Structural Analogies

1 References to Different Genres as a Precursor of Structural Analogies

Long before structural analogies between music and the visual arts became established in the twentieth century, the two genres made numerous references to one other throughout their respective histories: either at the theoretical level in the context of the paragone (the Renaissance debate on the rivalry between the arts), in the development of esthetics in the eighteenth century — which formulated common goals for the two genres — or at the practical level, in the choice of subject matter derived from the other art form.

Thus, the choice of musical themes such as the depiction of musicians or instruments was a long-standing tradition in painting before tone painting — which found expression even in literature, in numerous Künstlerromane — came to be propagated more forcefully as of the eighteenth century. Under the influence of musical esthetics, musical art became something of a role model for painting in the nineteenth century and, subsequently, structural principles were transferred gradually to the production of visual imagery, as illustrated by Philipp Otto Runge’s Die Zeiten (The Times of the Day; 1807). Because of the rise of photography, among other things, painting lost its monopoly on figurative reproduction and, in the course of its reorientation process, discovered in music a role model for an abstract approach to artistic material. To this attests a growing preference, manifest by the end of the nineteenth century, for musical titles for semiabstract or abstract paintings.

By the same token, mimetic representation of events in the real world was achieved in nineteenth-century music solely by recourse to tone painting. Imitations of natural phenomena such as birdsong, thunderstorms, idyllic landscapes (including a rushing stream and the blast of hunters’ horns), and a railway journey are just one example of this.

It is only with the proliferation of program music in the nineteenth century that one finds concrete references to works of fine art, as in Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage; 1839) and Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns; 1857), and Modest Mussorgsky’s Kartinki s vystavki (Pictures at an Exhibition; 1874).[1]

In these cases, correlations with the painterly template exist primarily as tertium comparationis, that is, through the use of identical adjectival ascriptions — monumental or static, for example — which had been transferred from the visual plane to music.

Since the early twentieth century, productive exchanges between visual art and music have ultimately intensified, either because of the synchronous activity of artist-musicians in the two genres, of endeavors to synthesize art forms — for example, in musical theater — or of the transfer of creative principles based on structural analogies.

Program music usually implies an independent instrumental piece based on a nonmusical theme to which the composer, as a rule, expressly alludes.