Music and Visual Imagination

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The Russian poet Aleksandr Blok made the observation that there are only two kinds of time and therefore two kinds of space. The first is historical and is reflected in the calendar. The other dimension of time and space is musical. Blok speaks of the musical time and space as being tied essentially to nature as an experience that comes to us when we set civilized consciousness aside and surrenDer to “the global orchestra.” For the Russian Symbolists of the turn of the century, the search of the artist was to penetrate the artificial screen of realism and the illusions created by narrative coherency, and to find the cosmic in the specific. Andrei Bely, perhaps the most original voice of Russian Symbolism, placed music as the highest of the arts precisely because it proceeded through time and was not static. Rhythm rather than melody was the essence of music, since emotional expression required time to be felt. For Bely, passion and emotion, even when experienced visually, utilized the temporal dimension offered by music. Music dominated the other arts because it was beyond civilization and reason—at once utterly natural and earthbound, and at the same time pure and abstract. The laws of all art could be organized musically, so to speak, just as the laws of physics could be organized mathematically. The essence of the real was abstracted. Music was the guiding principle toward which art in the use of space, dimension and color should turn. With respect to meaning, visual art should thus be like music: indirect in its allusions and therefore ultimately symbolic.

However, despite the philosophical prejudice expressed on behalf of music during the era during which the music on this program was written, in terms of social history, precisely the opposite was occurring. In European culture, the nineteenth century can easily be regarded as the century of music. By 1900, however, the high-water mark of concert music’s significance as a social factor had been reached. The twentieth century would become the age of the visual, beginning with the explosion of innovation in painting and sculpture in the earliest decades, continuing through the rise of photography and the silent film, the sound film, and ultimately with television and video.

All of the composers on tonight’s program initially focused on music but eventually developed a deep interest in painting and visual imagery. One of them, Mikolajus Ciurlionis, eventually became better known as a painter than as a musician. The generation of Ciurlionis, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alexander Scriabin—all of whom were born in the same decade—was profoundly impressed by the aesthetic philosophies prevalent at the turn of the century. They sought to eliminate not only the boundaries between reason and emotion (and therefore between the rational and the seemingly irrational) but the demarcations between fields of knowledge: science, ethics, and epistemology. Central to their various mystical and pseudo-mystical speculations was an effort to seek meaning beyond language and to bridge the physical and metaphysical worlds. In the arts, much of this effort to find a unified theory through aesthetic experience had been propelled by Wagner, but this later generation went well beyond that starting point by actively seeking out the philosophical implications contained in the connections between sight and hearing. Schoenberg, for example, became friendly with the painter Wassily Kandinsky and contributed to the journal Blaue Reiter. Kandinsky for his part produced his own opera entitled Yellow Sound. Kandinsky would become the pioneer of non-objective art, just as Schoenberg would help return twentieth-century music to traditions of pure formalism.

At the turn of the century, visual art was both Schoenberg and Scriabin at the center of a new religion of art. The search for an underlying organic logic which could perhaps only be intuited through different aesthetic media working in concert together led Scriabin to resort to that panacea of nineteenth-century rationalism, mechanical technology. The remains of his efforts to design a sound-and-color machine still exist in a dilapidated state in the museum that was once his home. Ciurlionis, who like Scriabin died young (and within four years of the Russian composer), began to paint and write music almost interchangeably, in order to generate a fusion of both aesthetic experiences.

In tonight’s exploration of the early twentieth century’s engagement with the crossroads between the musical and the visual, Schoenberg’s Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (1930) represents a transition from the mystical symbolism of Ciurlionis and Scriabin to the reassertion of a less integrated parallelism between music and the visual evident in the Hindemith. Schoenberg wrote this piece many years after he had stopped working systematically as a painter. Nevertheless, the work owes much to Schoenberg’s remarkable gifts as a visual artist and his practical engagement with the making of art. The Mathis Der Maler Symphony, perhaps Hindemith’s most successful piece for orchestra, is in Bely’s terms, ultimately a work in which time is understood both historically and musically. Hindemith attempts to evoke the substance of the work of art, the experience of the viewer in front of the altarpiece, and the struggle of the artist in making it. Music assumes all the roles we might assign in a film or opera (from which the music is Derived). Although Hindemith’s strategy is more akin to that undertaken by Max Reger in his 1913 Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, (performed by the ASO in 1994), Hindemith’s music can be understood as having been influenced by the rising importance of the film medium. We should not underestimate how radically our sense of time and musical space has been influenced by the motion picture.

In the case of George Gershwin, many of the strands of speculation engaged in by his European contemporaries find American equivalents. Like Ciurlionis and Schoenberg, Gershwin turned to painting, and became obsessed by both making art and collecting it. More than Schoenberg and Hindemith, the film was a crucial part of the culture in which he worked, for it was America that pioneered the business of moving pictures. Like Scriabin, Gershwin was fascinated by technology and modern instruments of reproduction and the transmission of sound, (as is evidenced by the “city sounds” in the Second Rhapsody). In this sense too he was truly American. But what sets Gershwin apart from the others was not only his greatness as a composer of popular music. Precisely because his audience cut across social classes in a way unimaginable to the others on tonight’s program, he had an instinct for the listening habits of his age. Furthermore he knew that in the 1920s, many American artists including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe, and Joseph Stella, were inspired in their painting by music. The synthesis of the visual and the musical was therefore not located so much in the work of art itself (as had been advocated by the Symbolists), as in the act of listening visually, and by being inspired through the auditory experience to see differently.

Gershwin’s visual ambitions were neither musical nor abstract, nor even symbolist. They reflect a much more common-sense realization that hearing and seeing both take place in time and space, making the cultivation of the eye a potentially powerful experience for the musician, just as the training of the ear might help the artist. As we celebrate the centennial of Gershwin’s birth, we should revisit his painting and engagement with visual art as a way of understanding his musical ambitions during the last decade of his life. Tonight’s concert-goers may encounter unfamiliar dimensions of the mature Gershwin’s ambition, including those of making a name for himself in the field of symphonic music as a “serious” classical composer, and of becoming a fine painter. Perhaps nothing represents these dimensions better than Gershwin’s portrait of Arnold Schoenberg. We present it here with other art works connected to tonight’s program, so that audience members may experience for themselves each composer’s intended connections between hearing and seeing.