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Stella and Diamond

Thursday, April 23, 2015
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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)

 

 

Homer and MacDowell

Wednesday, April 22, 2015
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When the Museum of Fine Arts opened its 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)


(image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)



 

 

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By Test Test   |   Monday, May 4, 2015
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