Facing the music

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it hard to put names to faces on occasion. Which got me thinking about composers who have put music to faces, names, personalities, and so on. The practice has quite a long history, but for this week’s blog I’ve homed in on some examples from the past hundred years or so. Listening to the audio clips as we go along, you can decide for yourself to what extent the composers have succeeded in achieving their goal of producing a musical likeness.

I trawled the Naxos catalogue to find a Mona Lisa in music, but her inscrutability seems to have put off attempts to musically recreate her facial expression. Not so with Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which dates from 1893. It gets a musical interpretation in Erik Norby’s Edvard Munch Trilogy (1978-79), subtitled “(A Requiem) Symphonic Transformation for Orchestra and Mixed Choir after Three of Edvard Munch’s prints” (8.226096). Norby imbues the work with associations with the Catholic Requiem Mass. Can you detect which musical element of the mass Norby exploits in this extract from Skrig (Scream)?

The name of the American composer Virgil Thomson is a frequent pop-up in the world of musical portraits. We’ll focus on him in a moment, but he gets a mention in the background to Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait (8.559373-74). It was shortly after the United States entered World War II that Copland received a commission from conductor André Kostelanetz—as did Virgil Thomson and Jerome Kern—to contribute to “a musical portrait gallery of great Americans”. Copland selected Walt Whitman, but quickly switched to Abraham Lincoln when Kostelanetz asked him for a statesman rather than a literary figure. Copland made the task easier for himself by using some of Lincoln’s quotations to be recited in the concluding section “…where my sole purpose was to draw a simple but impressive frame about the words of Lincoln himself.” Here’s part of that section.

Virgil Thomson wrote numerous musical portraits, many of them for piano solo, and one of them titled Souvenir: Portrait of Paul Bowles (8.559786). Bowles is remembered chiefly as an influential and innovative writer, but he was also a brilliant composer, belonging to those select few able to make lasting contributions to both fields. Here’s how Thomson translated Bowles into his musical portrait.

It’s likely there was a bit of tit for tat going on here, since that piece was produced about a month after the appearance of a piece written by Bowles himself, titled Portrait of 5 (8.559786). Bowles introduces the five individuals of his miniature group portrait as follows: “Virgil Thomson (smiling)”, “Aaron Copland (remembering the world)”, “Roger Sessions (looking careful and honest)”, “George Antheil (in a hurry to go)” and “Israel Citkowitz (practicing being pleasant)”. Each composer gets only a few seconds of limelight; can you match them up as the music flows?

Samuel Adler (b. 1928) is our next American composer; he studied composition with Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston and Randall Thompson. None of those mentors appear in his 4 Composer Portraits (8.559602). They focus instead on Milton Babbitt, Ned Rorem, Gunther Schuller and David Diamond.

gunther-schuller“I have always enjoyed writing pieces based on names,” says Adler, “especially in this case of four composers whom I have known and admired for many years, on the occasion of their birthdays. These are birthday card … tributes to these four men.

“The third movement was for Gunther Schuller’s 76th birthday and [was] based on his first name, which netted the following pitches: G – G sharp – C sharp – A – B (for H) – E – D (for Re). The substitution of the syllable re for D was to give me seven separate pitches which made a better set for this piece.”

Here it is.

stefi-geyerAcross to Europe for our final two examples. First, Béla Bartók. In 1908 he completed Two Portraits (8.573307), a pair of orchestral tone poems titled Ideal and Grotesque, like the theatre masks for comedy and tragedy. But we can safely assume that there is a real person behind the masks: Stefi Geyer, a young violinist with whom Bartók was infatuated. He wrote his First Violin Concerto for her; she kept the score but never performed the work; the two became estranged. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear Bartók’s sadness and picture Geyer’s magnetism in these final moments from Ideal, which bases much of its material on the violin concerto.

For the last picture in our exhibition, I’ve plumped for Elgar’s popularly named Enigma Variations (8.111022). Each variation on the original theme depicts a friend of the Elgars, his wife providing the subject for the first, and the composer himself filling the orchestral canvas for the final variation, one of Victorian-Edwardian grandeur. In this extract, the conductor is Elgar himself, wearing all three hats of painter, subject and curator.

5 thoughts on “Facing the music”

Leave a Reply