Gallery Soundtrack

I can’t help it. Whenever I walk through the galleries, the artwork triggers music in my head that runs and repeats at full volume until something else is queued up. It’s like I have my own playlist for the galleries! Of course, because I’ve studied cello for so long, most of what pops into my head is classical music. For me, visual art and classical music are so aesthetically similar. Although they touch different senses, they explore the same issues and exploit the same methods to communicate with an audience. I think that they’re perfect complements: two sides of the same coin. I’ve decided to share two works here at the museum that remind me of some of my favorite pieces of music. I offer a taste of my gallery soundtrack:

Paradise Lost: The Creation of Light, 1824. John Martin (British, 1789-1854). Mezzotint. Mr. and Mrs. Charles G. Prasse Collection.

This mezzotint by John Martin, Paradise Lost: The Creation of Light, is a copy of a lost painting, likely a large canvas that had breathtaking emotional impact. Even this black and white mezzotint, however, is not lacking in narrative force. The sheer power of this moment—“let there be light”—is almost visceral. The rays of light, summoned by the outstretched hand of God (a very controversial depiction at the time), charge through the clouds, which almost seem to flee before them. It’s the sheer contrast of dark in light that gives this work its emotional might. 

The perfect complement to this work is “In the beginning” from The Creation by Franz Joseph Haydn. Haydn covers the exact same moment as Martin and uses the same technique of stark contrast to ensure a powerful emotional impact. The opening, quoting directly from the Book of Genesis, is tense, brooding, and insecure—evoking the darkness in Martin’s mezzotint. Then, the moment depicted in Martin’s work comes. We hear the text “and God said: let there be light” sung softly…even softer “and there was…,” and suddenly with a titanic explosion of sound: “Light!” Make sure you’re sitting down, folks; this is one of the most incredible shocks in all of music. You’d be hard-pressed to find any moment that radiates such sheer emotional power.

Harlequin with Violin, 1918. Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). Oil on canvas. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I am absolutely fascinated by Harlequin with Violin. What strikes our eyes is a highly complex and abstract figure; however, like a puzzle, the figure of Harlequin is actually composed using unremarkable units—simple shapes and bad-wallpaper-esque textures. It’s almost primitive, recalling the styles of African or Pre-Columbian figures that use unnatural shapes to represent complex, natural forms. Picasso’s use of such a primitive artistic vocabulary opens infinite possibilities for creative combinations impossible if he were bound to realistic depictions. \

Similar in approach is Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, a work so abstract and primitive that it caused a riot at its first performance in Paris. The introduction begins as different instruments, almost like characters, trade off the spotlight with their primitive melodies (which Stravinsky based on rural Slavic tunes). More and more instruments pile on top of one another, building to a chaotic, cacophonous din: a complex and abstract soundscape, like Picasso’s Harlequin with Violin. But if you break down that moment—like I had to do in my fourth-semester theory course—it’s built exactly like the Picasso. Remember those little melodic fragments at the beginning? Stravinsky just piles them on top of one another. Like Picasso, he combines simple and primitive blocks to create an abstract whole. Listen with care—just don’t start a riot.

Bonus: If you don’t think Rite sounds weird enough, watch this full staging by the Joffrey Ballet.   

Guest Author

Benjamin Francisco

The Cleveland Museum of Art

Benjamin Francisco is a Cello Performance major at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and an intern in the Communications and Marketing Department at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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