-century.  People began to dig into mythology, bible stories and the exotic, wild world, to write, paint and compose. The erotic and violent story of King Herod and his wife Herodiade, their attractive daughter, Salome (whom Herod lusted after), and Salome’s personal interest, John the Baptist and his death, is so rich in potential that everyone seemed to be working on it. Wilde writes Salomé in French (1893), translates it to English in 1894, and the first English edition is graced with illustrations by the young, dashing, madly-talented Aubrey Beardsley. It was an instant sensation- both the play and the illustrations.

3: Matthias Grünewald & Niclaus of Haguenau: Isenheim Altarpiece, (c. 1512-16) and Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Maler (1934)

These two works are over four centuries apart, yet they are so intimately connected.  Grünewald (1475-1528) lived in brutal times in western Germany.  He was a melancholic man who was married to a converted Jew who later had to be institutionalized with mental illness and demonic possession, and the majority of Grünewald’s works were lost.  However, the few surviving works, noted for their graphic depiction of human suffering, became popular again in the 19th-century,  and Grünewald’s largest work, the Isenheim Altarpiece, containing nine scenes on twelve panels, is full of pathos and anger. Other master artists such as Max Ernst and Picasso shared Grünewald’s inspiration in their own paintings; Hindemith’s opera (and symphony) Mathis der Maler (‘Mathis the Painter’), is about Grünewald himself, and was inspired by the Isenheim Altarpiece.

The most striking scene of the altarpiece is on display when the outer wings are closed (traditionally, on non-holy days, the piece would stay closed):  Crucifixion.

Christ is contorted in pain. The position of his hands and feet shows struggle and agony.  The pale skin of Christ is full of sores, in lifeless sallow yellowness. The Antonite monastery of Isenheim, which commisioned the piece, was known for treating the fungal disease ergotism*  (which also caused the Salem witch trials),  and Grünewald portrays the daily suffering and the void of hope of the ill and the poor.  On the second view as the wings are opened — the Resurrection, Christ rises as the golden sun, against the dark void.

But every single human in the scene has fallen over against the sun and is left in the shadow.  The uncertainty of faith and future were quite real, and the world did rupture soon afterwards: the Reformation (1517) and the German Peasants’ War (1524-25, up to 100,000 of the 300,000 armed peasants were killed by the feudal lords).

In this altarpiece, Hindemith saw the rise of the Nazis. He saw himself deserting his Jewish friends.  He watched himself in the middle of unsettled danger as World War II approached. And like Grünewald (in the opera), he decided to abandon comfort, and to resolve to express the world’s darkness by continuing his Nazi criticism through music.

The symphony was completed before the opera, and each movement of the symphony draws from the Isenheim scenes.  The first movement, Engelkonzert, is based on the scene of the Virgin and the Child, on the second view, only visible when the wings are opened.

The second movement, Grablegung comes from the Entombment scene on the predella (the lower panel) of the altarpiece. And the triumph of the last movement is drawn from St. Anthony, the patron saint of ergotism, facing his demons and looking into the future with St. Paul’s guidance on the third view.

It is remarkable to experience the sensitivity and courage of these men, as our current days are still filled with demons and fear, and to witness the strange beauty that comes as result of human suffering.

4: Art deco poster by Ludwig Hohlwein

Richard Strauss attends a Berlin performance of Wilde’s Salome in November 1902. Immediately after the play, he has it translated into German. In summer 1903, Strauss digs in to write this salacious opera and premiers it in 1905. Within the first two years, it’s performed in over 50 opera houses — a wildfire. Here’s a beautiful art deco poster by Ludwig Hohlwein.

5: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Katsushika Hokusai) — Claude Debussy’s La Mer

Though Japan did not open its doors to the west until 1854, way back in the Edo period, Japanese goods and arts trickled steadily into Europe, thanks to the Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602). Ukiyo-e, is a flat, 2-D woodblock print, covering various topics from landscapes and people to erotica, and it fascinated the west (even still today; the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum was sold out for its duration in summer 2017, but the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia have made a nice virtual guide,  and if you are in Rome, the exhibition is currently at the Ara Pacis Museum till 14 January 2018.

By the 19th-century, ukiyo-e prints were a popular trade in the west. At the International exhibition of 1867 in Paris, it became immensely popular, and Japonisme became the hot trend in Europe — even Vincent Van Gogh started to collecting ukiyo-e, and Madame Butterfly (1904) premiered in La Scala. (Puccini even took lessons in traditional Japanese songs from the Japanese ambassador’s wife stationed in Italy!)

Debussy was a quite a stylish man and this visual richness of the Belle Époque touched him deeply — he even made an illustration for the cover of the first edition of Children’s Corner.

He admired J.M.W. Turner, and Impressionist paintings drew him into writing pieces that evoked, rather than prescribed emotion (though he absolutely hated being called an Impressionist).  Yet, to the contrary, Debussy was also drawn to the open simplicity of Japanese prints. During his Prix de Rome stay in Villa Medici (1885-87), Debussy was quite depressed and unhappy (how ironic!), but he did find things he liked, including some Hokusai prints.

A copy of The Great Wave (ca. 1830-3) was carefully framed and hung in Debussy’s studio for years.  La Mer (1903-05) shares much in common with the Great Wave: focus on stylization (vs. realistic depiction) and dynamic use of colour.  The use of motivic development and lack of formal structure, often seen in Edo prints, is also used in La Mer — Debussy even names it Three Symphonic Sketches, to avoid calling it a symphony, which would contain all kinds of formal expectations.  And a rather unsubtle tribute to the Great Wave was made in La Mer’s first orchestral edition (1905), as the cover illustration.

6: Gustav Klimt, Judith/Salome I (1901)

Judith was a widow who beheaded the lustful Assyrian general Holofernes, and has traditionally been a popular art subject. But this sensual depiction of Judith shocks the audience, with her orgasmic facial expression, bare breast and gold literally everywhere.  Judith is no longer a soft, quiet yet courageous Jewish woman who served God — she is a proper femme fatale.  To add to the ambiguity, Klimt decides to give it a hybrid name: Judith/Salome.  The Viennese audience decides that there is no Judith in this painting, that it really just is Salome — a murderess with insatiable lust, a vampire-femme fatale.

7: Saint Cecilia Altarpiece, also known as The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia, Raphael (c. 1516-17)

The Feast day of St. Cecilia is just around the corner (22 November), and the story of how St. Cecilia became Patron of music and musicians is, to say the least, surprising. The legends say that Cecilia was born to a wealthy Roman family in the third century and despite her vow of virginity to Christ, her parents married her off. Having converted her pagan husband, she gets to keep her virginity. When she is captured by the Romans, the first attempt to suffocate her fails, and when they try to behead her, even after three blows, they fail again. They leave her to bleed to death for three days, and she continues to preach until her death.

So how is she related to music?

Well, legend also states that during the heathen music for the wedding ceremony (including the playing of organ pipes, which she holds upside down in the piece), Cecilia sang in her heart, a hymn of love for Jesus — a proper pious romance. And for her full-hearted song, she was named Patroness saint of music. One of the earliest records of her musical patronage is found on the foundation statement by Sixtus V in 1585, for the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (the same one just performed with Martha Argerich at the Carnegie Hall, led by Antonio Pappano in October).

Raphael’s painting of St. Cecilia was paid for by Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci in 1517.  This is the first painting of Cecilia that paired her with musical instruments.  These religious paintings and visual icons were very important symbols, as in the middle of 16th-century, only a fifth of adult males could read.  The majority of the population learned their culture from floating oral and folklore stories, bolstered by occasional glimpses of great art, used as a symbol of power by the governments and churches.  And Raphael, along with Michelangelo, was the early champion of Catholic legends and beliefs through these monumental paintings. These works are still revered in artistic and religious contexts today.

With this altarpiece, St. Cecilia solidified her position as Patroness saint of music.  Percy Shelley made a lovely description in his Letters from Italy (1899):

The central figure, St. Cecilia, seems rapt in such inspiration as produced her image in the painter’s mind; her deep, dark, eloquent eyes lifted up; her chestnut hair flung back from her forehead — she holds an organ in her hands — her countenance, as it were, calmed by the depth of its passion and rapture, and penetrated throughout with the warm and radiant light of life. She is listening to the music of heaven, and, as I imagine, has just ceased to sing, for the four figures that surround her evidently point, by their attitudes, towards her; particularly St. John, who, with a tender yet impassioned gesture, bends his countenance towards her, languid with the depth of emotion. At her feet lie various instruments of music, broken and unstrung.

Enjoy this year’s St. Cecilia’s day with this new piece of knowledge!

8: Gustav Klimt, Judith/Salome II (1909)

In 1909, Klimt decides to return to the subject of Judith. This Judith, slightly muted in colour palette compared to the 1901 version, does not spare the viewers from her sexuality and power.  In fact, the way that she is holding on the severed head by its hair (no more silver platter) is even more violent, and her naked upper body is rising from the murkiness that contains death — hence, the public decided to continue to call Klimt’s Judith/Salome “Salome”, and ever since, these images and Strauss’ Salome, the opera, became inseparable in our minds.

9: A Rake’s Progress (William Hogarth) and The Rake’s Progress (Igor Stravinsky)

Every generation has its own clowns — especially loud-mouthed, womanizing, boozing young male figures.  And even today, we see the term Rake used to describe such a man (get your Netflix browser out. Apparently this Mr. Cleaver Greene, a reckless criminal defence barrister is a proper rake and the show’s quite good)

Well, Stravinsky also had a go at the Rake plot: The Rake’s Progress, an opera in three acts plus epilogue (1951). After seeing a Hogarth Exhibition in Chicago, 1947, Stravinsky began working on setting this series of eight paintings by Hogarth as an opera, with W.H. Auden and Auden’s lover, Chester Kallman.  By total coincidence, Auden’s relationship with Kallman was something of a rake plot as well- they met when Auden came to New York in 1939, and they were in marriage and enjoyed their honeymoon trip (said Auden), though Kallman ended their sexual relationship as he did not want to commit to a monogamous relationship with Auden; Kallman remained as a close companion till Auden’s death.

A Rake’s Progress by Hogarth contains eight paintings: The Heir, The Levée, The Orgy, The Arrest, The Marriage, The Gaming House, The Prison and the final: The Mad House.  Stravinsky’s interest in older arts, including Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Verdi’s La Traviata (this opera is a masterpiece in mannerism, where Stravinsky borrows heavily from the past, yet still speaks with his own voice), as well as a good dose of Mozart, matches up smashingly with the older style of Hogarth’s 18th-century illustrations, along with Auden-Kallman’s cutting modern libretto.

10: Marc Chagall: The Fiddler (1913)

Chagall’s love for Bach and Mozart was well known, and his collaborations through classical music are legendary: he created the New York City Ballet’s Firebird scenery and costumes (the costumes are still in use, 68 years later!), costumes for Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe at the Paris Opera, 1959, the ceiling painting of the Paris Opera House and the famous Met Opera’s Lincoln Center panels: The Triumph of Music and The Sources of Music. The list goes on.

And one of the best Chagall’s musical motifs is the floating fiddler. Chagall grew up in a small Hasidic Jewish community near Vitebsk, Belarus, and the fiddle, so important for klezmer, struck his heart at a young age. Combined with the Jewish diaspora during WWs, this floating fiddler, traditionally travelling from town to town, restlessly, becomes him.  During his lifetime, Chagall kept painting this floating violinist in many of his works, often as a small auxiliary figure, and the most famous of them all, The Fiddler (Le Violoniste), 1912-1919, at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, is attributed as a direct inspiration for the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Oh, and if you just happen to be in Los Angeles in next few weeks, you can catch Chagall: Fantasy for the Stage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, until 07 January 2018. The exhibition concentrates on Chagall’s work for Aleko (1942), Daphnis and Chloé (1958), and The Magic Flute (1967).

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Hye Won Cecilia Lee
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Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me

Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
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