Category Archives: Visual art

Liszt’s Totentanz

holbein-totentanz

The medieval Dance of Death and variation form always belonged together, and Franz Liszt’s Totentanz is a splendid example.

In the European cultural tradition, the Dies irae is closely bound up with the experience of death. Liszt’s use of motive transformation—particularly the practice of modal reshaping—permitted him to unfold this theme in a series of ever new character variations, with their contrasts oriented around a common denominator.

This according to Haláltánc: Variáció, épitkezés, modális transzformáció Liszt Ferenc zenéjében by József Ujfalussy (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990).

Happy Halloween from RILM! Above, a woodcut from Hans Holbein the younger’s Danse macabre series, one of the visual works that inspired Liszt. Below, a performance by Beatrice Berrut.

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Filed under Romantic era, Visual art

Instrumentarium de Chartres

chartres-cathedral-rose-window

Built during the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Among the cathedral’s precious treasures dating from the 12th through the 16th centuries are the statues of the Portail Royal and its three stained glass windows, the largest collection of stained glass from the 13th century, and several hundred 16th-century bas-reliefs in the choir. These unique elements contain 312 catalogued depictions of 26 musical instruments representing a veritable history of French instrument making from the High Middle Ages through the Renaissance.

Preliminary research led to a 1966 proposal by Julien Skowron to reconstruct some of the instruments depicted in the cathedral’s visual arts; six instruments were built, and in 1977 the Instrumentarium de Chartres was born. Today the collection of some 40 string, wind, and percussion instruments comprises the most complete and most played instrumentarium in Europe; it also serves an important pedagogical function for the curious of all ages who enjoy hands-on experience with the collection. The success of the project attests to the fine medieval and Renaissance artistry that makes modern reconstruction of this rich historical collection possible.

Instrumentarium de Chartres is an open-access online presentation of this collection, presenting images of the original artworks and the newly reconstructed instruments, and many other resources for scholars, performers, and the general public.

Above, a rose window from the cathedral that includes several images of instruments (click to enlarge); below, a brief demonstration of some of the instruments.

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Filed under Iconography, Instruments, Renaissance, Resources

Early sources for African instruments

Le triumphe de la noblissement des Gentilhommes

Among the various musical instruments depicted in early documents (bells and double bells, drums, scrapers, horns, flutes, xylophones, and bow-lute), the double bell is of particular interest because of its relatively good pictorial documentation.

In 1687 a double bell from the Congo-Angola area called longa was first mentioned in print. Even today the Ovimbundu people call the double bell alunga (sing. elunga), and give it an important role in the enthronement of the king.

Early pictorial sources and later reports indicate four types of double bell—those with stem grip, bow grip, frame grip, and lateral bar grip—and of these the stem grip double bell, found in the Congo-Angola areas as well as Rhodesia, represents the older type of double bell and probably has its origin in Benin-Yoruba. It appears that the Portuguese, who got to know the double bell as an important court instrument in the Guinea area, brought this instrument, together with other court appurtenances, to Luanda, their new base of operations after the breakdown of the Congo kingdom.

This according to “Early historical illustrations of West and Central African music” by Walter Hirschberg (African music IV/3 [1969] pp. 6–18).

Above, Le triumphe de la noblissement des Gentilhommes, published by Pieter de Marees in 1605. Below, Nigerian double bells and other instruments.

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Filed under Africa, Iconography, Instruments

Paul Hindemith, visual artist

Apparently Hindemith seized every opportunity to draw, from early childhood until his last December, when he completed that year’s entry in a series of Christmas cards that spanned more than 20 years.

He used any medium that came to hand—including menus, advertisements, and paper napkins—and clearly never considered his drawings to be very important; they were carelessly preserved, and almost never dated or titled.

Most of Hindemith’s drawings are whimsical, often to the point of grotesquerie. He characteristically filled all the available space, often with impossible conglomerations of people, animals, and machines. The richness of his ideas and the skill of their expression bear witness to a truly original talent.

This according to Paul Hindemith: Der Komponist als Zeichner/Paul Hindemith: The composer as graphic artist (Zürich: Atlantis, 1995).

Below, part of Hindemith’s tribute to a great visual artist—the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald. Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester in Grablegung, the second movement of Symphony: Mathis Der Maler.

BONUS: Hindemith must have rotated the above drawing several times as he worked on it; it can therefore be viewed with any edge on top. Copy it into a picture editor and rotate it yourself to see the four different angles!

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Humor, Visual art

Louis Sullivan and the Chicago Auditorium

Holloway detail

Louis Sullivan’s interior designs for the theater of the Chicago Auditorium Building (1889) reflect the ideas of Wagner and of the transcendentalist and music critic John Sullivan Dwight.

Especially significant are the murals, supervised by Sullivan, which allude to multiple art forms and to the democratic ideal of the opera house as a social institution.

Albert Fleury designed the murals on the side walls using themes drawn from Sullivan’s prose-poem Inspiration: An essay, which is full of musical imagery. The proscenium frieze, designed by Charles Holloway, depicts a central winged figure holding a lyre, flanked by several other figures and by the words “The utterance of life is a song: the symphony of nature”.

This according to “Louis Sullivan, J.S. Dwight, and Wagnerian aesthetics in the Chicago Auditorium Building” by Stephen Thursby, an essay included in Music in architecture, architecture in music (Austin: University of Texas, 2014, pp. 42 –53 ).

Above, the central figures in Holloway’s frieze (click images to enlarge); below, the frieze in the full proscenium; further below, one of Fleury’s murals, with the quotation from Sullivan’s text “O, soft, melodious spring time! First-born of life and love”.

Holloway proscenium frieze

Fleury spring song

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Filed under Architecture, Iconography

Ballet manga

ballet manga

Ballet manga, in which the heroine withstands numerous trials to become a notable dancer, is very popular among Japanese girls and women, and has greatly contributed to the establishment of ballet in Japan.

The genre emerged during the 1950s; with an increase in its popularity, more children began attending private ballet classes, since Japan had no official ballet schools. After some decades now, many Japanese dancers have begun winning international dancing competitions.

While most ballet manga is fictional, some examples have been based on the lives of famous ballet dancers such as Vaclav Nižinskij and Maria Tallchief.

This according to “The relationship between ballet and manga in Japan” by Yukiyo Hoshino, an essay included in Writing dancing/Dancing writing (Birmingham: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2014, pp. 103–106).

Above, the first volume of Swan, a popular serialized ballet manga from the 1970s; below, the related genre of ballet anime.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Visual art

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, visual artist

Fischer-Dieskau self portrait 1985

When Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a little boy he was, as he described himself, “shy, clumsy, obedient, and uninterested in sport.”

He started piano lessons when he was nine, and these led indirectly to his second great artistic pursuit, drawing and painting. It took many years for him to try his hand at oils, but by the 1970s his two homes were filled with many testimonies to his skill. “It helps to release the tensions and strains of my profession,” he told an interviewer.

This according to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, mastersinger by Kenneth Whitton (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981, pp. 16–17).

Today would have been Fischer-Dieskau’s 90th birthday! Above, a self-portrait from 1985; below, a brief film presenting several of his portraits.

BONUS: Fischer-Dieskau’s much-celebrated recording of Schubert’s Die Winterreise with Gerald Moore, from 1962.

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Filed under Curiosities, Visual art

The Brandenburg Concertos as allegories

Venus Mars

Bach’s Brandenburgische Konzerte are not the epitome of absolute music, as some scholars contend; rather, they comprise an allegory of princely virtues. This reading of the works puts them in the framework of both Bach’s cantatas and the allegorical iconography that was common in the decorations of Baroque palaces.

Although not all the concertos were conceived in relation to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, they were chosen for the cycle dedicated to him and are meant to reflect themes connecting him to particular figures in classical mythology: the hunter (Diana), the hero (Hercules), the patron of the arts (Apollo and the Muses), the shepherd (Pan), the lover (Venus and Mars), and the scholar (Athena).

This according to “Bachs mythologisches Geheimnis: Philip Pickett, Reinhard Goebel und das verborgene Programm der Brandenburgischen Konzerte” by Karl Böhmer (Concerto: Das Magazin für Alte Musik XII/109 [December–January 1995–96] pp. 15–17).

Above, Venus and Mars presenting arms to Aeneus by Gérard de Lairesse (1641–1711; click to enlarge). Below, the corresponding concerto.

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Visual art

W.A. Mozart, cartoonist

mozart sketch1

Mozart’s wittiness is famously illuminated through many of his letters. Less known are his small humorous sketches, which appear here and there throughout his correspondence.

The sketches range from mysterious stick figures to bizarre caricatures; some are still riddles to scholars.

This according to “Mozart, der Zeichner” by Gabriele Ramsauer, an essay included in Mozart-Bilder–Bilder Mozarts: Ein Porträt zwischen Wunsch und Wirklichkeit (Salzburg: Pustet, 2013, pp. 25–28).

Above, a drawing at the top of a letter from Mozart to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, known as Bäsle, dated 10 May 1780, titled Engel (Angel), with labels fig. I Kopf (head), fig. II Frißur (hairdo), fig. III Nasn (nose), fig. IV Brust (breast), fig. V Hals (throat), fig. VI Aug (eye); inscribed below VI: Hier ißt leer (Here is empty).

The full text of the letter (untranslated) is here; below, the finale of Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß, which ends with his celebrated foray into polytonality.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Humor, Visual art

Mayan instrument iconography

mayan jaguar drum

Provided mostly by vase paintings and murals, pictorial evidence of the musical practices of the Mayan Classic (ca. 250–900 C.E.) and especially of the Late Classic (ca. 600–800 C.E.) is abundant.

These depictions allow the identification of instrument types—many of them not found as artifacts in archaeological contexts—and their association with specific musical occasions.

What is not always as clear as it may appear is the past musical combination practice of the instruments (and vocal forms) represented in a given picture. Many representations of groups of musicians and musical instruments arouse doubts about their band-like organization or, put positively, give rise to questions about the possible devices used by their painters to indicate musical and social differentiations of such groups.

This according to “Trumpets in Classic Maya vase painting: The iconographic identification of instrumental ensembles” by Matthias Stöckli (Music in art: International journal for music iconography XXXVI/1–2 [spring–fall 2011] pp. 219–230).

Above, a Late Classic Mayan vase painting depicting a friction drum (center); below, John Burkhalter discusses and demonstrates this instrument (demonstration begins at 2:05).

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Filed under Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments