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Exploring the often surprising links between concepts, themes and people in classical music, from medieval to modern


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Saturday, May 18, 2019 Permalink

The Art Connection

"Isle of the Dead," the best-known painting of Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), inspired Sergei Rachmaninoff.


Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s second symphony was inspired by a painting he saw while enjoying a glass of beer in a country inn.

The death of a promising Russian artist prompted composer Modest Mussorgsky to write what has become his best-loved work.

And an 18th century French painter’s depictions of aristocratic passion prompted two very different 20th century responses by Debussy and Poulenc.

In this hour, these and other links between canvas and concert hall.

To get you started, here are the art works and the music inspired by them:

Ottorino Respighi: Three Botticelli Pictures

Three well-known paintings by early Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli inspired Respighi’s Three Botticelli Pictures, composed in 1926. The third, “The Birth of Venus,” depicts the springtime arrival of the goddess, nude, posed on a large shell, while the spring breeze blows her hair, and its warming breath generates roses that fall to earth.  Click here to view

Paul Hindemith: Symphony ''Mathis der Mahler''

In 1933, German composer Paul Hindemith was working on an opera based on the life of 16th century painter Matthias Grunewald. Hindemith first produced a symphony based on themes from the opera,depicting scenes from Grunewald’s famous 16th century altarpiece in Isenheim, with the second movement focusing on the image of Christ being laid in the tomb.  Click here to view

Max Reger: The Play of the Waves.

In 1913, Max Reger turned out a set of four symphonic poems based on works by popular 19th century Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin.  One of the paintings Reger referenced was The Play of the Waves.  Click here to view

Claude Debussy: L'isle joyeuse

The inspiration for Debussy’s L'isle joyeuse –“the Happy Isle”--was Antoine Watteau's painting The Embarkation for Cythera , in which a group of 18th century aristocratic couples enjoy a flirtatious outdoor party.  Click here to view 

Francis Poulenc: Les Biches

Francis Poulenc’s Les Biches was also inspired by a painting by Watteau. It was written for a 1924 ballet of the same name. Poulenc’s models were Watteau’s depictions of Louis XIV flirting with various women in his Parc aux biches—or deer park--at Versailles.  Click here to view  

Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 2, “The Four Temperaments,\”

Danish composer Nielsen was enjoying a glass of beer at a country inn, along with his wife and some friends, when they noticed a comical picture on the wall, divided into four sections in which four basic personality types—known as “The Four Temperaments” were represented. Later, he wrote,“I, who had laughed aloud and mockingly at these pictures, returned constantly to them in my thoughts, and one fine day I realized that these shoddy pictures still contained a kind of core, or idea, and – just think! – even a musical undercurrent! We don’t know what the paintings looked like, but the Temperaments were a common theme in art, as this example indicates.  Click here to view

Enrique Granados: Goyescas

Spanish composer Enrique Granados was motivated by the works of 18th century painter Francisco Goya. In Goyescas, the composer celebrates the Spanish national character in Goya’s work.  Click here to view

Sergei Rachmoninoff: The Isle of the Dead

Arnold Böcklin’s somber 1886 work, The Isle of the Dead made a strong impression on Rachmaninoff when he saw it in Paris in 1907.  Click here to view

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky was greatly affected by the death of his friend, artist Viktor Hartmann, at the age of 39. While attending a memorial exhibit of Hartmann’s work, Mussorgsky decided to write a piano cycle suggested by the drawings, separating them by a “promenade” theme, as if the viewer were walking from picture to picture.  Click here to view  



Title Group/Artist Catalog # UPC
Mussorgsky - Pictures At An Exhibition Vladimir Ashkenazy Decca 4757717 028947577171
Respighi - Pines of Rome; Fountains of Rome, etc (for “Birth of Venus”) Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner EMI Classics 7243 58654929 724358654929
Hindemith: Orchestral Works (for Mathis der Maler, Symphony) Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Werner Andreas Albert CPO 9992482 0761203924820
Reger: Romantic Suite, Four Symphonic Poems (for “Im Spiel Der Wellen” Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, Gerd Albrecht Koch/Schwann 3-1418-2 099923141822
Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 2 Jean-Efflam Bavouzet Chandos CHAN 10443 095115144329
Poulenc: Animaux modeles - Les Biches  Odense Symphony Orchestra, Jan Wagner Classico CLASSCD 239 5709644986446
Nielsen: Symphonies 1-3 San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt Decca 2DF2460-985 0028946098523
Granados: Goyescas, etc  Jean François Heisser Warner Classics 256 69984-3 825646998432
The Best Of Rachmaninoff (for “The Isle of the Dead”) Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart Philips 4383832 028943838320
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition Vienna Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel Deutsche Grammophon 479 6297 028947962977

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