I blame/credit my art loving parents. Because of them I have stood transfixed before Michelangelo’s statues “La Pieta” at the Vatican and “David” in Florence. I have marveled at the brush strokes of daVinci and Chardin and Delacroix at the Louvre in Paris. At the Botticellis, Caravaggios, and Raphaels at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. And the intricate paintings on the ship models at the Museu de Marinha in Lisbon.
I took a one-day class on the art of brasses in London before I did my own brass rubbing. I watched wide-eyed for hours as a Kuna woman created a colorful molas pattern on a visit to one of the San Blas islands off Panama, then I spent my entire allowance to buy it for our front hall. I spent an entire day on a walking tour of the best graffiti artistry in Manhattan.
So, thanks, Mum and Dad. Because of you I have created a life with access to art. In fact, my house today has an equal mix of black and white photography, Murano glass, and intricately carved wood from around the world.
And then there’s the huge watercolors wall. 6” x 8” or 8” x 10” souvenirs from every single place we’ve ever traveled.
No art form takes my heart away like a good watercolor.
What is it about paint-with-water that captivates me? I wish I could tell you why easily. The best I can do is say it’s the transparency, the glow, the fact that you can dissolve lines as much as you can delineate them and still know the subject. Allow me poetic license but I also see human tears and sweat on those watercolor canvases. And so, in this same way I am drawn to musical watercolors, too. I wish I could tell you why easily. Maybe just see the sentences above.
Here are a few transparent and glowing pieces titled “watercolors,” or in French, “aquarelles,” that are on my personal playlists:
Gerard Abiton (b. 1954) wrote his Aquarelle in 1986. It’s a 3-movement piece inspired by his watercolorist wife and her works. The middle “Valseana” movement is often played alone. Here’s Sergio Assad showing us those brush strokes:
Frederick Delius (1862-1934) also wrote watercolor music. His Two Songs to be sung of a summer night on the water had no lyrics per se, but the choir singing them were supposed to sing the sound “uh” throughout. When his arranger Eric Fenby orchestrated them in 1932 they were renamed Two Aquarelles. Here’s Barry Wordsworth and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing both:
Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) was known mostly as a flutist and composer for flute. His Trois Aquarelles paints a watercolor of three parts of day: “On a Clear Morning,” “Autumn Evening,” and “Serenade.” What the musical paintings don’t tell you is that he wrote them in 1915 while serving in the French army, witnessing first-hand the horrors of World War I. I imagine he painted these scenes as a wishful escape. Here is one of my favorite flutists, Leone Buyse, along with cellist Dennis Hoebig and pianist Robert Moeling:
Composer Niels Gade (1817-1890) was considered one of the top Danish composers of the day. He became colleagues and friends with (and was often compared to) both Mendelssohn and Schumann. His 10 Akvareller for piano, Op. 19, became some of his most famous works. They are simply charming and polished. Here’s pianist Adrian Ruiz from a 1971 recording:
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) wrote most of his Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten Songs) in 1886, based on the poems of Paul Verlaine. Among the 6 songs are two Aquarelles, one subtitled “Green” and one subtitled “Spleen.” Here’s soprano Dawn Upshaw singing “Green:”
And finally, a relatively new discovery for me. You may know the name Tan Dun (b. 1957) who composed the score for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for which he won an Academy Award and a Grammy. He also composed the music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Tan Dun says he had a severe bout of homesickness when he attended the Beijing Conservatory of Music. His Opus 1, written at school, was a set of solo piano pieces which he eventually titled Eight Memories in Watercolor. The eight sketches are based on Chinese folk music but describe scenes from his childhood. Tan Dun said pianist Lang Lang best conveyed his emotions:
#WorldWatercolorMonth has been observed in America since July of 2016. The creators of the designation say you can participate by doing anything from picking up a brush and painting, to teaching a watercolor class, to donating art supplies to a local school or charity. And I’d like to suggest doing any of the above as you listen to some of these musical watercolors.
Coda: Now that people are feeling a bit easier about traveling, maybe a trip to New York’s MoMA is on your list this summer? The Washington Post’s Sebastian Smee writes about a new Cezanne exhibit this summer that includes his watercolors.