Museum of Fine Arts

Music and Art: Copley and Billings

By Cathy Fuller   |   Sunday, January 30, 2011
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I've been exploring pairings of art from the new Art of the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with music written around the same time that art was created.  If you've ever spent time at Boston Common, you may have seen this plaque:


(image from Wikimedia Commons)

William Billings has come to be known as the father of American choral music – creator of a unique and recognizable style. But while his music was immensely popular, he died in poverty – a victim of an America with no copyright laws, his best tunes printed without permission in hymnals far and wide. The plaque refers to an unmarked grave, and Billings was employed for a time as a Boston street sweeper.

Virtually all of his music is written for four-part a cappella chorus. These hymns and anthems were published in book-length collections that were forgotten for a time, and then rediscovered with a passion in the 20th century. His 1770 publication of The New England Psalm Singer signaled the beginning of the “First New England School”, and his music is commonly sung today.

At just the same time that Billings was publishing his collection “The Singing Master’s Assistant” in 1778, American artist John Singleton Copley was painting one of his most dramatic and recognizable works.



"Watson and the Shark" was inspired by a real event that had taken place in Cuba twenty-nine years earlier. Brook Watson was a fourteen-year-old orphan working as a crew member on a trading ship. He had jumped from a boat in the harbor for a swim when he was suddenly and violently attacked by a shark. His shipmates had been waiting on board to escort their captain ashore. They tried desperately to rescue Watson while the shark made three terrifying lunges. In his second swipe, he bit off the boy’s right foot. Watson was finally dragged on board and he survived. In fact, he became a successful London merchant and it was likely Brook Watson himself who commissioned a painting to capture the drama.

Copley was living in London to gain the approval of Britain’s art establishment – a Bostonian who had been known as the finest portraitist in America. Ultimately, he earned full membership in the prestigious Royal Academy. Watson knew where to go to get a masterpiece.

The painting that hangs so dramatically in the Museum’s Art of the Americas Wing is the second full-scale version that Copley painted. He realized the importance and popularity of what he had created, and so he painted it a second time. There is a third, on a smaller scale, as well.

It’s fascinating to consider just what Copley didn’t know in painting this drama: he’d never seen Cuba, and he’d never seen a shark (those strange shark lips give that away). There are studies that attempt to reveal just what artwork of the past may have served as models for many of the elements of Watson and the Shark. What’s most striking for me is the frozen quality of the moment. The desperate flailing acts as a kind of psychological underlay to the stillness of the snapshot. There is a stillness in the background, too, in the calm of the Havana harbor.

Go see it at the museum if you haven’t already. It’s a thrill to live it in the flesh, and easy to understand why it became so hugely famous in London.

Here is a clip from Billings’ hymn, “Chester,” from The New England Song Singer (later revised in The Singing Master’s Assistant). It was one of his most popular tunes, secondary in fame only to “Yankee Doodle” during the Revolutionary War. Interestingly, the name has nothing to do with the content—Billings named his hymns after places somewhat arbitrarily, so that the pieces could be identified, but the lyrics could be changed easily.

Billings: Chester (excerpt)


I’d love to hear your comments below about these works, the fascinating history behind them, or your experiences at the MFA- whatever you’d like!
 

Music and Art: Paternosto & Ginastera

By Cathy Fuller   |   Friday, January 28, 2011
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I’ve been pairing visual artists and composers, spotlighting a piece of art from the new Art of the America’s Wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and partnering it with a piece of music that was written at just about the same time.

The wing’s third floor gallery features a big, bold work by Argentine painter César Paternosto. It’s stunning. You can move around the gallery and never quite escape its vibrant color throbbing away, busily ignoring the squareness of its own frame. Staccato has never before been shown at the MFA.




The museum gives information on the inspiration behind Staccato, letting us know that the painting draws on the bold geometry of Andean textiles and the art of Josef Albers, whose colorful abstractions Paternosto saw in Buenos Aires in 1964.

Paternosto was a modernist interested in human perception and the illusory effects of color. Buy 1965, he remembers, he “started painting 'bands', exploring the ‘atonality’ of color: strange chords, such as a brown next to a pink, and the like. Soon the bands became waving and concentrically arranged.”

Paternosto had a deep appreciation for music, and he was inspired by the unexpected harmonies and the emancipation of dissonance that he heard in 12-tone music. I can see a kind of structured musicality in Staccato. An organized restlessness.

While Paternosto was creating Staccato in 1965, another artist from Argentina was methodically and meticulously building up a body of work. His is a modernism unlike anyone else’s – boldly contemporary and audibly aware of the Argentinean folk tradition. Alberto Ginastera said, “To compose is to be an architect … In musical terms, architecture spreads out over time. When the time has passed by and the architecture been deployed, one senses an inner perfection in the mind. Only at that moment may one say the composer has succeeded.”

Ginastera wrote using many techniques, including the serial, 12-tone technique that Paternosto was inspired by (especially in Webern’s music). Ginastera found his own personal language, after absorbing the aesthetics of many others, including Ravel, Bartók and Schoenberg.

It was in 1965, the year of Paternosto’s Staccato, that Ginastera’s Harp Concerto was premiered. I think there is an interesting connection between Paternosto’s modernism with its surprising visual harmonies, and Ginastera’s bright, chromatic language, emancipating the special, raw qualities of the harp.

Below is a clip from Ginastera’s Concerto for Harp. If this piece or the painting strike a strange chord with you, post a comment! We’d love to hear from you.

Ginastera: Harp Concerto, Op. 25, I. Allegro Giusto (excerpt)


(Image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts)
 

Music and Art: West and Antes

By Cathy Fuller   |   Monday, January 24, 2011
1 Comments   1 comments.

The inspiration for this series, pairing works of visual art and music, is the art you can see at the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. I've searched for American music created in the same year as specific pieces in the galleries there, and it been a fascinating treasure hunt.

The year is 1788 (or thereabouts) and the composer and artist were both born in Pennsylvania (two years apart), both died in England, and both had Benjamin Franklin in their lives.

This dramatic - and romantic - painting of Shakespeare's King Lear is by Benjamin West.



(Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)

West was born in Pennsylvania (where the campus of Swarthmore College is now), the tenth child of an innkeeper. With little education, he initially taught himself. In his memoirs he recalls learning to make paint from the Native Americans, mixing clay from a riverbank with bear grease in a pot. As a very young man, West worked in Pennsylvania painting portraits. It was the Provost of the College of Philadelphia who saw his work and decided to act as a patron. This was Dr. William Smith, whose offer of education and support was crucial to West's career. It brought West into contact with the wealthy and the connected, and it allowed him to meet the London-born painter John Wollaston, whose work famously captured the quality of shimmering silk and satin. West caught on to that technique and made it his own.

West also became a close friend of Benjamin Franklin's, and in fact, his second son had Ben Franklin as a godfather. Still in his twenties, West headed off to Italy where he spent time imitating the styles of the great masters like Titian and Raphael. He then settled permanently in London, becoming well known for his ancient Greek and Roman subjects, and for his portraiture. He became the history painter to King George III and served as president of the Royal Academy from 1792 until his death in 1820. Generations of American artists came to London to study with Benjamin West and in a certain sense, his studio became the first American "school" for painters.

"King Lear" was created for John Boydell's popular Shakespeare Gallery in London. It takes us into Act 3, Scene 4 of Shakespeare's tragedy, where Lear leaves his daughters to wander into the raging storm. His insanity begins to take hold of him. This wonderfully wild painting marks a new stage for West - the windswept theatricality of it is far from the carefully illuminated poses of his earlier work. As happens with many artists, the collection of countless, diverse lessons have built up within, combined, and expressed themselves with an entirely new voice.

At just about the same time that West was creating King Lear, a musician, also born in Pennsylvania, was writing string trios. John Antes was one of the Moravians in America who, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, fostered musical activities of high quality and rich diversity - instrument and vocal - for worship services and for pleasure. The early Moravian settlers in America had a very rich musical culture - they are an elemental part of the musical history of our country. (Go here for a history of the Moravian church in North America.)

John Antes crafted one of the earliest violins made in America, and his Three Trios are said to be the earliest known chamber music composed by an American. They appear to have been written while Antes was in Egypt, where he'd worked as a missionary beginning in 1769, and where he was tortured and nearly killed by an official of the Ottoman Empire.

It's hard to say precisely when the trios were composed, but 1788 is a good guess. They were published in London in the early 1790's. Antes also wrote string quartets while he was in Egypt - and he sent a copy of them to Benjamin Franklin.

Antes retired to Bristol, England and died there in 1811.

There is a clip from Antes’ String Trio no. 2 in D minor below, played by the American Moravian Chamber Ensemble. And I'd love to hear your comments (below) about the painting, the music, your time at the MFA - whatever strikes you!

Antes: String Trio No. 2 in d minor, III. Presto (excerpt)

 

Music and Art: O'Keeffe and Still

By Cathy Fuller   |   Friday, January 14, 2011
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Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small - we haven’t time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.

So I said to myself - I’ll paint what I see - what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.


These thoughts appeared in a letter written by Georgia O’Keeffe, whose painted flowers overwhelm their canvases with her marvelous, signature style.

Born in Wisconsin in 1887, O’Keeffe studied in Chicago and New York. There was a time of discouragement, though -- a point when she realized that she was seeing in her art an unhealthy sense of obligation to please the public. She began creating abstract charcoal drawings. In 1916 the American photographer and art gallery director Alfred Stieglitz (whom she married in 1924) became interested in those drawings and exhibited them at his gallery in New York City; her work was shown annually in Stieglitz's galleries until his death in 1946. She moved to New Mexico in 1949, a place that attracted her deeply and felt like home.

The painting White Rose with Larkspur, No. 2 is a product of 1927 and hangs in the Art of the Americas wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Delicate and powerful, I love its color and size. Its uncountable petals seem to crowd out the rest of the world. Busy Bostonians, like the New Yorkers O’Keeffe gently scolds, need to take time, too. I hope you can find some time for it.



Here in our Host Notes, I’m bringing you art in pairs: a piece of music paired with one of the pieces of art in the Art of the Americas Wing. I’m finding pairs that were created in the same year. Even artists with opposing approaches, I’ve found, compel us to find connections.

Today I’ve got a couple of pieces to share with you. The first was composed by William Grant Still in the year that O’Keeffe painted her White Rose. Still was an extraordinary man – the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony of his own performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. He’s known as "the dean" of African-American composers. Below is a clip from his ballet score “La Guiablesse”, a ballet commissioned by Chicago Allied Arts with a story based on a legend of Martinique.

Still: La Guiablesse - Final Scene (excerpt)


The second is a setting of the excerpts from the O’Keeffe letter above. Contralto Elizabeth Anker sent that excerpt to her friend, the composer Francine Trester asking her to turn it into a song. Elizabeth sang the result with pianist John McDonald, and here is a clip from that studio performance:

Trester:  Nobody Sees a Flower (excerpt)


If either of these pieces, O’Keefe’s painting, or her story hold a particular resonance with you, I’d love to hear it! Post a comment below.


 

Music and Art: Louis Moreau Gottschalk & Fitz Henry Lane

By Cathy Fuller   |   Wednesday, January 12, 2011
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Pairing a piece of music with one of the pieces of art in the Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas Wing, I’ve tried to find pairs that were created in the same year. Even when artists have vastly different sensibilities, there is inevitably a meaningful connection to be made.

The year is 1855, and the two artists come from very different circumstances. One of them was forced to stay in one place all his life; the other was famous for globetrotting.

The painter Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865) lost the use of his legs before his second birthday. The paralysis was thought to have come from ingesting poisonous jimsonweed. He would never recover.

The musician Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) became America’s first traveling virtuoso – a pianist/composer who did an unbelievable amount of touring. He gave uncountable concerts in Europe, Central America, South America and Cuba. Sometimes called the “Chopin of the Creoles,” he worked into his music the syncopations of Louisiana and the Caribbean, creating pieces that anticipated jazz and ragtime. His music really had little to do with Chopin’s, but his spectacular control of the instrument was caricaturized by images of a wild pianist with hundreds of flying fingers.

Fitz Henry Lane was born in Gloucester. While he could have followed in his father’s footsteps as a sail maker, his artistic talents bloomed early. He went to Boston and apprenticed as a lithographer, and then came back to Gloucester, where he designed a house and lived at Duncan’s Point until his death. It’s easy to feel his deep connection to the water. The 1855 painting “New York Harbor” radiates a rich and emotional glow with noble ships and a warm sunrise. There is a kind of reverence in his vision that makes the busy place seem serene.



While Lane was sitting still, mastering his evocative, signature marine style, composer/pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk was taking the world by storm, giving concerts of his own music to adoring crowds. America’s first touring virtuoso became a sort of matinee idol, giving monster concerts, sometimes with up to 650 musicians! If you’re interested, the diaries of his travels are published and available. Notes of a Pianist: The Chronicles of a New Orleans Music Legend (Princeton University Press) tells his story masterfully. In one account he describes an unfortunate piano that he had to play in Panama: "The audience appears to be charmed, while I am playing on a cottage piano that I suspect was the product of an illicit union between a jew's-harp and a large kettle."

In 1855 Gottschalk wrote his famous piece “The Banjo”. Here are clips of Boston-based pianist Michael Lewin playing it, as well as the Mazurka “Souvenir de Lima”.

Gottschalk: The Banjo (excerpt)

Gottschalk: Souvenir de Lima (excerpt)


Let me know what you think! Please post a comment below.

(image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts)

 

Music and Art: Homer and MacDowell

By Cathy Fuller   |   Friday, January 7, 2011
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When the Museum of Fine Arts opened its new Art of the Americas Wing in November 2010, the vibrancy of that collection in its new space inspired thoughts about the music written at the same time as these incredible artworks were created. So I decided to experiment and look at specific pieces from the collection with music written around the same time.

This installment focuses on Winslow Homer, who was born here in Boston and spent his adolescence in Cambridge. His father disappeared to California to pan for gold, and when Homer was 19 when he began creating illustrations for sheet music covers at John H. Bufford’s lithography shop, one of which is at the bottom of this page.

At 21 he moved to New York and worked for Harper’s magazine as a “special artist” documenting the civil war.  By the end of his life, he was capturing the serenity and drama of the Maine Coast with oils.  His uncanny ability to convey the complex and stirring nature of the sea has made him one of the world’s most recognizable artists, and one of the most dramatic of those paintings is "The Fog Warning."




This painting puts you so close to the fisherman’s world, it feels as though you’re tipping the boat. The horizon threatens with fog and nightfall and the fisherman lifts his head to make the sensory calculations that a life at sea has taught him to make to get himself home.

"The Fog Warning" was finished in 1885, the same year that the American composer Edward MacDowell finished his Piano Concerto No. 1. It took two slightly desperate weeks to get it done. MacDowell’s teacher, Joachim Raff, had asked what music he’d written, and apparently, out of sheer intimidation, MacDowell blurted out that he had a piano concerto. (He hadn’t even thought about a concerto at that point!) Raff asked to see it the next Sunday. MacDowell finished only the first movement and managed to evade meeting his teacher. He put him off the next Sunday, too, and finally by the Tuesday after that, he had a piano concerto. Raff loved it, and sent MacDowell to Weimar to play it for Franz Liszt.

It’s not his finest – but it’s his first. And well worth hearing. Below is a clip from Seta Tanyel’s performance of MacDowell’s A minor Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony and conductor Martyn Brabbins.
 

MacDowell: Piano Concerto No. I, I: Maestoto - Allegro con Fuoco (excerpt)


I hope you enjoy it, and if you feel so inclined, post a comment below.






 

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