Music and Art: Stella and Diamond

By Cathy Fuller

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I’ve been exploring the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. In trying to find music that was created in the same year as one of the pieces of art, 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.

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


The steel had leaped to hyperbolic altitudes. Diamond seems to have turned that image into music.

I hope you can take a little time with each of these American voices – and let me know what you think!

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