“All art aspires towards the condition of music” –Walter Pater (1873)

With all respect to the visual, plastic and literary arts, was Pater right? Is he saying music is the greatest of the arts, or is he merely putting his finger on the unique nature of musical expression?

The subject is complex. It has been dealt with by numerous writers, composers, critics and also by the editor in illustrated letters. To summarize the issue is difficult and brevity means in this case over-simplification. In simplest terms, music is spirit without substance, time without space. It is a set of sounding symbols which defy verbal explanation. It is not vague, but specific. As Mendelssohn once wrote, “What any music expresses for me is not thoughts too indefinite to clothe in words, but too definite.” While the plastic and visual arts exist in space, to be touched observed and studied at leisure and for a period determined by the viewer, music exists entirely in time, in a duration determined by composer and performer and necessitating an act of “following.” The meaning of the word, likewise, is capable of many more individual interpretations than is a melodic phrase, a chord, an instrumental, or vocal color or effect. However different may be the ways to “interpret” such a piece of musical substance, its essential meaning is exact. And while words and pictures are almost always “concrete” in their associations, musical symbols are “abstract,” fulfilling their purposes on a level that reaches far below the discernable surface.

What Walter Pater may be saying is that the visual and literary arts are envious of the power of music to reach that deeper level, instantly and—to the musical person—with incomparable exactitude. A musical idea or phrase is understood not so much as to “what it means” but as to “how it means.” What are the means by which it goes about meaning? The question is not so much what it means but what it is. Verbal explanation tends to fail, or at least confuse. We take the musical “thing” for what it is and what it does. The power of the painting, sculpture or poem, Pater seems to be implying, lies precisely in the closeness to that exactitude of communication which music innately possesses. One of the glories of “modern” art, abstract or non-objective, is precisely that distance from the verbally explainable subject matter, which forces us to see and take the work for what it is, and no more. The common questions, so often heard in museums, “what is it?,” is therefore an irrelevancy when it implies a need for representation of familiar objects. And even with classic portraiture, like Rembrandt’s, The Man With the Golden Helmet, the issue is not “who is this man and what is his name?” but “what does the painter do with the human face, the light, with the balance of elements, and with the supremely successful shape and form itself?”

All of this, in brief and probably inadequate summary, is offered as a series of thoughts related to music which transforms paintings into musical symbols. Gerard Schürrman’s Six Studies of Francis Bacon is only one of the latest in a growing series of musical compositions which base themselves on the inspiration for visual art. Each sets itself, in its own way, the problem of animating a static image into dynamic sound, or to find in the implied activity of the picture a possible stimulus for actual musical motion. Each meets the challenge in somewhat different ways, but each establishes a kind of correlation between those art forms that are in substance and essence not “interchangeable.”

With the composer’s implied approval, the annotator for Schürrman’s studies has written that “it would be a grave mistake to assume that the work is merely a sequence of descriptive pieces; in essence, it is an intensely musical composition, which is bound together by the subtlest use of thematic ideas in a fully interrelated and almost sympathetic manner.” In the same way all the many works that have a similar objective of animating a painting or set of them into musical action must stand or fall on their musical substance and skill. That is to say, a great picture will not rescue a poor piece of music just as a great story will not make a masterpiece out of a second rate symphonic poem based upon it. The two art forms must stand on equal terms, must complement each other, must somehow extend or expand the horizons of each through the other. It is not necessary, of course, that each picture so utilized must be an imperishable masterpiece; some of Harttman’s drawings used as stimuli by Mussorgsky are ultimately not so fine as their musical counterparts. But the issues themselves remain: What does the music say that goes beyond the picture, that adds to its enjoyment yet another dimension that is not merely naïve and all too easy “sound painting,” that stands on its own as a competition, that affords the listener an experience of genuine interest and value beyond the original purpose of “interdisciplinary” transformation? In art, said a famous critic, it is achievement only that matters, not the intent, however admirable.

Here is a brief listing of musical compositions that have transformed “image into sound,” as performed over the years by The Cleveland Orchestra. Most recently of course, just two weeks ago, we heard at these concerts, Morton Gould’s Burchfield Gallery, an enchanting set of seven pieces stimulated by the works of the Ohio-born painter Charles Burchfield. Most famous of all such enterprises, is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of musical sketches based on the drawings and architectural designs of Victor Hartmann; originally a piano work, it is best known in Ravel’s masterly orchestral version. As an example of the challenge Mussorgsky faced, let us consider the implied motion of the Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells and Baba Yaga against the totally static Catacombs and The Great Gate of Kiev. How do the latter become dynamic, as music? The composer gives us the magnificent answer.

At these concerts we have several times heard Gunther Schuller’s delightful Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, a masterpiece of its genre. There exists another set of Klee Studies, by the American composer, David Diamond; we have not yet heard it here. Hindemith’s greatest symphony, Matthias der Maler, is of course based on the Isenheim Altar of the sixteenth century painter Matthias Grünewald; the music is a staple of our repertoire. [Ottorino] Respighi, always fascinated by the sights and sounds of Italy, turned to art in three remarkable works; Fountains of Rome, Botticelli Triptych and Vetrati de Chiesa (Church Windows.) Italian art also stimulated Martinu to write The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca. The American composer Elie Seigmeister, gave us a few years ago, an “homage to five paintings,” Shadows and Light, on works by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Edgar Degas, and Vincent van Gogh. Cleveland composer Eugene O’Brien has composed a delicate work several times heard in this city, Embarking for Cythera, based on a painting of Watteau. And there are others in the literature, too many to list.

An interesting example of the opposite venture—to make pictures based on sound, occurred here in 1943 when Eric Leinsdorf commissioned faculty members of The Cleveland Institute of Art to make new pictures of Mussorgsky’s tonal images for an exhibit connected to our performance of the work. A splendid and varied series resulted. In recent years, Cleveland sculptor John Clague has devoted himself to making “sounding sculptures,” metal works which, when animated by air or hand, produce delicate sonorities. Other artists similarly inclined have included Harry Bertoia and Richard Lippold—all disciples of Alexander Calder and his “mobiles.”

The indebtedness of musicians and their colleagues to the visual arts extends even to terminology. The technical language of music is often incomprehensible to the nonprofessional; that of art makes instant contact. We speak of light and dark in music; of colors and hues; of shapes and designs; of textures transparent and dense; of impressionism and expressionism. A musical work put together from many small elements may be called a mosaic. Architecture has been called “frozen music” while music itself may be conceived as “flowing architecture.”

In works of this nature, the boundary lines between works of art become less clearly defined, even if they do not vanish altogether. A synthesis is approached. While the languages of music and visual art remain autonomous, both strive together toward a kind of ideal order, toward sense and comprehension, toward form. Unlike the proverbial two parallels which meet only in infinity, these art forms occasionally touch and at rare moments intersect.

In the final analysis, the musical symbol is in itself an image, it becomes a sounding reflection, a sonorous form found for a concept, an idea, a feeling, a mood, an experience. A sensitive nerve is touched, a significant moment captured from our inner life. Thus the composer plays a crucially important tribute to his colleague, the visual or plastic artist: he must put to work a power whose very name is derived from the term that means “image-making”; namely, Imagination.

© 1993 Musical Arts Association