Visual Elements in Music

2 Music Based on Paintings

The first composer who was inspired to translate pictures and sculptures into music was Franz Liszt. In 1839, he created the piano pieces Lo Sposalizio and Il Penseroso after works by Raphael and Michelangelo (in Années de Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année: Italie). Later, he also took paintings as basis for his orchestral works, as, for example in his symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht (The battle of the Huns, 1857), which was inspired by a monumental painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Many other composers such as Modest Mussorgsky, Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré also attempted to translate works of fine art into music.

Of these musical interpretations, Modest Mussorgsky’s piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) became particularly popular.[3] During the visit of a memorial exhibition dedicated to the painter and architect Victor Hartmann, Mussorgsky was inspired to start this work, and he chose ten watercolors and drawings as models for his cycle. He translated these into music by processing scenic aspects and their corresponding elements of motion, transforming them into independent musical images, whose relation to the model could no longer be immediately understood.[4]

Indeed, in many compositions based on a relationship between painting and music, the connections are not actually compelling or really conclusive. Often, such relationships remain vague and are based purely on association. The musical solutions found for the interpretation of paintings usually turn out very differently. Still, all these attempts were united in the idea to cross the boundaries between painting and music. This corresponded to romanticism’s idea of a fusion of different art forms, as, for example, in Universalpoesie (universal poetry) or the Gesamtkunstwerk.

The fame of this work is also due to the many existing orchestral arrangements (by Maurice Ravel, Leopold Stokowski a.o.) as well as the rock version by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.