Music and Art

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.






 

Music and Art: Cassatt and Chadwick

By Cathy Fuller   |   Monday, January 3, 2011
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One thing I love about Boston is that there are new sources of inspiration cropping up constantly. In November 2010, the Museum of Fine Arts added to those sources by opening its new Art of the Americas Wing, and it seems like a great opportunity to pair works that hang there with music that was written at the same time.

The extraordinary painter and printmaker Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania and brought up in an environment that valued travel as a key part of education. She spent most of her adult life in France where she became a friend of Edgar Degas, and where she would later exhibit with the Impressionists.

She’s popularly known for her tender and warm portraits of women and was able to evoke the depth of the bond between mothers and children with a signature style. That style was apparent also in her visions of women in society, which you can see in "In the Loge" to the left.

I love this painting for its deep browns and the luminous pearl that sits on the woman’s ear. It’s one of many by Cassatt depicting women in theater boxes, seeing and being seen in Paris. The woman is perhaps peering at someone else in another loge, while a man at the upper left has his glasses trained directly on her.

This Cassatt comes from 1878, the year that George Whitefield Chadwick wrote his String Quartet No. 2. Like Cassatt, Chadwick was interested in a realistic vision of people’s lives. He comes from what has been called the New England School of American composers.

Born in Lowell in 1854, he studied at the New England Conservatory, where he would later become Director, establishing the school with many of the German conservatory features that he knew well. He also invited many of the Boston Symphony Orchestra members to join the faculty, establishing a relationship that thrives to this day.

Here is a part of that String Quartet No. 2, with the Portland String Quartet:

Chadwick:  String Quartet No. 2, IV. Finale - Allegro Molto Vivace (excerpt)


Let me know what you think of these works—the painting, the music—or any thoughts on Boston’s cultural vitality.

(Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)

Music and Art: Hopper and Gershwin

By Cathy Fuller   |   Wednesday, January 5, 2011
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The Museum of Fine Arts opened their Art of the Americas Wing in November 2010, and out of sheer glee, I decided to feature one treasure from the new wing paired with music written in the same year.

Edward Hopper’s "Room in Brooklyn," (left) painted in 1932, is haunting. The signature sunlight which so intrigued Hopper is here given harsh geometry, and the woman seems starkly alone. Her isolation has emptied the city of its life.

This disconcerting canvas offers a vision of New York light years away from George Gershwin’s view. His is romantic, lush and complex -- full of the rhythms that he insisted “should be made to snap, and at times to crackle.”

In 1932 Gershwin’s publisher suggested that he write some keyboard versions of his own songs. "Playing my songs as frequently as I do at private parties," Gershwin said, "I have naturally been led to compose numerous variations upon them, and to indulge the desire for complication and variety that every composer feels when he manipulates the same material over and over again."

Here is a selection from Gershwin's songbook transcriptions for piano, played by William Bolcom:

Gershwin: Rialto Ripples (excerpt)


If you’re so moved, post a comment below about whether your vision of New York resonates with either of these masterpieces.

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