Tuesday, 12 April 2016



I) Böcklin's "Isle of the Dead" and Sergei Rachmaninoff

Arnold Böcklin's 4th version of Isle of the Dead 1884
Isle of the Dead – The Symphonic poem that almost never was:

It was in 1907 that 36 year old Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was first introduced to a black and white reproduction of Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, immediately becoming enraptured under it’s toxic spell. The painting in question has been much analyzed by art scholars over the years, and, whilst Böcklin left no premise behind for the work, it is largely believed that the painting, depicting a lonesome, tree shrouded island which looks more macabre than becoming, and a single figure - mournfully it seems – rowing a boat into the cavernous-like island, that may well double as an entrance to another world - is probably the most likely scenario for this eerily baneful symphonic poem. This was the perception shared not only by the layman but also the scholar, who likened the standing figure as Charon (the doleful oarsman of Greek mythology), rowing in his boat the recently departed across the River Styx toward the bowels of purgatory: the entrance? The island - the underworld.

Rachmaninoff's incredibly moving symphonic poem may never have been composed had Rachmaninoff viewed the various colorized versions of the famous image, declaring "If I had seen first the original, I, probably, would have not written my Isle of the Dead. I like it in black and white."

Listen to the Isle of the Dead under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis:


II) Kaulbach's "Hunnenschlacht" and Franz Liszt

Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s Hunnenschlacht, better known as the Battle of the Huns
German painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s famous Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) was inspired by the legend of a battle between Roman and Visigoth Armies that was purported to have been a brawl so contentious, that the dead, bloodied and massacred fallen soldiers continued fighting in the battle during their ascent into the heavens. For German composer and conductor, Franz Liszt, the Hunnenschlacht, and the ‘battle’ that had inspired it could not go ignored in the realm of epic musical history and he felt so inspired, he immediately sat down to pen for himself (and luckily, for us) a symphonic poem (of the same title) that would mimic the legend of the battle. Upon his score, Liszt even included a personal note to future conductors of the piece, referring to the first section: “all instruments should sound like ghosts.”

Did Liszt accomplish his mission? Listen below to his Battle of the Huns


III) Hokusai's "Great Wave off Kanagawa" and Claude Debussy

Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa
It was the goal of every noted composer to establish for himself a unique repertoire and a legacy as an iconic visionary ahead of his times. French composer Claude Debussy was no exception to this rule. Today Debussy is described as an innovator and a pioneer in the realm of impressionist composers. It is said the composer sought, through his music, to display for the aural and visual senses the “sound” of color. In order to project this bold idea, Debussy became a patron of the art world, visiting and collecting pieces rich in color and theme from as far away as Asia. It was during one of his research excursions that Debussy would discover “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. It would be though the remarkable use of limited but increasingly emboldened shades of blues, yellows and white that Hokusai’s image seemed to jump off the paper, as if the froth of the great wave would, at any moment, spill over onto the floor. It was just this sense of audible/visual combustion that Debussy sought to emulate through his music. One curious inspection of "The Great Wave" was all it took for Debussy to become filled to the brim with great excitement, wishing to create a piece of music that could convey the same effect as those majestic yet frightening blues, yellows and white as seen in Hokusai’s woodblock print. The end result? “La Mer: the Sea, Three Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra" by Claude Debussy.

Claude Debussy's La Mer:

IV) Hartmann's "Pictures at an Exhibition" & Mussorgsky

Assumed inspirational pieces for Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."           -Collage by Rose.
Back in 1874 Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky could be found wandering the halls of a local exhibition featuring the works of recently deceased painter and close mate to the composer, Viktor Hartmann. Mussorgsky, and indeed the Russian Artistic Society had lauded Hartmann as something of a national Icon, but to Mussorgsky, Hartmann was more than that, he was a friendly companion in life, and so his old mate Mussorgsky decided he needed to immortalized in death.
Within 6 weeks of having visited the exhibit, Mussorgsky would go on to pen his Orchestral Suite in X movements, aptly titled “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Each movement offers to the informed listener Mussorgsky’s “tour” of the artwork at the exhibition, beginning with the “Promenade” (a prelude to mvmt I: "gnomus"), which depicts Mussorgsky at a casual stroll, to a more quickened pace as he walks closer to a piece of Hartmann’s art that had drawn his eye, followed by a slower rhythm depicting melancholy as the composer reminisces upon and mourns his close friend's passing. Things then move at a frenzied pace as if Mussorgsky was expressing a mix of despair and rage at the tragic loss of his mate, before culminating into a doleful lament as the listener is slowly swept into the first "gnomus" movement.

In the many years flowing Mussorgsky’s death from cirrhosis of the liver, caused by a life of drink,
vast and varied musical and fine art scholars have sought to connect the correct Hartmann pieces that correspond with the tempi of each movement (although some experts of this period claim the composer may have left behind the names of the work in a detailed synopsis). The current format of image to respective movement was categorized by 19th-early 20th century famed Russian critic Vladimir Stasov. Click here to discover the fascinating selection of inspired paintings most agreed upon by scholars as having influenced "Pictures at an Exhibition."

Also, enjoy below the first movement of the "Exhibition:" The Promenade (influence is described above).

V) Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress" & Stravinsky

The Rake's Progress (painting I) by William Hogarth, c. 1734
The source of inspiration for this entry is an interesting moral tale for the uninspired and easily seduced. Roused by famed engraver William Hogarth’s art collection “The Rake’s Progress” (a series of paintings in the order of the downward spiral of despair, each image being worse off for the character depicted within the painting than it’s last), famed librettist W.H. Auden would team up with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to tell the tale of Tom Rakewall - in an opera of the same name - loosely based on the sequential narrative of Hogarth's paintings, in which an uninspired and highly unsatisfied young "rake" (a young man who had inherited monies from the passing of his father ( his uncle in Stravinsky's opera) only to blow through it on drink, whores and gambling, unwittingly befriends one Nick Shadow (whose surname flies right over our character’s head: "Shadow" - meaning spirit, or ghost –  in this instance meant the Devil himself!
 After a frequently salacious series of events in which our anti-hero Rakewell plummages through his inheritance through excessive and sinful exploits (spurned on by the reaper), Rakewell's fate takes a turn for the worse:
 both opera and story end at the very edge of hell on earth: Rakewell is accused of losing his mind, and becomes imprisoned in the notorious Bedlam Insane Asylum (and if you are familiar with the horrors of Bethlam and early psychiatric "treatment", you can be certain Rakewell’s punishment in 'hell 'is only just beginning!)

Enjoy the original story that inspired Stravinsky to pay homage to the character of Tom Rakewell here.

...and listen to Stravinsky's take on the tale of Tom Rakewell with his version of The Rake's Progress:

Click on the infographic below to learn more about the very first orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition piano suite - the 1891 (abridged) version arranged by Russian-Georgian opera conductor Mikhail Tushmalov, and then have a listen below to the only recording of this version, performed by the Munich Philharmonic under Marc Andreae:

Click on graphic to enlarge text

* No.'s IV & V (Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, respectively, and their inspirational counterparts belong to a collection of images on a theme, but are included on this list in singular form with external links provided for additional images in the respective collections of each artist).


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