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Thursday, September 29, 2011
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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. By 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.
 

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


(Image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts)
 

West and Antes

By Cathy Fuller   |   Monday, January 24, 2011
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The inspiration for this series, pairing works of visual art and music, is the art you can see at the 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.





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.

Here is part of Antes’s String Trio no. 2 in D minor, played by the American Moravian Chamber Ensemble. 

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

(image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)

Stella and Diamond

By Cathy Fuller   |   Wednesday, January 19, 2011
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Inspired by the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, I've been looking at music that was created in the same year as one of the works of art in that collection. I’ve discovered that even when artists work using vastly different approaches, we’re still somehow compelled to find connections.

Here’s a pair from 1940-1941:

Joseph Stella came to New York City as a 19-year-old Italian immigrant and fell so in love with the place that he began calling the city “his wife.” This description of the city’s power comes from his autobiographical notes:

"Steel and electricity had created this new world. A new drama had surged from the unmerciful violations of darkness at night, by the violent blaze of electricity… The steel had leaped to hyperbolic altitudes and expanded to vast latitudes with the skyscrapers and with bridges made for the conjunction of worlds."

Stella adored the Brooklyn Bridge and made several paintings of it, combining realism, abstraction, and surrealism to capture its force. He painted his Old Brooklyn Bridge from 1940 to 1941, and now it hangs in the Art of the Americas wing at the MFA. For me it’s a bold, prismatic homage to the bewildering beauty of the city’s geometry. A dizzying display of craftsmanship – like a view from a set of eyes that can’t stop moving.




On December 21st, 1941, while the Brooklyn Bridge shivered in the cold, Carnegie Hall was ablaze with bright, propulsive sound. New York composer David Diamond’s Symphony No. 1 was getting its premier with the New York Philharmonic. Diamond had studied in Paris with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger and then headed off to an art colony near Saratoga to write his first symphony.

As you hear it, I feel sure that you’ll hear elements of Joseph Stella’s city image right away. As in Stella’s painting, there is a kind of beautiful, throbbing geometry in it. The symphony has a uniquely American sound – reflecting, you could imagine, an awe-struck affection for the great structures of a growing city. It's as though Diamond took Stella's words - "The steel had leaped to hyperbolic altitudes..." and transformed them into the sounds the Philharmonic played that December night. 

Diamond: Symphony No. 1, I. Allegro Moderato con Energica (excerpt)

(image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)

 

 

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.



Sometimes, taking a look at works of art composed in the same year can be illuminating, both for connections we find right in front of us and for opposing visions that reflect the rich textures of life. William Grant 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 and composed in the same year that O’Keeffe painted her White Rose.

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)

 

 

 

(image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)



 

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)


(image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts)

 

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