Surrealism and Music?: The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

This concert is designed to parallel the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of the work of René Magritte. Two principles of organization are at work: First, the listener will hear works written by Belgian, French and American composers who were contemporaries of René Magritte. Magritte, unlike Giorgio de Chirico, believed that music was an ally of surrealism. He maintained a lifelong interest in music. One of the composers represented here, André Souris, was his friend. Two of the pieces , Poulenc’s Les Biches and Edgar Varése’s Arcana, were written precisely during the years when surrealism emerged from Dadaism in France and Belgium. A third work, by Charles Koechlin,, begun in the mid 1920’s and completed more than a decade later, reflects the wide influence of surrealist aesthetics. The last piece, John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, pays homage to the twentieth century composer whose conceptual innovations most closely parallel for music the challenge and significance of Magritte’s famous word paintings from the 1920’s and 1930’s and Magritte’s “Les Mots et les Images” (1929). In short, the listener is presented in this concert with a selection of the musical context in which Magritte worked from the mid-19920’s to the mid-1950’s.

Second, using the contemporaneity and geographic proximity of the composers on the program and their works (e.g. Brussels, Paris and New York, three cities where surrealism had a significant following) this concert seeks to explore whether there was in music a development parallel to surrealism during the first half of the twentieth century. Using Magritte as the model, can one describe and understand certain music from the same period as surrealistic in a way comparable to the way we identify surrealist writing and painting?

The irony in the hostility of French surrealism to music and André Breton’s disdain for Schopenhauer is that it would seem that music must have been a natural medium for much of surrealist ideology. Central to surrealism was the notion of an unmediated direct creative outpouring of the imagination, transcending the distinction of the conscious and the unconscious. A nearly mystical sense of unity and the belief in a higher and deeper definition of reality pervaded surrealist discourse. Surrealism sought to explode the distinction between resemblance and illusion, between the visible and the invisible. It was surrealism’s goal to transform the idea of representation and the distinction between the subjective and the objective. Surrealist artists celebrated the transcendence of apparent contradiction and sought to overcome the tyranny of reason, to unleash the atomatic and un-self-conscious dynamic of creativity. Furthermore, inspired by Freud they seized on his investigation of the unconscious within dreamwork to break out of the limitations of what appeared to be the ordinary consciousness of banal reality. The conventions of word usage, of naming perception and symbolic meaning, all underwent critical analyses and challenge.

The tradition of nineteenth-century musical aesthetics should have recommended music as an ideal vehicle for theses aspects of surrealism. As Schopenhauer and Wagner argued, music was the direct unmediated expression of the unconscious, transcending mere representation whether as a so-called abstract or absolute aesthetic medium, or as a programmatic vehicle as in opera, one which could accompany words and pictures. Music was alleged naturally to possess the direct creative force sought by surrealism. It surpassed the conventional limitations of speech and illustration; the distinctions between the real and the imaginary.

But it was not until 1946 when André Breton argued in an essay entitled “Silence Is Golden” that music can be a powerful force for the achievement of “incandescence”; that music could reveal an inner music of poetic language. He recognized music as “independent of the social and moral obligations that limit spoken and written language”.

As Breton’s 1946 essay makes clear, John Cage’s writing of the 1950’s possessed close similarities to surrealist rhetoric and strategies. Cage’s approach to the continuity of compositional process and his celebration of indeterminacy are conceptual parallels to the surrealist manifestoes of the 1920’s Cage’s most famous work 4’33” from the 1954 can be regarded as the moral equivalent to Magritte’s 1926 Ceci n’est pas une Pipe. Both Cage and Magritte attempted to penetrate the essence of silence in a revolutionary manner.

The difficulty, of course, is that music, unlike writing and painting–the most familiar surrealist media, was never constructed on an illusion of realism; on the imitation of nature, strictly considered. Even when musical realism became an accepted notion in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was clearly an artificial convention.

In the early days of Romanticism, in the writings of Jean Paul, Wackenroder and E.T.A. Hoffmann (despite the surrealist’ open disregard for these writers), music held the power which Max Ernst sought to achieve through surrealism, to turn “topsy-turvy the appearances and relationships” of reality and appearance and address the “crisis of consciousness.” Music became the instrument of the fantastic. Surrealism in painting, as Georges Hugnet argued in 1936, aimed to appeal “to the imagination and fancy” and to take “man out of himself”. Music always had the inherent capacity to link life and the dream. It was traditionally the closest to the “invisible forces” that surrealism sought to capture. Magritte’s recognition of music’s power made him an exception to his fellow surrealists. Musical symbols, particularly as evidence of the hidden, reappear throughout Magritte’s oeuvre.

One reason that surrealism is a more difficult concept in terms of twentieth-century music goes beyond the essential differences between music and the other arts. Music’s inherent non-representational artificiality became exaggerated during the first half of the twentieth century. The dominant forces of musical modernism celebrated the abstract potential of music. Surrealism was a revolutionary movement. It wanted to engender liberation from the political and spiritual evils most powerfully mirrored in the experience of World War I. But it used realist techniques so that the surface of the work could be readily approached. The concurrent musical revolutionary impulse was the embrace of an even more counterintuitive approach to writing music. The attack on the bourgeois conventions and on the status quo in music took the form of atonality, the emancipation of dissonance, the use of “raw” sounds, and the other innovation which made the smug audience uncomfortable.

This trend in modernism struck the surrealists as elitist and as a symptom of a hated art for art’s sake attitude. There were in the 1920’s, however, alternative modernist musical movements which defied the elitist and arrogant tendencies of what eventually became the “orthodox” modernism of Schoenberg and his followers. The composers represented in this concert were chosen because their music 1) suggests contemporary strategies and approaches comparable to the visual and literary surrealism of Magritte; and 2) mirrors a rebellion against the high-handed modernist conceits of musical modernism which claimed the existence of a progressive historical process in the development of musical style and 3) sought to achieve a revolutionary impact on the audience by permitting the listener an immediate access to the work in a manner comparable to the work of the surrealist painters. This required a self-conscious distancing from modern academicism and historical tradition.

Andrew Souris experimented with collage and simplicity to construct a nearly surrealist narrative. Poulenc juxtaposed identifiable fragments and used the history of music much as a painter uses recognizable images to change their significance and penetrate their meanings. Likewise, Koechlin mixed the literary and the musical and poked fun at twentieth-century modernism by constructing a surrealist musical narrative. In Souris, Poulenc and Koechlin bizarre contrasts pierce the surface of so-called reality to level more akin to the experience of dreaming. Varése’s Arcana was inspired, as Varése wrote in 1925 to his wife, by a dream sequence:

I was on a boat that was turning around and around–in the middle of the ocean–spinning around in great circles. In the distance I could see a lighthouse, very high–and on top an angel

–and the angel was you– a trumpet in each hand.

Alternating projectors of different colors: red, green yellow, blue–and you were playing Fanfare No. 1, trumpet in right hand. Then suddenly the sky became incandescent–blinding– you raised your left hand to your mouth and the Fanfare 2 blared. And the boat kept turning and spinning– and the alternation of projectors and incandescence became more frequent–intensified –and the fanfares more nervous–impatient… and then–merde–I woke up. But anyway they will be in Arcanes.

(Enclosed with this letter was the short score of Arcana.)

By use of repetition and an unusual sequence of sounds, Varése transformed musical space and obliterated the difference of musical and unmusical sound. Musical space and time became revolutionized in a way that is viscerally evident of the listener. It is as startling and unsettling as the radical canvases that Magritte painted in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Like many surrealists, Varése paid overt homage to Paracelsus and the traditions of alchemy which sought to help humankind pierce through to the ultimate unity of existence. A quote from Paracelsus stands on the head of the score of Arcana.

Last but not least, the sense of time and space and the relationship of performer and listener to the experience of music are entirely transfigured in a surrealist manner by John Cage, one of the towering figures of American Twentieth-century culture. Written when surrealism was perhaps at its peak of popularity in America, Cage’s works from the 1950’s, including the concerto, mirror the revolutionary simplicity inherent in the tradition of surrealism. The performance tonight was intended as an 80th-birthday tribute to the composer; it now must be heard as the ASO’s memorial.

It is hoped that listeners to this concert who have looked at and thought about Magritte’s paintings, can find in their response to these five works of music–spanning the time frame of most of Magritte’s career–parallels which can assist in their reflections not only on surrealism and Magritte but about twentieth-century musical modernism and the nature of music in contemporary life. Magritte and the composers on this program all sought to engender an active critical sensibility through art which ultimately could encourage a craving for unity, peacefulness, freedom, justice and creativity yet unachieved in this century.