Seeing the symphony: when music influences art

Updated: Jan 28

Do you agree that human beings, the thinking, feeling embodiment of creative excess are all offshoots of sensorial perceptions? Being subject to a plethora of experiences, evokes in us responses that translate to art. And music alike. Yes, we are harking back to the age old conundrum of music and art being entwined in a symbiotic relationship.

We cite the seemingly incongruous senses, the visual and the aural and try to discern the underlying essences that each channels, binding them into a harmonious whole.

Music like the visual arts is characterized by not only formulaic similarities such as repetition, variety, intensity, rhythm, tone, balance and so on. But their compatibility lies in the dissonances and differences owing to the distinctive nature of each, which provoke immense possibilities.

If you look back at history, you will be amazed to find how musical compositions have influenced milestones of Western art as much as art has shaped the nuances of music.

As Walter Pater, one of the leading literary and art critics of the 19th century famously said, "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music", he meant something indeed profound. What can be deduced from it is that music unlike painting is not mimetic, which traditionally makes the latter always in pursuit of 'representing' the appearance of the real world on canvas. Music, according to him, is the only art in which the form and the content are indistinguishable. As a result, in the wake of the modern art revolution, artists sought to achieve the ideal of a pure form and thus turned to music to draw inspiration for their craft.

In another life Paul Klee was a musician

Paul Klee, 'Abstract Trio', 1923 Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

You must be familiar with the sparsely cryptic works of Paul Klee, one of the progenitors of abstraction in modern art. He was initially an amateur violinist before taking up painting which ultimately found its voice in his art. Often known to allude to a fantastical world of spontaneous lines and colours, his artworks seem to animate with movement, rhythm and magic all of which one usually attributes to the compositions of Mozart and Bach.

Kandinsky in search of synesthesia

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Composition 8', 1923 Image Courtesy: The Guggenheim Museum

Klee was also a member of The Blue Rider, a Munich-based group of artists founded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Kandinsky who is considered to be the godfather of abstract art, believed in art that elevated to a metaphysical realm, beyond the limitations of the material world. Known for his ardent love for music, Kandinsky tried to recreate sound visually. His body of work shows a persistence of fostering a new language that championed synesthesia— which is a multisensory experience involving sound, colour, taste, time etc. This made him associate each musical note with a particular colour. He once observed, "The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble." He was inspired by the great Austrian composer, Arnold Schoenberg. Although labelled as degenerate music, for its characteristic atonality, Schoenberg's music fueled paintings like 'Composition 8' (1923), in which Kandinsky aimed to expose the inherent connectedness that lurks behind the garb of randomness with which each shape and colour is displayed.

Modernist painters also appropriated the African-American music from bluegrass to jazz, swing, bop into their works to add to their aesthetic value. However, sometimes in the process of doing that, a lot of the social and political context that inspired these genres were invariably obliterated. However, that didn't stop artists from borrowing from this vibrant culture that paved the way for a new way of life.

All that jazz with Stuart Davis

Stuart Davis, 'Hot Still-Scape for Six Colours–7th Avenue Style', 1940 Image Courtesy: Wikiart

Take, for instance, Stuart Davis whose proto-pop paintings have almost become synonymous with jazz. Being invested in the culture of jazz that took over the sprawling urban ghettos, around the turn of the century, in salons and pub houses, breathing life into a new form of Americana, he wanted to achieve this primordial zest in his paintings which he believed would resolve the inequities of everyday life. He accorded his repetitive use of motifs in his art to the variation technique which is fundamental to jazz. He was hugely fascinated with the music of pianist Earl Hines. He even wrote of his painting 'Hot Still-Scape in Six Colours–Seventh Avenue Style', that "six colours were used… as the instruments in a musical composition might be, where the tone-colour variety results from the simultaneous juxtaposition of different instrument groups." His visual iconography comprising hot colours and hip slang, tried to incorporate the American humour noted in jazz, to oust the European supremacy, as is captured in his masterpieces such as 'Rapt at Rappaport's' and 'Owh! in San Pao'.

Stuart Davis, 'Rapt at Rappaport's', 1952 Image Courtesy: Wikiart

Dada did it all

Hugo Ball in Cubist costume, performing Verse without Words, 1916 Image Courtesy: Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism

Music has had a longstanding impact on art, be it slow, loud, staccato or aggressive. Hugo Ball, one of the founders of the Dada Movement, composed sound poems, 'Karawane' being the most popular, and performed them at Cabaret Voltaire. 'Karawane' which consisted of seventeen lines flouting all apparent tenets of meaning, garnered a lot of acclaim because of its resonant tone and the manner in which it was recited, emphasizing its gestural import.

When Mondrian broke free

Piet Mondrian, 'Broadway Boogie Woogie', 1942 Image Courtesy:

Piet Mondrian's interest in music is not unknown to many. In fact, when he moved to New York in the 1940s to escape the ravages of World War II, he was quick to fall in love with the bin and bustle of this thriving city, especially with boogie woogie music. He was so enchanted with the dynamicity of the form that he tried to manifest it in his art, which culminated into his famous painting, 'Broadway Boogie Woogie' (1942-1943). The painting pulsates with a vibrating energy that breaks away from the constraints of unidimensional colours and straight lines, something quite unlikely of Mondrian, considering his Neo-Plasticist aesthetic. You can also trace parallels between jazz and Mondrian's art as both are devoted to the idea of improvisation; playing with intuition which makes both the brushstrokes and the cadences appear to be created on the spur of the moment.

Bauhaus and its musical thinking

Lux Feininger, 'Charleston on the Bauhaus Roof', 1927 Image Courtesy: Artnet

The founder of Bauhaus school of art and design, Walter Gropius was also a patron of art and music and urged students who were often referred to as 'professional dilettantes', to exchange their innovative ideas with people across other creative disciplines and industries. It soon acquired a musical identity of its own with the inception of ad hoc groups that performed music combining elements of jazz and folk, keeping in tune with the school's experimental ethos. The 'Charleston on the Bauhaus Roof' played by the Bauhaus Jazz Band in 1927 marked the beginning of the trend of artists forming musical bands, a common confluence in today's world.

A few more instances of music taking its cues from art

Sandro Botticelli, 'Primavera', 1477-1482 Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The world stands witness to many such iconic moments in history where music and art came together to offer us timeless relics of times gone by. Of the countless examples, we recount some other phenomenal works which have left a prominent mark on our memory including Ottorino Respighi's 'Botticelli Triptych' (1927) which was inspired by Sandro Botticelli's three paintings—'Primavera' also known as 'Allegory of Spring', one of the most popular paintings in Western art and two others, 'The Birth of Venus' and 'The Adoration of the Magi'. Katsushika Hokusai's 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa' led French composer Claude Debussy to create the iconic 'La Mer' (1905) which is a beautiful aural depiction of the vigour of the sea portrayed in the Japanese painting. Sergei Rachmaninoff came up with a brooding symphony called 'Isle of the Dead' (1908) after he was deeply moved by Arnold Bocklin's 1886 painting which goes by the same name. We also remember Don McLean penning a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh in his song 'Vincent' (1971), whose lyrics specifically refer to his masterpiece, 'The Starry Night', which also caused classical musician Henri Dutilleux to compose his orchestral work 'Timbre, Space, Movement' (1978). Van Gogh and his ever enigmatic story also inspired Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara to write both an opera and a symphony about his life. And last but not the least, from more recent times, we have British rock band Coldplay, who was inspired by Frida Kahlo's tenacity and perseverance in the face of physical hardships, and wrote a song which took its name from Kahlo's painting titled 'Viva La Vida'.

Vincent Van Gogh, 'The Starry Night', 1889

Vincent Van Gogh, 'The Starry Night', 1889 Image Courtesy: MoMA

To say that art and music are inextricably tied to one another wouldn't be an exaggeration. Time and time again, we have seen artists and composers fall back on each other's craft to enrich their own. Some of the world's most enduring works of art owe its artistic lineage to music and vice versa. However the handful of references highlighted above does not imply an unabridged list, since history abounds with this interplay. So, if you feel we have left out your personal favourite, you can share it with us in the comments below! Meanwhile if you want to dig deeper into the arts and read about some of the most memorable duos of the art world, you can check out this blog here!

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