I was thinking about why humans created artwork. Some anthropologists say our distant ancestors turned to painting on cave walls as a way to record a tribe’s history before written language was created. Others posit that humans have always had a need for self-expression. And in more modern times the creation and enjoyment of art has provided both inspiration and escape.
Music is also one of the “fine arts,” so for World Art Day on April 15, I’ve put together a short list of pieces that celebrate art and artists.
One of the first art-inspired pieces that comes to mind is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which started out as a 10-movement piano suite. He wrote it after a very close friend who was an artist, Viktor Hartmann, died suddenly from a brain aneurysm at just 39 years old. Mussorgsky and another friend, the art critic Vladimir Stasov, organized a memorial exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s works, including two he had given to the composer as a gift.
Pictures at an Exhibition depicts a viewer walking through the exhibition and stopping in front of various pieces. There have been a number of orchestrated versions, but Maurice Ravel’s 1922 commission by Serge Koussevitzky remains the most popular.
Here’s Gerard Schwarz conducting the All-Star Orchestra.
Although he wrote it quickly, and let it be known that he intended to have it published, Pictures wasn’t printed until 5 years after his death, and only after his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov championed the piece with his own edition.
About 25 years ago my father and I took a trip to Italy. We stayed with my grandmother (his mom) in Rome, first, and then we convinced Nonna to join us for a drive up to Florence for a few days. I had been there before as a child and had fallen in love with the city. At my request, the first stop was the Uffizi Gallery. As I stood before paintings by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, I understood immediately why Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was so inspired by them. They are elegant and delicate, while bursting off the canvas as they try to tell a whole story at a glance.
Respighi captured the paintings in music the way Botticelli captured the stories of La Primavera (Spring), La nascita de Venere (The Birth of Venus), and L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi). Here’s the full triptych with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jesús López-Cobos.
One more by Respighi. His Church Windows began as pieces for solo piano, using Gregorian chant as a spring board. He reworked them a short while later, captivated by the artistry that he saw in the stained-glass windows of a Catholic church. The work was completed in 1926. You get the feeling Respighi wanted the listener to picture looking up at stained-glass windows (that depict “The Flight into Egypt,” “St. Michael the Archangel,” “The Matins of St. Clare,” and “St. Gregory the Great”) and to think less about the Bible stories, and more about experiencing the artwork in the quiet of a church. The pieces range from atmospheric to dramatic. Here's Geoffrey Simon conducting The Philharmonia Orchestra.
It’s a fun fact to note that Respighi didn’t use specific windows as inspiration for the restyled music, but, rather, relied on his overall sense of appreciation for the detailed work that goes into making them. After consulting with a friend who was a literature professor, Biblical titles were assigned to the 4 pieces after they were created!
Respighi wasn’t the only composer to be inspired by stained glass windows. About 50 years after Respighi’s work, composer John McCabe accepted a commission from the Hallé Orchestra and was delighted that they agreed to his proposed subject matter: the 12 windows created by Marc Chagall for the Synagogue at the Hadasseh-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem. In a blog post for The Wise Music Group McCabe said he had seen photographs of the Chagall windows in the 1960s and had the idea for a piece honoring the artwork in the back of his head for years. Here's the full piece with James Loughran conducting the Hallé Orchestra.
Just a note that, although he was known primarily as a painter, Chagall worked with a master stained-glass maker and designed 86 windows around the world.
French composer Claude Debussy was also inspired by artwork. It’s known that he was drawn to both the impressionists of his day, as well as to the influence of Japanese art, known as Japonisme, that became popular as trade opened up with Japan. His La Mer (The Sea) was believed to be inspired by Japanese artist and print maker Katsushika Hokusai’s best-known work, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” He called the work “three symphonic sketches” as opposed to a “symphony” because he wanted to convey that impressionist feeling. Bernard Haitink conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
The piece was not an immediate success, partly because there was not adequate rehearsal time before the premiere, and partly because of turmoil in the composer's personal life. It was just around that time that Debussy left his wife for Emma Bardac, the wife of a Parisian banker. The scandal greatly hurt Debussy’s reputation, forcing him to move out of Paris. Despite the uproar, La Mer did become one of his most admired and performed works.
Dutch composer Cornelis Dopper not only loved the folk music, dance, culture, and countryside of his homeland, he also wanted others to know and celebrate it as well. His Third Symphony is entitled “The Rembrandt Symphony,” to honor the Dutch master artist. There's nothing in this piece that directly connects Rembrandt to the music. Like Respighi's Church Windows, Dopper wants the listener to feel the respect for the great painter. Here’s Matthias Bamert and the Residentie Orchestra of the Hague performing the whole symphony.
Two pieces now by contemporary composers. 25-year old Austrian composer and saxophonist Lucia Boeck has made it a mission to write more music for her instrument. She wrote Le Pont Japonais after seeing and being inspired by French impressionist Claude Monet’s Japanese Bridge with Water Lillies.
And in August of 2022, American composer Adam Schoenberg described on Twitter the artwork-inspiration for a piece he wrote. He said: “What images come to mind when you think of summer? I often think of the Mediterranean's extensive countryside and orchards. This is ‘Olive Orchard’ from my Picture Etudes, inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings of olive trees during his time in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.” Here is the University of Northern Iowa Wind Ensemble, conducted by Danny Galyen.
There are so many other wonderful art and artist-inspired musical pieces that I’ll do a follow-up, happily, in the future. In the meantime, my personal suggestion is to never pass up the opportunity to visit a museum or art gallery or go to an art-inspired concert!
CODA: A whole Broadway musical was actually inspired by a single painting: Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 Broadway musical, Sunday in the Park with George. In an interview, Sondheim said he wanted to show how hard it is to actually create art, and he used French pointillist Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte as his focal point. The song “Sunday” closes out the first act. Here’s the original Broadway cast working artistic magic. (Watch until the very end!)