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Jul. 06 2023

Paintings in Classical Music

By Kati Harrison | Posted in Host Blogs | Comments Off on Paintings in Classical Music

Years ago when I first heard Quiet City by Aaron Copland, the Painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper sprang to mind. Recently after playing Quiet City on WBJC and describing the association I have with it and Hopper’s Nighthawks, a listener reached out to me saying that he appreciated the personal tidbit and that he listened to the work while looking at the painting and got the connection.

Aaron Copland composed Quiet City in 1939 based on music he had written for a failed play by Irwin Shaw. The music presents a lonely trumpet and English horn over a bed of strings as if quietly wandering through the streets of NYC late at night. Edward Hopper completed Nighthawks in 1942, a couple of years after Copland composed Quiet City. And even though Hopper’s painting might or might not be about existential loneliness sharing similarities with Copland’s Quiet City, there is no evidence that the music or the painting have anything to do with one another. The similarities between the two works exist solely in my imagination.

♫Copland’s “Quiet City”♫



Nighthawks by Edward Hopper





The comparison between Copland’s Quiet City and Hopper’s Nighthawks got me thinking about the classical music that actually has been directly inspired by art.  One of my favorite examples of music influenced by art is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead inspired by the painting of the same title by the Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin. The image depicts a rowboat carrying a coffin headed to a small island. Rachmaninoff’s music seems to add movement and encapsulate the mysterious narrative.  The painting above is the second version from June of 1880 which lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rachmaninoff’s inspiration came from the 4th black and white version below. When Rachmaninoff, much to his disappointment, discovered Böcklin’s original color painting, he said, “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.”

♫Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead♫









The sea often appears in the music of Claude Debussy. In fact, Debussy was so influenced by the woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, he kept a copy of  it in his studio as inspiration while writing La Mer. Also, Debussy added the print on the cover of his score of La Mer.

Debussy was 28 years younger than American artist James McNeill Whistler, but they were joined at the hip in terms of their artistic sensibilities around nature. Like Debussy and other impressionists of the day, Whistler was very inspired by the Japanese prints of Hokusai. Between 1870 and around 1885 James McNeill Whistler painted a set of nighttime impressions of the Thames at Battersea which he called, Nocturnes.  Deeply moved by Whistler’s paintings, in 1899 Debussy completed his own Nocturnes. The three movements include, Nuages (Clouds), Fêtes (Festivals), and Sirènes (Sirens).

♫Debussy – Nocturnes music♫


Nocturne Grey and Silver by James McNeill Whistler





Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by James McNeill Whistler





Nocturne in Blue and Gold by James McNeill Whistler













Viktor Hartmann-Plan for a City Gate in Kiev









One of the most famous examples of music created from art is Pictures at an Exhibition.  Mussorgsky processed the grief he felt after the untimely death of his friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann, by writing Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky wrote the work for piano, colorfully capturing the images his friend had painted.


♫Mussorgsky: The Great Gate At Kiev♫

♫Mussorgsky: The Catacombs♫


Paris Catacombs by Viktor Hartmann














Early 19th century English artist, Thomas Rowlandson was a caricaturist and printmaker noted for poking fun at politics and high society. Portsmouth Point is an etching by Thomas Rowlandson from 1814 that depicts the hustle and bustle as well as rowdy shenanigans going on at the busy seaside port. In 1925, composer Sir William Walton was riding on a route 22 bus in London when he remembered the Rowlandson etching, and the music for the brilliant, compact Portsmouth Point Overture was born.


♫Walton: Portsmouth Point Overture♫



Botticelli: La Primaver-Spring

In the late 1920’s Italian composer Ottorino Respighi paid a visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. There he chose three paintings by 15th-century painter Sandro Botticelli to set to music. Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych features La Primavera (Spring), L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi), and La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus). The work was dedicated to the American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge who had sponsored Respighi’s tour of the USA in 1927.


♫Respighi: Botticelli Triptych♫

Botticelli: Adoration of the Magi








Botticelli: The Birth of Venus












♫Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre♫

Today, Danse Macabre written by Camille Saint-Saëns in the 1870’s makes us smile, but at the time that the short tone poem was composed, it caused a certain amount of anxiety. Saint-Saëns based this sinister gem on a poem by Henri Cazalis. It’s also speculated that Saint-Saëns may have been influenced in part by a gruesome painting by 15th-century artist Giacomo Borlone.



I. The Heir (Life is Sweet!)




Opera has also been inspired by art! In 1947 Igor Stravinsky felt artistically compelled by an exhibition in Chicago of a series of eight engravings by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth called, A Rake’s Progress. The engravings tell the story about a privileged young man, Tom Rakewell, who aggressively spends himself financially and physically into a hole.  Igor Stravinsky’s Opera, The Rake’s Progress, which is loosely based on William Hogarth’s cautionary tale, premiered in Venice in 1951. I have included only 3 of the engravings. I’ll leave you to examine them all for yourself.

VI. The Gaming House (I can stop anytime)

♫The Rake’s Progress: “Here I Stand”♫

VII. The Prison (Oy!)










The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba





“Can a composer reuse the past and, at the same time, forge ahead? Whatever the answer is, this academic question did not concern me as I was composing the work.” That statement by Igor Stravinsky refers to his opera, The Rake’s Progress. 20th-century Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinů was inspired by 15th-century art not in terms of a narrative, but a reaction and mood created by the art. When describing his process for composing the 3-movement orchestral work, The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Martinů said, “I tried to express in musical terms that kind of solemnly immobile calm and semi-darkness, that palette of colors creating an atmosphere filled with delicate, peaceful, and moving poetry.” In 1952, Martinu made a trip to the Tuscan hill town of Arezzo where he saw the frescoes of 15th century Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba was one of the frescoes from the cycle that moved Martinu the most.


♫The Frescoes of Piero della Francesco♫

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Kati is WBJC's Operations Director and weekend host. Her full bio can be read here.

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