The Colour of Music: The Dissonance and Abstraction of 20th-Century Composers Influenced a Generation of Visual Artists, Writes Sholto Byrnes

By Byrnes, Sholto | New Statesman (1996), November 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Colour of Music: The Dissonance and Abstraction of 20th-Century Composers Influenced a Generation of Visual Artists, Writes Sholto Byrnes


Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)


In the early years of the 20th century, artists were straining at the boundaries of figurative style, pushing and distorting the purely representational to the borders of abstraction with cubism and expressionism, developing ways of using colour with primitivism, and eventually moving into entirely new structures that bore little relation to formal, conventional modes of painting.

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At the same time, the carapace of tonalism in classical music was beginning to crumble. The orchestra had expanded to enormous, virtually unmanageable, proportions by the late 19th century with the addition of instruments that were just being invented, such as the family of horns designed by Adolphe Sax (including not just the saxophone, but also forerunners and relations of the euphonium). Composers began to abandon chordal resolution, tearing up the rules of symphonic composition. Post-Romantics such as Mahler curdled the warmth of the great German sound, while Stravinsky's savage, dissonance-tinged portrayal of ancient pagan sacrifice in the music for The Rite of Spring famously led to a riot at the ballet's premiere in Paris in 1913.

It is tempting to see a connection between the breakdown of old styles in music and the visual arts from the mid-to-late 19th century onwards. Were the impressionistic works of Monet and Debussy both expressions of the same spirit? Were Matisse's "jazz" cut-out pictures of the mid-20th century linked to the postwar bebop revolution? The answer is: only sometimes. However much Debussy may have disliked the term "impressionist", the parallels between his compositional palette and the one used by the artistic school of the same name are obvious. In the case of Matisse, however, it would be quite wrong to suppose that his "jazz" series had anything to do with the explorations of Charlie Parker and Thelon0ous Monk.

"Eye Music: Kandinsky, Klee and All That Jazz", at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, shows that the relationship between music and art is complex, and has often been quite contradictory. Artists and musicians who were contemporaries may have been similarly bold, and endured similar variations in fortune as a result. The Bauhaus school was condemned as "degenerate" by the Nazis and shut in 1933; at the same time in Russia, socialist realism imposed a dreary uniformity on art and classical music, while the "hot" music coming from America was banned. "Today he plays jazz," went the Soviet line, "tomorrow he betrays his country." The generality that anything "modern" had important experiences in common is true. The way those music and art forms influenced one another, however, was vastly different.

The most divergent example in "Eye Music" concerns the two artists in the show's subtitle. Wassily Kandinsky was drawn to the radical musical avant-garde spearheaded by Arnold Schoenberg, the man who did most to develop the serialist and twelve-tone theories that shattered conventional harmony. …

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